Nicole [Starleigh]: Veteran Pursues Passion as Writer
by Oren G. Patterson
The kids have long since gone to bed. The lights are out, the house is quiet. The night is in full bloom, and it is close to midnight. Most people would be asleep at this time. Nicole Starleigh, however, huddles over a writing lamp, a red pen chipping away at a novel manuscript.
As a writer, Starleigh fits the image of the dutiful scribbler, devoting hours to editing her novel. Books are everywhere around her, as well as novelties and pictures of her fan-love of Doctor Who pepper her writing area. Starleigh is fervent about her writing, passionate enough to go back to school to further a long-term career in the writing world.
The passion for writing was hard-won, however, through diagnosed depression and anxiety disorder during both an earlier stint in college and a six-year hitch in the U.S. Air Force.
“I had been feeling really lost for a few years,” Starleigh states about her life just before joining the military. “I was waiting tables and picking up whatever job I could. I had no purpose. No direction.”
Starleigh explained her aimlessness stemmed from the feeling of being compelled to have to go to college by culture.
“I don’t think at that point I was trying to find passion…I didn’t believe pursuing your passion would be [a] good career choice,” Starleigh admits.
She was enrolled in various majors with no idea what she wanted to do. “Society says you had to have a job,” she explains. “I switched majors like four times in just a year and a half.”
This indecision and lack of focus led to Starleigh’s first diagnosis of clinical depression in 2001.
“I got myself into some dark places,” she said. “I had a couple of episodes.”
Starleigh is a self-proclaimed introvert. Even in family situations, she was the “shy cousin.” As a child, her eager and active imagination would think of ways to escape from the mundane world she perceived.
“I liked imagining I could do these awesome things…and just have exciting adventures because I was bored. I didn’t feel like my life had much in it,” she explains.
Starleigh dropped out of her first stint through college after only 18 months due to a diagnosis of depression. Still feeling the push from her perceived notion of culture’s emphasis on a job being the primary purpose in life, Starleigh immediately took on whatever job she could get. While nearly as unfocused as her brief college stint, 2005 was where her life became much more focused.
She discovered the Air Force.
Working as a server at Applebee’s—and actually not doing too bad for herself—Starleigh spoke with a retired U.S. Air Force Russian linguist that frequented the restaurant.
“He ignited a curiosity in me that I never knew to look for,” said Starleigh. “The way he talked about it, it just suddenly felt like that was the answer I had been looking for.”
It was a tough decision despite her sudden interest. Her friends and family in Southeast Pennsylvania where she grew up–where most feel the house around the corner from their birthplace is just fine for a new family—disagreed with her.
“That wasn’t me,” said Starleigh. “I couldn’t stay. I had to leave. I kind of felt like I was suffocating there.”
The military was a romantic idea to her. The military seemed like a perfect escape, and for Starleigh, it was. It was an opportunity to travel, to see the world, to explore beyond the bubble where she had been born and raised.
“The writer in me really…loved the idea,” said Starleigh.
It was also a way for her to escape the past that trailed behind her, to get away from her issues with depression. “The depression thing in college never left me,” she said. “I felt like it [the Air Force] was opening a door that was the right door.”
Starleigh spent six weeks in basic training in San Antonio before leaving for Monterey to study Arabic at the Defense Language Institute Foreign Language Center (DLIFLC). The DLIFLC is a multi-service school that provides resident instruction in over two dozen languages at an accelerated rate.
Monterey was where Starleigh’s life really changed for the better. Joining the military and living in Monterey provided her the opportunity for a clean slate, to be where nobody knew her, and perhaps provide an opportunity to leave the dark cloud of her depression behind.
“There’s no history. There was nothing chaining me to memories that weren’t so good,” Starleigh explains. “I realized how liberating it was to really, truly be happy with being me.”
Conflicting orders from a higher-ranking supervisor caused her to miss her final exam in the language school, Starleigh said, adding that despite her high GPA, she was forced to switch paths to weather forecasting.
“The Air Force needed weather people, so I got weather,” Starleigh explains. “It was something that interested me. I won’t lie,” she laughs, “I still get really excited about weather phenomenon.”
Starleigh’s path had become strong and stable, on a reliable course for a promising career, eventually graduating from the Community College of the Air Force with an Associates of Applied Science degree, according to Shaw Air Force Base Public Affairs. She forecasted for over four years for the rest of her career, eventually earning a Weather Forecaster Craftsman certificate and becoming a supervisor for logistics, according to Starleigh.
Then, like an unexpected storm, the dark cloud of her past came back to haunt her.
It started with a troublemaker airman assigned under her duty station. Armed with her newfound independence, Starleigh dived into the task of turning the airman around. Her goal was to get the airman on the right track and everything will be okay.
However, she was unprepared.
The airman became much more troublesome, including multiple threats of self-harm and excessive manipulation of those around her. She was so good at manipulation, according to Starleigh, that the rest of the duty station began to doubt each other and the problem airman. The issue became so pronounced that Starleigh regressed into deep anxiety, much like her depression before.
“I didn’t know what was real, what wasn’t, who I could trust, who I couldn’t. I wasn’t the only one. I don’t think it only happened to me. I think it happened for a lot of us that were involved,” Starleigh explains.
The panic attacks set in, disrupting her home life as well as her job. The episodes culminated in an intervention from her supervisor and chaplain, followed by a trip to the mental health section of the base. Again, diagnosed with depression, this time with anxiety, Starleigh eventually did not renew her enlistment.
“I had disappointed a lot of people,” Starleigh adds. “After I convinced everyone…I was not reenlisting, it was like no one was on my side anymore.”
Starleigh struggled with this decision as well as her mental health issues as she transitioned to becoming a stay-at-home mom. Despite the hardships, Starleigh and her family adjusted to the new lifestyle of a single-income family. Starleigh continued to seek therapy for a few months following her exit from service.
Despite this rough time, Starleigh retained the sense of independence she gained when she initially joined the Air Force. Starleigh’s passion for writing would not be so intense if not for her time in the military.
“I started to see potential. I started to see that I could do something with my life,” said Starleigh. “I didn’t have to go to school for a job that paid well, because what I learned in all of my military experience was that your happiness is not worth the money. It was liberating.”
Despite a period of years of not writing, now there was time to pursue her passion fully.
“I don’t have to prove anything,” Starleigh explains. “I’ve been able to come to terms with the fact that it doesn’t matter what culture and society tell me to do, because that’s not what’s going to make me happy.”
Now, Starleigh has finished her first book while attending English and Creative Writing courses at Southern New Hampshire University. Despite her depression and anxiety, despite the mental trauma caused by her military service, and despite all odds, she’s happy.
“Your happiness is directly related to your mental health,” she said. “If you’re not happy with what you’re doing, then you’re not healthy. It’s important to be healthy.”
Blodzinski, Ann. Team Shaw awards 311 CCAF degrees. November 13, 2012. http://www.shaw.af.mil/news/story.asp?id=123326179.
Nieddu, Nicole. Nicole Nieddu Profile – Linkedin. n.d. https://www.linkedin.com/pub/nicole-nieddu/29/972/979 (accessed March 2015).
Nieddu, Nicole Starleigh, interview by Oren Patterson. Interview with Nicole: Veteran Writer (April 1, 2015).
United States Army. Defense Language Instititue Foreign Language Center. n.d. http://www.dliflc.edu/index.html.