It hit me like a tonne of bricks. Me? It’s not possible. I’m not in that bad of shape!
Or am I?
A wild range of emotions went surging through my body when the person sitting across from me told me that after all my testing was completed, I had a confirmed diagnosis of P.T.S.D. Initially, all I could do was stare. I had no words. Silence. To ease the moment, I stood and walked to the back of the room. Still in silence. I give the person that was with me credit. They clearly had been in this position before and knew what to do. Silence. I was processing, and they knew it. I turned around to witness a fresh cup of coffee being placed in front of the chair that I had just vacated. So it began.
So began the process of dealing with this diagnosis. P………T………S………D – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Or perhaps more accurately, an acute stress reaction secondary to P.T.S.D. These two diagnoses both fall on any list of recorded anxiety disorders. One big difference between the two is that the symptoms of an acute stress reaction tend to ebb and flow as opposed to remaining debilitatingly constant. That was the difference in my diagnosis. The symptoms that I was experiencing were coming and going at a very rapid pace and that was very hard to deal with. That is what put me on my couch. That is what kept my eyes closed out of a fear of being triggered by something. As I’ve since learned, the anxiety, depression, anger, grief, and avoidance that I was demonstrating are all common symptoms of this diagnosis. But the one thing that was the most debilitating for me……………… was the flashbacks.
Day. Night. Awake. Asleep. It didn’t matter. The faces kept coming. But it wasn’t just faces from recent events or my recent past. There were faces from fifteen, twenty and even twenty-five years ago. Faces long forgotten. Faces of the dead. There were no voices. No one talking to me and telling me to do things, just faces, images, visions.
There was an event that occurred very early in my career and it was something that for a long time I wasn’t even sure actually happened. That was, until it happened again. I was on a VSA (vital signs absent) call out in a rural area. This was before the days of being able to get pronouncements in the field so every arrest call that did not fit any obvious death criteria had to be transported. We had a long transport time and I was in the back doing one person CPR for the duration. This was also before the days of being able to get a tiered response and immediate back up. As I was doing a cycle of CPR, I tried to look out the back window to see where we were. When I did this, something up in the back corner of the truck caught my eye and I glanced up. What I saw, if only for a split second, sent chills down my spine. It was the face of the man on my stretcher.
Now I’m not here to start a debate about the spiritual or religious beliefs of anyone. The point of the story is that what occurred recently was not the first time I had found myself having to deal with the stressors of having visions from the past. Little did I know that they would all come back to visit me seemingly all at once.
So how did I work my way through this? The answer wasn’t really that complicated. I needed time. I needed time away from the stressors and triggers. I needed time to rest, time to relax, and time to talk to those who deal with this sort of thing. I can’t say enough about the people that helped me. Fantastic. One big issue I did have and perhaps the biggest reason I needed those folks was because my usual coping mechanisms were no longer working. For a short time, I couldn’t do anything at all because the visions interrupted everything. Mindful meditation which I had already done for years, working out or even taking my dog for a walk were just impossible at one point. I was in a complete haze and literally could not successfully focus on something for more than about two minutes without being interrupted. At that point, I was most certainly not in denial about needing some help.
I know everyone has heard this before, but do not be afraid to ask for help. That is the key to everything. It may take some time for you as an individual to know what your limits are. However, I believe anyone who has been through something like this will tell you that you will know it when you reach it.
Eventually I made my decision to go back. No regrets. Not yet anyways. I still love this job. Is it stupid that I should love something that causes me so much stress? Probably. Did I feel like quitting? Absolutely. But why didn’t I? Was it arrogance that I can overcome anything? Was it ignorance to the level of how much I was really affected? Was it simply my pride getting in the way? Or maybe it was the fear of the unknown. Being a Paramedic is all I’ve ever known. I’ve never come across anything else during my career that has even come close to pulling me away from this life.
For better or worse, I probably never will.