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…..