An old friend/coworker of my late husband is undertaking an ambitious endeavor to hike the Bruce Trail end to end in 30 days. He’s named his hike, PTSD HIKING 4HEROES.
He has established a GoFundMe in that name and hopes to raise funds to secure training as a Forest Therapy guide, as well as establish a forest therapy program for first responders / former first responders fighting with PTSD.
He is, once again, carrying my husband’s coffee mug on his journey, as he’d previously done in his hikes in both BC and the East coast. I delivered the mug to him and with mixed emotion, gave him my blessings on his new journey.
Doing this sort of thing is quite difficult for me, entrusting my late husband’s memory to another feels like I’m betraying his trust in me as his wife to care for and memorialize him in the most appropriate manner. I am his wife, I strongly believe it is my duty to look after him, to ensure his legacy is protected, even after death.
I established an annual hike in his name in 2017. We gather each year and celebrate his memory on the Sunday closest to his birthday by doing something he loved most, hiking. Though it is open to all first responders and I’d always hoped those he worked closest with would come out to join us, we remain a small handful whose lives he touched in some small way; this former coworker is one of our group.
They knew and worked with one another back in the glory days of EMS; those days when a 14 hour night shift could very easily become a 16 hour shift. The days when you’d change staff “on the fly”, often in the driveway as the ambulance was heading out to another call, usually before your scheduled shift was due to start. It was just a courtesy they extended to one another. An understanding because they’d all been there. They were a band of brothers, bonded through friendship, forever entwined by the trauma they witnessed.
But those were the glory days. I was glad to have been able to join in the tail end of that before services were split up and the face of EMS began to evolve. Partners left. Old friendships were placed on back burners. New bonds were formed and broken, re-formed and broken again. There were new glory days, new eager faces that grew hardened by shared trauma with my husband. New admiration and awe of the skills he’d acquired by being so long in “the trench”. His legend preceded him, intimidated the newbies, to the point when a new person began to speak of him, I’d always offer this advice, “Just do your best, know your sh*t and be willing to listen and learn…oh, and by the way, I’m his wife.”
My husband walked through many dangerous situations with a lot of people by his side during his 25 years on the road. I stood by him through 20 of those years, worked alongside him on many occasions and shared in the home-side debriefings until I fell to that insidious demon known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Our life changed then. I couldn’t be the sounding board he needed because of my struggles just to function from minute to minute. There were few actual friends in our inner circle and no one he trusted more with his inner demons than me – but I wasn’t that me anymore.
We struggled through not only the stress of “regular” work stuff (and every medic knows work is never regular), but also my illness and the resultant workplace nightmare that ended my career as a medic. It was a lot of stress for him to carry. It began to wear him down. I could see the signs of burnout. I sensed a depression settling into his soul. I did not see a suicide in his future.
I didn’t see it and I was right there every single day for 20 years. I didn’t see it and I once sat with a rope around my neck struggling to find reasons to keep living (he was my reason). One message his old coworker keeps repeating when we speak is that if my husband had just reached out to him…
He didn’t reach out to me. He didn’t reach out to his current partner at work. He didn’t reach out to anyone he was currently working with. He didn’t ask for help from his supervisors because we were embroiled in a pit of administrative crap with the very same managers he would need to reach out to. He couldn’t trust anyone. He couldn’t trust that he wouldn’t be fired for needing help.
It’s not his former coworker’s guilt to carry but it’s a guilt he has to allow himself forgiveness for. It’s a guilt that goes hand in hand with having known a victim of suicide. I still go rounds with that guilt but, for the most part, I know it was his choice to carry his burdens alone. He chose not to open up.
When we, as first responders, choose to deny our inner signals of illness, whether it be inability to sleep, anxiety, having more than just one drink, digestive issues, intense mood swings, or physiologically intrusive flashbacks, we start a walk down a path that could potentially result in suicide and the destruction of the lives of those around us.
You are not your uniform. You are not your reputation, whatever you’ve built that up to be in your own mind. You are a human being, a living, organic creature with complex biological systems that need to be looked after.
Your mind is just another of those systems. So please, don’t carry the weight alone. Talk it out. Tell the story of what happened to you. Don’t be afraid to feel vulnerable because it takes so much courage to be vulnerable.
Learn the skills to manage your stress before your stress manages you. I lost my husband to stress he was unwilling to acknowledge or act to resolve.
His coffee mug that I carry with me on every hike, that I’ve loaned to the PTSD HIKING4HEROES campaign for this year, is my personal reminder of why it’s important for me to take another step, take another breath and keep fighting every day….because it can take you so quickly if you don’t take just one more step.
On my worst days, when my mind tries to glue my feet in place and everything seems to be weighing me down, I look at that mug or run my fingers across it as it hangs by my side on my pack and I say to myself, “I know you would want me to keep going.” You see, it’s not just a beat up coffee mug to me, it is my symbol of him, his legacy, his memory and a reminder of my duty to him to ensure that I keep fighting.
So please, if you’re struggling, reach out, maybe take a hike in the wilderness, join my husband’s former coworker on his quest of healing…”walk it off”.
**You can follow PTSD HIKING4HEROES on Instagram at Ronin_OnTrail or check out the GoFundMe page. **
You don’t have to do this alone.