From: British Columbia
Canadian Army, PPCLI
That’s how I’d describe the majority of my post-military career as a paramedic in British Columbia. Haunted by the ghosts of one terrible call after another, I finally reached my breaking point in 2011 when the once-hidden signs of my PTSD spilled out in an embarrassingly public way. At that moment, I was forced to make a choice: overcome the ghosts of my past or let them overcome me.
Growing up, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t want to be a soldier. One of my earliest memories is of my Grandmother asking me at age 4, “Stephen, what do you want to be when you grow up?” In no uncertain terms, I told her I wanted to be a soldier. That interest never went away. At 12, I joined up with the Royal Canadian Army Cadets and, for the next 5 years, traveled the country and had the time of my young life. By the time I turned 17, I was ready. Everyone told me basic training would be rough, but I didn’t care. I’d spent my entire life preparing for this moment. So, when I got to Cornwallis, I was ready.
After basic training, my career in the military turned out to be standard issue. I started with the Seaford Highlanders Infantry Reserve in 1979. A year and a half later, I joined the Regular Forces and relocated to Winnipeg with the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. In the Winter of 1982, I deployed to Cyprus for a special assignment with the United Nations. There, I had the chance to drive for Lady Patricia, The Countess Mountbatten of Burma as she served as Commander and Chief of the Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry. I spent the second half of my career on active duty (1984-88) in Germany as a part of the NATO Forces. I’d later serve two more stints in the Reserves: the 12th Medical Company out of Vancouver (1990-92) and the 6th Field Combat Engineers out of North Vancouver (2008-10). I had volunteered for each during the Gulf and Afghanistan Wars but ultimately didn’t get to deploy to either theatre of war.
Searching for What Comes Next
When it came time to leave the service in 1988, I had no idea what would happen next. One of the primary goals of military training is to break a recruit down and refashion them in the image of an ideal soldier. With me, the Army more than accomplished its goal. While I was still in, my buttoned-up, no-nonsense mentality was precisely as it should have been. The civilian world, on the other hand, thought otherwise. I can admit now that I was more of a jerk than I should have been. And because I hadn’t yet adjusted to a more appropriately civilian attitude, work wasn’t easy to come by. The best I could find was a security job making $7 an hour.
During my stint with the 2nd Battalion in Winnipeg, I had met my first wife. By the time I left the service, we had two kids under the age of three. Needless to say, $7 an hour wasn’t going to cut it. Not sure what to do, I got on the phone with my parents. My father was a paramedic with BC Ambulance Service. He told me they were hiring and that it was time to come home to Port Coquitlam. While my parents thought it’d be a great idea, I didn’t. I’d never been much interested in his line of work. Still, I didn’t have a choice. So, I hopped a bus on a Friday, rolled into town on Sunday, and began first aid training on Monday. After 2 weeks of intensive training and 3 months of ride-alongs, I was finally ready to get to work.
Have Yourself a Dreary Little Christmas
In a lot of ways, the ambulance is where my story begins. My military career had been hard, but in all the ways I expected. Transition to civilian life was challenging, but I made it through. The ambulance was something else entirely. The next 20+ years, I’d come to see, would become one long assault on my heart, mind, and soul.
The psychological toll of emergency medicine usually hid deep inside me. But there was something about the Christmas season that brought it to the surface every year. Growing up, I loved Christmas. To me, it was the most wonderful time of the year. Spending time with family, decorating the house, giving gifts—I cherished every bit of it. But as I went on in my career as a paramedic, I found myself growing to hate the entire Christmas season. To me, it was no longer a joyful time for trimming trees and singing carols. Instead, it was a season of depression and anxiety—that “wonderful” time of the year every day brought me face to face with the darkness of suicide. For more Christmases than I care to remember, that was my normal. Every year, I’d pour more and more emotional trauma into my over-filled cup until, finally, it overflowed for all to see.
It was 6 years ago. There was a Christmas party going on at our house, and I was in the kitchen talking to friends. As we stood around sipping our wine, each one of us shared stories about our year. I started in about a call I’d recently had. It was a relatively minor injury. There was nothing tragic or upsetting about it. But halfway into the story, I started bawling my eyes out. There was no reason for it—at least, none that I could see.
On the other side of the circle, though, a friend of mine could see exactly what was going on behind my tears. He’d served as a paraprofessional with the Veterans Transition Program, and he saw in me what he’d seen in so many other veterans: PTSD.
My friend took me aside right away and explained what he thought was going on. He also told me that, as a veteran, I was entitled to attend the VTP. That’s when he asked me the crucial question: do you want help? I said yes and, within a couple of weeks I was on the phone with someone at the program. They brought me right in for an interview and, after another hour spent crying my eyes out with a psychologist, I knew that I needed what they had to offer.
2 weeks later, I began Phase 1.
When I first got to the VTP, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Here I was in a circle of guys I didn’t know. I was supposed to bear my soul in front of these strangers, many of whom had seen much worse in the military than I had as a medic. It was uncomfortable, but as we rolled up our sleeves together, trust came quickly. From just one weekend spent together hashing out our deepest struggles, we bonded in a way I had not experienced since my early days in the Army.
A month later, I came back for Phase 2, excited to get back into it with my group. That all changed, however, on the morning of Day 1. I’d just had breakfast with the guys and had a phone call scheduled with someone from Workman’s Comp before group time. The gal on the other side of the line was on a mission: her job was to gather as much information as possible to justify my claim. The trouble was, she had no training in dealing with PTSD. Every penetrating question she asked was like a dagger to my soul. In 30 minutes, she managed to bring all my trauma right up to the surface. I don’t use this term lightly, but I felt as though I’d been emotionally raped via phone.
In a stressed-out rage, I slammed down the phone and stormed off to the group. Immediately, everyone could tell I was upset. Our counsellors, Mike and Matt, took me aside right away. They helped me to regain my composure at the moment, but the inner turmoil refused to go away. I laid awake for most of that night. My sleep meds couldn’t do a thing to calm the storm that was raging in my head. As I laid there, every traumatic ambulance call I had ever gone on flashed through my head: car accidents, suicides, heart attacks, worse.
The memories of one tragedy after another ground me into emotional dust. I couldn’t make them stop. That is, until I decided to get up out of my bed and pour everything I was feeling out onto paper. By the time I put down my pen, I had 9 pages detailing every traumatic call I’d had in the past year. Once I had gotten it out of my system, I finally got to sleep for a few hours.
During the rest of Phase 2, we spent a lot of time on working through past trauma. Together, we’d identify the traumatic moments in our lives and process them together. Those exercises changed me radically. They gave me a set of tools to work through the flashbacks that were debilitating me. That entire experience—the phone call, the sleepless night, the anxiety, the letter, the exercises—left me with a healing program that’d come to save my life.
Phase 2 taught me the value of identifying and confronting my trauma. It convinced me that I needed practical ways to work that process into my life. So, I developed a ritual that I’ve maintained up to this day. It basically looks like this: I get into an Epsom salt bath, and I find a safe, quiet space. Then, I meditate. During that time, I call up the “ghosts” in my life—the traumatic events I’ve seen and all the people involved. Respectfully, I acknowledge their importance and promise never to forget it. But, by the end of it, I ask them to step behind me—to transition from being the ghosts who haunt my mind to becoming the ancestors who’ll teach me how to move forward in life.
When I started this ritual, I’d spend hours every day in meditation. I had nearly 25 years of ghosts to reckon with. But by the end of the program, I could already sense a radical change in me. It’s no exaggeration to say it saved my career as a paramedic—probably even my life.
The VTP helped me identify the ghosts of my past and understand the ways they haunted my existence. More than that, the program gave me a new way to interact with my trauma. Today, I don’t have to buckle under the weight of the darkness I see every day on the ambulance. I have a process that not only helps me but that I’ve been able to share with others in their struggles. We all know what it means to feel haunted by our past. But, with the VTP’s help, I’ve learned how to turn those ghosts into ancestors.
Stephen and the other participants bonded in a way he had not experienced since his early days in the Army.
Stephen now has a new way to interact with his trauma. He now knows he doesn’t have to buckle under the weight of the darkness he sees as a paramedic.
The VTP helped Stephen to identify the ghosts of his past and understand the ways they haunted him.