How I Came Back to Life in Time to Pay It Forward

By Bianca Strzalkowski, Military Spouse Magazine’s 2011 Military Spouse of the Year

I wasn’t me; I didn’t look like me, I didn’t sound like me, I certainly didn’t smile like me. For close to a year I wasn’t alive, I just existed. The irony is that I had no idea of what was wrong with me, in fact I had no idea that anything was wrong with me until after time had passed. Today, I am determined to find those women, enduring what I had so they know they are not down and out for good. 

Being a military wife for 10 years encompasses some challenges, we face circumstances that differ from our civilian counterparts. I moved to our first duty station at the age of 19, I knew nothing about military life except what I had seen on the news. However, being planted in Jacksonville, home to one of the largest concentrations of military in the entire state of North Carolina, I got a crash course in what military culture is. My husband had to leave within my first few months in this new town, and I quickly learned of the tight knit sisterhood that exists among military spouses as some very senior spouses took me under their wing.

I felt very secure in my new home; I very much invested in that community. Working full time, raising our son Alexander (sometimes as Mom & Dad), volunteering within the Marine Corps, and attending school full time. I was, in my opinion, living an American dream. It was a fairytale; I was the bride who married her high school sweetheart, surrounded by a strong circle of friends, and giving our son a life that was strong in tradition and love. Then, we received our orders to a new station, across the country to a place hundreds of miles from everything familiar.

My life in Arizona felt different from the start, as the bulk of life events would occur for us there. Within months I was pregnant with our second son, and I would face this pregnancy mostly alone.  My husband’s job took him away from us most of the year and we were geographically handicapped from seeing family. Additionally, my father in law, whom had raised me like a daughter, was diagnosed with lung cancer that would ultimately take him from us. I did not work, I did not have one single friend, and there was not one person I connected with that I could even list as our ‘local emergency contact.’  Whatever changes my body experienced with that second pregnancy, it led me to become an inward, anti-social person. When Nicholas was born, I had severe anxiety about leaving him with anyone, even my own husband. Essentially, I placed myself on baby duty 24/7, which any caretaker would know is mentally, emotionally, and physically draining. Reflecting on that time, I did not do one single thing characteristic of myself. I involved myself in nothing; few people probably ever knew I lived at that base. As you learn my story you will know why that is a surprising fact.

Time passed, and slowly I was healing. Within our last year there, I began to show signs of being revitalized. Thankfully, I was returning to the Bianca everyone knew. Then, one day I read a book by Brooke Shields called “Down Came the Rain,” and so much of her story resonated with me. I actually will go as far as to say that her sharing of that story probably gave my children back their mother and gave my husband back his wife. By the time I was pregnant with our third son, I was now proactive in my care and how I would prevent postpartum depression. I knew I owed it to my family to take care of myself first. Much like the instructions on the airplane, in the event of an emergency you must first put on your own mask so you can take care of others, it should be the mantra of mothers.

So here we are, 2011; what is significant about my life besides overcoming a very uphill battle? On May 5, 2011 in a room full of Senators, Representatives, a Medal of Honor winner, my family, and my peers, I was named the 2011 Military Spouse of the Year. My role is to represent all five branches of military spouses in pursuit of a loud voice for them. My amazing honor has brought me to lunch at the White House, a prestigious parade with the head of the Marine Corps, media interviews such as Fox News and CNN, and meetings with Senators to accomplish goals on behalf of the military spouses of the United States.

My honor is in part to my contributions to my community. When we left Arizona, I felt stronger than ever. I hit the ground running as soon as we returned to North Carolina, and I worked feverishly to find those spouses, feeling like me, who deserved support. Moreover, I strengthened the Family Support program that was almost nonexistent to families on independent duty, I created workshops to educate spouses on the resources that exist for them, and I created a Meals Delivery program that spanned the entire State of North Carolina. My actions were not for recognition; my actions were out of gratitude that I had a second chance at living.

In the months since being named MSOY, I have used my voice to be an advocate for military spouse education and to bridge the gap between the military and civilian communities. Additionally, I have created a Military Spouse Educational Initiative that has been introduced to the Department of Education and the Department of Defense. I will not take no for an answer.

What I have learned is that the most precious gift in life is life itself, and I want to show my three boys that their mom is a role model. My highest achievement in life came AFTER my lowest moments, and the lesson from my story is that it is never too late to be whatever you want to be when you grow up. At the age of 31 I am just learning who I am and what I am capable of. Do not ever let anything count you out; you are not alone in your journey to whatever you consider success. You deserve it! The sky isn’t even the limit, when you reach what you think is your peak, all that means is it is time for you to pay it forward. For we are one Nation, we may be strangers today but our common goal to propel women to where we know they belong makes us one team. Enjoy the ride that is life, nothing rewarding will ever come easy. Fight!