I looked at my freshly washed uniform as it lay crumpled in a careless pile on the floor of my bedroom below the foot of the bed. The vibrant yellow of the fluorescent button shirt reads the haunted words, paramedic, across the back in large reflective lettering. I feel a pit in my stomach begin to grow as I think about what time I need to set my alarm to wake up tomorrow for work. It was already getting late, and in about six hours I needed to wake up and bring myself to put that uniform on, and head in for yet another shift. Feeling the weight getting heavier on my already slumped shoulders, I walk over to the fridge, and grab another cold cider. As I walk past the bathroom mirror, I stop for a moment and look at the sad reflection staring back at me. I look into the strangers swollen red eyes as I watch tears begin to stream down her face.
How did I get here?
I went through two years and countless hours of studying to prepare myself to work as a paramedic. In 2016, after I finally completed the Paramedic Program, I got hired with the service I was wanting to work for.
It was a dream come true.
I quickly came to find out that no one and nothing can actually prepare you for what the job really entails.
I was hired at the young age of 20 years old. I jumped into unchartered waters head first with excitement the first day I put my uniform on. Over the years, I thought I was treading water, but I was actually beginning to sink. I continued to sink for four years whilst alongside my friends, family and coworkers, who suspected nothing. I thought how I felt was normal, and everyone else felt it too. After all, the terror we see is in the fine print of the job, right? And so, I ignored all the warning signs.
I ignored the nightmares, the sadness, the anger, the drinking, the food binges, the anxiety, and the countless “sick days”. I ignored myself. I was drowning for a long time, and I had no idea.
It took four years of neglect of myself and my emotions to finally hit the bottom of the ocean. I was then forced off the road by WSIB after undergoing psychological evaluation. I was diagnosed with PTSD and anxiety. I was initially very angry and ashamed, but for the first time in four years, I was finally able to come up for air.
“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, more unashamed conversation.” -Glenn Close
How did I get here?
I wasn’t able to understand why I felt the way I did, and how I ended up there in the first place. It took some time and healing for me to see that what police, fire, EMS, nurses and other healthcare providers see are not things that any human should ever become accustomed or numb to.
No one was able to teach me how to look into the weeping eyes of a confused elderly woman struggling to walk with her cane, and tell her that her husband is dead.
No one could prepare me to hear the screams of a family falling to their knees as I carried their lifeless child down the stairs.
No one could teach me how to hold the hand of someone who asks me, “Am I going to die?”, and I look into their eyes, and lie.
It is impossible to prepare for the true realities the job entails, but that is okay. It is tough and will be draining at times, but if you properly take care of yourself, it will not consume you, like it did me. If you allow yourself to have human emotions and seek help when you need it, you can avoid having that moment when you look into the mirror at your unrecognizable reflection and you ask yourself, “how did I get here?”
It is okay to not be okay
I felt shame from the stigma of needing to not be emotionally impacted by any call I did at work. And so, I ignored my thoughts and suppressed my feelings, because that was the expectation that was resting heavily on my shoulders. But now I know, it is okay to not be okay. It is not weakness, but human.
I hid it from everyone that I was off work and had been diagnosed with PTSD. I hid it for months, until I one day, somehow, built the courage to stop showering my shame with secrecy, which was only feeding the stigma. I wrote a blog confessing my truth, and that was when I stopped hiding. This was the first integral step of my healing.
“If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgement. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.” -Brené Brown
The reality is, as soon as you put that uniform on, you are jumping into unpredictable waters. Some days you’ll be swimming, but others, you will be sinking. I ignored the heavy weight of suppressed thoughts and emotions, and over time I was eventually pulled under the crashing waves, and I started to drown. It was my ignoring that eventually became my undoing.
It’s important to listen to your mind and body, allow yourself to rest, and recognize when you need to come up for air.
It is not weakness to feel your emotions.
It is not weakness to reach out to someone when you feel you need to.
It is not shameful to be human.