From Rescuer To Rescued (PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) in First Responders)
The subject of PTS (Post Traumatic Stress) in the first responder field is something I’ve felt like I’ve needed to write about for a while now, but never knew what exactly to say. And to be honest, I’ve actually been running from it like the plague. Why?… Because it hits a little too close to home for me. And well let’s face it. By writing about it requires me to possibly have to revisit some memories that are painful and horrifying.
You see, I was in the fire, EMS and rescue fields combined for a little over a decade. I’ve been a first responder, EMT, volunteer firefighter, rescue diver, swiftwater rescue instructor, water rescue team leader, vehicle extrication and EVOC instructor, first lieutenant and more.
If the alarm went off, I went. No matter where I was or what I was doing. One year I served over 2000 volunteer hours. That was on top of my normal day job. I sacrificed my time, my family’s time and my body. But little did I know then I was sacrificing my mental health too.
Some days we wouldn’t have many calls, but on other days it was nonstop. I will spare you of the details because I don’t want to put images in your head. But I will say I’ve see a person die nearly every way someone can. Those images stay with me day and night, 24 hours a day.
When I did that work I tried to block it out after the call. And initially it worked, but there comes a time that you see too much. So much that attempting to block it out no longer works. And back then we didn’t routinely practice debriefings. When the call was over, we would go home or go do the next call. It was never discussed of talked about.
I didn’t start noticing something was wrong till three years after I left the emergency services. I started battling depression that grew pretty severe. I was put on medication to help with the depression, but it still didn’t hit me that something was wrong. All the warning signs were there, but I wasn’t paying attention.
After a couple failed marriages and relationships. Four years later I married my beautiful bride. She and her two beautiful daughters moved in. We began remodeling on our house. Adding more space for everyone. At the same time my brother passed away due to long term use of narcotics. And it wasn’t long then that we adopted my two nieces. Making my family of two (me and my son) into a family of seven.
It wasn’t till then that I became a monster. The high stresses of remodeling a house mixed with getting to know new people that were not only living with me, but also depending on me was overwhelming. It was triggering anxiety attacks. It seemed as if we were fighting all the time and it was getting worse by the day. Put all of that on top of the hidden wounds from the years of emergency service. It was then that I started experiencing the severe anxiety attacks.
After a few years of dealing with depression and anxiety attacks which made life an absolute living hell. I rediscovered hiking again. I use to hike a lot when I was younger, but slowly gravitated away from it. But this time I was backpacking. Loading everything on my back and going into the woods for days.
I began to do longer hikes. Instead of being out for days, I was staying out longer. It was then that I began to notice something. I was starting to feel different afterwards. I was less stressed. I could handle the high stress without becoming a monster. The anxiety attacks and depression seemed to lessen. My beautiful bride began see the results which opened up opportunities for us to talk about what was going on.
The best way I can describe it is this way. It’s like I have a huge desk in my head and it’s a complete mess with piles of images of things I’ve seen and done. When I’m out on the trail it’s like I can pull one of the images out of the pile, pray about it, make some sense of it and then file it way where it belongs. This requires lots of pray and sometimes painfully revisiting those moments or events, but the end result is that I’m able to finally have peace from a memory that has haunted me for over a decade.
Honestly, that is why I hike so much. It brings me peace and helps me come to terms with my past. It also gives me that one on one time with my Creator. I give God all the glory for revealing this to me and helping me slowly overcome this. Now my battle with PTS is far from over, but I now have a coping mechanism to help me deal with it. The down side to being gone so much is the loss of time with my beautiful bride and kids. But the time we now have together is quality time. More time is spent laughing, loving and enjoying each other’s company. Instead of everyone having to walk on egg shells, worried about setting me off and sending me into another anxiety attack.
This is the first in a series of blog posts that will be ran monthly here on Plug-it In Hikes blog. I will have guest bloggers who were once or currently in the EMS, fire, rescue or law enforcement field sharing their story about their battle with PTS and how they are coping with it. My hope is that these posts will help someone who is also dealing with PTS. As you can see I refuse to call it PTSD. Let’s drop the D (disorder). No one wants to be labled with having a disorder. In the meantime keep my beardedself and the other future bloggers in your prayers.
Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send? And who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I. Send me!” Isaiah 6:8 NIV
The Toughest Story To Tell….. (Living With PTSD, The Ugly Truth)
Post Traumatic Stress (PTS) is a mental health condition caused by witnessing or experiencing actual or threatened death, serious injury or violence. PTS in the first responder community affects hundreds of thousands first responders, as well as their family members and friends.
First responders are twice as likely to suffer from PTS. Someone experiencing PTS could have the following signs and symptoms; flashbacks, experience bad dreams, frightening thoughts, disrupted daily routines, lose interest in activities and hobbies, startles easy, feeling tense, angry outbursts, trouble sleeping, difficulty concentrating, depression, anxiety, emotionally numb, suicidal thoughts, etc……
A survey of more than 4,000 first responders found that 6.6% had attempted suicide, which is more than 10 times the rate in the general population. I’m a part of that 6.6%.
That’s right, I’ve attempted suicide before….. I was going through a severe bout of depression and it had gotten so bad that I didn’t eat very much for nearly a month. I lost an enormous amount of weight and became very secluded. None of my clothes fit and I was essentially waisting away. My mental health was following suit. It all came to a head on May 25, 2010. I was invited to go walk at a local park by a friend who was obviously concerned about me. We had a great talk and visit. For a brief moment I felt ok again, but as soon as I got home it hit my like a sledgehammer.
The last thing I remembered was walking through my front door. After that, I woke up the next day in the ER from an apparent drug overdose, but I still had no idea how I got there or why I was there. I had no idea that I had even attempted to take my own life. I was later transported to a mental hospital for an evaluation, where I stayed for 3 days. I was surrounded by concrete and felt completely out of place. I was confused and was trying to make sense of what was going on. I still didn’t know why I was there. On my exit interview they asked me “Do you feel suicidal? Do you want to harm yourself or others?” I answered “No! Why would I ever want to do either of those things?” That’s when I found out what had happened and why I was there…. That was my first warning sign that I narrowly escaped. And I still had no idea I was dealing with PTS.
Things got better for me for a little while. I still had the anger issues and would battle the seasonal depression, the anxiety had subsided some, but came back with intensity when me and my beautiful bride Ashley got married in 2013. We were building an addition on to our house and anything that could go wrong, did….. Mix the stresses of construction with the learning curve and troubles of blending a family together and you’re looking at a perfect storm for someone suffering from PTS. The stress was off the charts and my angry outbursts were equally as intense. I felt like I was effectively turning into the Incredible Hulk, but not in a good way. I was destroying my house with every outburst. Kicking in doors, punching walls, throwing furniture and being verbally ugly to every single member of my family. I would get so worked up, I’d have to leave and sleep in my truck. It would usually take about 24 to 48 hours for me to reset and be able to be around people again. I even slept in my truck on Christmas Eve one year. I hated life then, it was like a monster that I couldn’t control. I never knew when it would show up or even what was triggering it. I felt ashamed, unloveable and disgraced.
My beautiful bride and children suffered greatly during this time. They not only watched me going through this up close, but also had to walk on egg shells otherwise I would turn my anger and rage against them. I would say mean and ugly things to them, punish them unfairly and ground them for weeks. It’s almost like I wanted Ashley and my children to hate me as much as I hated myself.
But that didn’t happen. You see when God sent me Ashley (my beautiful bride), He knew I needed someone special. Someone that could see the big picture and someone that would help me even when I didn’t want it. She refused to leave, even when I would kick her and the kids out of the house. She prayed nonstop for me and for us as a family. She would write her prayers on pieces of paper and lay them on my pillow or somewhere I would see them. She never gave up on God or me. She knew He would heal me at least to the point that I could love again. She had no idea I was dealing with PTS. She just knew whatever it was, that God could heal it.
October 7-13, 2018 is Mental Health Awareness Week. Show your support for those battling mental illness and stop the stigma. You can wear a lime green or neon green ribbon, ring or bracelet which has been designated as the color associated with mental health awareness. Also if you know someone struggling with PTSD or mental illness, do everything in your power to get them help. And let them know they are loved and not alone.
Below is a link to an organization dedicated to assisting first responders suffering from PTS and mental trauma. You can use this site to educate and guide you through the process of getting help and understanding of this horrible mental illness.
•Reboot Recovery: https://rebootrecovery.com/