Officer Down

There was a documentary on tv about the alleged culture of harassment and bullying inside of Ontario’s largest police force.

As much as I wanted to watch it, the topic of suicide and mistreatment due to a PTSD diagnosis hits way to close to still seeping wounds for me.

What I did do, was flip over to it during a commercial on another program. I became overwhelmed very quickly. I was a heaping mess of tears on my living room floor. Let me tell you, those sobs came from a place of deep, sorrowful hurt inside of me.

My non-service rescue dog took action and distracted me by whining and nudging me to pet him. Dogs just know. I owe my life to this dog.

It brought up a lot and I only watched less than five minutes. I know those feelings of having nowhere to turn, no one you can trust and being made to feel you no longer belong to that “family”. The devastation you experience when they turn their back on you and force you out…all because you were psychologically injured doing your job.

I also know what it’s like to ask yourself endlessly what went so horribly wrong that your husband felt he had to die.

And, in that, I also know what its like to feel so utterly crushed that you think it would be better to just die.

I remember the nights my husband watched helplessly as I screamed and screamed, crying under the weight of a brain that wouldn’t stop showing me horror and a world that refused to understand.

I remember his sleepless nights, tossing, turning, getting up, wondering if he should book sick but terrified to go into the dreaded “attendance program”, where you’re made to feel a poor employee, given half-hearted offers of help and threatened with reprisals if you can’t get your attendance issue under control. Let me ask this, if you don’t know what help you need, how are you supposed to ask for it? What can a supervisor do about your inability to sleep?

He’d often decide to get back in bed and go to work because he “didn’t need to give them an excuse to come after him.”

And believe me, after what happened with me, there was no way he would’ve taken time off to deal with any issues he may have been struggling with. The LAST thing he wanted was to lose his career.

THAT is part of the culture that needs to change. Yes, every manager has “the right to manage” but you forget, you also hold the responsibility for your employees wellbeing. Their safety, physically and mentally, is your responsibility as a manager.

I’m cycling through a lot of emotions and struggling with a lot tonight – and I only caught a mere glimpse of this program.

I want to remind you all out there that, even if the “family” turned their back on you and made you feel ashamed of who you were or the uniform you wore or the job you did, you are most definitely not alone in that. I rarely tell people I was a medic because the whole situation leaves a bad taste in my mouth. I’m still grieving that person I used to be, on top of grieving a husband who didn’t have to die.

We may never be able to go back, but that doesn’t mean their leaders can’t move forward having learned from their mistakes and taking proactive measures to ensure others don’t fall as we did.

It’s time to change the culture. It’s time Managers own up to their shortcomings and act to shape the future.

In Solidarity & In Memory,

36378 / 40839

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Paramedics & PTSD: Chronic PTSD in daily life

My chest is tight. It feels sort of like my breath is shaking. I sense a pressure at the back of my throat. I’m anxious – but I’m sitting here watching a comedy on television. There is no one else around. The rest of the house is silent. So why am I anxious?

I’m anxious because this is how my body reacts to situations that trigger a fear response in me, and in the post-trauma years, that can be just about anything however small.

My mind just loves to take things and falsely turn them into threats. The phone rings or the doorbell chimes…”Who is that? What do they want? What if….” It’s an automatic response, a thinking error that is quite difficult to get a hold of and can lead down a rough path of several thinking errors strung together revving up the anxiety machine and leading to fear reactions.

Fight, Flight or Freeze. In my world, the phone rings, I freeze. My breath catches in my throat and if I don’t recognize the number, I won’t pick up the line for fear of getting into a situation where I have to defend myself.

On the surface it seems pretty ridiculous, but when we examine the reasons, it all makes perfect sense. During the worst of my struggles, I was often placed on the defensive and made to feel invalidated and insignificant several times on the telephone – secondary wounding events, thus, generalization of the traumatic fear reaction to include answering a telephone. I am no longer a “telephone person” and I will usually ask people to give me a heads up via text if they’re going to call.

I do not like surprises, well, really, my body does not like surprises. I try to schedule my days and prepare ahead of time for social outings and public tasks. Spontaneity is actually an enemy to my brain because it unleashes anxiety.

Oddly, if there is a sudden change in my plans during the course of execution, it’s almost feels like my brain begins to fibrillate. I lose my ability to logically make decisions (which is scary when you’re driving), I struggle to mentally sequence my next moves, I become anxious and put on the defensive, that often erupts in bursts of temper.

When an average person changes a plan, or by unforeseen means, is forced to change a plan halfway through, their brain understands and makes the necessary alterations in their thinking patterns, thus calmly adjusting to the new situation, perhaps with a mild anxiety reaction.

When a person with PTSD is placed in that same situation and there is a sudden unexpected alteration to a mentally pre-mapped plan, their brain reacts in threat mode. It’s not a simple matter of taking a different route or traveling to a different location or doing a whole new event; to their brain it’s a threat to their safety, it’s an unknown and for many PTSDers an unknown is what caused the traumatic response to begin with.

But you see, the worst thing about living every day with PTSD is actually the inconsistency; the unpredictability of the whole reaction, especially as you start to cope and are able to manage it to some degree.

I can have good days, mentally strong days where I can handle more than I usually do. I can face some of my triggers and not react, I can be spontaneous and go with it, I can face new situations head on and think dynamically through them…all the time knowing that there is a limit to that ability. All the time knowing that I have to keep a running tab on my brain’s functioning that day so I’m not suddenly overwhelmed and overloaded. It can be different from day to day or week to week or even month to month.

Sometimes I may be having a good time, I may be coping, navigating foreign territory, experiencing a strange new situation and suddenly my brain reaches the limit or encounters a trigger subconsciously. Often I won’t even realize it because my conscious focus was on the task at hand but people around me will notice as I start to get agitated, frustrated, or angry. Not being PTSDers, they won’t understand.

Living with PTSD means constantly monitoring how you are reacting in your environment and allowing further interaction or scaling things back to a tolerable level for your nervous system. In times of overwhelm it really depends on the cause (and sometimes we can’t identify it), in determining what level of scale back you need. Sometimes all you need is a quiet, safe spot to just breathe and return your nervous system to a manageable level, other times, you may need to put some distance between you and the situation and sometimes, you may need to come all the way home to your safe place for some quiet. It’s up to you to know what you need. The other task is effectively communicating that need without getting into a fight.

For all those non-PTSDers and supporters out there, imagine you’re watching a boiler steaming and about to explode. If you can help to slowly and passively cool it, it won’t explode. The same theory applies here. Try not to add more pressure, we cannot make proper decisions in this mode, so asking questions gently, without being condescending, is extremely important. No shouting, no criticism.

If you notice your PTSDer suddenly short-tempered, frustrated or angry, try not to take it personally, don’t react with the same anger or frustration, instead, try to gently steer the situation, pause the action/event, get to a comfortable or quiet zone and sensitively communicate to your person that they may be overwhelmed. And this does not mean taking control away from them and telling them what they need or forcefully removing them from a situation. It means learning how to sensitively communicate non-threateningly with your PTSDer.

PTSDers, this also applies to you. PTSD can turn you into a monster but it never fully removes your ability to regain control of your emotional response. You too need to learn to first, recognize when you’re losing control (or have lost it) and then communicate effectively what you need to de-escalate your reaction. (Supporters, you may get yelled at, just a warning, it comes from a place of triggered emotion, nothing personal).

Back Off! Shut Up! Go Away! I Need Out! I Can’t Think! These are signs you’re overloading. I’ve shouted these many times over the years. These are extremes. These happen just before the bodily reactions (hyperventilating, crying, running, fighting or freezing) occur. I can usually sense the overwhelm happening before this point now, but it can still happen in situations of sudden extreme pressure. Don’t tell me to calm down, don’t grab me, just give me an exit or back away (stop talking, stop asking questions, stop applying pressure). Allow the breathing space.

What’s it like living with the chronic intrusion of PTSD reactions? It can be mentally exhausting because it requires constant conscious monitoring of how your brain is reacting to your environment; from watching television to navigating the daily grind, your brain’s resources are constantly being tapped as it tries to turn everything into a threat and you try to keep it calm and functional.

It’s not you, it’s your brain. Keep fighting.

In solidarity.

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