Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: Have We Evolved to a Greater Understanding?

In recent weeks, our nation set aside a day to help raise awareness about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). As such, I am of the opinion that our society has indeed evolved — especially as it relates to the effects of PTSD, an invisible injury.  Those who suffer with PTSD, understand all too well how their lives are greatly altered.  That is if, the individual is even willing to accept the diagnosis.

When I was initially diagnosed with PTSD, I felt ashamed for having become ill.  As a law enforcement professional, I felt betrayed by my own mind.  It felt as if I had somehow failed at my job.  How could Superwoman become ill?  After all, I was trained to be tough.  It was drilled into me not to succumb to the emotion.  And being a woman in the field, I thought it was an offense to cry!  How dare I even consider showing any type of feelings while wearing the blue.  It would have been a sacrilege to desecrate the uniform and badge with my salty tears.

Yet despite my repeated attempts to deny the diagnosis, my mind began to slip into the dark abyss of depression.  And when the overwhelming sadness that infiltrated my being was mixed with anxiety, it made for a prescription of a complete alteration to my life.  As the illness silently crept into my being, it caused great destruction and not only from a psychological mindset, but from the physiological perspective too.  I suffered with avoidance issues, emotional detachment, exaggerated startle effect, flashbacks, fibromyalgia, heart palpitations, hyper-vigilance, inflammation, migraines, negative changes in beliefs, night sweats, outbursts of anger, reoccurring nightmares and stomach ailments.  These symptoms only added to my embarrassment at having become ill and my need to isolate from the rest of the world.  This once vibrant individual who looked forward to each new day, froze in fear at the thoughts of having to leave my home.  And when the agency that I served with labeled me as medically unable to perform my duties, the devastation to my psyche was complete.  If I was not fit for duty, then in my mind, I was no longer of use to the world.  I had in some way failed at my purpose to serve and protect.

For a very long time, I delved in the mindset of isolation.  Thinking that there were not many who would understand my plight.  How could anyone know how it felt to transform into someone I barely recognized.  On occasion, I would stand in the mirror reassuring myself it was still my image looking back.  And I often wondered, if only the wounds were visible.  Then perhaps, my family members, friends and the world would understand my plight.

In my tenure as a police officer, I recall several officers who committed suicide.  Although these wonderful individuals bore no visible signs of PTSD, their behaviors were indeed part of the dichotomy of the illness.  This is something I have only come to learn as a result of my own journey.

PTSD also affected every single relationship as well.  Even those closest to me had a hard time comprehending my descent from my former self.  I became more aloof.  I avoided attending events.  With my mindset, it was very hard to find the joy in life.  Let alone, explain to others how I was feeling.  Each time I attempted to do so, I heard the same response.  What about medications or therapy?  Or, just get over it!  Even one of my treating doctors added insult to injury by once saying, “PTSD is the only mental illness that originates from trauma.  This fact should make you feel better about yourself.”

If a treating psychologist thought this statement was one to help promote healing, then the doctor obviously had no real understanding or empathy for that matter.  It wasn’t until I began to journal about the PTSD and it’s effects on my life that I came to better understand all that was transpiring.  By writing down my feelings and thoughts, I began to see a pattern of behavior that was not positive in design — but rather, somewhat self-destructive and hindering to both my emotional and spiritual growth.

As I have journeyed on the road to healing, I have become acquainted with so many individuals who have been afflicted with PTSD.  Most are law enforcement officers, firefighters, emergency medical service personnel and recovery workers who served on 9/11 (and the post days of reclamation) at the World Trade Center, Pentagon and Flight 93 crash sites.  In meeting these amazing men and women, I have come to learn that I am not alone.  There are thousands of us who have individualized stories to share about how this once silent illness had permeated the beings of so many.  Their plight is my plight, as it is for millions of others who bear the weight of this illness and the stigma attached to it.

So in my heart, I feel it is very timely that there is a day set aside to advocate awareness about PTSD.  By doing so, the ignominy related to the illness may be better understood.  And perhaps someday, there will be no need to even set aside a day.  There will only be a deeper understanding and empathy for all those who have been affected by trauma.

If you are interested in learning more about PTSD, please visit the Voices of September 11th organization’s website: www.voicesofseptember11.org

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The Burden of Responsibility

You have given me a great responsibility: to stay close to you, to be worthy of you, and to exemplify what you are.” ~ Jimmy Carter

Over these past months, I have been afforded opportunities to take part in numerous newspaper and radio interviews.  All have pertained to the story of 9/11 and the post days of recovery.  These conversations enabled me to share my thoughts and voice my beliefs.  Additionally, they have allowed me to discuss the plight of the first responders, who continue to carry not only emotional scars, but physical illnesses as well.

During my most recent newspaper interview, the journalist asked if I had found any closure from the effects of the Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).  Without a moment’s hesitation, I politely replied, “Closure is a term too often used as it relates to trauma.  It is terminology I don’t quite comprehend.”  At my reply, the reporter seemed perplexed, so I elaborated.

The word “closure” is defined as: a feeling that an emotional or traumatic experience has been resolved.  Personally, I cannot find a way to resolve the events and aftermath of 9/11.  Any resolution may feel as if one is minimizing and forgetting the devastation that transpired.  Closure abandons the memories of lives lost and the brethren who bravely rose to the occasion.

In my years serving in law enforcement, I never once witnessed a parent’s ability to find closure after losing a child.  Nor have I ever heard a crime victim express a complete sense of solace after experiencing a horrific tragedy that left them emotionally and/or physically scarred.  The sorrow felt in the initial moments of loss permeated a part of them that could never be fully healed.  Instead, these victims adapted to live with the grief suffered. Some have even found a way to move forward by serving on behalf of others.  In their time of great despair, they journeyed and found a new sense of purpose.  They did not allow the tragedy to define them.

When I listen to the stories told by the surviving 9/11 emergency responders, I hear similar tales from one and all.  They describe the events of the day.  They share facts about where they were when they first heard the call to help.  They share the helplessness felt as the tragedy transpired.  And each relays the story with the same haunting tone and a stare that seems focused on a distant place and time.  These wonderful men and women carry battle scars that have not yet healed.  In the twelve years since that infamous day, approximately 1,300 responders and recovery workers have succumbed to illness.  With so many now gone, I am left with all too many unanswered questions.

Perhaps due to training and personal backgrounds, those who serve in law enforcement and the military perceive themselves to carry a greater burden of responsibility.  When appointed to the position, each swears an oath–one held sacred to the soul.  In time of great danger, we are the first to arrive at the scene and the last to leave.  Regardless of the situation or circumstances, we are required to muster courage and act in the best interest of those in need.  We are looked to not only for protection, but for answers to all of the burning questions.  The mindset is clear.  We are programmed to be the modern day warrior–prepared to defend, rescue, and recover.

Emergency responders are sometimes considered to be the tertiary (third tier) victims of a crime or tragedy.  These tertiary victims become another statistic of the collateral damage sustained.  In contemplating the long-term effects of 9/11, I often question whether the burden of responsibility was too much to bear.  Was what the responders witnessed too painful for even them to recall?  Had the remaining questions tainted their shattered hearts and broken their spirits of the will to sustain their own lives?

As a child, my dear dad often shared words of wisdom regarding his moral center and the duty to his fellow man.  He would read from the Bible and then express his interpretation of the parable.  Once, after he read the Ten Commandments, I lamented that I would never be able to remember all of the rules.  I was a mere child and not yet fully aware of God and what was expected of me. In a moment of reflection, Dad just looked at me and smiled.  He said, “If you only remember to never intentionally hurt another human being, then you are living up to the laws of God.”

In the paradox of the first responders rushing toward the burning buildings or the gaping hole of a landfill, they themselves fell victim to the tragic events of September 11, 2001.  They, along with the survivors and our nation, watched in horror as the events unfolded and all were momentarily rendered helpless to prevent, protect, and aid.

A former colleague, who was responsible for the collection of all evidence at the three crash sites, was the first person from my agency that I confided in about 9/11 and my concern that I was affected both psychologically and physiologically.  During that conversation, I inquired what his initial thoughts were when he arrived at the scenes.  He responded, “My immediate impression reflected words often heard while attending church services: Ashes to ashes and dust to dust.”

When I consider his words and the stories shared by fellow responders, I am convinced that those of us impacted suffer from the burden of responsibility. We have taken it upon ourselves to carry the encumbrance of all that should have been done.  Even though these thoughts of conjecture bare no fact, they have somehow embedded themselves into the already troubled minds and hearts of the responders.  But we were not alone on 9/11.  We were aided by countless civilians who rose up to safeguard others too.  Based on this awareness, it is my hope that there will soon be a therapeutic remedy to help eradicate the deep-seeded sorrow felt for not living up to our perceived burden of responsibility and the motto of “first do no harm.”

The Duty of the First Responder: To Protect and Serve

The Duty of the First Responder: To Protect and Serve

In the Line of Fire

In the early onset stages of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), flashbacks were a common occurrence in my daily life. They were a constant reminder of what I saw, what I heard and what I smelled. Any similar prop that presented itself caused the prompting of the distant memory to become the reality of the day. The past merged with the present and my mind became a tangled web of misunderstood messages and thoughts.

Over these many years since September 11, the flashbacks have decreased. Now their arrival is usually beset by some incident that resembles the carnage viewed on 9/11 at the Flight 93 crash site. These remembrances result because I am drawn to a story viewed on television or heard in the daily occurrences of life. One such incident took place this past week as I watched the tragic events at the Boston Marathon unfold. Like others, I was transfixed to the television and listened as every fact was presented by the newscasters.

As I watched the video of the explosion replay time and time again and heard the screams of the injured, my mind became less focused on the violent act and more drawn to the reaction of the individuals in the crowd.

What I saw was truly inspirational. Instead of running away from the epicenter of the incident, many ran toward the carnage that was now very visible to one and all. These first responders were not only those dressed in blue uniforms and wearing a badge — or the insignia of the emergency medical services — they were the everyday people participating in the once jubilant occasion of the marathon. They were the marathoners who had just triumphantly crossed over the finish line. They were the bystanders awaiting the arrival of a loved one. They were the volunteers who helped to organize the event. And they were the many faces who were once part of an enthusiastic crowd of on-lookers. Yet when they witnessed the tragic results of the terroristic acts, they did not give flight. Instead of fleeing the scene, they turned toward the danger and ran in the direction of the devastation to assist others. These amazing individuals moved in tandem with the police officers and other emergency responders who were there to render aid. In photo after photo published by the news agencies, there were innumerable people who displayed acts of heroism in response to the horrific events of the day.

A hero is defined as a person noted for a courageous act. And courage it is said, is not the absence of fear, but rather, the judgment that something is more important than the fright felt. By placing themselves in harm’s way, I view these brave men and women as heroes. For they committed selfless acts of valor and portrayed the traits of fidelity, bravery and integrity.

In the years since 9/11, our country has watched as one violent act after another is perpetrated against humanity. And each time, we have witnessed the devastation to human life. But as we all suffer from the effects of these tragedies, there are also positive themes that prevail time and again: the indomitable spirit of the citizenry of this country; the gentle hand of a stranger; and the willingness to reach down and uplift one another. With each tragic event, our nation has risen from the ashes because of fearless individuals like those who served at the Boston Marathon and in the days that followed.

Although these amazing individuals do not wear a badge, nor have they sworn an oath to serve and protect, they have served as bravely as any law enforcement officer and earned a well-deserved badge of service for their courageous acts. As a former law enforcement professional, I praise those who chose to respond in the best interest of mankind. And give thanks for their willingness to place themselves in the line of fire.

A Word about Heroism

A Word about Heroism