Tag Archives: ptsd

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My Daughter Saved My Life – Jessie Gill

My daughter saved my life when I was 15.

The thread was cobalt blue, and after I finished, I admired my work. At only thirteen, my embroidery was sloppy, but pride still swirled in my gut. The pride stemmed from accomplishment and mastery. Not a mastery of sewing skills, but as I stitched the letters into the bottom of my foot, I had full control over my pain. Self-mutilation is seen frequently in adolescents suffering from PTSD.

I endured undiagnosed PTSD for most of my life. It’s a condition my brain first picked up after a severe burn when I was only two years old. It’s not the burn that caused PTSD, but it was the care of the burn in the weeks that followed. Twice daily, my wound had to be scoured until it bled. The excruciating pain made the experience traumatic. My two-year-old mind only saw torture. Three decades later, the physical scars are barely noticeable, but the experience left an indelible mark on my brain that affected my life dramatically.

In the early 1980’s, doctors didn’t believe the effects of trauma lingered in children so young. PTSD was an adult condition, not diagnosed in kids. In fact, doctors assured my parents I wouldn’t remember anything. And that’s true, I remember almost nothing. But what medicine didn’t realize then, is that trauma actually alters the brain. The physiological effects of PTSD remained whether I remembered the incident or not.

Growing up in a suburban home, my devoted parents assumed I was just a clingy, quiet, and odd little kid who was sick often, dreaded school, and was a bit of a loner. When I entered adolescence, my brain went haywire. That’s expected in teenage development. Teenagers have a comparatively high amount of excitability neurotransmitters in their brains. Most teens already have poor impulse control, anxiety, and mood swings – layering PTSD on top of adolescent angst can be dangerous. When adolescence hit, a tsunami of teenage rebellion washed over my life. Intrusive thoughts and poor impulse control became debilitating.

I discovered alcohol at thirteen and loved it. Drinking drowned out my internal anxiety – alcohol could muffle the constant thoughts that wouldn’t slow on their own. Fortunately, I didn’t have access to much alcohol. That probably saved me from alcoholism, but still, I searched for other ways to alter my mind. Friends told me to try cold medicine to get high. In the 1990’s, I could pick up a pocket full of pills at the pharmacy without ID. When I was intoxicated, I became a different person. I felt vibrant and alive – my haunting unease dissipated. I ached to experiment with anything that could make me feel alive.
It doesn’t matter how perfect one’s life might seem, everyone is at risk for PTSD and it can happen at any moment. One of the worst parts is that no one realizes they suffer from this condition until well after the trauma has passed – millions remain undiagnosed. As a teenager, I desperately needed treatment, but I didn’t realize it. I’d felt like this for my entire life, so I didn’t believe there was anything wrong with me. I’m just brave, I thought. I couldn’t comprehend the differences between bravery and impulse control.

Despite being a middle-class, white child of privilege in a family full of love, my life wound dangerously close to a perilous path. Until I was fifteen. Then, something happened that completely altered the course of my life.

I got pregnant and I was brow-drenchingly afraid. The panic quickly moved past real experience and transformed into numbness. For me, disassociation feels a lot like waking up while sleepwalking. Waking up in the middle of a sleep-walk is disorienting – for a moment I can’t tell if I’m dreaming or if it’s real. Feelings of disassociation are similar, but disassociation is protective. Disassociating makes intolerable fear and pain livable. It allows humanity to survive in overwhelmingly stressful conditions.
Being pregnant at fifteen was overwhelming. How could I take care of a baby? My domestic skills were limited to embroidering my feet. I spent days sitting on the back patio, completely numb and frozen. The numbness hovered for my entire pregnancy, but not for a moment was I abandoned or alone. My worried parents stayed by my side. When I decided to keep my baby, my parents imagined I’d returned to my rebellious teen life and that they’d need to raise my baby as their own. They were willing and prepared to do so, but thankfully pregnancy transformed me.
As a kid, I always struggled with envisioning the future. It’s a common observation in PTSD. My mind is so busy scanning the environment and planning for immediate catastrophe that it overlooks more distant possibilities, but something happened when I was pregnant. I began to dream of a future – my daughter’s future and it looked beautiful.

Having a baby didn’t heal my PTSD, it was a very long journey to diagnosis and treatment. But the love and devotion I developed for that tiny human grounded me in the real world. It pulled me out of a life of numbness and allowed me to dream. Dreaming allowed me to plan.
My mom often says that my daughter saved my life and she’s probably right. I can only wonder where I would have ended up if I hadn’t encountered the intense motivation to change. But, it wasn’t just my daughter. It was my parents especially. They gave me the strength to move forward whenever I was frozen. They caught me whenever I fell. And they boosted me whenever I couldn’t carry myself any longer. Most importantly, my mom and dad taught me to love my children unconditionally. For their love, I am blessed and grateful.

It’s twenty years into the future now, and I can say with certainty – our lives are beautiful. My twenty-year-old daughter is successful, kind, and exceptionally intelligent. She is my constant inspiration. I’m glad to say that from age fifteen on, cold medicine was for colds and sewing was for baby blankets.

IMG_1660Jessie Gill, RN is a cannabis nurse and writer with a background in holistic health and hospice. After suffering a spinal injury, she reluctantly became a medical marijuana patient then quickly transitioned into an advocate. Her site, MarijuanaMommy.com combines science with personal insight to educate and combat the stigma against marijuana users. She’s been featured on Viceland and bylines include GoodHousekeeping, Cosmopolitan, MSN, and more.

Jessie can be found on her blog, Facebook and Twitter.

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Stigma Fighters: Amy Oestreicher

PTSD: The Illness I Couldn’t See

I grew up thinking an “illness” was either fever or croup. Illness was a stuffy nose – a sick-day, an excuse to miss a day of school. At 18 years old, “illness” took on an entirely different meaning. Illness meant waking up from a coma, learning that my stomach exploded, I had no digestive system, and I was to be stabilized with IV nutrition until surgeons could figure out how to put me back together again. Illness meant a life forever out of my control and a body I didn’t recognize.
What happened to me physically had no formal diagnosis. I had ostomy bags and gastrointestinal issues, but I didn’t have Crohn’s disease. Doctors were fighting to keep me alive, but I had no terminal illness. There was so much damage done to my esophagus that it had to be surgically diverted, but I was never bulimic. I didn’t fit into any category. Suddenly, I was just “ill”.
I became surgical guinea pig, subject to medical procedures, tests and interventions, as devoted medical staff put hours into reconstructing and reconstructing me, determined to give me a digestive system and a functional life.
I eagerly awaited the day I’d be functional once again – the day I was finally “fixed” and back to normal. Once I was all physically put together, I’d be eating, drinking, walking, and feeling just like myself again.
Right?
Not completely.

I desperately dreamed about the day I’d be discharged from the hospital. I’d be happy, healthy and would finally know who I was again. I’d feel real. I’d feel human. From there, I could do anything.
Reality Sets In
However, after 27 surgeries and six years unable to eat or drink, I learned that the body doesn’t heal all at instant. Stitches had to heal one by one. Neuropathic nerves grew back one millimeter a month. Learning to talk again took weeks. Learning to walk again took months. My skin’s yellowish glow from the IV nutrition I was sustained on took years to fade. Not only was there no “quick fix” to healing, there was no “permanent fix” either. Wounds reopened, I became accustomed to new “openings” in my body leaking at any given moment. I learned that the body is delicate, precious, but incredibly strong.

My body never went back to normal. With no other alternative, I learned how to accommodate it and embrace it for the amazing things its extraordinary resilience.
I was shocked and saddened that I could never get my old, unwounded body back. But what really startled me was realizing what had happened to my mind.
PTSD. I had never heard those letters put together before. I knew what “trauma” was, but I didn’t know it could cause so much internal dis-ease and dis-order – illness that I couldn’t see. But that was the biggest shock to me – waking up in a new body and a new mind, troubled by Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Waking up to Dis-Order
Not only had I woken up in a new body, I now had a mind troubled with anxious thoughts, associations and memories. Overwhelmed with confusion, I used the best resource I could think of – a search engine. I didn’t realize I was suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder until the internet defined it for me. NAMI – the National Alliance for Mental Illness – is an amazing resource with local chapters across the country. Reading about the symptoms of PTSD, I was able to realize that I wasn’t crazy. There were reasons why I was experiencing so many strange sensations – sensations that made me feel alienated from the rest of the world.

Identifying Symptoms
According to NAMI, these are common symptoms that PTSD survivors experience:
Intrusive Memories
Gaining back my physical health, I was unprepared for flashbacks, images and memories that I thought I had repressed. I’ll never forget the first time I had a French fry. I had been unable to eat or drink for years, and now that I was surgically reconstructed, the world was my endless buffet. I expected relief, fullness and normalcy. Instead, I was jolted back to life with every emotion that I had not wanted to feel for all of these years. I learned that the French fry was my “trigger”. Putting food back into my body felt pleasant – it made me feel. Now that I could “feel”, I was feeling everything – including the pain I had tried to swallow for years of medical uncertainty, surgical interventions, and countless disappointments.
Soon, intrusive memories were unavoidable. I would be sitting in a car, buckled into a seatbelt and all of a sudden I would start to panic. I felt locked in, restricted, confined and unsafe. Suddenly, I was remembering what it felt like to be chained to IV poles, unable to move and constricted to a tiny space. My heart started beating rapidly and I started to panic as my memories intruded on what appeared to be a perfectly calm moment. It wasn’t as if I was recalling a painful time. It was as though the doctors were right there with me, peering over my open wound, dictating my uncertain future, and confining me to a world of medical isolation.
Avoidance
When I started to feel these scary memories at any given time, I felt like I had to avoid any stimulant that might make me feel anything at all. Nothing felt “safe.” I lived my life like I was constantly running or fleeing. I spent years locked in my room, journaling for hours with my blinds shut, careful to shut out any outside stimulation that might make me feel. When I was unable to eat, this was a survival mechanism – if I felt, I might actually feel the deadliest sensation of all – hunger. When I was finally reconstructed, I was so used to avoiding my
It was too painful to remember every setback and struggle, to overwhelming to recall everything I had lost with every surgery – my innocence, my old body, my sense of self…
Dissociation
Once I started avoiding my intrusive memories, I got used to the feeling of numbness – so much that I became dissociated. When trauma left me emotionally and physically wounded, I froze to protect myself.. I went numb so I didn’t have to feel pain. I went numb so I I didn’t have to re-experience what had happened to me and mourn my losses. Becoming numb made my world a blurry haze. The world didn’t feel real anymore (derealization) as I learned to stay “out of my body.” I would walk around almost like a zombie, compulsively pacing hallways and walking in circles – anything to keep my feet moving rather than my thoughts. Through dissociating, I could avoid really feeling what I need to feel – grief.
Hypervigilance
Staying out of my body and dissociating was how I coped with anxiety. Feeling tormented by my memories, which felt like present realities. I was extremely anxious and irritable. If I couldn’t constantly fidget or find another way to “numb out” I would start to panic, and would be overwhelmed with even more intrusive memories and raw, forgotten emotions. My anger would end up being misdirected at others, when really I just wanted to shout at my circumstances. My anxiety manifested in all the wrong places – I couldn’t sit still in classes and couldn’t function as a calm, responsible adult.

This was a list of instilled, irrational beliefs I created for myself that helped me stay “numb”:

– If I don’t keep moving, I will feel awful emotions.
– I cannot pause to look at anything. If I do, I’ll remember awful things.
– I must keep doing, and I must always know what I am doing.
– I get a nervous feeling inside if I am in a small space.
– When my body feels pain I am in surgery.
– I cannot stop moving. If I do, I drown.
– If I go outside I will feel too much and it will hurt.
Owning My Trauma
My life changed when my stomach exploded, ten full years ago. PTSD is something I still struggle with because my traumas happened to me, they have affected me, and they will always be a part of me.

But, I’ve learned how to thrive in spite of what has happened to me and for the first time, my life feels bigger than my past. I’ve found healthier ways to deal with memories, flashbacks and emotions.
Learning to Cope
The PTSD term for finding healthy coping skills is “self-soothing.” To live a healthy thriving life, I’ve had to befriend my past, embrace my experience, and express what had happened to me. I needed to tell my story in order to heal. But first, I had to hear my story for myself, rather than avoid it.. Once I learned how to hear my own heart-shattering story, and feel the pain, the frustration, the anger, and ultimately, the gratitude, I was able to speak to it. I was able to gently teach myself how to live in the present moment rather than in the world of the trauma.
Healing didn’t come all at once. Every day I tried to face a memory a bit more. I called it “dipping my toes” in my trauma. Finally, I could put words to my grief. I was able to write, “I am hurting.”

Befriending My Past
As soon as I was able to write words like “sadness” and “pain”, I allowed myself to explore them. Soon, I couldn’t stop the words that flowed out of me. My memories started to empower me, and I wrote with feverish purpose.
I started to journal compulsively for hours as every memory appeared in my mind. Soon, the words couldn’t do justice to my traumatic experience – I needed a bigger container. I turned to art, drawing, scribbling. I filled pages with teardrops, lightening bolts and broken hearts. For me, creativity became a lifeline – a release. It was a way to express things that were too overwhelming for words. Expression was my way of self-soothing.
Once expression helped me face my own story, I was able to share it. And the day I first shared my story with someone else, I realized I wasn’t alone. There were others that had been through trauma and life-shattering events. And there were also people who had been through the twists and turns of every day life. Being able to share my story emboldened me with a newfound strength and the knowledge that terrible things happen, and if other people can bounce back, then so can I.
Reaching Out
I found wonderful resources. The National Alliance of Mental Illness started as a “small group of families”, and has blossomed into a supportive, educational organization with local chapters throughout the country. Active Minds educates and empowers college students through nation-wide chapters, spreading awareness and lending support. The Jed Foundation offers more coping strategies for college students through mental health awareness and suicide prevention programs.
PTSD: The Mosaic I See

My perspective on illness has changed since my days of “croup”, and it’s also changed since my last surgical intervention. I’ve learned that illness isn’t always in the physical scars. I’ve learned that some wounds aren’t visible, and some wounds even we don’t know we have, until we choose to take care of them. But I’ve also learned that I’m resilient, strong, broken and put together again, differently, yet even more beautiful – like a mosaic.

PTSD has not broken me. It’s taken me apart, and I’m reassembling myself day by day. In the meantime, I’m learning to love what I can build.

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Artwork by Amy Oestreicher
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Amy can be found on her website, Facebook and Twitter.  

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Stigma Fighters : Pepper Joy Greggs

Anxiety, PTSD and Stigma

I work as a dog trainer for a living and it’s a fact that as such, I run a risk of getting bitten at some point. I have been bitten a few times through the years, I have a protocol that if the dog has his vaccines up to date, I simply soak the wound in dawn dish soap daily for a week after the bite.
With the most recent bite I got, I actually ended up at an urgent care. I suffered three puncture wounds and lots of bruising on my leg. The worst part physically was the tetanus shot.

Mentally though… I ended up in a war zone for a while. Something about this bite triggered a deep anxiety in me. The dog came bursting through a door without any walking gear, she was barking and the moment she saw me she lunged and latched to my leg. Her handler simply had no control over her. The dog had to be tackled to be removed, she continued attempting to lunge at me until I was able to escape from the room and out of her sight. I had not done anything wrong. I was not in an area of the facility I was not supposed to be and the dog was known by the handler to be reactive to strangers. It was a bad situation, mistakes were made, but I was completely innocent in the whole ordeal. However, as it goes when traumatic events happen, certain parties got dramatic. Rumors flew that I was going to sue people. I was accused of cornering people and interrogating them. Lots of ridiculous stories were told. I went from feeling safe and part of a team of people, (though I was the new kid), to feeling like an outsider. It was a downhill slide of mistrust and fear about certain ways to do my job.

I was deeply wounded emotionally. I had been here before and the feeling of familiarity was NOT welcome. There I was, minding my business, working with my animals and suddenly out of no where, I was attacked and then those responsible for the attacker blamed me for it. I felt myself wanting to shut down. It was not fair.
I spent the next several months jumping every time a dog barked while standing near my leg, even when the bark was a friendly one. I found myself untrusting of other handlers with dogs.
I ended up with tension headaches because I was working around dogs who periodically bark through the facility all day. My neck ached from holding my shoulders up out of anxiety about my work environment.
I dreaded going to work…. and I LOVE what I do!
I got proactive and forced myself to work around barking dogs and work through my issues. I spent several weeks recovering my mind and reactivity to barking dogs. I counter conditioned myself by petting a dog I knew was friendly each time I heard barking. I had learned about conditioning, counterconditioning and desensitization from training dogs. I just had to be resourceful without I applied my own skills to myself. I kept my Great Dane with me as much as possible to comfort me. He was good at body blocking barking dogs from me. My student dogs spent time on and off tether working with me and helping me get back my life and love for my work. It’s been a process and I still have setbacks, but I am improving.
I still WINCE when a dog barks near my leg and I sometimes get a knot in my throat about it.
The lump is not about the dog bite, the lump is a result of a stabbing heartache that reminds me, I was attacked and blamed for it. Not just when the dog bit, but every time I was abused as a child. Sometimes the barking triggered a memory of when my father hit me. Other times the barking triggered memories of being attacked and raped in my sleep. I hate that my issues are so intertwined. When the dog attacked and bit me a few months ago, her barking as she lunged became my new trigger. I was immediately conditioned by her barking, that an attack follows. An attack that I can’t stop from happening. An attack that I will have to wait until it’s over before I can escape. With my PTSD it worked like dark magic and my mind was FLOODED with nightmare memories.
The drama surrounding being bitten did not help my issues at all. It fed my anxiety, hence the tension headaches. My stomach was upset daily and I caught myself thinking this was normal.
It is not NORMAL to have headaches, upset stomach daily or dread going to work. Especially when you love your work! I am making peace with the fact my situation will change soon enough and I will still be doing the work I love. I don’t need people in my life who were ready to say things about me without even knowing me first. I have refused to speak about the “Incident” and there are those who believe the rumors they heard about it. Someday they will learn they cannot defend a lie, or the whole thing just won’t matter anymore.

I continue to work with my dogs daily and on myself. I have lived with mental illness long enough to learn that fighting against it is a losing battle. To all my friends who have found yourself in a battle for your life with your mental illness, know this…
We are not mental illness, but it is us. And we aren’t anything less than badass for learning to live with it instead fight it. Our lives are spent fighting against the world it shouldn’t be spent fighting ourselves. When something is YOU, that means YOU are in control even if that looks like out of control. It’s YOU’RE out of control, no one else is. You decide who takes this journey with you, you decide how your life looks with or without the therapy and medications used to manage what is YOURS.

I am the sweaty palms of anxiety, I am the face of PTSD and I am the cold darkness of depression.
I am also a damn good dog trainer. I am a passionate being and one hell of a mother.
I am not limited because of my mental illness, I am enhanced and stronger despite it.

*****

PhotoforStigmaFightersWife, Mother, Dog trainer, Blogger, Sexual Abuse survivor and Stigma Fighter.

Pepper can be found on her blog, Facebook and Twitter

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Stigma Fighters : Brian Knowler

In October of 2004, I was the first police officer on the scene of a fatal motor vehicle collision. Within the first few minutes of being at the scene, I quickly discovered that the seriously injured driver was a close friend. He died in my arms as I was performing CPR on him.

I coped the way that many first responders cope with stress and trauma – with alcohol and a strong desire to bury the experience. I didn’t get any after-care at the time, didn’t explore the experience and the feelings it created, didn’t let anyone know what I was going through. Basically, I did everything wrong.

Over the next few years, I buried myself in work, striving for promotions and accolades. I systematically pushed away my family and friends, creating a bubble around myself, living with the fear, the guilt, the anger. I cut myself off from the people who were in the best position to help me. At work I was cool, calm, put together. At home, I lost my temper, raised my voice, and was a less than ideal dad and husband.

I equate it to masks. At work, I had one mask on that hid everything nice and neat. At home, my real face came out, and it was an ugly, hurtful thing.

For a while, I turned to alcohol on a daily basis to cope. It was so much easier than dealing with the blackness, and I finally got into a spiral that ended with a complete crash about 4 years ago. I was done physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally.

I finally admitted that I had a problem and began seeing an excellent psychologist who specialized in PTSD treatment for first responders / military. I let the walls fall down between myself and my friends and family, which let me start to make amends and rebuild relationships I had come close to destroying.

I fought the battle for workmen’s compensation and got it. I rebuilt my reputation at work and ‘came out of the closet’ about my PTSD. I became a very vocal advocate at my workplace and began to help guide other officers through their own struggles with trauma and rebuilding.

Now, a few years later, I’m in a very good place. I’ve created Project Healthy Heroes, which has allowed me to start speaking about my experiences and training first responders and civilians about PTSD, resiliency, and getting through trauma with your mind and body intact, and to work with first responders to heal from their PTSD naturally through taking care of their bodies and letting the mind follow. I even made a video about my battle that went quasi-viral on FB!

What I want people to take away from my story is that there IS life after a PTSD diagnosis, if you’re willing to fight for it. You can continue to do the job you love, you can rebuild your ties to family and friends, and you can actually become a greater, better person through tapping into strength you never knew you had.

You can beat the demons.

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IMG_4572Brian Knowler is a 17 year member of the Ontario Provincial Police. During his time in policing, he has served in a wide variety of roles: media relations, school liaison, bike and all-terrain vehicle patrol, emergency management, recruiting, and incident command. He is a trained CISR team member and spent 5 years on the OPP Trauma Support Team before taking a leave in 2012.

Brian is also a fully licenced lawyer and a proud member of several professional law associations.

Recently, Brian took a step back in his policing duties to re-focus on his family and re-creating what PTSD has taken away from him. This has included a move, a change in responsibilities, and an emphasis on advocacy, writing, and reflecting on where his life and career has taken him.

He recently began to professionally speak and train about PTSD, resiliency, and post-traumatic growth. He’s also new to Twitter. 🙂

Brian firmly believes that his family and natural healing methods have been the key to his recovery and success and that the journey through trauma can be one of rediscovery and rebuilding. PTSD needs to be dragged into the light, not hidden away in the shadows!

Brian can be found on his website, Facebook and Twitter

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Stigma Fighters : Natalie Harris

I am honoured to have been recently asked by the international, non-profit organization Stigma Fighters to share my mental health story with them and their followers. The only requirement being that it be told in 1000 words or less…gulp…I’m always up for a challenge! I hope that by sharing my story with fellow mental illness sufferers and their families, I can inspire hope and courage, and fight the stigma of mental illness one word at a time.

My mental health symptoms started very young. I remember being in grade school telling my mom that I felt ‘weird’, and I would tear my room apart in anger and frustration when the only response I would get as to why I was having these feelings was, ‘it’s your hormones’. I felt lost and like an alien in my own body. Looking back now I can link these exact feelings to my adult depression and dissociation, but it took many long, painful, and very lonely years to even come close to understanding the emotions which made me feel like I didn’t belong on this planet.

I remember seeing doctors in my teen years, and they would prescribe an anti-depressant or two, but I never felt better, and I desperately craved intensive help. I knew in my heart that I wouldn’t find the answer to how to recover from my relentless sadness by reading a book, or seeing a doctor every once in a while. And because there seemed to be no further help available at that time, I carried on with life as a single mom and eventually a paramedic, wondering if my alien feelings were normal, and if they would ever go away.

I soon learned that by filling my time, I also filled my mind with thoughts other than my confusing mental health self-analysis. So over the years I’ve had various relationships (which always failed), went back to school and earned my degree, and became an advanced care paramedic. But if that weren’t enough, I also became a teacher for the paramedic college program and a peer educator. I was tired on a regular basis, and the feeling of exhaustion became my new normal. But no matter how hard I tried to keep busy, the roller-coaster of emotions and darkness I experienced would inevitably return, and I became quite hopeless that I would ever feel truly happy.

Then in May of 2012, I was a paramedic at a double-murder call at a hotel in my city. The details of the call are gruesome, and include satanic-cult rituals and the almost complete decapitation of two women by a man who also attempted to kill himself. That man, the murderer, was my patient. I did my best to block the call from my mind, but had endless difficulty coping with the fact that there was such evil in the world. I had lost all faith in humanity and began to drink alcohol quite heavily to numb the demons in my mind.

I carried on ‘existing’ for two more years until I had to go to trial as a main witness for the double-murder call. When I took the stand I did my best to not look at the man sitting behind a bullet-proof glass wall who had so often entered my dreams and turned them into nightmares. But at one point I had to make eye contact with him, and when I did, every painful, dark emotion I had stuffed away since May 2012 rushed back to me, and triggered the emergence of my post traumatic stress disorder.

The relentless pain of my PTSD and depression caused me to overdose twice, landed me in the mental health department of the hospital many times, and forced the Children’s Aid Society to restrict my contact with my son. I was completely broken! But luckily after I was hospitalized, I began daily classes in a partial hospitalization program and learned about so many amazing coping tools for my illnesses. I learned about things such as, cognitive behavioural therapy, meditation, positive self-talk, healthy boundaries, avoiding co-dependency, improving my spirituality and addiction education. It was the long-term education I had been craving for years! And as my journey progressed through this program, it was eventually appropriately renamed by a friend, ‘save my life school’.

Six weeks into school, and after a serious suicide attempt, I was finally accepted into the world renowned rehabilitation hospital Homewood, in Guelph, Ontario. During my stay there my personal relationship with the love of my life fell apart and I discovered that I was without a doubt an alcoholic. Through each excruciating day, I participated in intense group sessions for my PTSD, and went to 12-step meetings every day. I was very resistant to any help at first, as my hopelessness had hit an all time low, and I was physically and mentally exhausted. But after a near-tradgedy occurred at home with one of my children, I finally shook off my self-pity and dug in deep to heal my mind, heart and soul.

Once I truly decided to listen to the experts and follow their guidance, there was no turning back! I was on the road to recovery and it felt amazing! Slowly my family began to trust me again, and my relationship with my children became one filled with security and peace. I have been sober 10 months now and no longer have the obsession for alcohol. I have a sponsor and three 12-step home groups who support me and have taught me how important it is to my recovery to have a Higher Power in my life, and to rely on His guidance rather than my delusions.

Life is good! And I never thought that was possible! I finally look forward to waking up in the morning and living, not just existing. I have documented my recovery in a blog entitled: https://paramedicnatsmentalhealthjourney.wordpress.com and have had the privilege of helping fight the stigma of mental illness all over the world with every post. I am not ashamed to speak about my experiences anymore, and can attest 100% to the healing power of talk. If you are suffering, you don’t have to do it alone. I know it may seem difficult, but recovery IS possible. But in order to GET help, you need to ASK for it.

Sending love to the souls we have lost to this fight, and to those who are battling everyday.

~Nat

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11406359_10155821178630624_4995323834609509470_oNatalie Harris is a mom, an advanced care paramedic and teacher in Ontario, Canada. After being diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder from a double-murder call, where the murderer was her patient, she began a vicious life or death battle with overdoses, alcoholism and suicide attempts. Luckily she was able to recover after many hospitalizations, including a 7-week admission to the rehabilitation hospital, Homewood, in Guelph, Ontario. She shares candid and raw experiences about her mental health illnesses and recovery in her blog paramedicnatsmentalhealthjourney.wordpress.com and has had the privilege of supporting, and providing recovery resources to mental illness sufferers all over the world.

Natalie can be found on her blog, Facebook and Twitter

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Stigma Fighters : Alyce Raven

I’m 41 years old and grew up as an only child in a family where violence, neglect, drugs and verbal abuse had a big impact on our lives.
My father was addicted to alcohol and prescription drugs and was violent and abusive. He was also loving, creative, passionate, a wonderful musician and always wanted to make me happy- during his good times. I love my father with all my heart. I hate what his cold parents did to him during his childhood. And probably what their parents did to them.
My mother fell in love with a good looking, talented, charismatic  young man and left her home country to be with him. His demons lived with them from the beginning. He numbed his pain with alcohol, and then became violent. Everybody loved him for his wit, his skills, his looks, nobody knew what happened behind closed doors. And when after years everybody knew and my mom and I had run away only to return several times, nobody helped. This was the 70s and 80s, people didn’t really talk about these things.
When I had just turned 13, I as the last person in the family turned against my father. I called him out on the drinking, didn’t answer him when he was drunk and didn’t keep the violence a secret. On halloween 1986 (we didn’t celebrate halloween in Germany then) I saw my father for the last time. We got into an arguement, I don’t even know why. He said that I don’t have to put up with him for much longer and thinking my mom and I finally would move out I said “Hopefully.” Later my parents took me to spend the weekend at my grandparents’ house by myself. I had never asked for that before. As they walked to the car, I looked at my dad and thought “I have to tell him I love him,” I thought about yelling, but I didn’t. While I was gone, my dad committed suicide.
I went back to school a week later, functioned and graduated as one of the best in my class. I went on to med school. And then, 10 years later I had a breakdown. I was diagnosed with PTSD and borderline personality disorder and treated for many years. And maybe the therapy helped. I can resist the urge to self harm. Sometimes I think before I do something and sometimes I almost feel like a regular adult. So- the therapy has probably helped.
Once a preacher (and I am FAR from a believer) said about the stigma of suicide: God has a way for each of us to go, and suicide is the way for some of us. For some reason that helped me.
Another time a woman whose husband had committed suicide said he had left a note asking her to let him go. And I realized this is what I can do for my dad now, let him go. If he was here and told me that living hurts so much that he can’t take it, I would tell him it’s ok to go. I wouldn’t want him to stay for me.

I have a son who is 12 and looks exactly like my father, and like my father he is a very talented musician (unlike me) and he has a tiny hole in his heart. (not dangerous) He was due on my father’s birthday, but I was induced earlier because I couldn’t handle celebrating that birthday again. And then this little soul came, calm and wise from his first day, looked at me with my father’s eyes and had a tiny hole in his heart, like my dad who had a broken heart. Still today, my son is a  wise, calm and a child with a very special personality. Like he has been here forever. He is my life. In all my pain, I have been blessed with him. It is my mission to make sure I break the cycle of violence and that seems to have been in our family for ages.
I’m not with his father anymore, I coudln’t handle being loved like that. You get addicted to pain, don’t you?
This is something I just don’t go out in public with. In my real life, I’m the pretty, witty woman with the good job who doesn’t take shit from anyone and runs her life with her son and countless pets. And part of me is. But really, this is nothing you overcome. I have learned to live with my demons and to function. And then sometimes they go all crazy on me, and being there for my son in every way he needs and taking care of the rest here takes all my strength. I get up in the morning and can’t wait to go to bed at night or hell even in the afternoon if my son is at his Dad’s house. I try not to take tranquilizers because I have been addicted and gone back numerous times, I love them. I love how they make the demons go to sleep. And they are easy to get, the psychiatrists at the hospital I was treated in for PTSD and borderline since 1996 change all the time and somehow their communication isn’t so great.
Anyway, hey normally I’m funny and witty and sarcastic and maybe rude. And then sometimes I wish I could just not exist for a while.
BUT that’s normal, that’s me, I know this. I have been medicated to take the peaks but it took my wit. I am a fast thinker, in terms of humor but also at work and suddenly I was all… mediocre. I wsn’t as sad which I guess is good but I wasn’t anything else either, I was just there, it was pathetic. So this is me, I’m impulsive, extreme and annoying but also creative and smart, and I can’t have one without the other so I chose to let the demons stay because they take stuff I need if they go.
So yes, I function, with all my scars and my demons. But without them, who would I be? On good days I think “eh, I’d be a plain someone”, on bad days, I’d like to try to live without them. I’m addicted to pain.

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Stigma Fighters : G. Donald Cribbs

Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) vs. Posttraumatic Growth (PTG): Focusing on Symptoms vs. Resiliency in Survivors of Trauma

I’m no expert. I may be a counselor-in-training, completing my master’s degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling at CACREP-accredited Messiah College Graduate School, but I’m not the authority on Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Posttraumatic Growth (PTG). Here’s what I do know: I know what it’s like to experience significant trauma. In fact, I was sexually molested at the age of four by a male perpetrator and spent years reeling from the after-effects of Childhood Sexual Abuse (CSA).
It’s entirely possible I grew up with PTSD symptoms and remained undiagnosed. Regardless, I’m still here today, and somehow, I’m thriving. I found my way through the trauma, the pain, and the unwanted flashes of memory of my abuse. With little help and the furthest-from-ideal home life situations, I found a way to bounce back, grow, and find resiliency. You can, too.
As a graduate student I’m learning plenty of new things. I never knew there was such a thing as PTG, but there is. We’ve all heard about PTSD, since many of our family members have at least someone in the military, or who have experienced trauma from the events of 9/11, or who have lived through one of several hurricanes, or other weather-related natural disasters.
But here’s the problem with PTSD: it focuses solely on the symptoms of the trauma, the after-effects, and these can start to define the survivor. The goal of a diagnosis is to identify a mental health need, to develop a treatment plan and therapeutic goals, and to work toward those goals. The ultimate goal is to be discharged from treatment because you have attained your goals or have made sufficient progress in healing from your trauma. When an individual is diagnosed with PTSD, it’s like a sentence for permanent victimhood. The diagnosis can define you, it can prevent you from moving on, and it can limit your ability to find a way out. Or at least, it has the potential for these negative outcomes if handled wrong.
I’ve never been diagnosed with PTSD, but I’ve experienced some of the after-effects. These may include: reliving or experiencing the trauma through flashbacks or nightmares. These experiences can be so vivid they include visuals, smells, and the sensation of touch. Those who experience these vivid reliving of past events might experience things that are not actually happening, and then startle awake from being in a hyper-alert or hyper-vigilant state of mind, and realize those events did not actually happen.
Imagine a line with a focal point in the center which stands for the trauma you’ve experienced. If you were to move to the left, let’s say this can be described as a negative outcome. If you were to move toward the right, let’s say that is a positive outcome. Moving left of the trauma brings you to Posttraumatic Stress Symptoms (PTSS). These symptoms have distress as a key component. Moving further along this continuum away from the trauma, brings you to PTSD. But, these negative outcomes do not have to be the only way out from the trauma. Moving to the right, away from the trauma, you come to PTG. Posttraumatic Growth is an amazing paradox. The individual with PTG has both distress, just like PTSS on the opposing side, but as a result of a cognitive change, literally a transformation, after processing the after-effects of the trauma, which leads the individual toward PTG. The components of PTG include: new possibilities, relating to others, personal strength, appreciation for life, and spiritual change. Along the positive side of the continuum, PTG is only the first step leading to Resiliency. Resiliency is where true growth happens, with long-term positive effects, and no longer has distress or reliving the trauma as an outcome.
The point of this article is to inform you, and to let you know that these acronyms exist and what they mean. You have options, and not all of them are negative ones. We live in a negative-focused, glass-half-empty, bad news is good news culture. Rarely do we hear about the possibility of good, growth, resiliency as outcomes to problems, let alone trauma. Now you know. Tell a friend. And when you’re tempted to make a joke of the very real trauma someone has experienced, first walk a mile in their shoes, then see if they’re doing the best they can with the resources they have, and swallow that thought if it doesn’t encourage that person toward a positive outcome.
Who knows? Maybe you’ll be the next one to experience an unexpected trauma in your life, and you’ll be glad to know there are options that don’t involve remaining a victim, or a public punching bag, or a bully’s favorite sport. Will you accept a PTSD or PTSS diagnosis? Or, will you seek out the possibility of PTG or resiliency as an outcome for you?

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DonHeadshotG. Donald Cribbs has written and published poetry and short stories since high school. Donald is a graduate of Messiah College in English and Education, and is currently a graduate student in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. He and his wife and four boys reside in central Pennsylvania where the author is hard at work on his next book, the sequel to his debut novel, THE PACKING HOUSE (2015), by Booktrope. Having lived and traveled abroad in England, France, Belgium, Germany, China and Thailand (you can guess where he lived and where he visited), the author loves languages and how they connect us all. Coffee and Nutella are a close second.

Donald can be found on his blog, Facebook and Twitter

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Stigma Fighters : Sam De Silva

I AM A STIGMA FIGHTER

I should make clear from the very start that I am not a soldier. Nor, am I or ever was a trained first responder. Far from it, at the time of the tsunami, I had recently graduated university and had just left my home in London to start a new life abroad working as a Junior High and Elementary School English teacher in Kyoto, Japan.

I was on holiday on Koh Phi Phi island on the west coast of Thailand, when the waves of the 2004 Asian Tsunami hit. From the moment the wave hit till the following morning we were cut off from the outside world.

Through out this time, I volunteered and joined a group of tourists, who stayed on ground level and did what we could to best help. During the 24 hour nightmare, we were involved in the rescue and care of some the most seriously injured on the island.

It was brutal, – I live it every day – there were numerous occasions during the search and rescue, where I believed my life or the lives of others were in imminent danger. We were involved with recovering the dead and triaging the seriously injured. I had or have never experienced anything remotely similar, prior or post being caught in the Asian Tsunami.

As a teacher, I genuinely believe in social responsibility and serving my community, although I’m honestly not the heroic soldier/policeman type. However, when the waves of the Asian tsunami tore through Koh Phi Phi island, I don’t know if it was the shock of the trauma or the guilt of surviving while countless died around me, but I went into auto pilot, I didn’t think about any of it, I just got “stuck in”, it was the British thing to do. I’ve never been more scared in my life, but I had to do it. I didn’t have a scratch on me, honestly there wasn’t even an option not to help. My subconscious isn’t programmed that way.

Despite escaping with my life while thousands of others died on the island. It wasn’t the first wave, or the second wave of the Asian Tsunami, that came closest to killing me.

Nor was it, the years of misery and misdiagnosis, which eventually led to my life completely spiraling out of control and losing everything I loved and worked for.

From the broken bones and broken heart, to the shock of the motorbike crash, the fear of the psychiatric ward admission, to genuinely freaking out on apocalyptic trauma whilst being remanded in police custody.

They were all horrific to go through and the images are still burnt into the back of my retinas. It’s quite difficult to reflect upon how bad things got before the PTSD diagnosis and treatment. Each of the experiences of crisis were psychologically terrifying to endure, for their own reasons, but when things really became unmanageable and I lost all hope, it wasn’t the trauma of living with trauma that always drove me to the edge of the point of no return.

It was the common denominator to each crisis. The social stigma of living as mentally inadequate, which was the silent killer, that always acted in the shadows as an accelerant that compounded the despair, suffering and fueled my self-destruction.

The social stigma of mental health was what came closest to killing me. Or, maybe that should read I almost killed myself because of the stigma surrounding mental health. The stigma distorted my reality, to the point I couldn’t deal with my past and didn’t want my future.

I couldn’t see a way out. Before the diagnosis, I didn’t know how to cope, I didn’t know I was really suffering PTSD. I didn’t know how to describe the symptoms. The symptoms in hindsight would come and go, they weren’t always consistent. It’s not easy opening up about the most horrific thing imaginable in a 5-minute doctor’s appointment when all they want to do is give you a pill and send you on your way.

I felt no one understood. I had been in out of doctors surgeries and A & E wards for years. I’d always been open about the tsunami and the search and rescue, but because I didn’t fit the stigmatised stereotype of a PTSD sufferer, I wasn’t even referred to be tested for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Instead, the focus was shifted to general everyday problems that non-trauma survivors experience.

It was only by being diagnostically tested for PTSD by an NHS psychologist who was actually qualified in recognising the symptoms and was empathetic to the misconceptions and social stigmas surrounding the diagnosis, did I eventually get diagnosed and was eligible to receive the support that I had so desperately needed for years.

I can honestly say that I doubt I’d be alive if I wasn’t diagnosed and received the right support and treatment for PTSD… And, is the reason why I am a Stigma Fighter.

My life has moved forward since the PTSD treatment, it’s not ideal, but it’s manageable. There are still bad days, but I’m trying to focus on the good. The stigma of mental health is still a factor in my life, but I hope I can help others by sharing my story and humanising the silent suffering that so many struggle with.

Like the countless examples throughout history, with every civil rights movement, it took open and compassionate dialogue coupled with a greater understanding and education to break down the walls of prejudice and stigma.

I believe there is definitely change in the air, organisations such as stigmafighters.com are doing a fantastic job highlighting this worthy cause to the public.

I hope in time, we as a society get to a point where admitting you suffer from depression or any mental health related condition has the same stigma attached to it as saying you broke your leg.

So essentially, we can move forward “leaving no man behind”, by compassionately supporting those who need support and understand that despite their scars not being visible, the pain and suffering is just as real, if not more painful than any broken bone.

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DSCN2984Asian Tsunami Survivor, I blog to raise Mental Health awareness for PTSD – Featured in @BBCWorld PTSD Documentary – Social Justice writer for @GoodMenProject

Sam can be found on his blog, Facebook and Twitter

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Stigma Fighters : Heidi DiTonno

Facing Life – Heidi DiTonno

I don’t consider myself mentally ill, although my diagnoses would disagree with me. They are stigmas for my way of having to cope with situations that I somehow had to find a way to survive. And they worked for me, here I am!
Burned and severely facially disfigured at 9 months old was the first thing I was faced with surviving. I spent many months at the hospital after that life-changing event, and the opportunity for me to have a healthy mother/daughter bond was severely compromised. I will never know to what extent my mother held herself responsible for “my accident” as it happened while I was in her care. It was a topic of conversation that was rarely, and never fully, discussed in my childhood home. As a female, growing up facially disfigured with an emotionally unavailable mother was no picnic.

My childhood was filled with stares and gasps, ugly and ignorant comments, and name calling that still haunts my memories even now. My first experience with bullying started right at home. My brother, who is 2 years older than me, commonly and joyfully referred to me as “bald-head burnt-face”. He even rallied the entire elementary school bus to cheer me on with this chosen name. My mother’s unfailing response to my complaints about his bullying and frequent physical abuse was “Well what did you do to deserve it?”

At around 11 or 12 years old, I was walking home from a friend’s house in a hurry to make my curfew when I was stopped by an older neighborhood boy and his friend. Their ruse for me to “see their new fort” turned out to be me getting raped by the both of them behind his garage. As they took their turns with me, they let me know how grateful I should be because nobody else would want an ugly girl like me. After they were done I rushed home late for curfew and was met with “You are so irresponsible, you can’t even handle a curfew, you are grounded”. Oh the shame. I never spoke of this to another soul.

My first mental health diagnosis was Depression in my late 20s, clearly not soon enough. I married an alcoholic and it was a difficult time. I was given a low dose of anti-depressant and it worked for me. My husband and I worked through this together and he has been sober for 23 years.

When I was 41 years old I received my second mental heath diagnosis, Anorexia Nervosa. I had been the victim of sexual harassment at the workplace for a year and a half. Even though my perpetrator was found guilty, I paid the price for it. After filing formal charges against him, I was relentlessly bullied and even spit on. My 25 year employment there ended with a false accusation that someone heard me say that I had a weapon in my purse. I was ambushed at my desk and hostily escorted out of the building. Welcome diagnoses 3 and 4…PTSD and Agoraphobia.

My depression, my anorexia, my PTSD, my agoraphobia – these labels do not define me. My resilience to survive and thrive is what defines me.

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T5TFDLHEPRMN0EJT-rsz640x470-cp0x75x640x395Speaker – Advocate – Kindness Guru

Heidi can be found on Twitter

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Stigma Fighter : Pepper Joy Greggs

I Found Mental Illness

The technician called my name. I checked my phone to see the time. I was 45 minutes in on my 2nd dose of Xanax.
I hoped it would help me.

On my way down the hall the technician was chatty.  I remember swallowing a lot but being silent. “Lay down on the table and don’t move.” She told me.
I swallowed hard again. I laid down on a slim table. I was handed ear plugs and reminded to be still as possible. I felt these slates or boards close in on either side of my head to help keep it stable. I took a deep breathe. Then a cage was clamped down over my face.

My mind went back to a conversation with my friend and fellow survivor just the day before. “Close your eyes as soon as they lay you down. Focus on your breathing and remember you will be okay.”
She told me my medication wouldn’t work. She should know. She takes more meds with her breakfast than I ever hope to have need for in my lifetime. She is what I call a “straight with no chaser” friend.
She tells me the truth even when it hurts and, or scares me. She delivers the truth with equal amounts of harshness and love so I can receive it. She had an MRI in her past, she was also a survivor of abuse like me. She knew the kind of depression and anxiety I had. She also knew how moments of high anxiety provoked PTSD. She helped prepare me but, this cage on my face… She never mentioned it!

You see the idea of being in a small space didn’t bother me at all.
I am a small body and I prefer to sleep curled up tight in my bedding.
When I feel more stress, the tighter I curl up in my sleep.
This was no nap or sleep, this was a test to help discover why I was getting headaches. What triggered me was the technician’s words “Lay on the table and don’t move.”
The thing that further provoked my anxiety to a full on panic attack was the cage-like mask being clamped over my face.
I closed my eyes the whole time but, not soon enough.
My friend was right, Xanax was failing me. I felt tears stream down the sides of my clamped head.
I could feel my heart racing and my chest was in an erratic pattern of short sharp rising and falling.  My friends words came back to me “focus on your breathing.” I started breathing in through my nose and out through my mouth. It was still erratic but, slowly it started to form a more normal pattern.
Tears kept coming and I closed my eyes tighter. My hands were at my sides and I gently pinched my outer thighs to distract myself.
Finally the first MRI was finished.
Now it was time for an IV to perform the second MRI with contrast. The technician noticed my tears but, I was too frozen in my panic to speak. She handed me a tissue and patted my shoulder. She apologized for not asking if I was claustrophobic.
I managed to squeak out “It’s not that… I just had bad stuff happen ….when I was a kid and … I just wasn’t expecting it to be this hard.”
She gave me a few moments to calm down and placed the IV.
I managed to handle the second MRI much better but, tears still flowed.

I used to tell myself I was NOT one of “those people”. I was not a person with mental illness. I was a survivor and therefore had a strong mind. I have since learned having a strong resolve and mind, does not make one immune to mental illness. Having a brilliant mind does not make you immune to mental illness.

History shows this.
Some are born with it, others find it later in life. Yes, I found mental illness. All those years I was being abused I found disassociation to help me cope. I did not realize I was using a form of mental illness. I developed PTSD and flashbacks after my abuse ended. I see dark memories of my past flash before my eyes during what would otherwise be a normal moment on a present day.
This is my daily life. Sometimes I need depression medications for a while and then I’m okay. Sometimes when I know I will be facing a scary or anxiety provoking situation, I need Xanax to help me calm down. Sometimes I have to talk myself off a mental ledge and come back to an appropriate rational state.
I am not alone in this. This battle with mental illness. I am not alone in my story as a survivor of horrific abuses.
I think illness is less and less relevant today in society. I am mentally different than others. I use different mental coping techniques. I suffer from different mental challenges. I am not my PTSD or anxiety. I am not my depression or any of the worst parts of me. I am a whole person. I am a loving wife and mother. I can be super funny and down right goofy. I can be brave at times. I understand people on a deeper empathic level than most. I have mental challenges, I also have mental gifts. I am not mental illness, I am only me.

Pepper Joy Greggs
Dog Trainer

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IMG_6372Wife, Mother, Abuse Survivor, Blogger and Dog Trainer.
I share my story to help others and take away the power from my past abusers. I live the life I chose for myself and chase dreams I never knew I could even have.
Pepper Joy can be found on her blog
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