Five years ago, I tucked my paramedic career into a shoe box, and I closed the lid. The box is non-descript. Actually, that’s not true. It’s actually quite cheery given what the contents inside have represented to me. Its outside, not being an honest reflection of what it hides inside to me. I find it vaguely amusing, that I chose that particular box to hold its contents. The top of the box actually says “live in the moment”. No joke. The thought “sucker” enters my head as I conjure up scenarios where a thief opens the box thinking they are about to find big wads of cash, or piles of jewellery stashed away, only to find an old uniform shirt, some badges, stethoscopes, a few pictures, and pins. Junk they would say, and probably toss the box to the side. But is it junk? How do I not know the answer to this? Cue quiet reflection from within.
The answer came to me in the form of my youngest daughter. She came up to me and very excitedly said “Mama, what is this? I just love it”. As she opened up her hand, I saw that it was my grandfather’s old firefighter’s badge. I had kept it after he had passed away. I was proud to have that. Proud that he was a firefighter, and proud that I got to become a paramedic and work in the same city and even the same building that he worked. I was proud to hold his badge in my hand and I was proud to display his badge in my home. Yet, I had the same badge and I kept it locked away. Why wasn’t I proud of myself?
The funny thing is, when I looked back on what I knew of my grandfather’s career, I had learned everything from a photo album he had kept. It contained various newspaper clippings that he had saved, some photos, and I heard a few stories from my mom about those items in return. I would see his photo up in a few fire stations around the city, but outside of that, I knew nothing of his time as a firefighter. I didn’t know of any stories. He didn’t’ talk about it. And then it hit me. I think it is very likely that he suffered the same as I. He worked during a time when PTSD was not something you discussed. If you suffered, you suffered alone. I am sure he saw a lot of horrible things in his career, yet I have no idea what those were. He had one picture of himself as a fire captain up in his house, beside the badge that I now have. It was located in the back tv room in his house. Not up front. Not up for everyone to see. A quiet homage. He didn’t carry reminders; he didn’t glorify it and he didn’t tell stories. He kept it to himself.
Is it possible that genetically my Papa and I both responded to trauma the same way by locking it out of our lives and moving on? He closed it all into a photo album to sit alone on a shelf in some closet, and I in a box in my dresser. I don’t suppose I’ll ever know what it was he carried around with him. Just as those will never understand what I carry around with me. But I do know one thing:
~PTSD doesn’t discriminate, but it does show that you are human~
I think the EMS schools need to fix one very important thing. They need to rethink how they train their recruits and graduates in the mental health game. I held back two students when they did their placements with me. They could easily rip through a medical protocol verbally with me, and it was clear they knew their toxicology or basic medical requirements. However, when it came to patient care , they forgot that they patients were human. They didn’t look at the patient, they just made choices that made sense in their textbook. They didn’t listen, they just thought. They didn’t understand the magnitude of making a mistake, or what power their choices had on a patient’s outcome. They had stars in their eyes about saving a life or being a hero, and coming home and bragging about the horrors of what they saw. They didn’t know what the effects of seeing trauma after trauma, and death after death can do to a person’s mental health. Students are coming into a service ready to take on the world, yet they haven’t even experienced a portion of the world yet. I should know. I was them. I thought I was prepared. Not one person ever sat me down and said, “hey kid, this is the effect this job can have on you, and here is what it could do you as a result, and here are some skills to help equip you better should it happen”. Not one person. We need to change that. We need to start preventive PTSD training. Why is this not out there?
Perhaps it is because there is no magic formula to prevent it, and there is a chance that you would still get PTSD no matter how hard you tried to avoid it. The reality is, if you are human, you SHOULD get some sort of PTSD if you spend your whole career in the EMS field. No one is immune to seeing horrible things day after day, multiple times a day. Soldiers, Police, Paramedics, Fire, Nurses , Doctors, and every other profession that falls into the umbrella need to hear that YOU ARE HUMAN!! YOU SHOULD GET PTSD!!! YOU SHOULD BE ABLE TO GET HELP FOR IT!! YOU ARE THE NORMAL ONES!
I’ve always been a sensitive soul, so perhaps I shouldn’t have been shocked when it crept into my life. What I do know, is that it does get better. What I do know, is that it takes time. What I do know, is that there is help out there if you are willing to put in the time. What I do know, is that I will never be the same person I was before I got it, but that doesn’t have to be a bad thing. It doesn’t have to define me.
So, I am getting that box out. I have so many memories of looking up at the photo frame of my papa in his uniform and his badge on his wall at his house. As a kid, I felt nothing but pride and wonderment at who and what he was. It is time for my kids to be able to look up at a wall in my house now and feel the same. I want them to know what Mama used to do. I want them to know that I worked my ass off to become a paramedic. I want them to know how proud I am at what I did during my time there. I want them to know that I helped and saved a lot of people. I want them to know that I saw things that defined why I am the protective mother I am today. I want them to know that I was hurt mentally by my career, and that I worked hard to get better. I want them to know that I didn’t ever give up, and that the choices they make in the future always come with risks. I wish them to never be naïve, but always be full of hope, and wish and plan for the best.
I finally figured out the solution to avoidance. The biggest mistake I made in all of my battle with PTSD was that in hoping to fix the problem I avoided anything and everything paramedic. I quit my job, I placed things in a box that reminded me of it, I avoided talking, thinking and hearing about anything related to paramedic, I avoided the news, and also avoiding paramedic friends. In doing so, I also placed every positive memory I had away in the box. I allowed darkness to win. I ceased to remember anything positive about it. The solution. I opened the box, and let positive memories in. I forced myself to remember everything good. I tried to lift the job up in a positive light again. I tried to remember what it was like when I first found out I got hired and what it was like putting on my uniform and going to my first real call. I remembered how much I loved all my friends I made along the way. How much I loved my training. How much I loved everything I did on the calls. How much I loved the feeling of helping someone, and the feeling of knowing you saved someone, or got to be there for someone in their last moments. You see, I had forgotten all that. It was clouded in negativity when I locked away the positive and assumed it was all just a dark hole if I opened it. After all this time, I realized it wasn’t junk. It was my treasure. I had just forgotten how to see it that way.
So, for all of you out there that are suffering from PTSD, don’t be afraid to open that box, it holds your elusive treasure. Positivity can be found, even if it is buried way down deep. You will find it. It is always there. Just start from the beginning and remember that first day of your career when you laced up your boots full of wonder, hope and excitement. You will find it. I just had to look at the lid of my box and
~Live in the moment~