I wake gasping, sitting bolt upright in bed at 3am. Always at 3am for some reason. It feels as if there is not enough air in the room. Gradually the details of where I am start coming back and I am able to be calm enough to begin to shake it off. However now it is 3am and I can’t get back to sleep, my adrenalin is racing. I stay up until I am tired, usually around 430am and then try and go back to bed. Of course I have to be up at 6am to go to work. When I finally get out of bed at 6am, I feel like I could sleep for a week and have a low level headache accompanying everything I do. I wish I could call in sick, but then if I did that I would be doing it for the rest of my life, because most days start like this.
Hello, I am Andrew D, I am currently a clinical social worker in the field of mental health and justice. My story is entitled “If you fall down six times, get up seven” a journey of a PTSD survivor. The title comes from Martial arts where falling down and learning how to get back up is part of the philosophy.
The reactions I just described are some of the after effects I experience on a regular basis as part of being diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Other reactions include flashbacks. The 3am waking are often the result of the flashbacks. During the flashback I will be re-living a traumatic event in my life, and it will feel as real to me as if I am actually in the situation. These flashbacks often result in what I described earlier, sleep disturbances.
Other sleep disturbances I experience can occur without my knowledge. I think that my wife suffers as much as I do from having to live with me. I will often wake up in the morning. Bone weary tired with no knowledge of what went on. My wife will describe experiences ranging from me sitting bolt upright suddenly and shouting orders to me,talking loudly, to instances where I flail my arms about and she has to protect herself from getting hit. She describes that as suddenly as I start my reactions however, I just as suddenly stop, and will go back to sleep with no explanation, leaving her to become fully awake and wonder what has happened. It gets so at times that I dread going to sleep.
Post Traumatic Stress is caused by repeated exposure to trauma, especially if that trauma is extreme.
For me the trauma started, when fresh out of University, I was hired to go into the Penitentiaries and interview offenders about their psychological and psychiatric issues.
This was the start of my falling down period.
In one instance, I walked into a range in the bowels of the pen, where tiers of cells stretched up above me. At the request of the officer, if anyone was interested in being interviewed, the offenders began to rain down objects from their cells on me. Seeing that I had got my answer I quickly left. In another instance, I was interviewing an offender in Saskatchewan at a regional Psychiatric hospital. I was equipped with a panic alarm and told to press it if I ran into any trouble. During our discussion, the offender disclosed to me that “he had broken the farm.” I naively asked what “broke the farm” meant and the offender proceeded to show me, throwing chairs, overturning the desk, while I crouched in the corner pushing my panic button repeatedly.
During my time in Kingston, I volunteered for The Victim Crisis Assistance and Referral Service.
The police would call us volunteers when they had people in crisis and couldn’t remain on the scene. For two years I was called out late at night to comfort victims of crime, I was exposed to everything from domestic violence to car accidents. In those days, there was no debriefing or crisis counselling after I had experienced a traumatic or violent event. I would just go home and be expected to carry on as if nothing had happened.
After leaving Kingston I moved to Toronto and worked for a mental health agency that had just begun taking patients with a diagnosis of Psychotic disorder. I was part of a team that provided therapeutic restraint when the patients would begin exhibiting violent behavior.
During the training for this, one of the patients I worked with got so upset he broke a toilet tank in half and then began kicking one of the pregnant staff in the belly.
My day consisted of an alarm going off and I would rush to the location and participate in a therapeutic restraint, taking the person to the ground and restraining them until the episode subsided. It got so during this time that I was hearing alarms in my sleep and this is the period where my sleep disturbance began. In another instance with this agency, I and another staff member were transporting a group of patients in a van along the 401 when the patients began to act out aggressively in a physical manner. We had to pull over, radio for help and attempt to contain the individuals until backup arrived. In another instance, a patient who greeted me each morning with a hug punched me instead knocking me down, it turns out he had had a bad night and no one thought to warn me.
Another worker who took one of my regular patients for the evening, committed suicide one day and no one told me. I stood there with patient waiting at the door, until finally someone noticed me there and explained. I stayed in that job, until during a restraint I dislocated my kneecap, and went back to Kingston to recover.
While in Kingston, walking down the street of my home town University, during Frosh Week I was accosted by a University student, running up behind me and yelling “FROSH!” loudly in my ear. Before I knew it, I had grabbed the individual, knocked his legs out from under him and had him in restraint position. It was not until my friends pulled me off that I realized what I was doing. To this day I cannot experience people running up behind me quickly without having a major reaction of fight or flight.
I was accepted into Correctional Officer training and experienced eleven weeks where each week I faced the fear of trying to learn the information so as to face a test at the end of the week that was either pass or fail. Each night my night terrors would invade my dreams and leave me in a panic sweat the next morning. I failed in the last week as my knee injury prevented me from passing the arrest and control portion of the training.
I applied for the police forces in my area, The Ontario Provincial Police, The RCMP and I took part in a testing process for local municipal forces, only to discover that I was color blind and therefore not eligible.
Discouraged by this I went on to get my social work degree in Ottawa. During this time I continued to put myself in trauma inducing and adrenalin fueled situations. As I worked towards my degree I hired on as a child and youth worker for a group home. I was employed as a casual, working in whatever home was short staffed and often being called to homes where a child was in crisis. I would repeatedly go into unfamiliar situations with the sound of screams and bangs to greet me where I would be immediately thrust into a situation where a child was acting out violently, physically or emotionally. In one instance, I was the only staff on when the residents took fire extinguishers and broke all the lights in the house, and then ran around in the darkness spraying the foam. In another instance I was asked to watch three girls in a home, who unbeknownst to me where francophone speaking, while I didn’t speak French. During the course of the evening they hatched a plan in French, barricaded their room with a dresser then went out the window with a bed sheet. On one of my rounds I went to check, discovered the dresser and then ran outside where I could see the bed sheet. They were eventually recovered and they sent over a female staff that was fluently bilingual.
I left Ottawa, got married and moved to Nova Scotia where I began working in child protection. Child protection in Nova Scotia was very different from my placement in Ottawa. In rural Nova Scotia, I was always from “away” and everyone in the area began to know what my car looked like. My PTSD symptoms continued to manifest in that I would always volunteer for the difficult duties. I was often one of the first to volunteer for apprehensions and I would regularly be on call where in the early morning it would be me and a police officer trying to decide if we should take children into care. Taking a child into care was often accompanied by the screaming parents and the crying child. One time I had to gently attempt to pry a child’s fingers off a porch railing which she had clung to because she didn’t want to leave her family. Every time I apprehended a child, I was also aware that I would need to appear in family court within the week to justify the apprehension. There I would be exposed re-traumatisation, having to re-live the event and endure cross examination and the wrath of the parents all over again.
For me one of the biggest side effects of PTSD is that I have become an adrenaline junkie. It’s as if the valve that runs adrenaline into my body is broken and instead of only running when I need it, like when I am in danger, it runs all the time and doesn’t shut off. I hate the after effects of adrenaline, with my heart and blood racing, yet in another way I crave it as well.
My marriage broke up around this time and I left Child Protection on stress leave, never to return. I fell into a period of clinical depression where I did nothing but sleep for months.
Eventually I climbed out of it with the help of therapy and a new partner and realized I had to go back to work. So I found a job in a maximum jail in Ontario as a social worker. Packing all my belongings in a van, I hugged my kids’ goodbye, a trauma in itself, and my partner and I drove to Ontario.
The jail consisted of six social workers to a ratio of fourteen hundred inmates. While here I continued my pattern of adrenalin fueled behavior, volunteering for suicide assessments, working the segregation range where I would routinely be greeted by screams and loud bangs, working late into the night with offenders in crisis, not seeing my partner much at all. On the weekends I took a job at a group home whose mission was to transition patients from a nearby Psychiatric institution to reintegrate in to Community living. Staff was assaulted on a routine basis at this home and was forced to endure regular acts of violence as belongings were thrown everywhere. The worst part of it was that the acts would come out of the blue. As a staff person, I would just be sitting down with a coffee, when suddenly screaming and banging would erupt. I became accustomed to rapidly springing into action at a moments notice. It got so that when I was at home, I couldn’t sit still being in a state of constant hypervigilence.
During this time, my partner and I were invited to a casino. Not being a regular I wasn’t aware that when one person left their seat at a slot machine, another would rush in to fill it. As a symptom of my hyper vigilance, my partner got up from her machine and a man rushed over. Believing her to be threatened, I grabbed him by the belt as he was rushing and tossed him across the casino. We were asked to leave.
Then one day I walked into a training session on working with sexual offenders that started with a DVD presentation of a famous sexual abuse case. At the end of that training and for a year afterwards I began to have physiological reactions, as if I was having a seizure and my face drooped on one side as if I was having a stroke. Several doctors could find nothing wrong with me until a neurologist, asked me if I had been sexually abused. It all came back, all the horrible memories I had suppressed since ten years old. As awful as it was to deal with the fallout of these memories, I honestly believe that this helped save my life. The reactions forced me to slow down and get help. It broke the pattern for me, for once I had to focus on myself and not rush headlong into another trauma filled event. I also began to see a pattern in my life. I had repeatedly put myself in adrenalin fueled, trauma inducing situations so as to not have to think about the abuse and its effects. As well I felt a need to prove to myself that the abuse was not my fault and that I could take care of myself, so put myself in situations where I could test myself and prove this.
Once I came to this realization, this was the start of my getting up phase. I was diagnosed with PTSD and began therapy with a clinician that regularly worked with first responders and I learned how to take control of my nightmares. I read everything I could on Post traumatic Stress and its treatment. I have studied mindfulness techniques and work on practicing meditation. The difference now is that I am trying to be compassionate with myself. My symptoms of PTSD will never go away but I can manage them better and not let them impact my life as much. I have stopped re-traumatizing myself. I take a step back now before volunteering for something, and try and think about the effect it will have on my health.
I recognize I will have good and bad days, and that sometimes depression is something I have to endure. However I also realize I cannot manage it all on my own. This ability to let go is a big step for me, being in control, and trying to control everything around me is a symptom of my PTSD. I have listened to the advice of my family doctor and have been prescribed medication to assist me.
I have developed a bed time sleep hygiene routine and routinely avoid watching any adrenaline producing shows before bed time. I stay away from the news in the morning as I am going to work as I don’t want to start my day with trauma, I routinely check in with myself to monitor my reactions and feelings.
I try now to appreciate the good things in my life and recognize the angels who help me on my path. I have taken part in a recovery group called “ManTalk” where I can talk about my experiences and work on my recovery. I have re-joined the choir at my local church, a big step for me as it was in a church choir that I was abused. I try and have faith that the glass is half full.
I have even begun realizing that having been diagnosed with PTSD and being an abuse survivor, allows me to relate empathetically to others experiencing mental health issues and I feel that it deepens my understanding in the clinical work that I do now.
Overall I feel as if I have gotten up that seventh time and am looking forward to the future.