If you have been keeping up with this blog over the last two or three weeks, you know there has been a lot going on my world. Some of it very sad and tragic. But, for me personally, a lot of it has been very positive and demonstrated how much progress I have made. In this post, I want to share some of the big milestones I have reached.
With everything that has happened recently, I have had many conversations with many different people about my journey specifically and, in more general terms, PTSD in First Responders. Every single one of these conversations has been very positive and productive – even though the topic is dark and depressing. My story has been so well received and the support given to me so overwhelming……If you are one of the people I shared my story with directly, either in person or via some of the digital lines of communications we all rely on these days, THANK YOU for listening and helping me. Even if you didn’t know you helped, simply talking to you and seeing the understanding and acceptance in your expressions had a tremendously positive effect for me.
After “retiring”, I spent close to 10 years ignoring red flags and denying that anything was wrong – and that does not include the last several years of my career when there obviously was a problem. Acknowledging to myself was difficult, but not nearly as difficult as sharing my struggles with others. Telling my wife was a big step – of course she knew something was not right, but she did not know if there was something wrong with me or if our marriage was falling apart. Telling her and discussing it with her made a tremendous difference for me and for our relationship. Once she understood, even to a small degree, it was easier for her to support me and realizing the problem was not with our marriage took a lot of pressure off of her. Our marriage is so much stronger today than it was just a few years ago. Even if I would have never done anything else, talking to her was the best decision I have ever made. Well, besides marrying her in the first place.
For a long time, probably a year or two, my wife was the only one who knew the truth. I did my best to hide my “issues” from everyone. The next big step was to actually seek professional help. Walking into my therapist’s office for the first time…..Wow. That was brutal! But I knew very quickly that I had found the right person. The first session or two, we just talked – got to know each other. We did not get into the details of my career or my difficulties after leaving. Of course, we did talk about some of the “symptoms” I had been experiencing over the years, but it was more about helping her understand me – and me feeling comfortable with her. I will get into the details of our sessions in future posts because it is very important stuff, but for now I will just say that it has been very hard work. Extraordinarily rewarding, but hard.
After almost a full year of visiting my therapist every Friday night, I was ready for the next step. I told one of my closest and oldest friends. This was very difficult because I did not know how he would react. Would it freak him out so bad that he would shut me down and avoid talking about it? Would he lose respect for me and think me weak? Would this ruin a 30 year friendship? Well, none of that happened. We are as close, maybe closer, as we always have been. He was 100% supportive. He did not understand what I was going through – but that didn’t matter. He desperately wanted to help me, but didn’t know how. Sharing my story with him was a big deal for me. His not knowing what to do didn’t bother me in the least. Having his support and knowing he wanted to help meant the world.
Several months later, I told a small group of very close friends – another big milestone. I had not really planned on telling them that day, but had wondered what I would do, how I would react, if it came up. After not having seen each other in a long time, we were having lunch together. One in the group expressed some frustrations with another mutual friend of the group, describing some of his behavior over the last few months. We all knew he had spent time in Afghanistan and she wondered out loud, looking directly at me, if maybe he was suffering from PTSD. Inevitably, my eyes starting to water and I knew what was coming. I was able to quickly explain that I would discuss his situation shortly, but first I needed to explain something about me. Then the flood gates opened. I sat, in a busy restaurant, with three very good friends (including two of the most attractive women I know), sobbing uncontrollably. Once again, I had no idea what type of reaction to expect. Would they all get up and leave me sitting there? Would they try to ignore me and act like they didn’t know me? Would they be embarrassed by me? Once again, none of that happened. They were very supportive and comforting. They helped me work through the “episode” and never once gave any indication that they were embarrassed. Now, they each check in on me every now and then just to make sure I’m doing ok.
I achieved a tremendous milestone two weeks ago when I announced to the world (well, the world of Facebook), that I have PTSD. I am no longer hiding my situation. Now, every close friend, every past and present co-worker, every acquaintance who has found me, knows. I’m not sure this is the biggest accomplishment in my journey, but it was a really big deal. Why? Because the biggest reason I denied and hid my situation for so long was my fear of the reaction. The potential for ridicule and embarrassment. First responders, after all, are not supposed to need help – we ARE the help.
But you know what? It didn’t happen. This announcement has caused people to reach out to me to let me know they are here to support me and to make sure I’m ok. This announcement has led to very important conversations with people, friends, who now understand that every first responder is susceptible to PTSD. And it has not led to one single negative reaction……
The culture in the world of EMS needs to change so people like me are comfortable talking about their problems before it’s too late. I gave up a career that I loved because I didn’t know what else to do. I didn’t know where to turn for help – or even that there was help available. Others have given up even more.
What’s my next milestone? I’m not sure. I know that I have not reached the end of my journey, but I have come a very long way. I intend to continue discussing my experiences and plan to work harder to educate people. Maybe my next milestone is hidden in that statement somewhere…..
Tonight I had dinner with an old friend and former co-worker. I worked a lot with this guy when I was new in the business. He was very influential in my decision to move from private EMS to a fire/EMS service. I have always considered him a good friend and a real “fireman’s fireman”……Fourth generation in fact.
He also worked with, and knew very well, the two friends who took their own lives recently. I asked him to meet with me so we could talk about the cultural problem facing not just our department, but all fire and EMS agencies. He is in a position now that he can play a large role in making changes – I wanted to share my story with him and make sure he and the rest of the command staff see the issue at hand.
I was very nervous to share my story, even though he is a good friend. He is still part of the culture that turns the other cheek and hides emotions, after all. I wasn’t sure he would “hear” me and I just didn’t know how he would react to me and my emotions.
Two great things came out of our long conversation. First, and most importantly, he told me about the department’s plans to change the culture. They acknowledge that there is a problem and understand that it is not just about education. They understand that this type of cultural change will not, cannot, happen overnight but that it will take time and dedication to the cause. I left truly feeling they are on the right track and fully “get it”.
Second, he did hear me. He listened. He was sympathetic and understanding. He did not judge me or look at me differently. Our friendship did not change. His respect for me as a person and as a fire/medic remains the same. This all means a lot to me – I have always been worried about what “the guys” would think if they knew about my struggles. Turns out – it doesn’t change anything.
So, if you are like me – struggling in silence for fear of other people’s reactions – please believe me when I say, the reaction will be positive. I have told a lot of people in the last week or so and have experienced nothing but support and understanding. You do not have to tell the world, but it may help to talk to someone. And they will listen….
Some time ago I wrote about one of the most horrific calls I ever responded to as a paramedic. (The Overwhelming Burden of Empathy http://wp.me/p2CkoS-1i) It is one of those calls that lives with you forever. In the years since this tragedy, I have very often wondered about the family. How are they now? Did the marriage survive? How are the other kids? Was Dad able to recover. These questions still haunt me.
A few nights ago, as we celebrated the life of a fellow firefighter/paramedic who took his own life, I had a conversation with one of my former ambulance partners: my partner on this particular day. He told me that this call is at the top of his list of “three calls that I will take with me to my grave”. He seemed to want to talk a lot about the call – which brought up a lot of emotion for me, but I figured it was therapeutic for him too, so we continued to re-hash the details of how the call ran and who did what. I teared up several times, but manged to keep it together. Eventually he shared with me his real reason for brining up this particular call…. Through a long string of coincidences, he has found the family……
He wasn’t really trying to find them – it just so happens they live, in the same house as they did at the time, very close to a good friend of his. The connection was made this past Christmas when my former partner was visiting his long time friend. My partner noticed a large pine tree in the neighborhood park was decorated for the holiday. My partners friend explained that this was done by a neighbor in remembrance of the son they lost to a tragic accident many years ago. It did not register immediately for my former partner, but as he left the neighborhood he realized where he was……When he spoke with his friend again, he asked more questions, and has all but definitely been confirmed that this is the family.
My partner tells me that, according to his friend, the family is doing quite well. The marriage survived – which is a real shock to me, but great news.
After allowing this to sink in for a few minutes and giving me a chance to get myself together, my partner then offered to for us to meet the family – if they are willing, of course.
This threw me for a complete loop. I never in my wildest dreams thought I would see them again. I was completely speechless. Frankly, I still am and really don’t know what to do…..
I saw my therapist for our regular appointment a couple of nights later. Of course, this a the major topic of the entire hour. At the end of our time, she told me that she thinks meeting the family would be incredibly therapeutic for me. She advised that I give it some time – maybe a couple of months – to prepare myself emotionally and then meet the family.
I can’t say that I disagree with the therapeutic aspect of the meeting – assuming the meeting is positive. My greatest fear is I will learn the family does not feel we did everything we could or even did our best and, to some degree, blames us for the outcome. This would be devastating. Almost as troubling is the concern that meeting us would take the family back to that horrific day – bringing back all the pain and suffering they endured that day and in the following weeks and months. Also, I am worried about the effects such a meeting would have on me – especially if it does not go well, but maybe even if it does go well. Obviously, it will bring back all the memories and emotions I have fought so hard to get under control. Could meeting the family actually diminish some of the progress I have made in the last couple of years?
So, what would you do? Would you meet the family with the optimistic belief that it will be, in the long-term, a positive and therapeutic experience? Or, would you take solace in knowing the family is still together and strong, and simply move on without meeting them?
I truly do not know what I am going to do….
Today I am thinking about suicide…..
No – I’m not actually considering this option, but I am thinking about what must go through a persons mind as this decision is made. This past week, for the second time in about 6 months, a friend and former co-worker decided that he had had enough; That he could not take any more; That his family would be better off with out him and his “issues”. And for the first time in my life, I get it. I actually understand the decision.
I have never understood what could cause a person to make this ultimate decision. My first experience with suicide, before I got into the world of EMS, was so horrific and unforgivable…… What this man (a neighbor) did to his family……. I have never been able to forgive him or anyone else who has taken their own life. Until now.
I cannot and will not ever forgive my neighbor – or most people who make this choice – but I can easily put myself in the shoes of my two friends/co-workers. I can fully appreciate the feeling that it is too much to tolerate. I have often told my wife that she does not deserve to put up with me and my “issues” and wondered silently if my wife and kids would be better off if I was not around. (Not permanently, but just not in their daily lives). Frankly, had I not “retired” when I did – I could very easily have decided to end it all long before these two friends did.
The purpose of this post is not to justify or glorify suicide. The purpose is to say – I get it. But it is not the answer. There are much better ways to deal with your struggles. I am proof.
I realize that most of my posts here have been rather negative; describing my problems, not telling of my successes. The truth is, I have made a lot of progress and I am here to tell you that there is hope. There is help! And it’s OK to ask for help. It can be a long and difficult journey, but it is a much better alternative.
I will not tell you that I am “cured”. But I will tell you that I am MUCH better. My anxiety levels are much lower. Nightmares and flashbacks are lest frequent and less intense. When something does “trigger” an emotional response, I am able to handle it and move on. I do still have things to work on, but my quality of life is much improved.
Simply acknowledging that there is a problem will make a huge difference. Getting over the self-consciousness of what everyone else thinks is another big step in the right direction. Truth is – you don’t have to tell everyone. Of course, you need to tell SOMEONE that you are struggling….but that could be a spouse, a close friend, a therapist…..even me. For a long time, my wife was the only one who knew; Then my therapist (who is a God-send, by the way). Eventually I told close members of my family and very close friends. Even keeping my secret, for the most part, I have been able to overcome many of the hurdles associated with PTSD.
I understand there is still a stigma associated with PTSD. But, if you are struggling, you need to talk to someone. I am here to help – whether you want to talk to me, or if you want some help finding a professional……Just let me know what I can do to help you make a choice your family won’t regret…..