While I was a student at Save-My-Life School, a combo of the Partial Hospitalization Program at Royal Victoria Hospital in Barrie, Ont. and the Homewood Health Centre in Guelph, Ont., my teacher told me I needed to "get comfortable with uncomfortable."
At first I was confused by this request, but with some thought I knew what she was referring to — that we would be delving into deep emotional topics normally avoided during the mental health program. That we would experience distressing moods we would normally numb. But immediately my brain also related this complex phrase to something else — being a paramedic.
Over my 11 years of being a paramedic, I became very comfortable with uncomfortable and I can tell you how unhealthy this was. I became acclimatized to a life with horrific memories, relentless nightmares, and ingrained images of sadness and pain.
That may sound barbaric to anyone not in the emergency services field, but it was literally part of my almost-daily life. Devil's advocates out there may be saying to themselves that I signed up for it, but I didn't.
I signed up for an amazing career allowing me to help people on such an extraordinary level — no one signs up for mental turmoil. This turmoil led me to live in a world haunted with darkness and demons.
It's not normal to pick up a limb from the road.
I signed up for the chance to save people's lives — no one signs up for memories of patients screaming in pain. Memories that haunted me while shopping for groceries in my waking hours and followed me at night into dreams that became nightmares.
I signed up to achieve educational goals — no one signs up for drowning sorrows in vices. My vice? Alcohol and prescriptions drugs.
I thought I would be "strong enough" to avoid being uncomfortable, but NO ONE IS.
First responders are some kick-ass people! But signing up to be one didn't mean I had signed my heart away.
It's not normal to have a person ask you to "just take their leg and arm off" because they were experiencing so much pain from being trapped in a car with multiple open fractures all over their body.
It's not normal to learn that the patient who hanged himself the night before had a second noose waiting for his wife had his son not called 9-1-1 at the right time, foiling his plan.
It's not normal to pick up a limb from the road.
It's not normal to experience and see the look of true evil when you learn how two innocent women were murdered.
It's not normal to watch someone die right before your very eyes more times than you could count.
What first responders do ISN'T normal.
So why would we think it's OK to be comfortable with that? Why would it be any surprise to hear that first responders are dying every month because they can't take the memories any longer?
I'm uncomfortable with how comfortable we've become.
Canadian paramedics have a suicide rate five times higher than the national average. We are losing great caregivers because we comfortably assume they don't need assistance processing the daily trauma they endure just doing their job, day after day after day.
I struggled for years, with addiction, anger, depression and sadness, until I decided it was time for me to die. I didn't want to be on this planet if I couldn't see happiness any longer.
I'm one of the lucky ones who got help.
Slowly, one day at a time, I started to heal.
Five days a week, the Partial Hospitalization Program taught me about my emotions, how it was OK to feel them, that they would always pass, and that I shouldn't give permanent reality to temporary things.
It's where I learned what co-dependency was and how to heal from it — and to see myself and my needs as worthy. I participated in classes about spirituality, wellness and addiction education. I learned how to cope and control anxiety symptoms. I made crisis plans and I made friends, and more than anything, I became humble. I learned how important it was to "play the tape to the end" to avoid horrible consequences to toxic spontaneous actions. Slowly, one day at a time, I started to heal.
My family and friends have a new healthy Natalie. My kids tell me how much more fun I am, and more patient. I teach them about love and how to send it out to everyone they meet. I feel that by watching me heal, they have, too. I am not worried to tell them if I'm having a sad day, because that's all it is... sadness, a normal human emotion I don't hide from anymore. I feel it, accept why it's there and let it move through me.
I take time to laugh with them without the smell of alcohol on my breath. I have more energy than I ever thought was possible, now that I don't spend it stifling emotions I was too afraid to address for so many years. We always talked all the time while I was sick, but now I listen a lot more. I soak up every word they say and appreciate how now that I'm out of the fog, I see how brightly they shine, and how beautiful their little hearts are. I use to NEVER think I was a good mom... but now I KNOW I am.
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I am no longer a practicing paramedic, but I participated in a documentary film about the issue of our mental health to help everyone stop pretending to be comfortable with the uncomfortable things we witness. It will premiere on April 8 on CBC and will also be available online April 6.
I continue to speak, write and advocate for mental health, because paramedics and other first responders need to feel safe identifying and addressing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other mental illnesses.
And because I'm uncomfortable with how comfortable we've become.
BHSc, AEMCA, ACP
Founder of Wings of Change Peer Support
Author of "Save-My-Life School"
Host of BrainStorm Podcast
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