Michael E. DeBakey VA Medical Center - Houston, Texas
From Depressed to Content, One Vet’s Journey
Army Veteran Lonnie Conerly had to overcome bipolar disorder, a crack cocaine addiction, and years of homelessness, and prison time to get back on his feet. May his journey be an inspiration to others.
At one point, Conerly held a top-secret clearance and was testing nukes while serving in Germany. He loved the Army and planned to make it a career, but some personal issues derailed those plans. His army career soon would be over.
He was shipped to Fort Carson, Co. where he impressed his sergeant with his work ethic. However, he didn’t have enough time in grade to be promoted, so the Army discharged him. Nuclear bomb tester didn’t really “pop” on a Houston job application, so he worked two jobs, making just enough to pay the bills, buy groceries, and have $45 left over. Add in a failing marriage and being angry and depressed, he tried crack. It was 1983.
“I felt like I was on top,” he said of his first hit of the pipe. “Like I could do anything.” He was on it off an on for 12 years and arrested twice. No longer working, he somehow maintained his habit.
“I stole, sold my body, did whatever I had to do to get that next high,” he said. “Whatever it took, that’s what I did.”
He lived inside of large, hulled-out A/C unit that was broken. He also slept atop a 4-story parking garage. He used cardboard as a blanket and ate whenever he could—losing 60 pounds. It was during this time he became suicidal.
“I’ve tried to take my life four times,” he said. I slashed my wrists; took a bunch of pills; turned all the gas jets on, blew out the pilots, waited until the house filled up with gas and lit a cigarette. I took 20 sleeping pills, woke up, and was pissed off cause I woke up. My life sucked. I hated myself.”
He knew he was a better person than what he was portraying, but didn’t turn things around until he got around positive people. Rock bottom was the year he spent in prison.
Houston VA Mental Health services got him on the true path to recovery. Conerly spent nine months in the psychiatric unit for substance abuse and to treat his bipolar disorder. He’d gone his entire life undiagnosed, just feeling angry all the time.
“I didn’t know what I had,” he said. “I just knew I had these thoughts; I knew I tried to kill myself; I knew I hated myself. I would punch myself in the head. I knew something was wrong.”
Dr. Aaron Short, Houston VA psychiatrist, has nothing but admiration for Conerly and the way he has embraced treatment for his mental health needs. In addition to meetings with his psychologist, Conerly also regularly attends Peer Support groups, where sharing experiences with other Vets gives him an emotional outlet.
“He was willing to discuss things openly,” said Short. “He was honest with himself and used his experience to provide assistance to others. He has a mature way of coping with life’s unpleasant moments. I have the utmost respect for him.”
For Conerly, cutting out negativity and focusing on the positive has been a big part of his attitude change.
“I’ve had a lot of damn negative people in my life,” he said. “I stay to myself. I don’t have many friends for that very reason. I don’t need the negativity.”
He has learned so much about himself through therapy that he no longer allows the behavior of others to determine his mood.
“I try to stay out of my own way,” he added. “Because I have a tendency to mess it up real quick. I can’t allow people to push my buttons. I have to walk away, because I am the one who must pay the consequences of my actions.”
Conerly now has been sober 15 years. He has a good relationship with his son and daughter and has a 3-year old grandbaby. For that he is grateful. His back injury from a car accident won’t allow him to work like he used to, so he works at Houston VAMC in the vocational rehabilitation program.
He wanted to share his story so that other Veterans in crisis can see it’s never too late. His advice is simple and straight forward—get help.
“Make sure you’re ready for the ride, cause it’s a ride,” said Conerly. “There are going to be a bunch of lows and letdowns. Life is just going to show up. And when it shows up, you have to strap your boots on and keep it moving. If you don’t, you’re subject to fall back to where you were. I can blow up my life in a matter of seconds, but trying to rebuild it, that’s the hardest part. You’ve got to want your life to change.”
Keep moving forward is his mantra. It would be easy for him to blame others and harbor resentment, but Conerly is an astonishingly forgiving person.
“One day at a time,” he said. “Just got to keep pushing. The cost of starting over is too damn high, so I take my meds like I’m supposed to take them, make my meetings like I’m supposed to make them, and focus on the future as best I can. Reach out and help someone when you can. Keep my side of the street clean and everything will be alright.”