Trigger Warning: This story contains details and imagery of suicide and addiction that may be triggering to some.
“His name was Jon. At least I think his name was Jon. If I have learned anything over the past two years of treatment for C-PTSD, it’s that you might not remember things the way they were. Trauma makes your brain do some interesting things. When I was on a ski trip with my school in fourth grade, I fell and injured my leg, badly. Hypothermia was setting in, and after a rescue off the hill, an ambulance came to take me to the children’s hospital. This is where Jon comes in. He was my paramedic. He made me smile through the tears and he made me feel safe, not easy for a stranger tasked with an injured kid desperately wanting her mom. Jon left a permanent, life-altering mark on my life. Jon is why I decided to become a paramedic.
From that day forward, I dedicated my entire life to becoming a paramedic. It became a small obsession. In the words of James Hetfield, ‘Exit light, enter night, off to never never land.’— The summary of a search I was participating in, day in and day out. The ever-elusive, ‘Never never land.’ Silence. Darkness. I would leave shift, my mind racing—a loop of the calls I did. The words I spoke. The treatments I gave. I second-guessed every single thing I did. From the hand-holding to the high acuity ‘life saving’ interventions. It didn’t matter. Rest was something I wasn’t sure even existed at this point. The balancing act I was attempting between being a paramedic, a mother, a spouse, a friend, a human in general, was beginning to topple over. The teeter-totter was starting to touch the ground with my internal battle going up higher, coming closer to being exposed for everyone to see. I was unraveling.
Years ago, I had figured out the perfect sleeping ritual—50mg Gravol, 50mg Benadryl, and an eye cover. I’d slip into darkness, slightly numb, possibly from the medications, but most likely due to the emotional barricade I had strategically placed in my brain over the years. I refused to feel a thing. The shift, work, and calls were slowly starting to chip away at my sanity. On the exterior, I was an image of a put-together, happy woman. My hair and makeup done for every shift, regardless of my choice of 2 hours of restless sleep riddled with nightmares or a drug-induced semi-coma. I would appear to be FINE, no matter what it took. Eventually, my perfect cocktail failed me. Tolerance, I suppose. It took me longer to fade into nothingness or it didn’t work at all. I would wake up from my nightmares and take several days to recover, wondering if they happened or not. I couldn’t figure out what reality was. I would question my sanity for hours every day. I’d put my mask on and continue forward.
One part of my brain carrying on the Oscar-winning performance. The other part trying to decipher if I was schizophrenic or if the dreaded PTSD monster had come for me. At this point, I would have rather had schizophrenia. I did not deserve PTSD. I wasn’t a good enough paramedic, like it was a twisted badge of honor. In the fall of 2016, I was headed on a vacation. Before I left, I went to a walk-in clinic and asked for some Ativan to avoid being kicked off my flight, thanks to my new extreme fear of flying. I took the prescribed 1 mg. I cried the entire flight, convinced the plane would crash. The anxiety was unlike anything I had ever experienced. It was absolutely crippling. I could literally feel my pupils dilating and my blood pressure pounding through my head. Useless Ativan. It stayed in my medicine cabinet for months, untouched.
In the winter of 2016, I was working a lot, primarily nights or evenings, due to the shift premiums paying more. Two back-to-back highway fatalities before Christmas were weighing me down. That wasn’t my MO. Calls didn’t bother me. We ordered Chinese food on Christmas Eve. I remember trying to hide my tears in a plate full of food so my family wouldn’t see. The thought of two families missing their traditions was almost unbearable in the moment. I couldn’t help but wonder if those two fatalities would have ordered Chinese food with their loved ones. The teeter-totter was tilting down from the weight of my guilt. The trauma from the calls I had attended over the years was haunting me.
My sleeping was becoming worse and worse. One day in a desperate fatigue, it dawned on me—the Ativan. I needed the Ativan. Wine helped, but I felt terrible the next day, so if I took the Ativan with wine, I wouldn’t have a straight-booze hangover and I could function for my shift the next day. I just needed ONE good night of sleep. I took 2mg. I drank a HUGE glass of my favorite red. I slipped into darkness, not giving a sh*t about how I got my peace. No nightmares. No sweating. No pacing the house. Just darkness. It was a slippery slope, one that came with no warning at all. 2017 came. I had a bad feeling about this new year. My gut told me I wouldn’t survive it.
I was not suicidal at this point, I just had some intuition my train was about to derail with epic proportions. I was drinking a lot. I was taking Ativan regularly, justifying it because it was a prescription and because I’m a paramedic and I understand pharmacology. Something snapped along the way. I stopped feeling. I stopped living what little life I had left. I like to refer to it as ‘living with sh*t-covered glasses.’ Everything in my world was sh*t. My PTSD symptoms were raging and I refused to acknowledge they existed. I was hearing things. I was seeing things. It was utter chaos. I trudged on day after day. Slapping my uniform on, slapping the mask on, and playing hero over and over like some sort of torture only a crazed monster could inflict on their victim.
In June of 2017, I had researched the purchase of a gun for several months by this point. The thought of my death was one of the only things keeping me going. The thought that soon I could have permanent relief from my own madness. I was to meet the guy selling the gun in a parking lot. I drove out there, with more determination than I had felt in ages, only to be stood up by the person who was going to sell me my final solution. Now I was livid. Over the course of the next few months, my addiction would spiral out of control. I continued my nightly ritual of wine, Ativan, and the odd Percocet, if I could get my hands on it. I lined up my life insurance policies. I knew I was going to die one way or another.
I do not actually know why I picked the night I picked. I don’t even remember the date. I worked a day shift and calculated in the back of the ambulance what I would need to take in order to overdose properly. I had written out over 30 pages of suicide notes, begging my family to fight for other paramedics in my honor. I wrote, ‘I can’t keep fighting, but please don’t let another paramedic go through this pain.’ I was too far gone, but maybe they could save someone else from this fate. My dream career would kill me. How disappointing. I tossed back the pre-calculated medications. I drank an entire bottle of wine. I let the warm bath take over my body. Except, I forgot about the whole vomiting part.
I vividly remember the smell of my vomit. I was literally in a bathtub full of my own puke. My spouse was convinced by me to not call EMS. I pleaded with him to let me sleep it off and spent the night on the tile floor, passively vomiting. I have no recall of the next day. The depression I was about to enter would be a black hole. You would think swimming in my own puke would be rock bottom? Nope, it just pissed me off. February 10, 2018—my 31st birthday. I kept all the receipts so I could return the gifts and give everyone their money back. No one knew this but me, but I was going to die in 4 days. I had been hoarding IV drugs for a few weeks. I had the supplies. I had the location picked out. I was prepared. I was the calmest I had felt in years.
February 12, 2018, I was reprimanded for a minor issue at work. This issue turned out to be the straw that would break the camel’s back. My house of cards toppled. I had an emotional breakdown in the middle of my EMS hall. I was sent home from my shift, and that night, my phone would ring. It was a paramedic I didn’t know. His voice on the other end of the phone said, ‘You’re going to be okay.’ He caught wind of my spiral out of control. This stranger told me, ‘You’re not alone.’ So many simple words strung together so perfectly—they saved my life. My plan for Feb 14, 2018 would be postponed for now. It was my last day of work, and the first day of a battle I had no idea I had the strength to fight.
February 13, 2018. I was off work now. I was alone. I kicked my spouse out of the house so I could freely drink and go into drug-induced periods of darkness while avoiding the feelings of failing my family. I essentially gave up custody of my daughter. I didn’t want her to see the train wreck that was her mom. If I survived this process, hopefully I could shield her from witnessing this gruesome part of it. I would disappear for days, getting so drunk and high I would sleep in cars, on floors, in random hotels. When I was sober, I would drive around aimlessly and wander through any forested area I could find. I would leave the trees and face the reality of an empty house. I would get drunk and high to numb the pain and loneliness. I would convince myself daily I was making the right choice, keeping my family away from me. This cycle went on for 3 months straight.
March 2018. I was now going to weekly psychologist appointments and having assessments done to design the appropriate treatment program for me. I curbed my drinking and drug use to… less binge-like? I used them strictly as a ‘sleeping tool.’ The 7 days in-between appointments were agonizing. Lonely. Terrifying. The words PTSD, major depressive disorder, addiction, suicide, were all being spoken about me freely. I thought, ‘Uh hello? I’m a paramedic. Not a psych patient.’
In April of 2018, I’d seen my daughter for a total of 7 days last month. I sobbed every single night. I welcomed my nightmares at this point to curb the silence and loneliness. I had never felt so empty in my entire life.
In May of 2018, I had no medication left. I lay awake in bed shaking, hot and cold, sick to my stomach. I was drenched in sweat, staring out my bedroom window, and I began to come to terms with the fact I was a drug addict and an alcoholic. I was withdrawing. After a hellish process, I was finally scheduled to enter a treatment program. I made a conscious decision I would do this sober. I would get this recovery right the first time. I was taking Ativan and Percocet heavily for weeks leading up to my first appointment with my new psychologist and treatment team. My anxiety of ‘what if this doesn’t work?’ was crippling me. It felt like this program was do or die. I felt like my life was dependent on these strangers, and they didn’t even know it.
My intake appointments were booked the first week of June. I had to call in sick for all of them. I had cut myself off drugs and alcohol cold turkey and was going through full withdrawal. I lied to everyone and claimed, ‘I’ve come down with the nasty bug my daughter has recently brought home.’ In reality, I was puking until my throat was raw, changing my clothes hourly, thanks to the cold sweats, and begging for mercy from this pain. The only thought processes my brain was able to comprehend was my unwillingness to let the drugs back in. I was fixated on getting rid of this vice, once and for all.
From my experience in the streets, I knew if my withdrawals didn’t kill me from an unwitnessed seizure, they were only temporary. ‘F*ck you, PTSD, and everything you took from me. I am completely done with this.’ And just like that, 6 days later, I woke up and realized I hadn’t soaked through my sheets. I had no pain in my body. The ringing in my ears was gone. As cheesy as it sounds, I looked out my window and saw the sun coming up. I saw it with the most clarity I had felt in years. I was okay. I was going to be okay.
In February of 2019, I returned to work after completing 365 days of treatment. I was sober. I put my uniform back on and held my head high. Unfortunately, 4 short months after my return to the streets, I had relapsed. My symptoms of PTSD had crept back in, and it became noticeably clear I was looking at being permanently restricted from my position as an advanced care paramedic. I re-entered treatment and, in the beginning of 2020, I hung up my uniform for the final time, after practicing as a paramedic for 13 years.
My struggle with PTSD is not an uncommon one. It became apparent through my journey I was not unique with what happened to me. Many suffer in silence and some have paid the ultimate price. My journey through recovery led me to begin a non-profit organization that supports first responders’ mental health. I am also a full-time university student, working towards becoming a psychologist. I never wanted my career as a paramedic to end like this, but what matters is I am alive. I am sober, and I get a second chance at life. Most importantly, I get to pay my recovery forward and guide other first responders through their struggles.
A uniform is not a cape. First responders are ordinary humans working extraordinary jobs. It is okay for them to not be okay. To anyone out there reading this, if this resonates with you, you’re not alone. No one has to fight this battle alone. You can get better, and you deserve a life free from the pain and trauma you may carry with you from your career. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help—you are so worthy. PTSD is treatable, and you can recover. There is light at the end of the tunnel. Please hang on.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Laura Szarka of Alberta, Canada. You can follow her journey on Instagram and her website. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.
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