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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“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.

2 thoughts on “Brave

  1. Even with good support, the patient working hard, and the best medical care available, until recently a lot of “good” insurance excluded mental health. Even with laws making insurance cover mental health there are often disclaimers in the policy limiting mental health coverage.
    For example, disability insurance that covers one for a lifetime often limits coverage to 2 years.

  2. Mental health care should be more available, and people should be more open about it, but even despite the best psychiatry and psychiatric drugs available, I’ve lost a number of friends to the monsters in their heads over the years. It takes a lot of bravery and strength to fight mental illness. I’m always glad when the good guys win a few. I’ve seen too many snatched by the darkness.

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