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….
I have not posted anything recently because I simply haven’t had anything to say. Which is actually a good thing. My anxiety level has been very low. And I haven’t had an emotional “episode” in months. I’ve cut my therapy sessions from every week to every other week and, in fact, between my schedule and my therapists schedule, more appointments have been cancelled in the last 3 months than attended. As I said, this is all really good. It means that I have made progress. I can go several weeks in a row without a therapy session and survive.
Unfortunately, I’ve had a setback…….
In the last week, I’ve had a couple of fairly minor emotional episodes. One triggered by a news story that set me off before I could hit the button to change the radio station while I was driving. I was able to work through it quickly and move on. (Proof of progress!).
The second was triggered by a song on the radio that caused me to snap at my son for no good reason. (For the full story on this particular song, see my previous post: On the turning away….A trigger, a flashback, an incident at church, a sermon, and a Pink Floyd song…Update: Recently I had a great conversation with the young man mentioned in the post. This was the first time I had seen him since. Of course he did not remember me from the incident but was very appreciative of my help when I told him about it. He is happy and as healthy as he has been in years.) I have not been able to listen to this song since the episode described in the post. On this particular evening though, I was in a great mood and feeling really good. I was busy doing something around the house and the radio (actually Pandora) was playing in another room. I noticed immediately when the song came on but quickly decided that, since things had been going so well, I should be able to handle it and went about my tasks, without really paying attention to or even thinking about the song. Part way through the song, my son interrupted what I was doing to ask for help with something. I snapped at him. It was at that point that I realized the song had effected me. I noticed then that my entire mood had changed. I apologized to my boy and went to help him. But the fact that the song had effected me really bothered me for the rest of the evening.
These two incidents really bothered me. They really were not a big deal compared to many of the emotional episodes I have experienced, but it did feel like a set back. Last night during my first therapy session in a few weeks, I talked about the episodes and described the feeling of taking a step or two back. My therapist pointed out that I was able to process them and move past them quickly without letting them “take over”. She told me what a great indicator this is of the progress I have made over the last two and a half years. I commented that I had hoped I had moved beyond these types of episodes and that I was “over it”.
Her response: This is all part of your story now. You cannot change this – it will always be a part of you and who you are…..
Her comment hit me like a ton of bricks. I had the very sudden realization that my PTSD will never go away. I will never get over it. Of course this makes complete sense and I think I probably knew it at some level. However, I had never consciously thought about it in this way. I think I expected that at some point, it would not longer affect me. That after “X” number of therapy sessions I would no longer have to worry about a song on the radio or a news story that has nothing directly to do with me or any of my experiences; That I would be able to go to a party and not have to be concerned that someone might say something or ask me a question about my experiences that I was not prepared to answer…….
Apparently, this is not to be…….ever.
Sitting in my therapists office, as this sunk in, I broke down. It hit deep and it hit hard. Later, watching a TV show with my wife, the point was driven home even more dramatically. The title character, talking to another character whose girlfriend had just been killed, ended the show by saying: “The pain you are feeling will never go away. It will always be with you. It will be the first thing you think of every morning when you wake up. But, some day, it will be the second thing.”
Wow. I now understand that this is my life. This is who and what I am – who and what I will always be. To some degree, PTSD will define me for the rest of my life.
Of course, I completely lost it. I haven’t lost it like that in a long, long time.
During my meltdown, a very powerful question came to mind: Was it worth it?
Was it worth it to spend more than a decade of my life responding to and dealing with the most horrific things anyone can imagine? Was it worth it to work so hard to save people who could not be saved? Was it worth sacrificing my mental health and, to some figurative degree, my life?
Today……I’m not sure……
My wife is truly amazing. She has stood by my side, held my hand, and wiped my tears as I’ve worked through this overwhelming journey. She has always been there for me.
This past weekend, she needed me. She is dealing with some pretty heavy, emotional family stuff and really needed an ear and a shoulder. It is nothing horrific – she and her family will be fine. She is just feeling very overwhelmed right now and is trying to make sense of some unexpected news and events. She needed some support – just like she has provided me time and time again.
She didn’t need much. Just needed me to be there for her and with her. But I wasn’t. I was wrapped up in my own head. Again.
You see, I had two separate triggers gang up on me. They got me pretty good too. The worst part – Neither of the triggers were directly related to anything I have experienced personally. The first one got me just driving through an area where I know something horrific happened. The second one hit me while watching a stupid reality TV show. And yes, I do mean stupid. It was not the type of show that you would ever even begin to think something like this would come up. But it did. Out of the blue. No warning. These triggers were completely unrelated, but both dealt with the exact same terrible type of event. The murder of a child.
I know they got to me, at least in part, because I was with my daughter both times. Just tore me up. While I never had to deal with this scenario on the job, I did deal with a lot of kids and unthinkable accidents. And even parents who murdered their own kids – which is slightly different, although still horrific. But still, why did these two hit me so hard?
More importantly, why could I not get my act together – even just for an hour or two – so I could help my wife??
I already feel like my PTSD has dominated our lives for the last several years. I have already asked too much of her. Taken too much. At some point, I need to give back. I need to be there for her. And for my family. But I can’t. At least not all the time.
This is one ugly, nasty road. I do not regret how I got here, but I sure hope I get back to a paved highway soon….
This battle never ends…….
I feel really good for a while. But it doesn’t last. Eventually everything comes crashing back down. It is truly exhausting….
I have never considered the possibility that I have become manic-depressive, but tonight I am wondering….The last several weeks, maybe even months, have been really good. But, now, the last couple of days I haven’t been sleeping. Irritable. Overwhelmed. Tired.
I should be in a great mood today. I just made reservations for a “vacation of a lifetime” for my family. A trip my kids will never forget. Everyone is SO excited! Why not me? Why I am not sharing the excitement? It’s our first “real” family vacation. Ever. Sure, we’ve taken some short trips before, but this one is huge. I’ve been working my butt off to make it happen…..
Is it because I’m working my butt off in a cubicle in corporate America? Instead of doing the job I was born to do? But I can’t do that job any more…..So, does that mean I wasn’t really meant to do that job? But I was good at it. Damn good.
And now – I am just tired. Just. plain. tired.