March 17, 2023

'A Decade Under The Influence' Searching For My Rock Bottom That Didn't Exist

'A Decade Under The Influence' Searching For My Rock Bottom That Didn't Exist

'A Decade Under The Influence' Searching For A “Rock-Bottom” That Didn't Exist

Being in a deployed location has me reflecting a lot on my life lately and there’s one lesson I feel the need to share with anyone that is going through a tough time with life and waiting for it to bottom out as I once did.

I spent the better part of a decade waiting for a rock bottom that didn’t exist, a catalyst that would finally change my life and set me straight. I was waiting to ‘see the light’ and be inspired to turn my life around. What I never considered was that my ‘rock bottom’ could be death. But could the opposite could be true? Could I find genuine happiness and earn a life worth living? As it turned out, I experienced a force for change that I never saw coming.

Let’s go back to Guam 2005 when times were good and my life was one big party. My introduction to the USAF did not prepare me for real world missions and the seriousness that most bases hold dearly as a culture and way of life. Anderson AFB, Guam, at that time was a much more relaxed environment.

As an Aerospace Ground Equipment Technician, we were tasked with maintaining War Reserve Materials, i.e. We maintained equipment that was never actually used for day-to-day operations. Additionally, we simulated every exercise and shut down early every Friday to get together at the base beach and start our weekend off with drinks and volleyball. To make this an even better time, I was at this assignment with around 10 classmates of mine from our technical training prior to our arrival at Guam. We all went through tech school at Sheppard AFB, Texas for six months together and developed a very close bond. These are people who will always be near and dear to my heart and got me through a lot of tough times. Although I was in a foreign country on the other side of the world, I still had my closest friends at my side.

Now, in Guam - I had almost no responsibility at work, receiving a paycheck for the first time, living in a tropical paradise, and had 10 of my closest friends with me. Oh…and by the way, the drinking age then was 18. What more could I ask for?! It was everything I hoped my USAF journey would be. As soon as I landed, my supervisor drove me straight to the bars with the other “AGE Rangers” and proceeded to get me as drunk as they could. This was on my FIRST NIGHT! I was still jet lagged and needing rest. This was not what I expected right out of tech training and it was a poor first impression that would lead me not take the AF seriously and set me up for failure going forward.

During this time, most of my friends and I eventually started drinking almost daily. It became a very easy way to deal with stress from work, frustrations from events back home, or to make a fun night out become absolutely insane. In the midst of all the chaos, I started taking it too far and began to experience a lot of the suppressed anger and shame I felt from my childhood. This would manifest into rage or sadness leaving me completely confused the next day on where these deep seeded feelings were coming from. It was during this time that I noticed someone else struggling as well. Enter: Airman Michael Bergerstock. He had this ability to drink a tremendous amount of alcohol and yet be completely functional the next day at our early morning workouts and during his shift at work.The guy seemed like some sort of superhero. However, overtime he became very aggressive and violent when he drank. I always tried to stay away from him when he was like this because he seemed to be looking for trouble and was unrecognizable from his sober self at work. He at one point had burn scabs all over his forearm because when he drank too much, he’d start putting out cigarettes on his body. Even for a daily drinker like me…this was alarming behavior. 

Both hungover one Sunday morning I stopped by to hang out with him and reflect on our weekend out. After we reminded each other of the crazy night we had, he proudly confessed to me he was now drinking a fifth of Jack Daniels almost daily. (This earned him the nickname “Bergerman Jack”) but when I told him no one could possibly drink that much, he opened his closet door and out came dozens of empty Jack bottles filled from floor to ceiling. I was in disbelief. I felt like I should say something, that surely this couldn’t be healthy. But I could not find it in me to have what I thought would be an uncomfortable conversation with him. I was not emotionally equipped to take the feelings I had inside about it and find the right words to help him. Instead, I just laughed it off. We all did in fact, and it became one big running joke to everyone in the shop. More on Mike later.

After my short tour in Guam, I was afforded 30 days of leave back home in Maryland where I could finally catch up with friends and family. This was the best time to visit where everything I remembered about my family still existed, but it was even better as I was a bit older and felt I had more of an adult bond with my parents. I also had many high-school friends still in the local area that I could now openly party with. Really, everything seemed perfect and I started to ask myself why the hell I even joined the AF and doubted my decision for ever leaving home.

I had the time of my life during that 30 days and the thought of walking away from it made me sick to my stomach. I knew in my heart this was the very last time life as I remembered it would exist. After this two year assignment overseas, nothing would ever be the same again…and I was right. My family would end up going through multiple traumatic events that changed us forever, and I was not there for any of it.

On that long flight back to to Japan, I burried my face in my hoodie and cried harder than I ever have ever cried in my entire life for what seemed like hours. The feeling of being alone absolutely consumed me and I reached a dark place that I didn’t even know existed. Although I had already served two years in the AF, this was really the first time I had to let everything go and move on if I wanted a successful career and my own life. I was too far in to turn back now. Every support system I ever had was stripped away and for the first time I was truly reliant on myself. I was tremendously not prepared for it.

The real challenge began when I showed up to my next assignment, at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. This is where I started rapidly going downhill. Having that first cushy assignment experience as my foundation only added to the my stress. After departing Anderson AFB, I didn’t receive a medal nor was I signed off on any training, . The relaxed environment at Anderson left me ill-prepared and vulnerable to the intensity of a real-world mission with zero room for error. I showed up to Kadena with supervisors in disbelief at my lackluster record. And this raised a lot of red flags.

When I say disbelief, I mean they literally thought there was some sort of admin error. I missed all my training milestones and just my existence alone broke allsorts of regulations that left this new shop open to many write-ups if inspected.This obviously did not make me any friends and I was immediately placed on evening 12s hour shifts to hide me away until I was caught up. In total, I spent around a year on 12 hour shifts with countless exercises in MOPP gear and long, isolated nights on the flight line. 

Today, as you know, I’m a proud Airman who’s well informed of AF updates. I know leaders from all levels at my wing and the AF as a whole. However, for the first 6-8 years I was serving, I couldn’t tell you one thing about any leader in my chain of command. I was so disconnected from the ‘normal’ world that it was alarming. The truth is, I was in survival mode and just trying to get through life one day at a time. I had zero thoughts about ‘leadership’ or ‘career progression’. I had this constant feeling of drowning that I couldn’t shake, and it took all my energy to simply keep it together for my normal day-to-day life.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I did have many fun moments while living in Japan. I traveled around the island of Okinawa, ate a lot of great food, and made some lifelong friends. However, I realized very quickly that I was in a ‘mission first’ environment and everything else was secondary. This always made me uneasy. I felt alone and not equipped to properly take care of myself. The long hours and isolation on the flight line wore me down. I was also severely depressed from missing my friends in Guam and for the first time since I joined, really missing home. I couldn’t afford an international cell phone or computer, and with the dramatic time difference I barely spoke with anyone stateside.

I was a broke Airman and being overseas caused me to miss all the births and funerals surrounding my family which only made me feel more disconnected and shameful for ever leaving. It was the assignment to Kadena that truly broke me. By the end of the two years I spent there, when I looked in the mirror, I didn’t recognize myself anymore. I was not the “Josh” everyone remembered and I was terrified to return home on leave again for fear they would notice.

My third assignment was Whiteman AFB, Missouri, and at this point I had major deficits in all areas of my well-being: Socially, I isolated and my only interactions were past friends on XBOX live. Physically, I drank daily, ate lot’s of fast food, put on a ton of weight, and of course I never exercised. Mentally, I refused to ask for help from the perceived stigma of doing so and was in the deepest depression of my life.

Spiritually, I was a lost soul who had given up on a better life for myself and accepted I would not last long. I began to experience long bouts of insomnia, dreading what the next day would bring and I began a prescription of Ambien which did not help in the long run. All this culminated when the new flu mist rolled out which was a vaccine you snorted and was a ‘live virus’ not meant for the elderly or pregnant women. A 23-year-old man had virtually zero risk for death with this flu mist vaccine but it appears I was no average 23 year old.

I have never contemplated suicide, but I certainly did not want to live. But when this live virus entered my system it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I almost died as I had virtually no immune system in the poor state I was in. For days I had agonizing chest pain and trouble breathing but I didn’t want to be ‘that guy’ or be seen as weak, so I ignored it until I collapsed on a flight of stairs at work. I was taken to the ER and eventually sent to a major hospital in Kansas City to treat myocarditis and spent two weeks under observation.

My Dad flew out and I spent a lot of really great time with him. The time in the hospital provided me the break I needed before I snapped and I eventually recovered. I promised to change my ways for good after this event as it showed me I was not invincible. I thought I’d finally hit my rock bottom; that this event would surely be the catalyst of the change I needed to turn my life around. Except, it totally wasn’t my rock bottom and I’d continue to struggle for another handful of years. 

What I failed to realize is that I did not give myself a chance to grow. The drinking made for an ‘easy button’ on life, but I was not challenged and I was not learning. Drinking was hitting the pause button on my growth and I was frozen in time. Although I was physically an adult, I was mentally still that 18 year old kid afraid to leave home and afraid of growing up. I still did not have the necessary skills to navigate my life so I eventually went back to drinking which led to me losing all respect for myself. Before I knew it, I was back into the vicious cycle of just coping.

Flash forward to the time of this writing in 2023 and I’m a medic, a SNCO, host of the #1 Veteran podcast of 2022, and most importantly, a husband to the woman of my dreams and the loving father of two beautiful children. Had you asked me in 2010 where I’d be in 2023, I would have told you 6 feet under.

I felt in my heart I was destined for an early demise, and I grew to accept that dark fact to the point where I’d leave extra dog food out for my pet in case I didn’t make it through the night. I had not been the man my family hoped I’d be, I felt I was a failure and I had nothing to my name: no money, no school, nothing. So, the question remains, how did I turn it all around from such a low point?

Well, for starters, I knew what my life would look like if I continued my ways. Remember Mike Bergerstock? He was loved by so many during his time serving and was a gifted mechanic, but the amount of DUIs he accumulated led him to be separated from the AF and he became a technician on the civilian side of flight line ops. In total he served 8 years for the USAF but tragically Mike lost his battle with alcoholism on June 26, 2018. You see, what started as a running joke back in 2005 would turn into a crippling addiction and the premature death of someone just trying to find his place in the world.

I’m angry at myself and the others for treating his problem as a joke, especially our ‘leaders.’ This has haunted me ever since he passed away. Now, we were by no means great friends. As a matter of fact, I got into a few altercations with him and things got heated on more than one occasion. Yet I was still heartbroken by the news of his passing. 

After some self-reflection, I knew I felt terrible because deep down, I knew what he went through. I knew what it felt like to completely give up on yourself. I know the fear, anxiety, depression, and hopelessness, that goes along with  daily drinking just to cope with life. I ended up in the hospital and could easily have lost my life as well. Seeing him lose his life served as a wake-up call to me that my decisions have very real consequences. It woke me up to the point that I realized that maybe I was not ready to give up, that I needed to fight. I just didn’t know how.

Here’s just one of the obituary entires on Mike’s memorial page:

“We love you mike, you will forever have a special place in our hearts.. we are

grateful to have met you and we will miss living right across from you, I

remember when you and Tim would always be running back and forth from each

other’s apartments. We will forever cherish the memories we made together and

we are so thankful for everything you did for us, you were always

cared about our well being when nobody else did... you are an amazing human

being and friend, nobody can replace you. “A little bit of Sam with some Tim on

the side.” I will never forget that always said that when you wanted

to come over or hang with us, we love you so much and we are so sorry this

happened, since we cannot make it to your service due to location and funds, we

are having a candlelight vigil and balloon release for your birthday on July 9th,

we are going to celebrate your life the way you would have celebrated it, you will

always and forever be “legendary”.To the family, we will be here if you need any

support or anything at all, your son was shown a lot of love down here in San

Antonio, and we are deeply sorry that this has happened. We were with him

every almost everyday due to us being neighbors, to the point we became

extremely close friends in a short amount of time. We have a whole wall with his

pictures, text messages, and eagles memorabilia in his memory, he will never be

forgotten and we will make sure of it. Love Sam and Tim.”

It wasn’t a ‘rock bottom’ that turned my life around. My rock bottom was death and I needed to find another way to turn my life around. I did this over the span of a few years by focusing on a better life for myself with baby steps of progress. Slowly I earned true confidence and respect for myself. I started to find my voice and feel my purpose.

First and foremost, I had to earn my own respect. To do that, I needed to start growing. I needed to be uncomfortable. I needed to be ok with struggling, and I needed to earn confidence by getting out of my comfort zone no matter how ugly it looked until I got it right. Mistake after mistake occurred but I needed to swallow my pride and be ok with them.

I learned there’s a difference with mistakes you make while actively trying to make things better and giving a shit versus mistakes made based on poor decisions. Now, this journey was by no means easy but again, I took baby steps and it all started with saying ‘yes’ to running a Commander’s Call. You read that right. A Commander’s Call changed my life! (I’m probably the only one who ever uttered those words.) A This was the type of event that, to me, was high risk, high reward. It was the type of event I had shied away from and avoided at all costs during my entire career to this point.

However, it went great and I survived! No, it was not easy, and yes, I stressed way too much about it. But the point is, is that I got through it and I earned a bit of confidence along the way. Arrogance is pretend confidence and it falls like a house of cards. True confidence has to be earned and it provides a stable foundation of self- assurance.

I showed myself what I was capable of. What I did not realize is that, that small decision would lead to an entirely different life for me. In just one year I would go from virtually unknown to a ‘12 Outstanding Airman of The Year’ as an Honor Guardsman. I found that an entire life could change in just one year! That life could have went in the opposite direction in that time as well. But I decided to change the course of my life to one where I had the confidence to succeed.

I went from a fill-in First Sergeant to my Commander’s Executive Officer and eventually to the Base Honor Guard Program Manager. When I reflect back on this tremendous jump in my life, I can narrow the outcome to finally saying ‘yes’ to an opportunity when it presented itself. 

I will never forget the day I quit drinking and began living a new life.