JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-RANDOLPH, Tex. --
Technical Sgt. Joshua Williamson joined the Air Force as an aircraft maintainer in 2009 to give back to his country. But ignoring his invisible wounds almost derailed his career as an Airman, until he started taking care of his mental health.
In 2013, Williamson, then a Staff Sergeant, cross-trained from an avionics systems specialist to a pharmacy technician. Adjusting to the new career track and the responsibilities of his new medical role brought unexpected stress and emotional strain. “It was like waking up and speaking a totally different language,” says Williamson as he started feeling increased anxiety. It felt isolating for him to leave his close-knit maintainer brotherhood to start a new professional journey.
He thought he just needed to toughen up to deal with the transition, not realizing that any type of trauma, if left unaddressed, can develop into invisible wounds. Williamson didn’t know he lacked the healthy coping tools needed to deal with this major life change until it was too late; he had spiraled downward and sought relief through alcohol.
In 2014, Williamson turned to alcohol to cope with the emotional strain of his new life, but soon, a casual drink to blow off steam turned into a growing dependence on alcohol. “I guessed I might have an alcohol problem, but a year passed before I sought treatment,” recalls Williamson.
By 2015, Williamson could no longer ignore the increasingly adverse impacts of alcohol abuse on his home life and work. At work, he became preoccupied and would simply go through the daily motions, “I wasn’t giving my 100%.” At home, he couldn’t focus or remember things. The wake-up call came when his wife said that she no longer trusted him to look after their then 5-year-old son alone.
Williamson then saw a provider at the local Mental Health Clinic who diagnosed him with substance abuse and recommended a 28-day in-patient treatment plan. As Williamson started treatment, his provider cautioned him that relapse was common, but Williamson didn’t think it would happen to him. “I had never faced a challenge I couldn’t overcome,” he recalls.
Then eight months later, he came across a few bottles in the garage and started drinking again. The relapse took an enormous emotional and psychological toll on him, causing him to go back to treatment in 2016, exactly one year after completing the first treatment. “I felt like a failure,” recalls Williamson. “I felt empty and raw, angry at my lack of willpower. I started to think that maybe I was too weak to be an Airman anymore and thought about leaving the Air Force.”
But his supervisor and leadership team intervened and wouldn’t let him give up on himself. They encouraged Williamson to recommit to treatment and supported him in all aspects of his recovery. Buoyed by their support, Williamson completed treatment and built sustainable life practices to cope and prioritize his mental health, relying on exercise and tools he acquired in therapy to manage daily life situations in a healthy manner.
After regaining a sense of normalcy post-treatment and thanks to encouragement from his supervisor, Williamson also found a passion for helping others and became a Master Resilience Trainer. He now teaches other Airmen how to be mentally, physically, socially, and spiritually resilient as part of the Air Force Comprehensive Airman Fitness model. “I wanted to support others, because I had lived it, got support, and bounced back,” says Williamson.
Now four years sober, Williamson believes mental health services are an underutilized asset. He reminds Airmen, “If you need support, ask for help. I am a stronger Airman because of it, and you can be too.”
Editor Note: Invisible wounds are as real and severe as physical wounds. If left untreated invisible wounds can have negative impacts on an Airman’s personal and professional life. It’s important for Airmen to recognize signs and symptoms of invisible wounds in themselves and in their peers, to ensure a mentally strong, resilient, and lethal Total Force. The Air Force is committed to supporting Airmen living with invisible wounds by providing a wide range of resources to support their recovery journey. To share your own stories of invisible wounds and/or learn about available resources visit www.ReadyAirmen.com.