This was it- My last appointment with the Psychiatrist. Conversations up until this point were mainly regarding medication increases. He had me up to 225 mg of Effexor, which is a fairly high dose for this antidepressant medication.
Leading up to this point- I was extremely closed off. I had told the Psychiatrist that work was stressing me out and I just didn’t feel well- I didn’t feel myself. I wasn’t sleeping. I couldn’t focus, and that my memory was shot. I thought I potentially had Adult ADHD. He informed me that although I was demonstrating some of the symptoms suggestive of Adult ADHD, I didn’t satisfy the criteria for that particular disorder.
His recommendations were to lower my alcohol intake which would give the medication that he prescribed to treat my Depression and Anxiety a chance to work effectively. He also suggested that I might benefit from talking to someone. The waitlist for publicly funded therapy is several years long so he suggested that I should seek assistance through my Employee Assistance Program (EAP). I didn’t know what was happening to me or where these feelings were coming from and I didn’t understand how he expected me to talk about it. I couldn’t even open up to the people I loved, how could he expect me to open up to a complete stranger?
The Psychiatrist had also offered to write a note that would take me off my rotating shifts and instead keep me on a straight day’s schedule. He thought that perhaps this would help with my sleep. However, being a female that works in a male dominated environment, I felt the need to continuously try to prove that I could do the job just as well as anyone else could. I wasn’t going to ask for any special treatment. I believed that not completing the full requirements of my job, including the rotating shifts, was a sign of weakness that would give others a reason to look down on me. In my mind, it just wasn’t option. I told myself that I was the one that signed up for this job and I would just have to toughen up.
As time passed, I felt ashamed that I wasn’t improving. I felt like a disappointment. I felt broken when not even high doses of medications I was prescribed could fix me. I was giving up hope. I started to believe that I would never be better; that I would always be broken. Dark thoughts filled my head every single day. I was losing hope and seriously considering giving up. I think at one point I even began telling the Psychiatrist that I was improving because I was so embarrassed that I wasn’t.
On the outside, I had it all together. I had a great job, I had purchased my own house at the age of 22. I was surrounded by loving and supportive family and friends. I was checking off all the boxes but on the inside, I hurt so badly. I felt alone. I had everything to be grateful for. The people closest to me continued to send these reassuring messages which only encouraged me to shut down and dismiss my feelings further. I learned to bury my feelings deep inside and drowned myself in booze to numb the pain I was experiencing.
The Psychiatrist had told me at my previous appointment that he was emptying his case load because he was leaving the country for 6 months. He told me that after my next appointment he planned to refer me back to my family Doctor who would continue to monitor my medication dose. This was it. I was about to fall through the cracks… again. I was spiralling. I thought about how I was going to end it. I had zero hope to live any longer.
A lot of people say suicide is selfish, but I disagree. When your head is in a place of pure emptiness, hurting your loved ones is the last thing on your mind. You truly believe that you would be doing them a favour by not burdening them for one more day. I was so unwell that I had talked myself into believing that the world would be a better place without me in it. I believed I was a disappointment to everyone around me, including myself.
That September afternoon in 2018, something clicked. I clearly remember thinking if this man refers me back to my family doctor I would not see my 25th birthday next month. I would never get married. I would never be an Aunty or have kids of my own. I couldn’t do this anymore. I broke down and told him how bad I had gotten. This was my rock bottom.
He referred me to another Psychiatrist who I began seeing at the beginning of October. I told her everything that was happening inside my head. For the first time in my life I was completely raw and open. She diagnosed me with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I was in shock. I felt as though my life was over, and that I would never recover from this.
If only I could understand in this moment that my life was actually just beginning. She wanted to write me off work. I told her I wasn’t comfortable with going off work period and that there would have to be another way. I actually like my job. I didn’t want my employer to know about my diagnosis. I felt so ashamed.
I went home and told my boyfriend, Andrew. I honestly was scared that he would leave me. I think I had even encouraged him to. Instead, he hugged me and told me everything was going to be okay, that he wasn’t going anywhere. He told me that his shoulders were big for a reason and he would carry me while I picked up the broken pieces and got better.
Things progressively got worse once I had started to take off the many layers of protection and began exposing the wounds that I had been covering up for so long. I was being triggered every day at work. Up until this point, I was surviving the best way I knew how but something had quickly changed. What had I done? I could no longer contain my composure. I couldn’t fake a smile or pretend anymore. I wasn’t myself. I wasn’t okay. No amount of alcohol could numb the pain I was feeling. I was SO angry…mostly at my employer. This was their fault! My sleep continued to deteriorate. I couldn’t concentrate at all and my memory was gone. I was heightened and on alert, always bracing myself for what could come next.
My psychiatrist remained patient; she continued to slowly build trust and encouraged me at every weekly appointment to take time off work. I am very stubborn and it took until the end of November before I finally trusted her enough to agree that time away from work was what I needed.
My thought at the time was that I’d be off for a couple weeks, maximum. I decided I would just use regular sick hours because there was no way I would disclose to my employer that I had PTSD. My Psychiatrist advocated on my behalf for me to receive assistance through a comprehensive program through the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) called “Flexible Assertive Community Treatment Team” (FACTT), which I was denied. However, when I agreed to go off work she was able to convince the coordinator to sit down with me and it was determined by the group that I would be accepted to participate in the program.
Many times I fell through the cracks, but not this time. My Psychiatrist never gave up on me and I believe that she is the main reason why I am still here today. She advocated for me when I couldn’t advocate for myself. The FACTT team is a multidisciplinary team made up of people who were on my side teaching me the skills I would need to begin my recovery. The program is successful because of their individualized approach. For me, a Psychotherapist who specialized in trauma as well as an Occupational Therapist provided the key components that I needed. I also had access to a Registered Nurse and other resources. I had no idea what would begin to unravel or that it would have to get worse before it could ever get better.
It wasn’t just a single incident that brought me to this dark place. It was several incidents that occurred over time in just under five years working as a Correctional Officer behind the walls of a maximum security Correctional facility.
I began my career in March of 2014. I was 20 years old with my whole life ahead of me. I had worked so hard to get here and was dedicated to learning and doing the best job I could. I faced many challenges trying to find my way and had to grow up very quickly, but I was determined and I never gave up.
In October I was called in early to complete a targeted search after management received a tip that there was a cell phone in one of our units. It proved to be true. A team of myself and other front line employees found a cell phone and several other strange items which are unauthorized and otherwise known as “contraband” in a Correctional setting. The next day there was an unrelated inmate death, therefore over the next little while the findings from the search seemed to be put on the back burner.
Weeks later, I was working a night shift when I learned that the employer had tried to ship the inmate who was found with the contraband to another facility. We were informed that he refused and was now being housed in segregation. I had also heard that there was a meeting between the inmate and upper management; a deal was made that if he gave information, he would be able to remain in our facility. On one of our initial night shift rounds, the inmate involved told my partner and I that we would be shocked to find out who it was. He said he couldn’t say who, just that it was someone we would never expect.
Following my shift I went home to get some sleep before returning in for my second night shift. It was just about time for my alarm to go off when my phone rang. It was the jail. I assumed it was a manager asking me to come in early, which I often did for them in a pinch. Instead I was read what sounded like a script from my Deputy Superintendent, stating that I was suspended with pay pending an investigation. I was in complete shock. I began to hyperventilate. I immediately felt like I was dying. I had no idea what was happening to me. I now realize that I was having my first panic attack. I immediately knew I had been named by this inmate. My heart was pounding. My mind was racing. I couldn’t breathe. “WHY ME?!!!” I remember barely being able to speak, but being able to ask the caller if I was being suspended because of that inmate. I later learned that my statement was the confirmation the Deputy needed to confirm her belief that it was me.
I felt powerless. I knew I had done nothing wrong but I had no way to prove my innocence. I just had to sit at home and wait. My name was further dragged through the mud when my employer distributed a memo to staff members that stated a Nurse and I were not allowed in the facility. These were some of the darkest days of my life. I couldn’t sleep, I wasn’t able to eat. I just laid in bed crying for days and days. All you have in this job is your integrity and mine was being questioned. I immediately thought of the worst-case scenario and believed that all my coworkers would turn against me. Being accused of lugging contraband into a jail is pretty much the worst possible thing to be accused of in our world, and the steps the employer took following the accusation were unheard of.
Two weeks later I sat down with an internal Investigator. I was as cooperative as I could be despite the hurt I felt inside. Following the meeting, the Investigator told me that he was 99% done his investigation and that things would be cleared up in the next few days. I asked him why me? How was I dragged into this mess? His only explanation was that he believed I had pissed the inmate off. Being new I was pretty black and white in my work style and didn’t have much grey area in my approach. He told me that because some of the information the inmate had provided turned out to be creditable, they had to act quickly. The investigator reminded me that this was just a bump in the road. He told me that through the course of his investigation he had received a lot of positive feedback and that I must have made a pretty good impression on my peers because I had a lot of support behind me.
A few hours later my Superintendent called to tell me I had been cleared to return to work. Following my return to work things seamlessly went back to normal. No one at work treated me any different but the truth is; I was different.
I confronted my employer during a grievance hearing and I told them that I felt completely let down by them. They told me the suspension was for my protection. I responded that if it was for my protection, it would have been immediate and they wouldn’t have let me go in for a night shift following the accusation. I also told them if it was for my protection I wouldn’t have been made to sit at home while the inmate was back in a regular living unit with zero information as to what was going on. It was almost as though I was the criminal in the situation.
The inmate was transferred to another location before my return to work. The nurse, who had been found to be having a romantic relationship with the inmate, quit her part time job at the jail and continued with her other job as a RN at a local hospital. I was left alone to pick up the pieces. No apology was given. It was all just swept under the rug. I was expected to shove my hurt down and move forward, which I did.
Working in a small institution, everyone caught wind of my suspension, including inmates. Several comments were made in my first week back by inmates asking how my vacation was. I didn’t trust anyone at this point, especially upper management. I was always looking over my shoulder. I felt paranoid that anytime I was involved in a search, or was just doing my job that I would be blamed for something I hadn’t done.
I felt withdrawn and depressed. I was constantly feeling anxious. I made an appointment with my family Doctor and was referred to a Psychiatrist in early 2015 where I was diagnosed with Anxiety and Depression and put on medication to help with the symptoms I was experiencing. I continued to show up, remain strong, and hide my struggle the best I could.
My home life was severely affected. I felt like no one understood what I was going through. My relationship at the time was beginning to deteriorate. I felt like a burden. I didn’t know how to properly communicate or process the pain that I felt inside. I couldn’t handle the rejection I was feeling so I just shut down and eventually walked away. My heart was completely broken. For several years after that I self-sabotaged and repeatedly settled for less than I deserved. Jumping into relationship after relationship was definitely something I did to avoid the pain that I carried from feeling broken and not very lovable.
Moving forward over the next couple years I dove into anything that could to numb the pain. You could say I was a ‘workaholic’. In my short career, I responded to countless physical altercations between inmates, and I experienced extensive emotional abuse and threats by inmates.
Early in my career, my hands were forced by a manager who told me to have the inmates clean the graffiti off their cell walls before I could unlock them in the morning, something that hadn’t been asked of the inmates in years at this facility- if ever. Also something he wouldn’t have asked of anyone else. The inmates were locked in their cells for the day after refusing to comply with my direction. They trashed the unit and started a fire in the middle of the dayroom to retaliate.
I have experienced a standoff in both of the units I was working after agreeing to stay late and help out due to staff shortage after already working a 12 hour shift. I was moved from the area I was already working that day to a different area in the jail that had been escalating all day. Inmates had refused to be transferred due to temporary closure of our facility for a potential strike. The situation further escalated when management withheld their dinner and later resulted in institutional crisis intervention teams being activated to remove over half of the inmates involved in the standoff, resulting in extensive damage of both of the day rooms.
I have responded to an unsuccessful hanging after an inmate who was high on crystal meth and had been escalating eventually tied off his cell to deny entry to Officers and attempted to commit suicide right in front of us. The same sheet that had used to tie off the door was also tied around his neck and so as he was hanging and we attempted to gain entry the sheet got tighter and was cutting off his airway. Luckily in this instance because of the close quarters of the area we were in, I wasn’t in immediate view of what was happening. We were able to gain access quickly and he was cut down and escorted to the hospital by ambulance to treat his injuries.
I have responded to an attempted escape that resulted in 2 Special Constables being physically assaulted in our jail parking lot. This particular incident further escalated when another inmate escaped out of opportunity. I’ve had urine thrown at me not once, but twice, and have been pinned by an inmate against a wall during a use of force. I have had to respond to two of my partners being assaulted on two separate occasions both of which happened right in front of me, and both assaults were perpetrated by segregated inmates. In each instance neither of the inmates were showing signs of aggression and were simply being given the opportunity to come out for a shower. The first instance the inmate swung at my partner as soon as the cell door opened. Myself and another Officer were able to gain control by taking the inmate down to the ground to prevent further assault or injury to our colleague. The other instance the inmate had a handmade weapon which he had concealed underneath his shirt. He used the weapon to whip my partner after feeling as though he had been treated unfairly the day before. We were in a bigger space and were able to disengage. Luckily I was able to act quickly and used my pepper spray as a less intrusive measure and my partner was not injured.
I have been a part of searches where dirty needles, homemade brew, prescription medications, illegal drugs, and handmade weapons have been found. I have talked an inmate into passing 6 kinder egg packages and a lighter out to me that he had smuggled through his anal cavity to distribute among the other inmates in the facility. This is a routine practise for inmates who get out on bail and later have their bail pulled purposely to get these sought after packages into the jails to make some quick cash. Rarely are these packages found by Officers as measures that would need to be taken violate their basic human rights. In the recent years body scanners were implemented in the facilities to try to prevent these items from entering the facilities however the inmates have nothing but time and they were quickly able to find a method to conceal contraband in a way that the scanners can’t effectively pick up their weapons or packages. Although inmates don’t have access to money in jail they always have individuals on the outside working for them and making sure drug debts are collected. The particular package that I found contained a variety of different drugs including fentanyl which has the potential to seriously harm or kill a person. Fentynal has become a huge problem in our Correctional system in the recent years. There have been countless deaths by overdoses across the province since it has surfaced. Because of my findings and the seriousness of this deadly drug the inmate got sentenced to over 5 years for trafficking fentanyl in an institution.
This is what I signed up for. This is what the general public does not see. I signed up to be physically assaulted, emotionally abused, and scrutinized by the media but I didn’t sign up for the feelings that would come next.
The pile continued to grow, but there are 3 incidents that really stick out as painful to me.
The first being a very serious overdose when fentanyl began to surface. My partners and I worked on the inmate for over 20 minutes with vital signs absent awaiting a response as there were no available paramedics in the city. Following the incident, the inmates’ family didn’t believe that he had overdosed. They accused us of beating him into this state, even when the Nurses and Doctors confirmed that we had tried to save his life, and he wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for us. Being low in seniority, it wasn’t really a question that I would be sent up to the hospital the following night. There I would supervise the inmate I had just worked on for over 20 minutes the night before, completely lifeless and hooked up to a ventilator. I sat with him for 12 hours. I sucked it up and shoved down my hurt. I knew my role.
Another time I was working segregation and I found an inmate lying lifeless after shoving a pencil into his neck with “judge” written on the cell wall in his blood. This inmate had been released from the Canadian army after serving our country on multiple tours. He was diagnosed with PTSD and somehow managed to end up in my segregation cell. I called for a medical alert and will never forget the smell of the cell when I opened it, or seeing fear in everyone’s eyes as we went in to save his life. He immediately started fighting us off screaming for us to let him die. I remember it taking 6 of us to hold him down and restrain him while waiting for the paramedics to arrive. He left escorted by 3 Officers and I remember walking to the staff room, covered in his blood feeling completely powerless. As I removed my soiled clothing I started internalizing blame. How could I let this happen? How could I not recognize the signs?
The last incident was when I returned an inmate to my unit from a visit, and I couldn’t even recognize the inmate standing on the other side of the grill in front of the locked door. There was so much blood. He had been beaten beyond recognition and the other inmates on the units closer to the staff area had been singing to cover up his cries for help. When I unlocked the door he was able to come out on his own. He told me he tried to get my attention and that I didn’t listen. He told me that I didn’t protect him and that this was my fault. He fell to his knees sobbing. He was admitted to the hospital with serious injuries and was lucky to be alive. He told me that he thinks he got hit with objects and stomped on the head over 50 times before losing consciousness.
There is a common theme between these three traumatic events and the situation where I was falsely accused. Spending an excessive amount of time in therapy, I have been able to recognize patterns of internalizing blame. I have even been able to date them back to instances during my childhood where I blamed myself when bad things happened.
When we hear of Post-Traumatic Stress, we often hear of stories involving brave soldiers coming home from war different from when they left. They experience intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares.
I was diagnosed with Depression and Anxiety in early 2015. Although the experience that provoked me to reach out for help does not qualify as traumatic according to the DSM-5 PTSD criteria, it was quite distressing and intrusive for me. Perhaps the psychiatrists’ inability to dig deeper at the time was the reason I fell through the cracks. I have learned that the reason it felt so traumatic for me was because it triggered an extreme emotional reaction to childhood interpersonal trauma that I had experienced where I was let down by someone who was supposed to protect me, where I experienced blame and felt powerless. The problem with PTSD is that it can be quite complex, especially when it stems from pre-exposure during childhood.
When it comes to trauma, early intervention is important. Often, victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse in childhood display behaviours that may come across as defiant. For instance- when I see a child displaying defiant behaviour, instead of immediately passing judgement I often wonder what they have experienced that is hurting them so badly, that they are unable to communicate in any other way?
More often than not, we do not remember childhood trauma and only learn about it in adulthood when we experience more trauma.
PTSD often mirrors other illnesses, such as Depression, Anxiety or ADHD. When I was numb and avoidant, I didn’t experience classic PTSD symptoms.
Before the trauma I have experienced began to surface, I was re-experiencing the pain, I just didn’t know it. The ways I would re-experience it was through physical reactions that showed up as panic attacks (I knew I had anxiety), extreme emotional reactivity to triggers (I thought I was just sensitive), and disassociation (I confused that for adrenalin).
It wasn’t until I started opening up and talking about my trauma that I experienced nightmares or flashbacks. Even now, while I occasionally experience these types of symptoms, I notice they can increase when I’m not sleeping well, when I’m under high stress or as I am processing some of the traumatic memories with my Therapist. Sometimes I experience the same nightmare over and over because my mind is trying to tell me a story and wants to ensure that I pay attention. It won’t stop coming until I further explore the subconscious memory of whatever it is that I am not dealing with. However the most common way I re-experience trauma is still by feeling overwhelmed with emotions that don’t make sense to what is actually going on around me.
For years I had been passing my hurt off to others…though I have always had a big heart, I absolutely had a hard outer shell; a subconscious fear response in place to protect myself from the deep rooted and complex hurt I wasn’t able to face up to.
I have learned that a majority of people get into helping professions because they are exposed to trauma early in life. I have also learned that this is why we have such a high rate of PTSD and suicide among First Responders. The pile can only get so big before it’s too big.
Fast forward to today, with an increased self awareness I am learning to manage my symptoms and triggers every day. I will be working for the rest of my life at continuing to grow and be better at this, but I’m up for the challenge. My life is different, but I am thankful for that. I am thankful for my struggle and the path it has led me on; a path to learning the skills and tools to cope.
The biggest thing I’ve learned is that we heal in connection. Often times the reason we get to the point we do is because we’re feeling alone and we believe that no one understands what we are experiencing. We suffer in silence.
My first exposure to leaning into healing in connection was when I decided to attend a six day female only S.O.L.E Sista Badge of Life Canada program in October 2019, a full year after my initial diagnosis. I learned that I am not alone in the things I am feeling. There are other people experiencing the very things I do. It was here that I really dug into processing some of the long standing pain through a variety of methods lead by volunteers who have survived lived experiences.
During this week long retreat I learned what it was like to feel completely vulnerable in a safe space. We engaged in activities that I never would have tried on my own including meditation, yoga, art therapy, equine assisted learning, and CrossFit.
Badge of Life Canada is a not for profit organization. The individuals involved are all volunteers who have committed their lives to helping others overcome trauma and Occupational Stress Injuries. This means there are no salaries and 100% of the proceeds that are donated to this organization go directly toward their programs and helping people just like me on the front line. For more information on, or to support this program please visit this link: https://badgeoflifecanada.org/
The biggest lesson I have taken into my home life is the impact of connection in a safe place. I have since opened my heart to lean into support groups where I have been able to continue to heal in connection. Being vulnerable, and feeling safe for someone who has experienced trauma is a battle, every single day.
I have committed to recognizing that my physical health has been extremely impacted by my mental health. I sought out a Nutritionist and in December, after a huge internal battle with myself, I began CrossFit. It was new and it was scary. I did several personal training sessions before diving into group sessions. Following my first group session I was able to hold it together long enough to get in my car and drive away. I bawled the whole way home. I felt like everyone in the room was judging me. They had all finished before I did and were all standing around watching me, and although they were cheering me on I felt completely overwhelmed with judgement. I talked to my Therapist about what had happened and what I was feeling. It took a lot of courage, but a couple days later I went back, and I realized the only person in the room who was judging me- was me. I took a step back and tried to be gentler with myself. Everyone starts somewhere. I’m showing up for myself. Physical activity has been an amazing tool in my recovery, and is the one thing that I have found that works to slow my racing mind.
I’m beginning to open my heart to try other new things when it feels safe to do so. I have learned that it takes a lot of courage and more importantly, patience when it comes to healing deep rooted trauma. The biggest force that holds me back is myself. I have learned that it’s a very fine line between pushing yourself and pushing yourself outside of your window of tolerance, which can be re-traumatizing and actually counterproductive. Lastly and most importantly- I have learned to set clear boundaries for myself and for others. I am grateful for how far I’ve come, and for those that have stood beside me along the way. I know I still have a lot of work to get where I want to be but there is light at the end of the tunnel and I will continue too take that little girl by the hand and we will find our way out of this, together.
I truly am thankful for my struggle because without it, I would have never found my strength. My worth is no longer defined by my job, my status, my struggles, or what other people think of me. I am re-defining my purpose everyday that I am alive and I am becoming a women who I am proud to be. I am engaged to a man who loves me for the real person I am. I am a dog mom, a daughter, a sister, a coach and a friend. I thrive in connection, and I have a deep sense of compassion for others. I have strong core values and beliefs. I am an advocate for change, and a natural leader. I am an individual on a journey building myself from the ground up. I have no idea where this journey will take me, but for now I am just taking it day by day, one step infront of the other and I am having trust in the process. I am still human, I am far from perfect. I still have hard days where I feel like giving up but then I remember why I don’t need to.
If you are interested in making a donation to Badge of Life Canada supporting police and corrections personnel who are dealing with psychological injuries diagnosed from service you can do this at this link: https://www.canadahelps.org/en/dn/31997