Thursday, January 22nd, 2015, I spoke at an event called, Dialogue on
Mental Health in the Workplace, at “E” Division Headquarters about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (otherwise known as PTSD), titled “When to Seek Help.” The road leading to my presentation that day was a long and painful one.
In June 2011 and March 2012, I was involved in two critical incidents (shooting events) that turned what was a (somewhat) normal RCMP member and career into a life altering, never-to-return to what I thought was a “normal life.”
After the first shooting in June 2011, which was an intense incident
where I observed my colleague almost be shot in the head in a very close call during a domestic related event, I thought that after a bit of recovery time, I’d be able to return to normal, move on and look back at it without fear or trepidation. I was wrong.
After that shooting incident, symptoms of what I later realized was
PTSD, quickly set in. While I attempted to hide the affects from my
family and colleagues, my life started to unravel. What I thought could be controllable, proved to be an incredible underestimation of what the onset of PTSD can do to an individual, their career, their family, and life.
I noticed I was changing and couldn’t understand why or explain the reasons for it. I stopped sleeping because I was having nightmares. I was hyper vigilant at all times (at least more so than usual) and I was temperamental with my family. I took some time off and went on a vacation to the Oregon Coast with my family to see if I could break the slide I was going down. It only got worse. I couldn’t relax during the trip and found that I was ruining the trip for the whole family, so we eventually gave up and returned home half way through our road trip.
Nobody, least of all me, was impressed. And yet, I couldn’t explain what was happening. I had been through many critical incidents and emotional situations throughout my career and none of which had any lasting effect on me. I started seeing my psychologist regularly, which brought my symptoms under control, and I was diagnosed with the onset of PTSD (or what is now being referred to as OSI – Operational Stress Injury).
I came to have all of the symptoms of PTSD, including being plagued with insomnia, constant hyper vigilance, panic attacks, mood swings, flashbacks, memory loss, lack of concentration, emotionally numb…the list goes on and on. My work performance plummeted and, what I would normally gravitate to like high risk calls for service, I would avoid out of fear of having a panic attack. I would throw up during shift. I did everything I could to hide it from my family and colleagues.
In March 2012, not nine months after the first incident, my fellow
corporal, and work partner committed suicide. I, along with a couple other watch mates, found him dead on his bed. This is what did me in. It was too close to the previous incident. My brain broke that day and started my tumble to the bottom.
I tell this story not to wallow in sorrow, or to relive the past, but
to bring to the forefront the debilitating effects of PTSD and how it
encompasses your entire existence when it takes hold of you. Once it starts, what’s deemed as “resilience” is no longer in play, but it will be needed to endure the effects, repercussions and the long recovery period.
Your boss and colleagues can’t read your mind, but they can see the changes in your behaviour, personality, and work performance. In the end, it is incumbent on the person to say, “I need help.” I was still trying to carry on.
I heard about the Veterans Affairs program at the BC OSI Clinic and contacted them. The BC OSI Clinic is an outpatient program where clients who live with mental health conditions related to an OSI and their families can find comprehensive clinical assessment and treatment services under one roof. What was key, is that they not only helped me, but they helped my wife and family understand what I was going through, and continue to so.
I’m still here today because of the efforts of family, friends and
colleagues that did their very best not to let me kill myself or fall
any further into the abyss. Through the passage of time, a painful and gruelling stint at a PTSD treatment centre, and the efforts of
professionals, I was able to work my way out of my bedroom, out of my house, off my street, and eventually, go out into public again without fear and without panic attacks.
Through the ups and downs of my recovery period, I have had the
privilege of taking possession of a PTSD Service Dog from an agency called, the Citadel Canine Society. Citadel is a not-for-profit
organization that provides PTSD service dogs to War Veterans and First Responders. I was one of the fortunate few to be among the first to get a dog from Citadel, a three-and-a-half year old Great Dane-Shar Pei cross, named Chevy.
Chevy came from a rescue shelter in Creston, and had had quite a storied life. She had been beaten and abused prior to coming into our lives. We rescued her and she rescued me. After a year of training with Chevy, in January 2014, Chevy became a “Certified” Service Dog, which legally allows her to accompany me wherever I go. Having a Service Dog is a big responsibility, and is not for everybody. It requires a long term commitment and an understanding that many aspects need to be considered, such as home life, work place, and lifestyle. Having a Service Dog is not a “cure all” for me, but she helps me through the rough times.
She is an amazing companion and is able to sense when I’m triggered or having an anxiety attack. Chevy has woken me up throughout the night during nightmares with a swift paw to my head and is a constant and loyal companion to me. We’re together 24/7, and when she’s not on duty with her blue vest on, she’s a regular family dog and everyone in our family enjoys having her around.
During my recovery, what I learned was, don’t expect the RCMP to assume full ownership of the issues. You need to take responsibility and be an active participant in your recovery. When you are at home, you are isolated and the longer you are away, the harder it is to come back.
When I was ready to return to work, senior management made great effort to accommodate me and to find a home that would be a good fit.
When I came back to work in a GRTW capacity at “E” Division
Headquarters, Chevy did not come with me initially, as I wanted to come back under my own steam and own terms so that I could prove to myself that I could do it. What I have learned since being back at work for over a year now, is that living with PTSD is a long term, (probably) lifelong ailment that one has to get used to living with. Sometimes it’s under control and sometimes, out of the blue, it pops its head up at the east expected times and places. Then I have to go into a different “mode” to control the effects. That’s where Chevy steps in and helps out.
I still find that my memory is affected. Much of my memory of the time period around the events has completely vanished. All I have vague recollections of certain events and people. I have kept a journal for a good portion of this time, not knowing if I’d need it in the future to remember times and events. The only problem is, I usually don’t have the courage to go back and read about those times…I’m not a glutton for punishment.
Presently, I am no longer able to be on the street (Road Supervisor), and have come to grips with that, over time. I wasn’t finished doing what I had to do on the street, but it is what it is. I have a sign at my desk that reads “I need to adapt to where I am now”, recognizing that while I can’t be at the pointy end of the spear anymore, perhaps I can assist in different ways. And that’s what I’ve come to accept at this point.
Since returning to work, I have focused on how I can help other members through their time of need. I have been appointed the “E” Division representative for the National Advisory Committee for Persons With Disabilities (NACPWD), and more recently have taken on the task of assisting the coordination of the Mental Health Strategy for “E” Division. Realizing that I can’t necessarily directly help the public anymore, I see that I can help the membership and employees from behind the lines.
I’ve learned that the stigma of PTSD still persists in the workplace
and in society in general, but with awareness, education, and learning of others’ experiences, step-by-step we can get closer to a point where this stigma can be eradicated and members and employees can speak freely about their mental health issues and get the help that’s readily available.
When I speak about the stigma still being present, I am describing
myself to a large extent. In bringing Chevy to the workplace, I was
expecting roadblocks, ostracizing and otherwise non-acceptance. I was wrong. We have both been accepted back into the workplace without hesitation or issue. It was I who had the stigma, not my colleagues.
Like life, there are still ups and downs but, with PTSD, the downs are deeper and it’s harder to get back up. Keep an eye out for your colleagues and your own wellbeing because, while you’re out there looking after the public’s wellbeing, who’s looking after yours? If you experience OSI or PTSD, there is help out there for you, and there is a job for you WHEN you come back. It’s not an easy road, and there are pitfalls along the way, but through perseverance and active participation, you can come back…I was able to.
There is much work to do regarding Mental Health and the effects of PTSD, but I think the first stage is well in hand. We are able to freely talking about it. We’re starting to see change in breaking down the stigma, but we all have to be an active participant in that change.
Thanks for reading my story and taking my thoughts and ideas intoconsideration.
Cpl James Lunny