Walk it off

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.

In Solidarity.

 

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Silenced

Suicide is not a topic anyone enjoys discussing, but since the folding of the Tema Conter Memorial Trust in Ontario and its subsequent rebranding/migration to the east coast, first responder mental health issues, suicide statistics and research have been all but forgotten. People are still suffering but as it was before, they’re doing it in silence.

It’s mental health week and no one knows. No one is speaking up anymore, coming out of those closets and saying, “I am suffering” because their forum is gone. Their leaders are gone.

Sure, there are many “first responder” oriented smaller organizations out there and there are many hundreds of smaller conferences to choose from but if you look closely, they each have their own career bias. Where is our strong paramedic voice gone?

Paramedics, historically, have been the over looked ones, the unsung heroes, the easily forgotten and readily silenced of all the first responder groups.

We don’t save your buildings or take away bad guys, we merely save your fingers, your hands, your arms, your bodies…your life. If we’re there, it’s rarely good news. Is it any wonder we don’t want to talk about it?

We don’t advertise it off duty, we rarely splash it across our chests or emblazon it on our vehicles. Why? Because what we see every single day is trauma. That is our niche. In a 12 hour shift, if you’re not stuck in a hospital waiting for a bed (a whole other rather serious health issue in this country), you’re attending to someone who is injured or ill enough to warrant a trip to a hospital. Every single call is an emergency in one form or another.

When was the last time you were sick or hurt enough to go to a hospital? Was it bad enough to warrant calling an ambulance? Do you see that? “Bad enough”. Every single call, whether we’re attending to your mental health or your physical health, has to be by someone’s judgement “bad enough”.

Paramedics are exposed to far greater amounts of trauma on a daily basis than any other first responder organization and STILL their mental health needs are pushed to the side. Paramedics and retired paramedics die by suicide at far greater rates than the general public and STILL no one is concerned.

Off duty, they will rarely tell you who they are, until they have too and that only happens when something goes wrong. Trauma.

Mostly paramedics spend their time away from the job trying not to think of the job, but it is impossible to bottle up that amount of trauma, especially with no formal debriefing. So it comes out in other ways, numbing through alcohol, drugs, gambling and yes, even gaming. When self soothing techniques become ways to avoid and numb your mind, then you’re not coping effectively and you need help.

Marriages often don’t survive maladaptive coping. Children and families become collateral damage due to the job. Being a paramedic is not just a job, it is an entire lifestyle and a lifestyle that is extremely resistant to change. It’s more than just putting on a uniform, it is an entire identity. It becomes You and that is the hardest layer to shed.

They say, “Once a paramedic, always a paramedic.” And it’s true because I don’t know one paramedic active, retired, injured or scarred who wouldn’t shove their needs to the side for another in an emergency. It becomes you; the trauma becomes the one thing you excel in. You develop a nervous system so attuned to it that, if you’re not careful, it will ruin you.

We don’t like to talk about it. We don’t shout it from the rooftops and our silence is our downfall when it comes to making headway, garnering headlines and achieving those grants to support Our mental health. We’re being talked over. We’re being overlooked – again.

PTSD, Depression, Anxiety, Burnout, Suicide, Interpersonal Relationship Breakdowns, Suicidal Ideation, Mood Disorders, Substance Abuse, Chronic Insomnia….just a small number of the hidden labels on a paramedics uniform.

We need someone to take the lead for paramedics because they’re suffering in silence once again. Help our paramedics find their mental health voice.

In Solidarity.

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