Paramedic pushes through PTSD

BY BRANDY FULTON

There were no tears or anxiousness as Natalie Harris searched through her kitchen cupboard for the best sleeping pills she could find. Her thoughts went far beyond just wanting a good nap to quiet her busy mind. Harris wanted to go to sleep and never wake up.

Bringing in her dog from outside for what she thought would be the last time, she took half of the bottle of pills. Her mind was finally silent. No more pain, no more family problems, nothing.

“I’m sorry. You will be OK. I love you,” was the note Harris left for whoever found her.

The next thing she remembers is waking up in the hospital hours later. This was her third overdose and first attempt at suicide.

Harris, of Simcoe, has been an Ontario paramedic for over 10 years. At 18 years old she became pregnant. Her mother sent her away to a home for unwed mothers, but after pleading day after day with the nuns, they sent her home. Soon after, her mother suffered from a ruptured brain aneurism and Harris became the guardian of her five-year-old brother.

Time and time again paramedics would rush into the home after her mom had another seizure, and Harris would watch as they saved her each time. She was impressed by their actions and their compassion. It was then Harris knew she wanted to become a paramedic.

Working as a full-time mom and paramedic student all day long meant Harris stayed up many late nights, working to achieve the highest marks that she could obtain. She succeeded, graduating with honours and receiving an award to help her pay for school.

“When I began my career, I was in my glory,” said Harris. “Engulfed in pride and adrenaline … Going to work was a dream come true.” She said she learned something new every day, was financially stable and loved making a difference in people’s lives.

However, as years went on, some of the calls she went on lingered with her longer and longer. She would try to separate herself from her work, drinking until the thoughts quieted in her head. This quickly turned into alcoholism, and Harris could not fall asleep without a drink.

Receiving calls that involved children were the hardest. Uncontrollably crying, lying in bed and feeling numb for up to three days was Harris’s cycle to get through a “kid call.” She always wondered if it was normal. Or if her co-workers went home and de-stressed another way.

On May 2, 2012 Harris went on her biggest call that would push her over the edge, a double murder that was allegedly part of a satanic cult murder-suicide pact. Her patient was the murderer and he confessed everything as she loaded him on the stretcher.

“When I first arrived at the scene I noticed him by the door. He had deep cuts and I thought he had been assaulted. Quickly he turned my world dark. I realized he was the murderer who took pride in what he had just done.”

For two years Harris suppressed her thoughts about the call until the day came where she had to testify against him in court.

“I wasn’t that nervous about testifying … I was confident in my knowledge of the call and was ready to go in, say what I needed to say and leave without looking at him.”

Being smaller, the defendant could not see Harris past the judge’s bench. She was asked to move left so that the murderer and his lawyer could see her, and to ensure he could, she turned and looked directly at him.

That night after a long day of court and attending a memorial for a friend and co-worker who took his own life, Harris had taken all she could.

Her first overdose happened a year earlier, when a day took too much out of her and all she wanted to do was sleep. This time, a year later, she wanted the same thing, a quiet mind and to sleep it off. Both of those naps, however, landed her in the mental health ward, on fluids and lifeless.

“Save-my-life school” was what Harris called the partial hospitalization program she participated in five days a week after getting out of the mental health ward. She struggled the first week with the thought that she was a professional and shouldn’t be where she was. She had to bring out emotions and thoughts that she had been suppressing for years.

Swallowing her pride and understanding why she was in the program lead to Harris being able to grow and learn each day. She went from being a beginner, quietly listening and keeping to herself, to a veteran of “Save-my-life school,” trying to help and teach the newcomers and make them feel welcome.

Throughout the whole process, Harris took to writing on her blog about her experiences and thoughts. Some posts were expressing her progress and what she had learned, how she coped in certain situations, and others were filled with frustration and confusion.

The blog helped her update friends and family and anyone along for the ride. However, it grew into helping end the stigma about mental health, especially in the paramedic field. It was the biggest help to her recovery, to express her thoughts beyond the hospital walls and into a world where she was not afraid to share what had happened to her.

Amanda Barrowcliffe, Harris’s best friend, was also a writer for her blog. Barrowcliffe would often fill in the blanks of stories Harris could not remember, and to express her gratitude to the supporters of her friend. On October 20, 2014, the blog was also a place where Barrowcliffe notified friends and family that Harris had relapsed and was staying in the hospital until she recovered.

After a week of hospital care, where she was unable to even use a pen unless under the watchful eye of a nurse, Harris was released and back on track for her recovery.

She said she was embarrassed and upset about stepping backward in her journey. She did not want to put her family through the painful experiences again.

But this pushed Harris forward. She wanted to be healed, no matter how long it took. Her desire to be normal again was stronger than ever – normal for her family, her friends and for herself.

Harris continued in “Save-my-life school,” however, only for a short time. She was soon accepted into a rehab centre otherwise known as “Save-my-life boarding school.”

This was a huge step for Harris. She would be able to focus solely on her recovery.

She started dealing with her drinking, and then transitioned into dealing with her post- traumatic stress disorder, which caused her depression, anxiety, night terrors, bad dreams, alcoholism and attempted suicide.

As a paramedic, Harris and her co-workers became very comfortable with the uncomfortable. But Harris didn’t like this. She knew what people would say when she told them she was suffering from her job. Devil’s advocates would tell her that she signed up for this and that she should have known what she was going to be dealing with.

Harris responds, “We signed up for an amazing career that allows us to help people on such an extraordinary level. No one signed up for mental turmoil. We signed up for the chance to save people’s lives. No one signed up for memories of patients screaming in pain. We signed up for achieving educational goals. No one signed up for drowning our sorrows in vices.”

Harris thought she was strong enough to avoid being uncomfortable, however, no one is.

“Signing up does not mean we signed our hearts away.”

Harris is now an advocate for helping people through mental health problems. She is fighting the stigma within her field and any other place where people do not feel free to talk. Through her blog, and turning it into a book, titled Save-my-life School, she is working everyday to reduce the mental health taboo.

Along with other emergency response workers, Harris was able to create a program for co-workers to talk.

Wings for Change brings together friends, students, co-workers and staff for an hour a week to just talk. Harris stresses that this is not a place to fix things, but a place to talk it out and understand where everyone else is in their lives. The program is all about understanding yourself and symptoms of PTSD, depression, anxiety and other mental health struggles. It is where you learn stages of healing, how to help a friend and get them the help they need. With her daughter going to school for police foundations, Harris stresses emergency response workers need to talk every day with someone, through every call, every scene and every moment.

Harris wants people to get the help that she didn’t. She wants people to feel comfortable talking to each other in their workplace and to be able to come forward with troubles. She doesn’t want anyone to go through what she went through. She never wants anyone to be searching through their kitchen cupboard looking for the best sleeping pills they can find.

About Spoke

Spoke Online is produced weekly during the school year by Conestoga College second-year journalism print students, faculty adviser Christina Jonas and new media technologist Michael Toll.