By Audrey Jensen
21st Space Wing Public Affairs
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Stephanie’s roommates looked up to see she had come back downstairs and was now standing across from them, saying ‘goodnight,’ for the second time that evening.
This time, Stephanie asked if one of her roommates, her best friend Rachel, would check on her before going to bed. She told her roommates she loved them and walked back upstairs.
“Rachel knew something was off,” Lt. Col. Stephanie Forsythe, 21st Medical Support Squadron diagnostic and therapeutic flight commander, told the audience at the Peterson Air Force Base, Colorado, Storyteller’s Conference, March 30, 2018. “I had already said goodnight.”
After getting up the stairs and laying down in her bed, Forsythe, who was 23 at the time, knew her life depended on that last interaction. The next time she opened her eyes, Forsythe said she remembered feeling a plastic tube in her throat. In the process of becoming fully conscious, Rachel had to repeat several times what happened before Forsythe realized she was lying in an emergency room hospital bed.
Before she walked downstairs to say what could have been her last farewell to her roommates the previous night, Forsythe was in her bathroom, staring at the bottle of Ambien she had been prescribed a month before to help her sleep.
“I remember for a split second having a thought cross my mind — I could just take this whole bottle of pills and that will change something,” Forsythe said. “Something needs to change, so I grabbed it and that’s what I did. I took the whole bottle.”
An hour after Forsythe asked Rachel to check on her, “She came up to my room to physically check on me. She turned on the light and tried to wake me up and couldn’t,”
Forsythe said. “She woke up our other roommates and called 911.”
It was only after Forsythe took the bottle of Ambien she realized the seriousness of the situation, so she tried to help the best way she knew how in the moment.
“Before I got back into my bed, I left the empty bottle on my night stand and had written a note about what and how much I took,” Forsythe said. “I knew if I was going to
get help, that was going to help the person hopefully save my life.”
Earlier that day, nothing particularly bad happened to Forsythe. She had been talking to a therapist for a while and was succeeding as a pharmacist in the Air Force.
It was trauma from her past she no longer wanted to deal with.
“In my teen years I was sexually abused by two family members,” Forsythe said. “When that happened I knew it wasn’t normal. I also didn’t know how to handle that or
know how to deal with that. Once it stopped, I tried to forget about it. I buried it in my brain and ignored it.”
Forsythe graduated high school then college with a doctor of pharmacy degree. After this, she joined the Air Force and worked in the pharmacy.
As she moved on in life, Forsythe believed she could keep the past in the past, but after joining the Air Force she started having nightmares and memories from the time she was abused.
“Looking back, the reason I chose to take the bottle of pills and attempt suicide is because I was really scared of the things that were coming up in my life, and I knew I needed help but I just didn’t know what to do,” Forsythe said. “Just trying to figure out how to deal with that was scary. I thought I had moved on from the abuse.”
Though she was doing well in her role with the Air Force, Forsythe said she was no longer working on an overall goal like she was with her degree.
“I had something I was constantly working toward and I achieved that. If I don’t have another goal or something else I’m trying to achieve, I think I get kind of lost. I don’t know where I’m going or what I’m doing,” Forsythe said. “I think the adjustment I was struggling with was that I had been working the last six to eight years on finishing my degree.
I wanted to graduate college, I wanted to finish my degree, then I did all that. I joined the Air Force and said, ‘OK now what do I do?’”
The next best step was going to see a counselor, but “even with the regular visits to mental health, it wasn’t really addressing what needed to be addressed,” Forsythe said. “We were talking about stuff, but not the way I needed. That’s not a slight on them, they were helping, I just felt like I probably needed more intensive therapy that I wasn’t getting, but I didn’t really recognize that until I got that kind of therapy.”
After her roommate found her and called 911 that evening, Forsythe was admitted to an outpatient hospital where she had to participate in intensive therapy every day for several weeks.
She learned not to be ashamed of herself for the abuse she underwent.
“I really needed someone to guide and coach me through this,” Forsythe said. ”How do I guide and process this so I can really move on from it? How do I learn about myself from it and improve?”
Because the Ambien she took was a prescribed medication, Forsythe was not in violation of the law, so she gave herself a new goal.
“I was also trying to get my job in the pharmacy back,” Forsythe said. “I was like alright, what do I have to do here? Let’s do this. That motivated me a lot, because I had a goal again.”
Forsythe eventually started working again and has been in the pharmacy for 15 years since she tried to take her own life.
“Attitude is a little thing that can make a big difference,” she said. “I learned you have a choice on how you approach life. You can choose to be negative or positive. You can choose to fight or overcome things that happen in your life, or you can choose to hide.
“I learned to deal with things that happened to me and had to overcome it rather than bury it.”
Forsythe is also grateful her friend and fellow wingman, Rachel, was there for her the day she tried to commit suicide.
“I’m thankful I said something to my roommate, but I’m more thankful that she actually took action and did something,”
Forsythe said. “She probably saved my life that day and without that I wouldn’t be here sharing my story.
“I know you hear it all the time, but it’s true — actually being or having a good wingman can save a life.”
To reach Peterson AFB Mental Health Services, call at 719-556-8943 or go to building 725.