Five years ago, a former student of mine teetered on the edge of ending her own life.
I never knew it at the time, as she had slipped through the cracks of life like so many other kids who sit in my classes and stare back at me as I pontificate about something or other. She was a great student, a funny kid and an amazing journalist. She had that weird “quirk” about her that predisposed her to a life spent with coffee and cigarettes and off-color jokes. She oscillated between self-deprecating humor and claims of being a Golden God of design. She just had that odd newsroom sense of being annoyed with herself and being proud of herself all at the same time.
Turns out, some of that was the doing of a mental illness.
In a column she wrote a few years back, she did the scariest
and bravest thing I could imagine: She told people she was broken.
(The DM didn't keep the full version on its site. She added this note to her Facebook page that was the "uncut" edition. Read it if you get a chance.)
She explained the nature of her bipolar disorder and how the pills weren’t helping and how she had neatly arranged the bottles and pondered how best to end her own life. She explained that this wasn’t a mental snap, a one-shot deal where she “had a bad day” but rather a slow build that had taken half of her life from her. She provided details of life as a kid, a young woman and an adult who was forced to live a silent struggle against a societal shaming.
You break a leg? Ouch! There’s a doctor for that.
You contract an illness? Oh, you poor thing! There’s a cure for that.
You have a mental “issue?” Snap out of it. Jesus… Quit being such a crybaby.
I hadn’t thought about her for a while until I read the story of Officer Jen Sebena and her husband, Ben, who is now charged with her murder.
We were watching TV on Christmas Eve when the news of her death came across the screen. She was found dead while on duty, having been shot multiple times outside a Wauwatosa fire station. Two days later, her husband sat in a courtroom, while the details of his disturbing behavior had been revealed.
Ben Sebena was a highly decorated Marine, who was part of the invasion force at the start of the 2003 Iraq War. He received a Purple Heart after surviving a mortar attack that left him with scars all over his body.
In a YouTube video, he talks of seeing friends killed all around him, of having to kill a child, of learning that “death is OK.”
Over the past month, Jen Sebena had told fellow officers her husband had become more erratic.
He abused her, held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her.
He claimed to be jealous of “other men” although no evidence has come to light suggesting any other men in his wife’s life.
He punched holes in the walls of their home.
In the days leading up to the murder, Ben stalked his wife, following her in the couple’s 2012 Prius. He then emerged from the shadows on Christmas Eve around 4:30 a.m.
He shot her twice in the back of the head before removing her service weapon from its holster and pumping three more bullets into her face. He later told police he wanted to make sure she was dead and that she didn’t suffer.
Ben Sebena has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide and although no one has made mention of it yet, I would be willing to bet every dollar I have that his “mental condition” will come into play at some point.
Chances are, those events he spoke of during that video and many more he couldn’t bring himself to discuss hurt him in a way far deeper than that mortar attack ever could. He told people that he had been “into the dark places,” and it’s unclear if he ever truly recovered from that. Even more, he might have had issues before he entered Iraq or before he entered the Corps or before he entered high school.
In the end, this hulking man who had been trained to kill couldn’t or wouldn’t come to grips with the idea that he probably needed mental help.
In reflecting on her decision to publish her story, Nicole talked about how mental illness is one of the last giant stigmas in our country. In fact, it was the death of a police officer prior to her column that inspired her to come out about this issue:
Last year, a man with bipolar disorder shot and killed a state trooper. In the interviews with his family afterward, they said they had been trying to get him help, but the public response seemed to be “crazy people shoot cops.” I’m not saying I’m crazy, but I do believe if the man had gotten the help he needed, he could have managed the disease.
In the five years since she was able to crawl back off that ledge, Nicole has been climbing the ladder at a prestigious newspaper, spending time with her boyfriend and advocating for the mentally ill. This year, she also donated a kidney to her father.
She touched many lives and made so many people so much better because she figured out she needed help and she got it.
Ben Sebena probably needed help and he had access to it. The VA in Milwaukee is renowned for being one of the best in the Midwest in terms of providing services to veterans. Those who have served have access to counseling, medicine and health care professionals.
In many cases, though, the vets don’t take advantage of these opportunities due to a distain for bureaucracy. In other cases, I would imagine, the societal equation of mental issues with weakness would be another reason.
I’ve spent more than enough time with “guy’s guys” to know what gets said over beer when the subject of someone seeing “a shrink” comes up:
“Does his husband go with him to see the shrink?”
“Hey, did the doctor give him a box of tampons too?”
“I just figured he was tougher than that…”
In other words “mental illness equals pussy.”
And yet it was this diminutive kid with a pixie haircut who was stronger than all of them, a woman who laid bare her fears and shared a story that most of those manly men can’t tell. She was tougher than people who earned a chest full of medals by being willing to stand up in the face of death but are unwilling to sit down with “a shrink.”
It was probably the bravest thing I ever saw.