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Zach Tidwell transformed his life after a self-inflicted gunshot wound left him blind and deaf in one ear. Through perseverance, he has pursued numerous adventurous activities, including skiing and white water rafting. He demonstrated that with determination and support, one can regain independence and achieve remarkable goals despite significant challenges.

Tidwell now focuses on inspiring others, promoting mental health awareness, and aiding in the creation of blind accessibility technology. He emphasizes that life improvement comes through active effort and resilience. Hear his story now!

“That first snowboarding trip was eight and a half months after I shot myself. That next month, I got back into college. Six months later, I moved into downtown Denver to live on the college campus and had to learn to navigate the city with just my cane. It has been incremental, and those sports have been sprinkled in along the way, where even though I didn’t have the skill to cook, I got a taste of independent snowboarding. And then when I moved out on my own, I got to OK, now the river was the new thing. And it’s kind of supported all of the personal growth that I’ve had.” ~Zach Tidwell

Zach Tidwell
Zach Tidwell

Zach Tidwell is a blind Marine Corps veteran and suicide survivor best known for his lighthearted approach to the hard topics in life and his ability to inspire others. Having shot himself in the head in an attempt to take his own life, he woke up blind and deaf in one ear and with a new perspective on life.

At only 28 years old, Zach now shares his story and the lessons he’s learned along the way to save lives and motivate others to take control and write the stories of their futures.

In addition to sharing his hard-learned lessons, Zach has gone on to found his own software development company so he can lead the way in inclusive design by creating software everyone can use, regardless of disability or lack thereof.

Outside of work, he breaks down barriers and social perceptions of what the world thinks a disabled person can do. He skis, rock climbs, whitewater kayaks, skydives, and even competes in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu against other practitioners without disabilities.

Gabe Howard
Gabe Howard

Our host, Gabe Howard, is an award-winning writer and speaker who lives with bipolar disorder. He is the author of the popular book, “Mental Illness is an Asshole and other Observations,” available from Amazon; signed copies are also available directly from the author.

Gabe makes his home in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. He lives with his supportive wife, Kendall, and a Miniature Schnauzer dog that he never wanted, but now can’t imagine life without.

To book Gabe for your next event or learn more about him, please visit gabehoward.com.

Producer’s Note: Please be mindful that this transcript has been computer generated and therefore may contain inaccuracies and grammar errors. Thank you.

Announcer: You’re listening to Inside Mental Health: A Psych Central Podcast where experts share experiences and the latest thinking on mental health and psychology. Here’s your host, Gabe Howard.

Gabe Howard: Thanks for tuning in and listening, everyone. I’m your host Gabe Howard. Calling in to the show today we have Zach Tidwell. Zach is a completely blind Marine Corps veteran and suicide survivor. In an attempt to take his own life, Zach woke up completely blind and deaf in one ear, but with a new perspective on life. Zach, welcome to the podcast.

Zach Tidwell: Hey, Gabe. Thanks for having me on.

Gabe Howard: Oh, glad you’re here, Zach. Now, you survived a suicide attempt, as folks heard in the intro. As folks also heard, it did cause permanent damage.

Zach Tidwell: Yeah, so I was struggling with depression. It was a bad combination of personal circumstances and head injuries. I, on my second deployment, I had found out that my now ex-wife was cheating on me, and when I came back, things didn’t work out even though we tried. And shortly after we separated and I filed for divorce, I was in a really bad motorcycle accident. I ended up with a very severe head injury and I really started to spiral after that. That happened in March of 2018. August of 2018. I was honorably discharged just because my enlistment had ended. And then I started going to college and working and. I was just, I was struggling, things were getting worse and worse. I became very agitated and impulsive after that accident and also started abusing alcohol. So really kind of pulled back into my shell and was applying the whole suck it up and deal with it idea that is very necessary and very important in the infantry community, but it does not apply, as I would find out, to dealing with mental health issues.

Zach Tidwell: And so about nine months after I got out. I was working full time, going to school full time, and I decided I was I was just done with it. So I had a two-bedroom apartment with a buddy that I had gone to high school with. He got home early from work, and I went out and talked to him and acted like everything was normal. He went back to his room and I went back to mine, and a few minutes later he thought he heard something fall out in the kitchen. And when nothing was out of place, he ended up knocking on my door. And when I didn’t answer, he came in and I was slumped on my bed with a gun in my hand and a bullet hole in my forehead.

Gabe Howard: Wow. So you shot yourself in the head.

Zach Tidwell: Yeah, yeah.

Gabe Howard: Wow. Wow.

Zach Tidwell: Right between the eyes. So that’s why I’m completely blind. It. It completely blew out my sinuses and the bridge of my nose. And like that center part of my forehead and my right orbital area severed one of my optic nerves, and the other one just died from the ensuing swelling that was inside of my head. And somehow none of the bullet entered my brain. It broke up and rode around the inside of my skull. Some of it came out and some of it still in there. So that’s actually why I’m deaf, or deaf in one ear. There’s bullet fragments on the inside of my head and my inner ear. But other than that. You know, I’m. I’m me. I just I can’t see, I can’t smell, and I can’t hear out of one ear. Everything else. I’ve retained all my faculties. Somehow. It was kind of as lucky as you could have with a suicide attempt like that. I got lucky. It’s. It’s been kind of amazing.

Gabe Howard: Zach in, first off, that’s, that’s incredible I don’t I the interviewer in me wants to be like okay thank you for the information. Thank you for the story. I don’t want to react because I want to I want to make it about you and not about me, but I I’m going to make it about me for a second. That’s incredible. It’s just it’s it’s it’s just absolutely incredible. And I’m so, so glad you survived and I it it drums up so many feelings for me. But but moving past that I have to imagine that you didn’t literally just wake up in a hospital with a self-inflicted gunshot wound and just feel inspired and great with a new lease on life. What were those initial days and weeks like? What was going through your mind? What were your thoughts and how did you turn it all around?

Zach Tidwell: That’s, it’s it was a process to get there. But you know, I was so messed up early on, that I really didn’t know what was going on. And so wasn’t able to process the fact that I couldn’t see yet. And, whenever they finally got the point across to me, I just, you know, there was a time of. Trying to come to terms with that, but I was so busy that I didn’t really fully process it until months later after the pace of life slowed back down. But, you know, I jumped right into, okay, I’m gonna get these skills down. I’m going to start learning blind guy skills and move on from there.

Zach Tidwell: And it was funny in, in all the Marine Corps chow halls, all the salt and pepper shakers said made proudly by the blind and visually impaired. And at one point, when we were just discussing what life was going to be like moving forward. You know, I was in the hospital for about two months and my parents were up there every day. And so we were talking and I was like, I’m not freaking making salt and pepper shakers like. And they were like, what are you talking about, man? And but I just I had that attitude from the beginning of, I was going to do something more than just exist. And that really catapulted forward after I got transferred to the VA hospital. And I got really lucky. So I live in the Denver area and there’s a gigantic VA hospital here, and they actually have blind rehab professionals that work there that all have master’s degrees, specifically in different areas of blind rehab. And so the care coordinator for that team came into my room within a few minutes of me kind of processing in and

Zach Tidwell: She asked me what I like to do and I was like, well, when I could see I liked to ski and rock climb and downhill mountain bike and ride motocross and lift weights and do all these other things. And she told me that I’d be able to do all of that except for the motorcycles. And I immediately latched on to that and that was going to be my thing. I was going to work. That’s what I was going to work towards. That general theme of regaining my independence is, is what carried me through early on. But the goal was always to do something, to use that what I had just done to myself and was now going through to keep someone else from doing it, because I truly believe that five years ago, you know, the end of this month will be five years since I shot myself. Had I heard someone with a similar story talking about it before I shot myself, I think I would have realized how bad of a spot I was in, and I would have gone and gotten help.

Gabe Howard: I. I don’t want to be a downer. I really, really don’t want to be a downer. But. But here, here is as somebody who myself has had suicidal thoughts and who was committed to a psychiatric hospital and has struggled deeply with depression, one of the I’m having trouble connecting to things. I understand what it’s like to be so desperate that suicide becomes an option. I’m right there. I don’t understand what it’s like to live with blindness, but it doesn’t sound fun. And the thing that I’m having trouble putting together is if you were so desperate when you had all of your faculties that you wanted to end your life, how are you doing so well now that you’re you have blindness and you’re deaf in one ear? How? Why is life better now? It seems like life should be worse now.

Zach Tidwell: And it was for a while. So waking up from that to figure out that you’re completely blind went from what should have been the lowest possible point in my life to a worse one. But. I was sober then. When I shot myself, I was drinking, so that obviously doesn’t help. I was drunk when I did it, so. Being sober gave me that wherewithal to realize this doesn’t have to be the end of it.

Gabe Howard: That’s an interesting part of your story that that I don’t think we explained to the listeners well. You were suffering from addiction previously. You were I’m not trying to put words in your mouth, but you were abusing alcohol. And that, of course, led to some of the issues that you were having as well. So the first question that I have is, how are you doing now? Are you completely sober now?

Zach Tidwell: I am. Yes. I actually didn’t realize that I was an alcoholic even after my suicide attempt.

Gabe Howard: Is it fair to say that after the suicide attempt, you put in the work that you needed to put into before and that, frankly, the blindness and the being deaf in one ear had had nothing to do with that. That was a personal choice that you made. And the blindness and the deaf in one ear is just sort of a red herring to your story that one of the biggest things that changed after your suicide attempt is that you started working on yourself and gaining introspection and doing the things that you needed to do to be mentally healthy?

Zach Tidwell: That’s exactly what happened. And that’s actually something that I’m very outspoken about, is. You know, I had that lapse in judgment when I shot myself. But after that I did, I chose to still be here and to come back from it. I did get lucky. I’ve, when I when I shot myself, I couldn’t even talk about everything that went on with my ex. I was so incapable of talking about it, and processed it in such a negative way that when people would bring it up, I’d get kind of combative and shut down, and it actually caused a rift in my family. But, we’re good now. But I’ve gone to therapy at least once a week since then and then times when I’ve really struggled. You know, there was a point in 2021 where I did self-admit to the VA hospital because I was worried I was going to hurt myself again.

Zach Tidwell: And those periods where I’ve really struggled, we’ve gone all the way down to even talking every day to multiple times a day where I actively told her I do not want to be here, but I do not want to hurt myself. We would talk in the mornings and we would talk in the afternoons. And, I when I started putting in work to get sober. And that was a two-year process. And my intent after I got out of the Marines, even though I was a machine gunner in the Marines, but I wanted to be an E.R. nurse when I got out. I couldn’t do that when I was blind. So that was another aspect. Like my entire my life and my aspirations were gone. I, with that, I felt like my sense of identity on top of now being a man who, in those early days at the hospital, I had to learn how to brush my teeth and feed myself and work from sitting up to standing up to actually walking.

Zach Tidwell: When my body could handle it. I had to reestablish that sense of identity.

And part of that was with those other blind vets. One of them had been blinded in a hunting accident, and I told him that I, you know, I get these terrible reactions from people when I tell them that I shot myself. It’s I try and avoid the question because I’m not comfortable talking about it. It used to make me really sweaty and just generally anxious when I would start talking about it. And so I would try avoiding the question, and eventually when it would come out, I would blurt it out, and then someone would, you know, not respond very positively either, because of the way that I presented, it wasn’t very positive. And he told me to just own it. And so I started making the conscious effort to do that, and I started noticing a difference in the social interactions alongside me having that taste of success, and that that really helped.

Gabe Howard: I want to touch for a moment on the advice that you got, which I think is really, really good advice. Don’t hem and haw. Own it. Because I do have to say, if you’re shy about it, if you’re awkward about it, it’s probably going to drive awkwardness from the person you’re telling where. If you’re confident about it, if you’re reassured about it, it creates more of a safe space. I’m so glad that you learned that lesson early on. It can take years to learn that lesson, but one of the things that I’m really impressed about is that it sounds like in your story, he’s like, hey, just own it, be confident and say it. And were you able to do that right away, did you have to practice it? And it sounds like once you got there it really, really worked. But I have to imagine it’s still very difficult to look someone, especially someone you just met in the eyes and say, oh, I went blind because of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

Zach Tidwell: Yeah. So the first step there is making sure that I’m looking in the general direction of their eyes. But, [Laughter] uhm.

Gabe Howard: That’s. Uh, I’m going to leave this in because I, I’m terrible and

Zach Tidwell: No, dude, it’s.

Gabe Howard: I am so sorry,

Zach Tidwell: Fine.

Gabe Howard: But you’re right that that’s you don’t think about these phrasings. I want to leave. I’m not going to edit this out. Everybody’s going to hear the awkwardness in my voice. But, Zach. I’m sorry.

Zach Tidwell: No. Well, can, can we, can we leave? I want to say something too. Like. Is that. Can we leave that in?

Gabe Howard: Yeah.

Zach Tidwell: So I was joking. That’s just my sense of humor. Like, it is totally not offensive. Those are normal parts of speech. Like in our culture. That’s. I was just kidding. That does not offend me. That was totally fine. I was just trying to make a crappy joke.

Gabe Howard: I appreciate that. I didn’t think it was. But there’s there’s data to mine there. Right? We don’t realize how much of even our speech is, is for the status quo, for the majority. And I have to imagine that you’ve probably noticed more of these things after, you know, becoming blind than you did before. So we’re all learning together. I appreciate you, you comforting me that that that’s very nice. But it’s so easy to fall into that. So I, I feel like this was a nice learning moment. Thank you. Thank you. And I appreciate you, you not being offended in it and explaining that.

Sponsor Break

Gabe Howard: And we’re back with Marine Corps veteran and suicide survivor Zach Tidwell. The real thing that I think advocates like you really put out there is it’s not magic. It’s not the Hallmark movie where this is the part where the plot turns and everything starts going uphill. There’s going to be pluses, there’s going to be minuses, there’s going to be positives, there’s going to be negatives, there’s going to be gains, and there’s going to be losses. And all of those things aren’t going to fit the narrative that we often hear in speeches and podcasts and movies and pop culture. And I just feel that that’s really important to get out there, because I don’t want somebody who is like, oh, well, I haven’t hit rock bottom yet. And when I say, well, why do you think that? And they’re like, oh, well, because everything has it magically improved. Then they’re never going to get there because things don’t magically improve. Now, Zach, I don’t want to segue too hard. I just want to be mindful of the time that we have. I want to tell you that you are a huge inspiration because you ski, and I want to make it clear it has nothing to do with your blindness. I am terrified of skiing. Putting me on snow, pushing me down a hill is my worst nightmare. The fact that you do it also while blind is in fact incredible. Can you share how you learned to ski while blind? Because sincerely it blows my mind.

Zach Tidwell: So I don’t know if, you know, I, I whitewater kayak and rock climb and skydive and I just competed in a Brazilian jiu jitsu tournament against people with no disabilities two weeks ago.

Gabe Howard: That means people are trying to hit you. Like, I mean, I just I’m

Zach Tidwell: It’s grappling. So, it’s all.

Gabe Howard: I mean, it’s a little better I guess, but.

Zach Tidwell: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: But, you’re being, you’re being attacked. That’s the.

Zach Tidwell: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: The. That’s the point, right? It’s it’s that’s the competition. You’re trying to get them on their back. They’re trying to get you on yours. You have the disadvantage of you literally don’t see it coming.

Zach Tidwell: Yeah. And

Gabe Howard: Wow.

Zach Tidwell: The whole goal is strangulation or some sort of joint manipulation that’ll break if they don’t submit. So,

Gabe Howard: I. Incredible,

Zach Tidwell: Yeah.

Gabe Howard: Incredible. How did you get there? Like, what was the I actually I want to move it back one. Was there ever a moment you were where you were like, look, this isn’t for me. Did you have to talk yourself into it? Did you have to psych yourself up? How did you decide that this was worth trying? Did it? Did it come easily difficult I what I again I can’t do it and I and I do not have any physical disabilities whatsoever. And I’m not grappling with somebody. I’m not whitewater rafting, I’m not skiing. So I haven’t been able to mentally psych myself up. And I’m not blind. How did you mentally psych yourself up to try this, to do this and excel at it?

Zach Tidwell: A big one was I didn’t want to just sit around and do nothing with my life. I don’t think anyone would blame me if I didn’t. But again, it goes back to the salt and pepper shakers. I didn’t want to just exist. And so that that first ski trip that I went on, when you strapped me on that snowboard and got me pointed downhill, I could. I could do something. No one was touching me. No one was hanging on to me, making sure I wasn’t falling. And it was all on me again. And that was the big moment where I, I. Started making an effort to be open about everything that happened with my ex-wife, my suicide attempt, and to get to the point where I could talk about it like I am now. That was before I could cook for myself. That was before I lived back on my own, before I’d gotten back into college or anything. That was my first big step towards some sense of independence. It’s the same way on the river. It’s with a lot of these things. Once you get me to the spot at which we are doing the thing, I can do it fairly independently. And that’s so big for me and so valuable that I really jump at any opportunity I can to try something new.

Gabe Howard: Be honest with me, Zach. We’re friends now. Is it frustrating when somebody like me is just listing your hobbies? But I’m like, oh no, it’s incredible because you’re blind. And as you just indicated, you’re not doing it because you’re blind. You’re doing it because you want to do it. Does that ever provide any frustration for you?

Zach Tidwell: No, because it’s difficult stuff to do when you can see. And I’m doing it in spite of being blind. But I and I think it helps kind of break down another barrier that socially people sometimes don’t really know how to act around me solely because of the fact that I’m blind. But once I start talking about this stuff, they’re like, oh, he’s a normal dude. Or oh, he does more than I do, like it’s. It’s weird. People who haven’t been around disabilities sometimes don’t know how to act. And so it’s I feel like it helps on that front too. And just more, more stigma diminishing, you know? Hopefully it’ll help somebody.

Gabe Howard: Oh, I think it absolutely will, Zach. Absolutely. Zach, we are almost at a time, but as you mentioned, you taught yourself how to code because you wanted to learn how to create accessibility software. And I want to tell a little story to the audience. In trying to do this interview, we realized that some of Healthline’s media software that we use third party software to record this stuff was not accessible to the blind, and we had to make some changes. And in addition to your mental health mission, in addition to your suicide prevention mission, you also work on the front lines of creating software that’s accessible to the blind so that they can use the internet just like everybody else. I, I, I’m fascinated by the fact that you’re just you’re just doing so much. You’re accomplishing so much. But I’m also a little bit sad that I was unaware that this was an issue. I genuinely thought that the internet was available to the blind with reading software and things like this. How common is this problem? Is it getting better, and is there anything our listeners can do to help solve this problem?

Zach Tidwell: It’s more common than it isn’t. More often than not, either apps and websites are inaccessible to varying disabilities, like. So when I was in college, that’s my I was in a statistics class and nothing about the class was accessible. So the school literally assigned someone to be my eyeballs. And after the first exam, I started researching what causes that. And it all comes down to the code of each website and app. And so developers make conscious decisions to leave certain information available to websites, or more often than not, they cut those corners in the interest of saving time, which saves money. You know they do less work for the same amount of money. And so if you own a small business or you have a blog or a website or an app mentioning the Web Accessibility guidelines to people, is really what’s important there. But, you know, the stuff that I make is not only accessible to all ranges of visual impairments, but auditory impairments. And even people with upper limb amputations and motor impairments can use my apps with their voice. It is. It’s possible. But again, no one’s putting pressure on the market and the government doesn’t actually enforce these laws very often. So that’s why it’s actually not very common.

Gabe Howard: Zach, thank you so much for spending the time today. Thank you for being here. Where can folks find you online to learn more?

Zach Tidwell: The big one is ZachTidwell.net. That’s where you can book me for speaking engagements and interviews, and where the news about my book will ultimately come out when it’s ready to be published. And my app that’s on the App Store right now is called Zanagrams. It’s on the Apple App Store for iPhone and iOS. And to keep up with the software development side of things and feature apps that I have rolling out, you can go to DarkHorseGameStudios.com.

Gabe Howard: Zach, thank you so much for being here.

Zach Tidwell: Yeah. Thank you. Man, this was awesome. I really appreciate what you’re doing.

Gabe Howard: You are very welcome, Zach. The pleasure was all mine. And a great big thank you to our listeners. My name is Gabe Howard, and I’m an award-winning public speaker who could be available for your next event. I also wrote the book “Mental Illness Is an Asshole and Other Observations,” which you can get on Amazon. However, if you want a signed copy with free show swag or you just want to learn more about me, head over to my website, gabehoward.com. Wherever you downloaded this episode, please follow or subscribe to the show. It is absolutely free and you don’t want to miss a thing. And listen up! Can you do me a favor? Recommend the show to everyone you know, because sharing the show is how we’re going to grow. I will see everybody next Thursday on Inside Mental Health.

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