It has been over a year since I have posted anything here, and it has been a year full of, well, everything.
2020 brought us COVID-19 which effectively shut the country down and made toilet paper scarce, as well as made the use of masks mandatory and necessary. It also brought me two more back surgeries, a new wheelchair, and forced me to face my PTSD up close and personal.
I knew I suffered from PTSD because I was told I was, and because of all the recurring images of scenes, nightmares, the smell of blood and car fluids, and the uneasiness I felt when going near places and scenes that I had worked. I have been actively in therapy for it for the past few years with little to no relief.
One reason for this is I did not feel I met the criteria for the standard PTSD sufferer.
In most literature, and according to my therapists, I have PTSD because I feel negatively about myself and that I was not able to save the patients from their demise.
This is not true.
When I review all my scenes, I feel I was the best paramedic I could be, and I did everything within my power and skill to try to save these people. I have no doubts about my skills or the care I gave them. I do not feel negatively about myself because I know I did a great job for what was presented to me and the equipment I had.
I was an incredibly good paramedic. I am still an incredibly good paramedic.
This was confirmed to me by a comment made a few years ago by someone I used to work with. He said, “Jon, if I was ever in an accident or badly hurt, I hope I could look up from the street and see you there taking care of me.”
This means a lot to me and helps confirm that I did what I needed to do to try and save these victims of terrible situations.
So, what causes the PTSD if it is not negative feelings about myself or my care? I finally found the answer, as profound as it is, in a book by Dr. Bessel van der Kolk called The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma.
In chapter one he is discussing how he became involved in PTSD. He was a brand new staff psychiatrist at the Boston VA, fresh out of school, when he was approached by a Vietnam War veteran who was having nightmares and other psychological problems due to watching his entire platoon wiped out in a rice paddy in Vietnam. Dr. van der Kolk prescribed him some medicine to stop the nightmares since that seemed to be the main focus, and Dr. van der Kolk had performed research in a sleep lab focused on nightmares.
When Dr. van der Kolk saw the vet a few weeks later:
“I eagerly asked Tom how the medicines had worked. He told me he hadn’t taken any of the pills. Trying to conceal my irritation, I asked him why. ‘I realized that if I take the pills and the nightmares go away,’ he replied. ‘I will have abandoned my friends, and their deaths will have been in vain. I need to be a living memorial to my friends who died in Vietnam.’”[i]
“I need to be a living memorial…”
I read that and it struck me in a strange way, but I was not sure what that was at the time.
A few months later I was watching a lecture by Dr. van der Kolk on YouTube and he began his lecture with that story. This time it hit me like that proverbial ton of bricks.
I am a living memorial.
I am a living memorial to those people who died under my watch. I am the witness to their final moments. I am the one that understands their final situation, what they were going through, the fear, the pain, the acceptance.
I do not have that negative image of myself as a victim, or of having survivor’s guilt. I don’t think negatively of myself regarding my patients dying while in my care. I actually have a positive outlook that I did right for the situation, the resources available to me, and my training.
I have chosen to be the memorial for those who can no longer speak for themselves, and for the many who have no family to remember them, or those who have families that remember the good times. I am their witness to them leaving this world and traveling into the next, great unknown.
I am their living memorial, and it is because of that choice that I am haunted.
Note: If you are having any thoughts of suicide or just need someone to talk to, call (800) 273-8255, or go to https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/.
[i] Van der Kolk, B., The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind, and Body in the Healing of Trauma, Penguin Books, New York, New York (2014), p. 9-10,