I have been a first responder for almost ten years. I am a survivor of workplace sexual assault. I have been exposed to several traumatic scenes while on duty.
I was first diagnosed with PTSD in the fall of 2013. It stemmed mainly from two specific traumatic experiences that occurred on shift. I was struggling for a long time emotionally. Most of the time I would struggle in silence. I had been abusing alcohol for most of that time. Getting help for PTSD was challenging, and seemed like a constant struggle. It was either a battle with the city or with the Workers Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB), but nobody had the solution. It often felt like I was caught in between and left alone to try to put the pieces together. Alcohol wasn’t enough anymore and I eventually turned to drugs to cope with my pain. I am not what you would think a typical addict looks like. I kept my job, my house, my car and I had a savings account. But I had a very dark secret that very few knew. This was my secret:
6AM. I wake up from sleeping on my couch. My head is pounding and my stomach is unsettled. I go to the bathroom to throw up. Now I feel a little better so I grab a drink. I sit back down on the couch and look at my calendar and realize I have an appointment to get to, a lunch to attend and a few phone calls to make. I look around the room and notice how messy it is. I go to the kitchen and remember I didn’t get groceries so I have no food. I grab another drink. I’m exhausted already. I turn on the TV and then something would trigger me and I would get a flashback. I am now emotionally feeling that traumatic event all over again. I pour another drink. Now I start to feel depressed and I cancel my appointment. I lie back down and pass out for a few hours.
9AM. I get up again. I’m frustrated and upset because I can’t seem to get anything done. My stomach is still unsettled and my head is still aching. My thoughts get cluttered with feelings of being overwhelmed with what I have to get done. I feel depressed and hopeless. As my thoughts get worse, I start thinking about how I can make myself feel better. I convince myself I need drugs. If I use today I can get this stuff done and forget about everything else bothering me. And maybe, if I use a little less this time, the crash won’t be as bad. I don’t want to use, but I want to feel better and forget everything that is causing me pain. The temporary pain relief outweighed the impending crash afterwards.
My text message alert goes off. It’s a friend who just happens to reach out and check in with how I was doing. Sometimes, I would lie and tell them everything was okay or sometimes I would tell them exactly how I was feeling and what I wanted to do. It didn’t seem to matter either way because they wouldn’t know what to say. I would feel lost and alone. Not knowing what to say or making me feel guilty about not getting over it was painful. After a while, I just stopped responding.
Now I’m feeling horrible so I decide to cancel my lunch plans. I get a little grief for canceling, but I just make up any excuse I have to get out of it. The next call I make is to my dealer.
I head out to meet him and pick up my drugs. I have a sense of relief already that very soon I will be feeling better. I get home as quick as I can. I park inside my garage so nobody will know if I’m home or not. I take a hit and instantly feel better. I’m not tired anymore, I’m not thinking about the past and I have tons of energy. I start to clean up my house and get things done. I clean myself up with a nice long shower and put on clean clothes. If my phone would ring I wouldn’t answer it. I didn’t want to make anyone suspicious of what I was doing. While the high lasted, for that brief period of time, I actually felt happy. Depending on how much I took, my high would last for a few hours.
4PM. I’m starting to come down off my high. I’m starting to feel the emotional and physical pain again. I feel worse than I did this morning. Much worse. This was my hell. I often contemplated suicide at this point. Not only did I have the guilt of using again, but all the thoughts and emotions returned and so did the physical pain. I wanted to die. Whatever else I had to do that day did not get done. A few times I reached out to a friend for support. But something always seemed to get in the way. My friends were busy and I hated bothering them when really I didn’t know what to say. I just needed support and I didn’t know how to ask for it. After being turned down a few times when I needed a friend, I stopped asking. It hurt a lot less to not ask then it did to get rejected. I was so tired and I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. I passed out for a few hours, usually lying right on the floor.
9PM. I get up off the floor and try to find something to eat. I am still so exhausted and it feels like I’m moving in slow motion. I feel emotionally numb. I grab a drink and watch some TV. I start to doze off around midnight. I make sure to set my alarm because I have to work in the morning. Even though I know I will already be awake when it goes off.
3AM. I wake up drenched in sweat. I had the same nightmare again. I’m trembling in fear from the images I had just relived. I’m afraid to close my eyes again so I just lie there and wait until my clock hits 5AM. I get up and start getting ready for work. I am exhausted. I need to wake up. So I take an extra long shower. I didn’t want to go in, but I knew I had to put on my brave face and head into work.
When I got into work everyone always commented on how tired I looked but that was usually it. I hated it when I would get lectured for being out all night parting. I wanted to scream anytime I heard that. I would just silently say to myself…if you only knew. But nobody ever knew what I was really dealing with.
Active Recovery (Day 42)
It’s now Day 42 in my clean time. It feels like I’m learning how to live again. I make sure to keep myself busy, but I allow myself to cancel any plans if I’m not feeling up to it for any reason. I’ve also learned that nobody can always be there for you, no matter what they tell you. It just can’t happen. I needed to learn to depend on myself over anyone else. I needed to have faith and have a plan for when things went bad.
I have also realized that friends are great, but they can’t offer me the support I need to recover because they don’t know what its like to have these feelings. They haven’t traveled this path of darkness. The best support I have found is other addicts. Specifically, other first responders who are also recovering addicts/alcoholics.
Getting treatment for PTSD is also imperative for my recovery. The more I can stop reliving the traumatic events from the past, the more I can focus on living clean. EMDR seems to be the most effective treatment I have found. It allows you to return mentally to the specific traumatic events and reprocess your thoughts. But it takes a few sessions before you start to notice any difference. Later on, you might be triggered by something and think about the event but it doesn’t bother you the same. I have found this type of treatment allows you to let go of the emotions attached to the trauma without having to explain the whole situation to someone who wasn’t there.
I’m learning to live one day at a time. I can make plans for weeks ahead, but when the day comes if I don’t feel up to it I cancel. I have allowed myself to do this so I don’t feel overwhelmed. The minute I wake up I open my daily reading. The book is called Just for Today and each day of the year it has a new message for recovery. That message becomes the focus of my day. I found I usually have a hard time remembering it if I start to feel stressed so I take a picture of the message so I always have it on my phone. The next day I repeat the same process but with a new message.
I made a list of 5 people who can help me get out of a struggling moment. Any one of these people would know the right thing to say or to ask me. I have found this to be the most important part of my recovery. I know how I felt the first time I relapsed and what I did wrong, therefore putting these steps in place is imperative for me. I have also made a list of things to do when I feel an urge coming on. I go to the list and decide what I can do right now to help me. At the bottom of the list are the names of those 5 people to call if no other item seems to work. That way I’m not depending on others but keeping them on hand as a last resort.
My life was surrounded by negativity, disappointment and pain. This was caused not only by my behaviours and thoughts, but by friends, family and work. The toughest thing in the world to do was to forgive. Not to forget, but forgive and let go of that pain. It’s still a work in process but I believe it’s an important step in recovery.
I have joined as many groups as I can to listen to advice from other recovering addicts. I have made this a part of my life. This not only includes going to meetings, but joining Facebook pages and websites specifically for PTSD or addictions. That way every part of my life has reminders in it. It doesn’t mean I have to participate, but it allows me to know and remember I’m not the only one who is struggling and there are people out there that really can offer support. I am still fresh in my new recovery, but I’m learning how to survive and how to endure life.