Skip to content

LETTER: Post-traumatic stress disorder is a family disease

Suffering is a huge part of the human condition, which is why we need to build a support system of family and friends and keep the lines of communication open by becoming a better listener.

To the editor, 

May 4 will mark five years since I entered the WSIB Mental Stress Injury Program. After a 30-year career as a front-line paramedic, working in a system that did not provide any mental health support to first responders, I had become a prisoner in my own mind, trapped by thoughts of hopelessness, abandonment, and anger.  

Every day was filled with one negative emotion after another, as I found myself caught up in a loop of negative thought patterns. With the horrific events I witnessed over my 30-year career replaying over and over in my mind, I obsessed about the past while also feeling anxious about the future, leaving me unable to deal with the present moment.

I was not myself, lashing out at work and at home. Due to a lack of awareness about PTSD at my workplace, these symptoms were eventually used against me rather than being offered any type of support. Three decades of dealing with fatal heart attacks, suicides, and traumatic deaths were completely ignored as I began to be called in by management to address complaints about my attitude.

I finally broke and I became unable to function at work. Instead of being offered help, I was abandoned to sit at home. It was during this period of solitude when I learned that PTSD sufferers feel isolated and alone because they are isolated and alone.  

The isolation worsened because I no longer wanted to see friends or family due to an irrational fear of being judged. I did not know who to trust anymore. I battled anxiety and insomnia, only sleeping a couple of hours a night.

I soon slipped into a deep, dark depression, feeling beaten down and broken, a victim of my own mind. I was in complete denial as to the gravity of my situation and how everyone around me was being impacted by the ugliness of my PTSD. It was frightening to live like that and I needed to be saved from myself.

It was only when a colleague reached out to me, insisting I get help, that I realized how bad my situation truly was. I am so glad that I listened to my friend and sought out help.  

I credit the WSIB Mental Stress Injury Program with saving my life. I would like to share my healing journey of saving myself from myself and help raise awareness about PTSD by normalizing the symptoms, and providing a sense of hope for other first responders and their families who feel they are stuck in their own mental prison.  I have learned that PTSD is a family disease.  

When I first entered the Mental Stress Injury Program, I had no idea that I was embarking on the greatest journey of my life. I spoke with a psychologist as well as an occupational therapist, both of whom educated me and guided me throughout my healing journey. They helped me put the pieces of my puzzle together, allowing me to heal.  

I was given the skills to treat PTSD and my first lesson was to put my mental health first and acknowledging how PTSD impacts the family. I learned to focus on getting the proper amount of sleep. If you cannot sleep, you cannot heal. That became the golden rule of recovery. 

It was difficult to come to terms with the fact that I had fallen into a huge trap which spanned across all professions, snaring front-line workers and management alike . . . identity loss.  I learned that I had allowed my ego to get too attached to my profession. As a result, when my professional career crashed, my ego crashed with it, and with it, my loss of identity.  Identity loss was something I had never even heard of.

My psychologist and my occupational therapist showed me how to release myself from the shackles of PTSD by teaching me how to let go of the destructive parts of my character. This included the parts of me that had lashed out at coworkers, as well as my family.

I learned that the best way to battle anxiety was to turn energy inward and focus on the conscious breath.  

In my early days, I was told that therapy is 10 per cent inspiration and 90 per cent perspiration, with psychology and occupational therapy providing the 10 per cent inspiration, and me providing the 90 per cent perspiration. With hope for recovery, I was willing to do anything to free myself from my mental prison. 

My psychologist explained that the main cause of families breaking down after PTSD was the lines of communication being cut off at home. He said that the children of those experiencing PTSD suffer as well because they take this lack of communication personally thinking they did something wrong.  

I was advised to focus on reopening those lines of communication with family and friends and ensure that they stay open by sharing these skills. I was also advised to keep the lines of communication open with myself by journaling or keeping a diary.

Journaling became a life changer. It helped reveal that my stress was tied to the toxicity and trash found everywhere in our modern-day life. We all generate it, and are forced to deal with it, but we rarely dispose of it properly. Instead, we allow this trash to pile up and overtake us.

My psychologist taught me that the best way to deal with an overflowing mental trash can was to empty out the trash into a journal. This enabled me to get the garbage out of my head and out, onto paper. Journaling became my mirror of self-reflection, a mentor, and a friend, as journaling allowed me to explore my inner world.  It was a terrific recovery tool that allowed me to voice my inner thoughts by writing about everything I was learning.

I journaled about the ups and downs of recovery, as well as my desire to forgive others, as well as myself.  I reminded myself not to take other people’s actions personally, and to replace judgment with compassion.  I wrote about wanting to be a better husband and a better person.  Perhaps the biggest impact journaling had on me was sleep.

After I emptied the trash, I educated myself on how to use my very own endocannabinoid system to help decrease my anxiety and improve my sleep. I learned that “motion is the lotion” for our bodies and for our minds, and that “if you want to improve then you have got to move.”

I snapped out of my depression by using the transformative powers of music and exercise, often combining both. I also listened to self-help books while walking outdoors. I practiced the teachings of Eckhart Tolle every day and learned how to become the observer of my thoughts and not to identify with destructive thinking.

All my suffering was due to compulsive, negative, judgmental, egoic thinking, which had left me stuck, either in the past or in the future.  By replacing my destructive thinking with creative learning, I was able to change all of that. 

Walking and fresh air were also doing wonders for my sleep. Simple breathing exercises, taught to me by my occupational therapist, soon replaced all those nights staring at the ceiling, lost in thought. Finally, I could say goodnight to insomnia. I began to get eight-hours of sleep at night, and I woke up feeling refreshed and ready to take on the day. This kicked my healing into overdrive, exactly like the golden rule had promised.  

My occupational therapist also taught me about Post Traumatic Growth. For the first time in years, I was offered a sense of hope by learning that PTSD does not have to be a life sentence. Instead, it can be a portal into the wonderful world of Post Traumatic Growth, where one can achieve positive psychological change after experiencing adversity due to trauma or a highly challenging circumstance in their life.

These traumatic experiences have the potential to allow sufferers to consciously evolve, becoming more spiritual and having a greater sense of empathy and compassion for themselves and others. 

My healing journey is not over. However, I have learned that we all have two wolves within each of us; one that is good, and one that is evil. The wolf that survives is the one that you feed. I also learned that whatever kind of energy you throw out into the universe, whether it be good or bad, eventually echoes back at you.

Suffering is a huge part of the human condition, which is why we need to build a support system of family and friends and keep the lines of communication open by becoming a better listener.

Finally, the most valuable lesson I learned was realizing that I was not alone and that I was not the problem. It is the system that is the problem.  

In order to fix the system, we must all start to accept that it needs fixing.  Improving employees’ lives begins by focusing on knocking down walls and building bridges between management and staff to provide proper support.  Support will allow all staff members access to the help they need so they can acquire the skills such as the ones that my therapists have helped me acquire.

This will allow sufferers to focus on what really matters in life by reconnecting them with their families, and ultimately helping those suffering from mental stress injuries to reconnect with themselves.  


Pat Dixon
Retired paramedic living in Thunder Bay

push icon
Be the first to read breaking stories. Enable push notifications on your device. Disable anytime.
No thanks