‘You have to fight back’ against PTSD: A captain’s journey of recovery
Therapy, medication and support helped me win the battled against PTSD and find hope again
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It was Oct. 6, 2014, at Station 6.
I woke up around 04:30 a.m. I made a pot of coffee and finished our run reports from the past 48 hours. I put my bed linens away and emptied the dishwasher.
My relief showed up around 07:30 a.m.
I took my turnouts, helmet and SCBA mask off Engine 6 and stowed them in my turnout locker. I cleaned up the rest of my room/captain’s office, walked through the station and said the usual to my crew, “Have a good four-day, and see ya next tour.”
I climbed into my car and drove out of the station parking lot with a smile on my face, as I just finished working a busy 106 out of 120 hours and was looking forward to going home.
The smile quickly disappeared.
You can do this, Christy, you can get home without crying.
I never used to cry. Ever. Now I cry all the time.
Six months ago, when dispatch rang down our engine for a call, I eagerly anticipated the run. But by this point, when the tones when off, my body exploded into a panic attack. My ability to sleep mostly disappeared. The few hours here and there that I was able to sleep, I would wake up screaming from a nightmare of not being able to save someone. I was racked with anxiety. My fuse was short, and I could be irrational. A video tape of horrible calls played in a constant loop in my head.
What in the hell is happening to me?
As I drove further toward home, the sadness came … and then the tears. I sobbed so hard I could barely see the road.
I can’t take this anymore. I cannot take this insanity in my head, and I cannot tell anyone that I can’t handle my job anymore.
I started looking for a tree.
I need to end this without anyone finding out how weak I am. Even if I don’t die and instead end up in a coma, I can at least take a break without having to tell work I am too weak to do my job.
At the last moment, I realized killing myself would only make everyone’s life worse, not better. I decided I had to take time off of work and deal with this or else I really was going to kill myself. I had been crippled by shame from becoming unable to do my job that I loved, that I was good at, and that showed the world I was tough and strong.
This was PTSD.
‘My department had never talked about PTSD’
PTSD took over every aspect of my life. Anxiety, waking up screaming from nightmares, crying, anger, isolation and bad calls from the past 25 years played in my head over and over. It was like being locked in a movie theater where a horror film is playing and the volume is turned all the way up and you cannot close your eyes. I didn’t know who I was anymore. PTSD is like a Chinese finger trap – the harder you pull to get out of them, the tighter the grip they have on you. You cannot fix PTSD. You must heal from it.
The next day, I turned in my workers’ comp paperwork, talked with the chief and told him I will be back. I cried in his office while he just looked at me with bewilderment. My department had never talked about PTSD. We had no peer support team or knew of any resources.
Shortly after I left and my permanent status on Telestaff changed to Sick Leave, I received phone calls and texts with words of concern and care from many of my brothers and sisters. I thanked every one of them, but I couldn’t talk. I didn’t really know what was happening and the overwhelming sense of shame paralyzed me.
Workers’ comp quickly sent me a letter saying they had 90 days to accept or deny my claim. So I was on my own for 90 days, which turned into 180 days because at the 90 mark, my claim was denied as a “formality,” dragging out the process.
I hired a lawyer to help me navigate a system that would prefer me to just go away. I wonder how many of us commit suicide waiting for help. I was fortunate I had savings tucked away that I could tap into.
‘I had been sure I was the only one’
I went to therapy every week, paying out of my own pocket. I went to a second therapist that specialized in Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) and paid out of pocket for that. Therapists urged me to go on medication. I said absolutely not.
I will never use a crutch. I am strong enough to do this on my own.
I didn’t want to become one of those 5150 patients we saw all the time. I started drinking alcohol as that was the only way I could lower the volume and dim the brightness in my head. I had a clue that this became a problem when I thought to myself that I need to buy some cheaper booze because drinking straight out of an $80 bottle of scotch is a waste of money and good scotch. I’d have an evening drink, which had been normal for me, but when my wife would head into another room, I would quietly chug right out of the bottle.
Three months after I had left work, I attended the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat (WCPR) for first responders. For the first time since my body and brain turned into a constant state of panic, I didn’t feel alone. I had so much love and support at home, but something was missing. At WCPR, I found 20 other people who had gone through exactly what I was going through. I had been sure I was the only one. WCPR also taught me tools to use when I started drowning in anxiety or fell back into that dark hole that robbed me of feeling safe and ok.
I finished the six-day retreat and came home feeling not so alone and had a spark of hope. That’s one thing PTSD does to you, it steals any glimmer of hope inside of you. But the spark was back.
‘Those horrible calls that played in my head – they stopped’
In March 2015, six months after I filed my paperwork, my workers’ comp claim was finally accepted. I felt extraordinary relief.
Despite putting that hurdle behind me, I started to circle the drain again. The tools I had learned only went so far. The nightmares continued, the thoughts of bad calls continued to play and the feelings of worthlessness would begin to choke me more often.
Realizing I had nothing to lose, I finally gave in to taking antidepressants. I found an amazing psychiatrist but had to again pay out of pocket, as she was not a workers’ comp doctor. But I wanted quality over free.
Once on the antidepressants, those scenes of horrible calls that played over and over in my head – they stopped. I still cried but not nearly as much.
Why didn’t I do this a long time ago?
PTSD changes the actual shape of your brain and the chemicals your brain produces. PTSD is a physiological injury, no different than diabetes or cancer. The medication works to bring the chemicals in your brain back to normal.
‘Right now, you must sleep’
Sleep. Sleep is incredibly elusive to the first responder. Sleep is one of the most important aspects to health, including mental health. Sleep is when your body and brain repair. You cannot expect to get better from PTSD if you don’t get sleep.
During my first appointment with my psychiatrist, she said to me, “The most important thing right now is you get some sleep. Even if you get addicted to sleep medication, we will deal with that later, but right now, you must sleep.”
I tried a bunch of different medications and found a combination that worked well putting me to sleep but made me groggy during the day. I grew frustrated at my lack of energy and constantly had to remind myself that it was OK to feel that way.
I am healing right now. That is my priority. It’s no different from having to sit in a chair all day to keep a broken leg elevated.
‘You have to fight back’
PTSD takes control over you and tells you that you are worthless. It tells you that your family and friends and fellow firefighters would be better off without you. It steals any hope you once had.
You have to fight back. You have to tell yourself you are worthy, even if you do not believe it. You have to change the thoughts in your mind in order to change your life. That is where the hard work is. You must look straight at your shame and tell it that PTSD is a physiological injury similar to being hit in the head with a baseball bat. PTSD is not a weakness. PTSD shows up on a brain scan just like a broken leg shows up on an X-ray.
If you are suffering, please get help. You will get better with help. Post-traumatic growth can happen through PTSD. You actually can become happier and more resilient than you ever were before.
I almost killed myself twice. I was engulfed in that deep, dark place that told me the only way out was to end it all. I cannot tell you how wrong I was. I have never been happier, stronger, a better spouse, a better friend and as hopeful than ever before.
You can come out the other side, I promise.
Editor’s note: Suicide is preventable. If you are feeling suicidal, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline immediately 1-800-273-8255 or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org to chat with a counselor.