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

Lasting Impressions

In recent days, I had the occasion to return to Shanksville, Pennsylvania, to attend a first responders meeting with representatives from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Initially, I was quite apprehensive about doing so. For more than a week, I changed my mind several times and even sought the counsel of family members, friends and a trusted doctor. With each hedge of a decision, I found myself increasingly more divided. In moments of optimism, I felt fearless in my need to resolve the lingering issues still trapped within. On a pessimistic day, I retreated to the safety of isolation. There among my thoughts, I felt secure — a hermit hibernating in her proverbial cave. However, with each hesitating thought, came the whispers of my inner voice that beckoned me to find the courage to participate in the gathering. If I could convince myself to do so, perhaps some lingering questions would be answered and residual emotions released.

On the morning of the forum, I googled the directions and set off to the great unknown. Driving the first leg of my journey, I felt the mounting anxiety stir. By the time I traveled off the main highway onto the country roads, the panic became almost immobilizing. Visions from the past flickered across the pathway of my mind. Initially, I saw the faint image of a Pennsylvania State Police vehicle and then a row of buses making their way behind the marked patrol car. Within seconds, my memory recalled the uniformed troopers lined along the road, standing at point.  They did so as a means of honoring those who perished aboard Flight 93 and those now returning to pay respect to their loved ones.

As past memories merged with the present moments, I realized I had once again regressed to the post-9/11 days. The emotions so long suppressed rose from the depths of my soul and caused me to pull off the road. Although the scenery looked unfamiliar, it simultaneously seemed eerily known to me. During those few minutes of confusion, I was unaware of my surroundings. Then I became cognizant that the terrain I drove upon was traveled almost 12 years prior, to help escort surviving family members to the boundaries of the Flight 93 crash site. There among the rolling hills, the pastures and quaint farms, a procession of vehicles had inched toward the travesty of another type of field. In this flashback, all of my senses were heightened amid an outpouring of emotion. When finally I was able to regain my composure, I felt the stress begin to ease. And soon felt as if a tremendous burden had been lifted from my being.

In traveling the route of long ago, the journey had provided some benefit. What I realized in that quintessential moment is that, on 9/11 and in the time afterward, I had been required to be stoic. I feigned strength in order to perform my duties and fulfill my responsibilities to those most in need. Although I had put on a convincing facade, deep inside of me dwelled the heartbroken woman in need of expressing her sorrow. The retracing of past images had allowed for my psyche to release the sentiment once frozen in time. When I returned home later that day, my weary mind gave in to the sadness and I wept over the recollections locked inside. In the days following my revelation, I allowed myself to grieve and forgive. By doing so, the lasting impressions that once haunted me lost their hold on my heart, my mind and my soul.

Healing Touches: The Hug Theory

“Too often we underestimate the power of a touch,
a smile, a kind word, a listening ear, an honest compliment,
or the smallest act of caring,
all of which have the potential to turn a life around.”
— Dr. Leo F. Buscaglia

A Goodnight Hug. Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). Pastel On Brown Paper.

A Goodnight Hug. Mary Cassatt (1844-1926). Pastel On Brown Paper.

During a recent radio interview, the show’s host asked me a final question relating to the effects of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder on my life. She queried, “What do you think helped you most to heal from the PTSD?”

Without a moment’s hesitation I responded, “human touch.” The response was so automatic it actually surprised me, just as it did the radio announcer. Yet when I think about all of the medications I’ve taken and therapies I’ve undergone to try and abate the PTSD symptoms and ancillary illnesses, I am amazed at how the touch of a loved one seems to do more to help ease the emotional and physical pain than any other remedy.

Over these many years since I was first diagnosed with the affliction, I have experienced my share of negative responses to situations. Many are spurred by a violent event which caused the hidden memories in my mind to reemerge. The “props,” as my doctor calls them, are the elements of an incident that bare a similarity to the episode that initially caused the trauma. In my case, it was Sept. 11, 2001 at the Flight 93 crash site. There, along with other representatives from the law enforcement profession, I first stepped onto that hallowed field. As I looked out across the barren wasteland of that landfill, I viewed pieces of objects that were once a part of the plane. In those initial moments of response, my heart broke and my mind frayed into scattered pieces of the whole. Over time, the effects of the trauma became embedded in my psyche and soon it seemed that the PTSD overcame my entire being. And, all too soon, the physiological and psychological aftermath was undeniable.

In the years that followed the diagnosis of the illness, there appears to be only one element that gives me complete solace. In the middle of some foreboding or dark memory that escapes from the passages of my mind, a touch or a hug from loved ones has immediately brought me back to the present time. The pain and sorrow dissipate with the warmth of human contact that reminds me all is well. Contained within several chapters of my book, In The Shadow Of A Badge, are examples of moments when a gentle touch brought me back to reality. I wrote about how in the midst of one particularly grim flashback, my granddaughter’s soothing hands ended the terrible remembrances of the tragic events of 9/11 and the field that haunted me instantly disappeared. The warm touch of humanity prevailed over the distant memory that tore at my heart and obstructed my ability to see past the anguish.

Since the radio interview, I had the occasion to talk with others who have been affected by PTSD. During each conversation, the individual has related the same thoughts about healing touches. So in my experiences, a hug can do more to quiet the mind and uplift the spirit than any other treatment administered. If these reflections are not just a theory and a hug is indeed a therapeutic method of healing, it is my hope that others who suffer from PTSD will find some comfort through the soothing caresses of their family and friends. Perhaps then, they too will find a way to mollify their despair.

The Face Of PTSD

On May 30th, I will be traveling to New York City to participate in “The First Responders Walk Up Broadway” parade. The purpose of this event is to pay respect to all of those who responded on 9/11 and served at the World Trade Center, the Pentagon and the Flight 93 sites. These responders sacrificed their lives to work tirelessly to rescue the injured, secure the sites, recover the remains of those lost and restore order to all of our lives. Over the days, months and years of work completed, they not only continued to put their lives on the line, but opened their hearts to their fellow responders and the many families who lost their loved ones on that fateful day.

Over ten years of memories, have caused me to remain silent and lose my voice. Over ten years of pain and sorrow have isolated me from those whom I once served with in the law enforcement profession. I have waited for the opportunity to once again stand tall and proud and not be ashamed of becoming ill.

Now, in this time of a decade past, I have learned I do not stand alone. I stand shoulder to shoulder with the other responders who have lost their lives or live with the multitude of diseases which destroyed their once powerful bodies and brilliant minds. I stand side-by-side with the others who remain on this earth. I embrace the chance to shake their hands and welcome them as my friends. Each of us has shared a journey which is not complete. Yet, each of us lives in the full understanding of what we have left behind. We not only lost our colleagues in the pits of the smoldering towers, in the burning building of the Pentagon, and on a barren field, but we have lost them to the pain and suffering of the dreaded illnesses which have afflicted all too many.

In memory of those lost and in keeping with those left behind, I now hold my head up high to be counted as one of the walking wounded who comprehends the burden carried. I suffer with the invisible trauma which I carry within the recesses of body, mind and soul. I am the face of PTSD.

On this day, I give thanks to the coordinators of this wonderful event. You are to be commended for your efforts in shedding some light on the plight of the responders who served on 9/11, who lost their lives, who were left behind and those who still suffer from the impact of that September day.

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FROZEN MEMORIES

In the early stages of the onset of the 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 which presented itself to me caused the prompting of a frozen memory to become the reality of the day. The past merged with the present and my mind became a tangled web of misunderstood messages, thoughts and (on occasion) ill behaviors too.

Over these many years, the flashbacks have decreased. Now their arrival is usually beset by some prop which resembles past days walking the field and watching all which resulted from 9/11, and post days as I watched over those who suffered most. Yet there are times when the remembrances result because I am inadvertently drawn to something viewed on television or heard in the every day doings of life. One such incident took place last evening as I watched the ending of a movie titled, “Unstoppable.” The storyline is based on a true story. In short, the movie tells the tale of two men who risk their lives to help stop a train which is on the fast track to destruction. Their need to help their fellow man outweighs their fear of imminent death.

Now, I usually try to avoid watching any type of movie or television program which may possibly prompt a negative memory. I abhor any violent programming and tend to prefer the comedies and romances which allow me to dream. But, as I watched the last few scenes of this particular movie, my mind was immediately transferred to the image of the passengers and crew members aboard Flight 93 and the remnants of the crash site. My thoughts focused on what must have gone through their minds in those last moments as they made their choice to help save humanity. I kept hearing the word “heroism” across the whispers of my ear. I felt the mixed emotions of pride and pain for these heroic individuals. And in the midst of these feelings, came a sense of helplessness as well. I felt somehow responsible for not having been able to aid them in some way. After all, I was a law enforcement professional and responsible to serve and protect. And on that fateful day in our history, I fear I failed to do so. If this is the deep-seeded feeling which still lies dormant in the dark abyss of my mind, I pray for a reprieve from the distant memories to come soon and set my mind in motion to heal.

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HEAVEN CALLING

When first I wrote the initial two chapters of my book, I did so in response to the deep-seeded fear dwelling inside my soul. It lived there as if it had a mind of its’ own and a heart beat which breathed life into too. The fear I was feeling was an automatic response to my declining health. I feared losing all of the details of 9/11 and the post days. If I forgot these important facts, who would then know about the angelic visitation. As the effects of the Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the depression set in, the anxiety flared and my mind became a convoluted version of its’ own design. My mind now seemed to reflect the image of a complex puzzle with the many pieces scattered across the landscape of my once finely tuned mind. I was afraid of all which was taking place and felt as if the real me no longer existed. I had lost control of the issues surrounding me. So, in order to preserve the story of 9/11 and the Angels who presented themselves at the Flight 93 crash site, I removed myself from the pain and authored the pages about the celestial beings. These two chapters were written in 2002 and it would take another eight years to complete the entire manuscript.

 

Heaven-CallingWhen my mind began to open in memory of the tale, the many pieces once fractured began to realign and allowed for the distant memories once frozen in time to retrace and enter the present moments. With this healing, came the realization of the importance of telling my story.

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