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Lessons in compassion

Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro and Cece Guadalupe Ortiz days before their wedding Jan. 3, 2011, in Dover, Del. They first met in December of 2007, began dating June 1, 2008, and got married Jan. 8, 2011. (Courtesy photo/Cynthia Ticas)

Staff Sgt. Jake Barreiro and Cece Guadalupe Ortiz days before their wedding Jan. 3, 2011, in Dover, Del. They first met in December of 2007, began dating June 1, 2008, and got married Jan. 8, 2011. (Courtesy photo/Cynthia Ticas)

Cecelia Guadalupe Ortiz-Barreiro made her painting Untitled (unofficially titled "Zoloft") during a mental breakdown in August of 2012. Cece is an amateur painter, and her favorite artist is Fridah Khalo, who's perseverance through adversity inspires her. (Courtesy photo)

Cecelia Guadalupe Ortiz-Barreiro made her painting Untitled (unofficially titled "Zoloft") during a mental breakdown in August of 2012. Cece is an amateur painter, and her favorite artist is Fridah Khalo, who's perseverance through adversity inspires her. (Courtesy photo)

Cecelia Guadalupe Ortiz-Barreiro pets a cat outside of a church Nov. 16, 2013, in Thessaloniki, Greece. Two years removed from a nervous breakdown, Cece credits family support with her recovery and perseverance. (Courtesy photo/Jake Barreiro)

Cecelia Guadalupe Ortiz-Barreiro pets a cat outside of a church Nov. 16, 2013, in Thessaloniki, Greece. Two years removed from a nervous breakdown, Cece credits family support with her recovery and perseverance. (Courtesy photo/Jake Barreiro)

Cecelia Guadalupe Ortiz-Barreiro plays with a stray cat in the Temple of Zeus Nov. 15, 2013, in Athens, Greece. In October of 2013, Cece was medically retired from the Air Force for severe anxiety and depression. Since then she goes to school full time and takes care of her two cats, Miki and Lulu. (Courtesy photo/Jake Barreiro)

Cecelia Guadalupe Ortiz-Barreiro plays with a stray cat in the Temple of Zeus Nov. 15, 2013, in Athens, Greece. In October of 2013, Cece was medically retired from the Air Force for severe anxiety and depression. Since then she goes to school full time and takes care of her two cats, Miki and Lulu. (Courtesy photo/Jake Barreiro)

OSAN AIR BASE, South Korea (AFNS) -- (This story is part of the "Commentaries" section on AF.mil. These stories capture the experiences of Airmen from a first-person perspective.) 

"Without mercy, man is like a beast. Even if you are hard on yourself, be merciful to others." - Quote from Kenji Mizoguchi's 1954 film, Sansho the Bailiff.

On Aug. 20, 2012, I woke at 2:30 a.m. My bed, usually crowded with my wife, Cece, and two cats, Miki and Lulu, was empty. Down the hallway of the one-floor, three-bedroom house we rented in Cabot, Arkansas, I heard noise from the kitchen. When I went to see what the noise was, I found my 23-year-old wife on the floor and erratically painting on a canvas.

The painting was of an Airman Battle Uniform next to a bottle of prescribed depression medication. Streaks and spots of deep red paint blotched the canvas, which also had gashes and holes littered in it because Cece had been stabbing it with a kitchen knife.

"What the (obscenity) are you doing?" I asked.

She looked up at me, her body shaking, our two cats flanking her sides. I saw a hurt face and fear-riddled eyes, scorched red from sleep deprivation and sobbing. With our little family together in the kitchen that morning, "I'm sorry," was all she could say.

Months earlier, Cece was sent to stay for a week at the Bridgeway, a mental health hospital in Little Rock, Ark. Three weeks later, she went back for another week for what eventually became a diagnosis of severe anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

An Airman herself, recent military-related stress of deployments, family separation and being over worked, coupled with the loss of her uncle and past personal traumas, led to my wife's sleeping problems. She lived in a constant state of fear. Unable to sleep at night, she'd only shake helplessly in the bed next to me. These mounting pressures for my wife led to a serious conflict in our relationship for the first time since we met in 2007. I was seeing a different landscape of what had always been a very happy woman.

Strife at work, a splintered relationship at home, being put on depression medication and sleeping pills, being taken from her home twice for treatment, being whispered about by co-workers, being unambiguously accused of faking her condition by her first sergeant and awaiting the upcoming staff sergeant promotion results sent Cece into a severe panic that morning.

After my wife apologized, I talked her into getting up. We picked up the canvas and painting supplies, but I kept thinking about the red streaks of paint all over the floor and that I'd have to clean it up later. I then made Cece lay in bed until it was time for her to get dressed for her 4 a.m. shift.

The rest of that day reverberates in my conscience. The memories echo in my mind like the lingering twang of a released guitar string.

I received a call from my wife's co-worker at 6 a.m., telling me to get to their workplace immediately. I found Cece pale-faced, shaking and not wearing boots or belt. I remember taking her to mental health and being unable to sit in on the confidential session. Cece was discharged from mental health and sent back to work. Then, we found out she made staff sergeant, but we didn't feel like celebrating like we did when I made it two years earlier. I remember a silent car ride home.

As soon as we got to the house, I tried to help Cece sleep, but I couldn't quell her anxiety. We lay in bed, me holding her and telling her to go to sleep while she shook and whimpered in pain. I silently scorned her condition, constantly thinking about how much effort I had to make for her and how her problems were affecting my behavior. It was a sweet relief when Cece finally stopped shaking and slept. When I finally went to sleep that night, I was glad such an emotionally taxing day was over.

Afterward, things didn't become easier for us. We kept having arguments and I became increasingly agitated with my wife, who was still suffering, physically and emotionally. Our problems escalated until one night, after getting off a 4 a.m. - 1 p.m. shift, Cece hadn't come home by 6:30 p.m., and we argued via text message. At one point I threatened to leave her and told her I couldn't handle her condition anymore.

After she got home, Cece told me she was thinking about killing herself, and that she thought about intentionally crashing her car into a tree on one of Arkansas' back roads. Talking to a person so heartlessly while they suffered still shames me. We once again lay on the bed, her unable to sleep or relax and me holding her. I remember vividly what she said to me, "I just need you to help me right now. You know I'll help you when you need it."

She was right. During our 5 years together there were times when I was, at best, difficult to get along with and at worst insufferable.

I've always had a confrontational and contentious nature. This makes it hard for me to connect with people, and in my early 20s I often felt lonely and alienated, which led to an unhappiness that I often projected onto other people. Yet, even in my worst moods, I remember my wife holding onto me, joking with me, making me smile or laugh. She may have never known, but her signature smile, a beaming, full teeth-baring grin, often elevated me from the depths of negativity. So when she pleaded with me so bluntly, I couldn't feel anything but shame and compassion.

This proved a turning point for us, and after that night I tried to act with mercy or compassion toward her struggle. For all of us, life has summits and cellars. No one is exempt from adversity and at times we all need kindness. After that day, I was committed to being supportive before critical and being helpful before skeptical. Things started to improve for both of us.

That's not to imply everything changed right away. Mental conditions don't evaporate or disappear because of good intentions. It takes commitment and patience to persevere the brutalities of depression, anxiety and PTSD. My wife still has hard days and difficult moments like everyone else. Traumatic memories still haunt her, but our efforts to keep an open, honest, nonjudgmental and supportive dialogue about ourselves helps. Just a year later, I was confident enough in her recovery to volunteer for an unaccompanied tour to South Korea. Cece is now out of the Air Force and going to school full time, and we're both happily pursuing our goals and supporting each other as much as we ever have.

So why should anyone care about this highly personal story? Because there are many people like my wife and many people like me. There are people suffering, scarred, afflicted, overburdened and unfairly judged -- unsure if something is wrong with them or if they can even ask for help. There are also people in a position to help, but unsure of what to do.

For the last 65 years, May has been designated as Mental Health Awareness Month. For a lot of us these monthly observances, of which there are plenty, are easy to dismiss or blithely endorse. It usually takes a personal stake in the issue to really care about it. Not just my wife, but personal experiences with my family have left me an advocate for the accepting treatment of suffering people. That means not only encouraging those who need it to seek help, but also encouraging others to treat the suffering with patience and kindness, even if they can't understand them.

I've seen the consequences when people don't get support, and while there's no catchall method to stop someone from hurting him or herself, treating all people with dignity and compassion is the right place to start. Sometimes we don't understand the influence we cast on others, how a kind action or showing genuine concern can seriously alter somebody's day for good and how meanness, cruelty or indifference can do the opposite. It's possible that kindness is all it can take to convince somebody they can ask for help, or that they're valuable enough to be cared about.

Cece tells me the hardest thing about asking for help is the inevitable stigma that comes with it. She used to be afraid to talk about her feelings and problems because it was embarrassing and perceived as weakness. Also, personal cases of depression are hard for others to understand.

Much effort has been made to promote the truth that asking for help isn't a sign of weakness, but this gives little comfort to people when they're being ostracized at work or being treated different by friends and family. This is why all of us have a responsibility to value and care for the people around us. It's important to treat those seeking help kindly, because despite progressive efforts, negative attitudes still exist.

However, I'm not writing this to ask you to change your mind about mental health. If you truly believe someone is faking a condition or if you think they're too sensitive or weak for asking for help, chances are I'm not going to convince you otherwise.

Instead, compassion is my gospel. Treat those suffering, even if you're skeptical, with mercy.

There's no simple solution to the ailments of mental health. No acronyms, pills, PowerPoint slides, books, slogans or training can cure anxiety, depression or PTSD. There is, however, a universally good starting point, which is being respectful and compassionate to everyone, but especially to those who share their struggles and seek help.

If we do this, the worst thing we can do is be excessively nice. The best we can do may be to bring someone back from the abyss. Kindness, mercy and compassion are traits I value in people above all else. Her abundance of these is one of the reasons I fell in love with Cece when we were dating in 2008, and her enduring and helpful nature has inspired me and helped me be a better person ever since.

Celebrated poet John Donne poignantly wrote: "Any man's death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind."

As human beings, Americans, service members and Airmen, we should not take the suffering of our own lightly or callously, but as a detriment to our family. Every single loss diminishes the whole, and every single person in the world is important.

In our living room, centered above our couch, we proudly display the painting Cece attacked with a knife. Its presence reminds me that we all have flaws and need support in our weakest moments. As individual human beings, the mistakes we make and scars we give and take can't be undone any more than knife punctures can be erased from a canvas. We can never take back what we say and do. The wounds we endure never completely heal. However, as someone's fellow human being, we have the chance to help by supporting each other. The most important thing in life isn't what you did or what you'll do, but what you're willing to do now. There's no nobler impulse in mankind than mercy, and there's an abundance of people in the world who need it. Help them.

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