I needed help
I was pregnant with my first child when I finally looked for help. I turned to my work to ask for help since I struggled to be able to return to the road, and they had me apply for compensation. This involved sending me to one therapist, who deemed me very highly traumatized but not of the PTSD world. What! What does that even mean I thought to myself. What the hell is the difference??? TRAUMA IS TRAUMA! What that meant of course was that I was NOT going to be covered for any therapy sessions or time off to heal. This was a direct result of a workplace injury and I felt alone and afraid and unsure how and what I was supposed to do now. How could I work when I was a mess? How could I pay my bills if I couldn’t work? Why wasn’t I more prepared that this could happen to me? I couldn’t believe it. I took the results back to my workplace and asked them what they would have me do. I couldn’t make it through the day without crying, let alone be around patients! I am sure they were shocked to see me in such a state. I was usually quite calm, quiet, relaxed and happy. Thankfully, my workplace recognized my level of trauma, and reached out to another organization, who after hearing my case decided to help me. They gave me 10 sessions. I didn’t know.
My therapist recognized PTSD immediately in me. She asked how in the world they could say I was only highly traumatized. In the end, what really is the difference? I was brought to my knees with whatever I was experiencing. I didn’t care what it was called. I just wanted help to never feel like that again. But, I have to admit, when I first started I was difficult. I didn’t like being asked the questions I was being asked, and I didn’t want to answer them. The reason for this, was that avoidance was my number one sign of PTSD that I carried around. I didn’t know how to cope with my feelings, so I locked everything into a little box inside of me and hid it away somewhere dark. If the therapist asked me to open it, I pretended I lost the key. (not really, but I just didn’t want to go there). Each week she would assign me homework and I would bring it back blank. Not because I didn’t do it, but because I didn’t know how to answer something I wasn’t exposing myself too. You see, a lot of my PTSD was the direct result of exposure. I was no longer at work as I was off on Maternity leave. ( I left early due to complications from my POTS during pregnancy). If I wasn’t there, I felt like I wasn’t being triggered. Which became a problem. I felt that I needed to be at work to be triggered, but my therapist thought it was just about opening that pandora box I shut inside of me. We were at a standstill. Each week she gave me things to work on, like how to cope with triggers, and each week I listened and felt like this was pointless. What I wasn’t seeing was that I didn’t need exposure from work, I needed exposure from my box. It was full of PTSD in the form of avoidance. The longer I avoided, the longer I was going to struggle. I wasn’t seeing all the other things happening along the way. All the things I had neglected to put in the box because they weren’t happening at work. I couldn’t watch most tv shows in fear of seeing something that triggered me. I couldn’t back my car out of a parking spot without panicking. I couldn’t handle the smell of alcohol on someones breath. I couldn’t stop fearing everyone around me and that I would hurt them. And when I had my baby, the feelings intensified! Now I had a little one completely dependant on me and the fear of me hurting her escalated PTSD x 100000000! OHHHHH but I was totally handling this all by tucking it so nicely away in my box. Thumbs up to me! I didn’t know.
With my newborn came a whole new realm of fears. To cope, I had the latest breathing monitors and cameras. I read up on how to lay them down, swaddle them, feed them, you name it, for fear of doing anything wrong and harming her. I checked to see if she was breathing over and over. I never once slept with her. It was the crib from day one with all the gadgets monitoring. I then tested the monitors over and over and over. Hypervigilance found me again. It was no longer only in the car, being afraid of hurting someone, it was now in my house. All day, everything became a fear. Yes I know that many parents do this, but I was irrationally doing it. OVER AND OVER AND OVER. Obsessive rechecking and rechecking. If she got sick, PANIC! I couldn’t, and I still struggle with giving my kids medicine if they are sick. ( I have a fear of overdosing them, or giving them the wrong one) I was becoming a wreck. I knew that I had to get this under control before my daughter saw and felt what I was acting like. I didn’t want to be a helicopter parent. I didn’t want her to grow up with my mental aguish forced onto them. I decided that I needed to open that box up. I didn’t know.
I wish I could say that I went to a session, opened it up and all this relief flooded over me and I was cured. The reality is, I opened it up but only a crack at a time. It has been 6 years since I started going to therapy, and I have gone on and off for years. I have tried different therapists and a few different forms of therapy, and I am still not cured. BUT THAT IS OK! I am better. I have made progress. I have mostly good days now, with a bit of PTSD randomly sprinkled in for fun on the off days. What worked for me? Well, a funny thing happened. The first therapist I saw when I didn’t want to do the homework, randomly her advice started creeping in to my head and I started listening. I think my brain and body needed to be at the right point for me to want to get help. I think to allow myself to try, I had to be open and willing. I basically started following her advice. I also started talking about it my issues with others. I started asking for what I needed. If I can’t give the kids medicine, I have my husband do it. (avoidance) Sometimes this is ok, but I now I recognize this as avoidance and I really try to force myself to do it. (although, when I do it, I have a chart on the wall analyzing the med, the dose I gave, the time I gave it, and I triple check it all over and over before the next round). Hypervigilance. I can recognize this behaviour now. But, to make it through avoidance, I am hypervigilent. I hope I can grow from hypervigilance to just relaxing and giving medication. This will take time. I am already past the first phase. I just try to take a step forward every time I open the box up and face another struggle. One struggle will take multiple struggles to make it through. I know this now. I realize that it will never go away. Sometimes I need to go to a therapist just to have someone to talk to about it if it starts to build up, and thats ok! Different people can provide different solutions. Find one that works for you. What works for me , might not work for you. There is no quick easy fix. I didn’t know.
Facing my ptsd, really came by making choices. What do I confront, and what do I let go of. I made a choice to leave my career as a paramedic. That was the hardest thing I ever did. It was my career. It was what I loved doing. It was what I thought I would do for the rest of my life. I came to this conclusion 2 ways. A good friend of mine called me up one night after I had done the child fatality call. At the time I was feeling totally fine about what I had just seen (meaning I didn’t feel messed up, which shocked me). He said to me one thing that just really resonated. He said, do you think that if you had to do the same call tomorrow, for another child, that you could perform the way you need to? Without skipping a beat, my head shook the word yes I would be fine, but my heart sunk. I started crying. I didn’t stop for many days. I hadn’t processed what I saw. I had locked it away. You see, I had been using that box in my dark corner of my brain for many years without realizing it. It wasn’t that I was a strong medic , that nothing bothered me. The truth was, EVERYTHING bothered me but I learned a trick early on. Lock it away. You will be fine. You will be protected. That friend. He opened the box for me. He knew what I was doing before I did. I didn’t know.
I still worked for many years after that, and to be honest I shoved it all back into the box, call after call to survive. I just didn’t know that I was doing that. I then had a new therapist, and she said turn it around and describe your box to me. So I did. I pictured this little treasure chest, with a lock on it. Locked tight, facing away from me. She asked if she could add something to it. She added the word AVOIDANCE, and the date 2008. The year I became a paramedic. However, because I had kept the box turned around for so many years I never saw it for what it was. I now know.
Now you may be asking, isn’t quitting paramedic a form of avoidance? The answer is yes. It is. But for me, the second part of my conclusion that I came to was this. No matter how many therapists I asked this question to, no one could give me an answer that made it so I could stay a paramedic. The question I asked was this. “can you tell me with 100% certainty that this won’t happen again, that I would go down this dark path, that I won’t hurt anyone in my career? Can you promise me that I won’t make a mistake and hurt a child or anyone for that matter? Can you promise me that the next time this darkness happens, I will be able to climb out again” ? Guess what, not one person could tell me that it wouldn’t happen again. No one ever knows. I knew the answer before asking them. I have no way of answering that question myself. Even the best intentioned medical professional can make a mistake. It is human nature. I knew I couldn’t risk that. I now had two children to think of. I had two children that I wanted to be mentally strong and capable for. I knew, that I would not be able to see another child fatality without going into the darkness again. It was something I knew was going to happen. Avoidance this time, was the right path for me. I needed to remove myself from it. This time, it was ok. It was protecting myself, and giving myself time to heal. I now know.
I would like to say I am healed, but I believe PTSD never goes away. It evolves and changes with you as you age. It becomes less and less, and it then morphs. When I started my new job-hunt, I started realizing that every job can be imagined to have the potential consequence of hurting someone somehow. WHAT WAS THAT. I was extending my worries out towards every little tiny facet of my life. Even though they weren’t a big problem overall, they all added up to a big bowl of little worries that would start to create stress. I would chase down a therapist for a few sessions to get that under control. Its all about maintaining, knowing triggers, knowing controls, and knowing when you need a bit more help. I now know.
I also find with kids, I am definitely more hypervigilent then my husband is, and that is ok. I have seen things. I know outcomes. I worry more. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. I just have to keep it a little more reigned in is all. My husband had to learn to try and understand why I may worry more, or panic faster. We learned quickly to have the kids school call his phone first instead of mine. Reduce panic. Number one rule for me. Sirens still set me off, as do alarms, all reminders of my paramedic days. But one thing is for sure, the other day when I pulled out a box of paramedic items I had saved, and I asked my husband to make a frame with all these things in it to celebrate my time there. For 6 years, I hid away all the reminders I had of it. I didn’t want to see anything related to being a paramedic. Avoidance. It is time for me to bring them out and remember the good. There was a lot of Good. Good always wins. I was a paramedic. I am proud of that. Its time I start to remember that I did a lot of good, and a lot of good came from it. I am meant to be on a different path. I don’t need to avoid what I was. It wasn’t a bad thing. I now know.
I will have a lot more to say on PTSD in the future on this blog, but to end this 3 part series opener I will leave you with a quote from Oprah Winfrey that I heard in my mediations with Deepak. It is about Hope and Forgiveness. It helped me heal.
“Forgiveness is giving up the hope that the past could have been any different, its being able to let go, and not being held hostage for another minute by the past, because you know and accept that it could not have been any different. You give yourself permission to accept and release that what was done, has been done”. ~Oprah Winfrey~ https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rwcp_oEIwnU
I now know, what I didn’t before. I am a paramedic. I will always be a paramedic. I am not on the road anymore because PTSD took me down a different path, and that is ok. It is part of my journey.