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  • Brian M Winningham

My Mental Health Journey in the Construction Industry

If you are considering harming yourself, please call 988 to talk to someone right away.


*Warning* The following contains descriptions of trauma which may be troubling for some folks. Please read with caution.

In the Construction industry, four to five times the number of people who die from jobsite accidents are dying by suicide.[1] Our industry also leads the way in opioid overdoses[2]. There is a huge mental health problem in the construction industry. This MUST change! One simple way we can begin addressing this problem immediately is by normalizing mental health conversations. We have to make it okay to talk about the things we currently keep bottled up inside us. Those things are harming and killing us unless we get them out and learn to deal with them. We also must be brave enough when we see someone struggling to ask if they are considering harming or killing themselves and then we must be strong enough to listen to their answer. I hope you will join me in my quest to change our industry by normalizing conversations about mental health problems. My goal in sharing some of my experiences is that maybe folks can recognize themselves in me and my struggles and also understand that better is not only possible, it's not very far away. Finally if you are someone who has lost hope, I want you to know that there are people who care, I want you to know I care, because we really need you in this world.


I have a diagnosed mental illness called Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD). That’s really no different than saying, I have a torn ACL in my knee, except that there is often a social stigma that comes with having a mental illness. No one chooses to be sick, but many human societies are geared toward blaming the victim for what happens to them. I didn’t ask for this disease, and for many years I didn’t even know I had it. I just knew that sometimes my thoughts and emotions would run away with me. Unwanted thoughts and images of the traumas I suffered would hit me at times and I felt powerless against them, and I would lash out due to the anxiety those images caused. I wasn’t physical with people, but my rage is fearsome and hot and scary, and I would break things. It affected my family and the people around me. I don’t do those things any longer because I don’t feel like that any longer. Therapy has helped me to live in the present moment, and to understand the truth of my situation; that I am safe, and that there isn’t a reason to be anxious. I may be going through a tough situation, but anxiety won’t help and will only get in the way of the problem solving I want to be engaged in.


There is a perception of the “angry Veteran” in our society and frankly in many of my past work and social interactions, I may have fueled that perception. I’m a little embarrassed to have done so but I have learned I no longer need to be ashamed for my illness. I am incredibly proud of my service, and frankly a little awed at my Military accomplishments. I have to credit and say thank you to my parents and the leaders I was privileged to follow in the Rangers. If you are my friend or someone who worked with me before when I acted in this way, all that is left to say is I’m sorry. I hope you will forgive me.


Most folks have heard of PTSD but may not know much about it. In my case, I have experienced multiple traumatic events in my life that have each impacted my mental health in negative ways. The ‘multiple’ part is what leads to the C-PTSD diagnosis for me. In the past, these traumatic events in my life have led me to use unhealthy coping strategies that I now don’t have to rely on. I am now able to control my illness using daily meditation, journaling, and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) exercises I learned from my therapist. These tools have been instrumental in my mental health healing journey. Writing about my trauma has been crucial as well. Writing about the things that have happened to me helps to see them differently, it allows me to own them and even learn from them. It also reminds me that I can’t change the past, I can only accept it and keep moving forward.


The constant anxiety I felt, that looked like anger, followed me into every aspect of my adult life including my work in Construction. With my coping mechanism of keeping the trauma bottled up inside, as well as the perfectionist tendencies I learned very early in life, I was well-suited to the Construction Industry. The shame and anxiety that are by-products of my mental illness made me a poster-child employee in the industry. My motto was literally ‘No one would outwork me, and no one could make me quit.’ Those can be great attributes, but motivations really matter. Let’s go back to the beginning to better understand my motivations.


I began working in Construction in 1975, during the summer I turned ten years old. My father managed a local lumber and hardware store in my very small hometown in Arkansas and I went to work with him. I worked for that place every summer until I was almost sixteen. I rode my bike to the lumber store every day and they initially paid me out of the cash register. My memories are pretty wonderful from my first few years working there. I learned so much that I never would have known without that experience. I restocked inventory and merchandise, swept and cleaned, helped put together customer orders and eventually I even started waiting on customers and checking them out. I would help load trucks with orders and then would help with making deliveries as a ride-along. I operated the forklift at times as well starting at about twelve years old when I learned to drive.


The place I worked was also a local contractor and builder. The summer I turned fifteen, I graduated from working in the store to working on projects in the field. I learned electrical wiring, insulation, framing, carpentry, drywall, plumbing, roofing, painting and more, while helping build houses for the company. One day early in the summer of 1981 when I was still fifteen, I was working out on a residential jobsite when a group of adult men, including the owner of the company, decided to haze me. Four of the men held me down on the ground, while a fifth man pulled my pants down and smeared my genitals with grease from a grease gun. I fought as hard as I could, but I couldn’t stop them. After they let me go, I cleaned myself up somewhat with some rags I found, and then just left without saying anything to anyone. I walked close to eight uncomfortable, greasy miles through the country to get home. I was as angry as I have ever been that day. That was the end of my first Construction job.


When I was seventeen, I started pipelining and working with my dad again. He was an Operating Engineer now, and operated heavy equipment, mainly excavators and back-hoes. The schedule for that work was from 6:30AM until 9:00PM, seven days a week during spring, summer, and fall. If we could see, we worked. I remember I made $5.00 per hour and brought home over $500.00 a week most weeks. I was fortunate to hold a bunch of different positions while working on the pipeline and I learned so much. I learned to operate heavy equipment, I dug trenches, I filled trenches, I was a laborer, I laid pipe, I was a welder’s helper, I was a pipefitter, I was a gopher, I drilled holes in the ground for dynamite, I filled those holes with dynamite, fertilizer and pea gravel and then I blew them up. All of it was a heady experience and often I had very little supervision. I led a dynamite crew at eighteen on the pipeline and I wrote a story about that experience called “Lucky Hates Trucks”.


A year or so later in 1984, my family ended up in Oklahoma and dad now worked as an Assistant Project Manager for a Mechanical Contractor. Sometime after dad started, I went to work for the same company working in the field as a Pipe Fitter’s Apprentice, . One of the most “interesting” jobs I did in this role was to clean mud out of approximately 1.2 miles of buried “scrubber” pipe. The concrete pipe ranged from 48” down to 12” and it was a system, along with large fans, that evacuated the air out into the ground from the basement of the college laboratory building we were building at a university. This “scrubber” pipe had been installed very early in the project and two years later at the end of the project was full of mud. I and another gentleman cleaned almost every foot of that pipe out. We used fans, ropes, flashlights, buckets, scoops, and mechanic’s dollies to do the work. We spent eight hours each day in the pitch dark, cleaning pipes ranging all the way down to 18” at times. The two-plus-year-old mud smelled horrible, and the clothes I wore to do the work were ruined on the first day. I got hosed down at the end of each shift and it still wouldn’t remove the stench. I ended up wearing those clothes over another set of clothes every day. It took us almost two months to finish that job. I don’t know if I can fully explain how dangerous this job was. We were often hundreds of feet from the only entrance and exit of the confined space we were working in. There could have been poisonous gases or snakes or animals. If we had gotten hurt and it would have been extremely difficult for someone to get us out. We were assigned this work by my father and uncle and we did it in secret so no one from the Union found out what we were doing.


Later after a stint in the Army and an attempt at college, I ended up living in the Los Angeles area. It is late 1999, I am in my early thirties, I’m newly married and my eldest daughter is still an infant. I am working as a Project Manager for a family-run business in the Fire and Water Restoration construction sector. I learned a lot about building and managing construction work as a Project Manager doing this work. When you see things broken and burned or flooded, you learn a lot about what went into building them and how to put them back together. The systems the Insurance companies require to document those losses also make you learn to count everything when you are estimating a loss for someone. You quickly become very detailed, or you don’t end up with enough money to replace everything. The clients and insurance companies both get pretty angry about this. It also would affect my bonus at the end of the project.


The company owners I worked for suddenly decided that they didn’t like the margins they were making and shut down their business. They negotiated with all the trades and gave them pennies on the dollar, and I was let go as they closed the business with over $20,000 owed in unpaid earned “bonuses” just to me. I know the other employees were in the same boat. My salary at that time was around $40,000 and those bonuses were a big part of how those of us who worked for those types of firms got paid. I had worked a year and missed out on a third of my income. They locked the doors and drove off in their Mercedes and BMW’s. I later learned that these folks had done this several times previously. This is when I learned how much who I work for matters, and how much reputation matters.


In late 2000, I began working for a large national general contractor in Los Angeles. I worked there for seven years and really enjoyed my time there. In late 2007 when our family expanded to four with the addition of a baby daughter, we started seeking to find a better standard of living for the money I could make as a Project Manager. In early 2008, I received an offer and we relocated to San Antonio, Texas where I went to work for another large national general contractor. I worked for this company for seven and a half years. During my time working for them, I lived and worked away from home for five years. I often chose this because it meant more money and it seemed like the only way I could possibly move up in the company. It didn’t help me move up in the company, it just meant that they believed I would always do this.


Because of traveling for work, I missed many of my eldest daughter’s teenage events and my youngest daughter’s toddler and starting school events. That and everything else fell to my wife to have to deal with on her own. I have very distinct memories of each time I had to pry my youngest daughter’s little arms and legs off me as I was leaving home to go to work in another city on Sunday afternoon. She knew she wouldn’t see me for a week or maybe even two and she didn’t want me to leave. My heart shattered into pieces every time I left. Why would I do it? The economy was crappy, jobs were not plentiful, and I couldn’t replace the income by going somewhere else. There are a million excuses, but the truth is I didn’t live my values and that is a rough one to own up to. I felt like I had to do it and lived a victim mentality and that only assures you lose.


I became the guy that the company threw at field problems. I made things better and got things done even though I hated being that guy. I hated it because the problems I had to deal with were always caused by terrible company policies or “uninspired” co-workers. Being that guy left me feeling jaded and bitter, especially when I was overlooked for promotion or a plum assignment. When I finally refused yet another travel assignment, they didn’t even ask why. They just got extremely upset with me and tried to fire me and finally settled for laying me off. My oldest daughter was graduating high school within a few weeks, and I needed to be there for my family. The project they wanted to assign me to was then and continued to be an unmitigated disaster. Almost everyone associated with that project was fired or quit within a couple of years. We also lost my friend Billy Cantrell who was a Superintendent on that project to an automobile accident. Billy was working seven days a week, twelve to fourteen hours a day. I can’t help but wonder if that was a factor in the single car fatal accident on his way home on a Friday night. I miss Billy and think of him often.


I want to make crystal clear that I am not bitter about my life in Construction, and I rarely have been. There have been many, many good days that far outnumber the bad days. I have been damaged at times but I chose my path, and I had the power to alter it any time. Instead, because of my illness, I would put myself into positions where I created additional suffering for myself and those around me. It has taken a long time, but finally I have learned how to do the hard work of healing from all the pain and trauma in my life. So now when I am in those situations, I can choose to react differently and break the trauma cycle. That, to me, is a wonder of the human condition, how we can always work to be better. There is so much joy to be found in that work to be better if we will just stop and acknowledge it.


Speaking of joy, I also want to share some of why Construction has been my life’s work and why I love Construction. The first biggest thing was that I got to work with my dad! That was far and away a wonderful experience and something I will treasure as long as I have breath. He was a very young father, but he always did the very best he could. I never, ever wondered if my dad loved me. He was my first mentor, and I am forever grateful for the work ethic and the many other things he taught me. We still enjoy completing home improvement projects together to this day. He is a good man and is a great father and I am a lucky son. Because of dad, I enjoy the comradery that you only find on Construction sites. The “Esprit de Corp” on some of the Construction sites I have worked on has at times come very close to what I experienced in the military, as a Ranger. I owe it to my dad for introducing me to this world that has been my life’s work.


Another reason I love this industry is because of the wonderful people I have been privileged to meet and know only because I work in Construction. I have had mentors and friends that I count myself blessed just to know them and yet they took the time to help me. The work itself also has a way of letting you know that you are capable of way more than you thought, by pushing you past where you thought you could go. It tests us all in this way constantly.


The work of building is hard and often dangerous. The people who work in this industry are tough, but often will go to great lengths to help someone who needs it and then go to the same great lengths to avoid any accolades for helping. People get into this industry often because the money is good, but that isn’t why we stay. We stay because we love it and the people we work with. Even though they are often the biggest pain in our ass and the reason our family never sees us. We love them because they are right there beside us, sweating and striving and pouring their heart into creating something where it didn’t exist before. That is a really big and important thing and we can’t forget that.


Thank you for following along as I have shared a little about my mental health journey in the Construction Industry, and some of the ways that has impacted me and my family. My sincerest hope is that you will join me in talking about some of the rough spots on your journey as well. Shining a light on these things works a lot like a disinfectant for the soul. If you have a story and no one to tell it to, or if you just need someone to talk to, I will listen. You can reach me at bmw@fielddrivenlean.com and at 210-383-4979.

Rangers Lead The Way!


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