In late 2018, Master Sgt. Stephanie Baker’s world was turned upside down. Up until that point, she felt as if she was “living the dream.” She was recently retired from being an active duty Airman. She was married to another retired Airman, had two amazing kids and had begun a new chapter with the Air National Guard in Alabama. The transition, though, to civilian life had been emotionally and financially difficult for her and her husband. Shortly after returning home from a family vacation, Baker’s husband asked for a divorce – a move Baker says she didn’t see coming.
“We had our ups and downs in 15 years and we’ve always lived through it. That was just the tipping point and we just couldn’t work through it,” Baker said. “So it was extremely devastating for myself and my children.”
So devastating, in fact, Baker spent the next several months on an emotional roller coaster.
“It got really, really bad. I could feel myself sinking into a depression. I didn’t want to get up in the morning. I didn’t want to eat. In fact, most of the time I had to remind myself to eat,” she said.
“I wasn’t sleeping. I was stressed out all the time. I was having anxiety attacks, and I could feel myself almost spiraling out of control and not feeling like I had any way to stop it.”
Baker said while she was hurting on the inside, she never let it show on the outside. She continued working and taking care of her children despite struggling to take care of herself.
“I hid it very well,” Baker said. “To everybody else, it was business as usual. My family knew I was isolating myself but they didn’t know the extent of how bad I was.”
She was now a single mom with two school-aged children. Baker’s estranged husband was also giving mixed signals about wanting to get back together, only adding to her emotional and mental stress.
“We were trying to make things work,” she said. “Can we fix this? Can we not? And it was just extremely difficult.”
The situation was all the more complicated by her former husband’s relationship with another woman whom he met shortly after their separation. So one afternoon, after arguing on the phone with her ex-husband, Baker said she made the split decision to get her nine-millimeter gun out and pull the trigger.
She said, “That day, I just couldn’t take anymore. I’d had enough. I was in so much pain and hurt, I wanted it to stop.”
Only a few weeks earlier, Baker had attended a memorial service for a family friend, a fellow Airmen, who had died by suicide. In her anguish, he came to mind.
“The aftermath of him leaving his family behind was very hard to watch. I guess I thought about that and I thought about my kids.” Baker said.
So in that brief moment of reflection, with her hand still on the gun, Baker realized she needed help.
“There was no rationality to what I was doing. It was spur of the moment. It was quick. I was having severe anxiety. I was bawling my eyes out. I felt like I couldn’t breathe. I felt like I was going to pass out. It was very real because I was almost coming to terms with the fact that this was going to make it better.”
Baker admits it sounds crazy, but the person she reached out to was her ex-husband. Still clutching the gun, she made a phone call that lasted just long enough to tell him she needed help. He came immediately.
After wresting the gun away from her, Baker’s ex-husband stayed for several hours. She says they just sat and talked. It wasn’t until the next day that she called the Veterans Crisis Line. Because she was now a civilian working for the military, they referred her to the installation’s medical center at the same Army base where she worked. They then notified her chain of command at the Air National Guard.
Baker said, “The very next day, my flight chief and my sergeant and one of my very best friends, a co-worker, drove all the way up from Birmingham to come see me – to see if I was okay, to see how I was doing.”
Baker was then admitted to a local hospital for residential treatment where, for the next ten days, she was evaluated by doctors, attended group sessions and met individuals who shared similar stories. She also saw a member of her guard unit every day. Everyone from her coworkers to her commander came to see how she was doing. Looking back, Baker says this was the help she needed. At the time though, she was so consumed by negative thoughts, she felt like she had no control over her mind.
Major Jordan Simonson, Air Force Suicide Prevention Program Manager, said in the darkness of depression and despair, we sometimes forget about all the people we can turn to.
“We forget,” he said, “that there are people who care about us.”
Baker said she is mentally stronger now, and knows she’s headed in the right direction.
“I still have my days, but on those days I can reflect on where I was and where I am now, and know that I can make it. And I remember that I always have resources and someone I can talk to.”
She still attends regular counseling sessions, and now takes the time to do a lot of self-care.
“When I look back at the situation,” Baker said, “I kind of look back on things that we’re trained for. All these red flags and these indicators that we’re told we should see. And I didn’t see those.”
She said she knew internally something was going on but she brushed it off and never talked to anyone about it.
“I feel like that was my mistake,” Baker said. “I should have talked about it. But at the same time, it’s hard to talk about something like that. For me, being a strong and kind of independent person, I felt weak talking about stuff like that.”
The thought of appearing weak was a huge mental roadblock that she just couldn’t overcome until it was almost too late. Simonson says staying connected with friends and family is key to tackling such mental obstacles.
“It’s important to recognize the signs of distress in yourself as well as others,” Simonson said.
“Stay in contact with trusted friends and family members. Also remember there are confidential options for talking to someone about what’s going on such as the Military Crisis Line or your local Chaplain. Keep their numbers handy. You might even post them next to a picture of your family or some visual reminder of what makes you happy.”
Baker learned the hard way that bottling negative feelings up inside only makes it worse. Now she is on a mission to urge others to talk it out.
“Whether it’s a family member, or friend, or close co-worker, find somebody who will listen. Because really that’s all it takes,” Baker said. “I felt alone in my thoughts. I felt like this is only happening to me and I know that’s not true. It happens to people all the time.”
Baker has returned to her civilian job with great support from her supervisor and co-workers, and continues to pursue opportunities with the Air National Guard, setting her sights on becoming a First Sergeant. In the meantime, she’s lending an ear to anyone who needs to talk.
“It helps. It’s part of the healing process to be able to talk about it,” Baker said. “Within my unit, if people are struggling, I tell them you can come talk to me. I don’t judge and I will sit there and listen and just be an ear if that’s what you need.”
Some of those help resources are just a phone call away. The Military and Veterans Crisis Line, (800) 273-8255; Military OneSource, (800) 342-9647; and the Civilian Employee Assistance Program (866) 580-9078. You may also contact your installation’s mental health clinic or Chaplain for help.