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9-1-1, What Is MY Emergency? - My Journey Through PTSD
Author: Angela Beaty, 9-1-1 Dispatcher Marshall County, Iowa Communications
My journey learning about PTSD begins with my marriage. This is where the initial trauma happened. My marriage was a nightmare for the most part. I called my ex-husband the AAA asshole. Alcoholic. Addicted. Abuser. He over drank almost every night and was addicted to many things, but mostly alcohol. He abused me physically, verbally and emotionally for years. I kept it hidden. Or so I thought. Funny, but what you don’t realize is that people know. They won’t ask you or talk to you about it, but they know. I moved on with my life, and took my children with me to safety. Became ferociously independent. Felt wonderful. New life, new home, new job. My new job was as a 9-1-1 dispatcher. I knew that the job would be stressful, but I was an old pro at stress. Or so I thought. I had no idea the extent of stress that was heading my way.
Wow! That was a light bulb moment for me just now. If you have ever been in a relationship where you gave and gave until there was nothing more to give, or a relationship where you love and feel so strongly that your feelings about things are physically overwhelming, then you know what a dispatcher feels. If you have ever sent your father, husband, brother, wife, daughter into a war zone, then you know what it feels to be a dispatcher. My therapist said I am like an empathy rain barrel. That I collect drops of empathy and collect hurt and pain. I collected so much that soon the drops were starting to cause a splash out of the barrel every now and then. Until there were two large splashes that caused it to overflow. And once it started to overflow, everything changed. I changed. My life changed. My mind changed. My feelings changed. I won’t go into the things that happened that caused the “overflow”.
Dispatchers are the first to arrive on scene. We arrive in our head. Any good dispatcher will tell you that we can often envision the scene because we ask such good questions of the callers that we can make a “mental picture” of what is happening. That way we can relay proper information to our officers. That exact thing that makes us efficient and good at our job can cause us extreme trauma. We don’t have to be “on-scene” to see it, hear it, feel it. Every call we take is a drop in the barrel. My PTSD was triggered when I was working and handled a call of a bank robbery in progress. My officers (heroes) arrived and one got shot. Before I go any further, he is alive and doing very, very well. But it remains a moment I won’t forget.
Maybe one of the last very clear memories I will have is hearing: “I’VE BEEN HIT!” The next sound I heard was myself drawing in a breath. And continuing on in autopilot finishing the shift that lasted for four more hours. The suspects were caught and the day ended well. 10-8.
10-78 (Send Assistance)
The dispatcher who was working with that day and I attended the news conference that was held right after our shift. I remember feeling a little hyper. After that was finished, I went home, I felt like I didn’t want to be there alone. It was the first moment of panic. I had nowhere to go and no one around. My years of training told me stick to routine. So I went to my walking route and started to take a walk. I made it about one-eighth of a lap. I felt panicky and fearful. I was very conscious of the open space, the noise of the children at the park. I could feel and hear my heart beating in my chest. I felt like I didn’t have control over my legs. They were wobbly, and I felt like I might fall down. I made it quickly to my car and started to drive. And shake.
This new feeling was the way I would feel for the next week. A few other things started to happen too. My left eye was twitching nonstop. It was so very annoying. I was having stressful dreams that would scare me. I would wake up out of breath, sweating and either crying or screaming out. I was isolating myself because I was so sensitive to noise. I was startled at every unexpected sound or movement. It would send my body into a feeling I can only describe as “terror”.
I kept going to work, but while I was there I was not working. I was just sitting in the chair with a headset on. I wasn’t functioning. I know my partners were annoyed with me. But I couldn’t focus. Normal routines were not normal now. I was just taking up space. And I knew it.
Through all of this, the one thing that I noticed was that I had no emotions to lend to any situation. That is NOT normal for me. I can cry at a commercial, or a song, or a memory. A simple hug from the right person can reduce me to tears. I had nothing. No tears. No emotions. I was a blank slate.
I was still isolating and now I was disassociating. I felt lost. I felt very alone and very scared. I was losing everything. I couldn’t remember where anything was. I was making weird mistakes at home. I took dirty dishes and put them in the bathroom. I would lose my keys that were always meticulously placed in one spot. I couldn’t keep track of my bills, I actually didn’t pay any that month. I just forgot all of them.
When I was at work, I was in zombie mode. I realized that when I looked into our CAD screen at my narrative that I had just typed into a call, that something was terribly wrong. My words didn’t make any sense. They weren’t words at all. Just a jumble of letters. I looked down at my fingers on the keyboard and thought, “OK, type a word”. I realized that the letters were backwards to my fingers as if my right hand letters were switched with my left hand letters. I immediately went to my supervisor and told her I needed help. I was scared to death.
We filed paperwork claiming my work related injury. It was denied. I went immediately to our center for mental health and got right in on emergency basis to see the psychiatrist. I explained to him what I was feeling. I was diagnosed immediately and we discussed further therapy and medicine. They told me that I would need to be on meds for at least six months, and to continue with therapy.
It is now more than a year out and I am still on meds, more meds than initially prescribed. My physical health has diminished. I have been sick more this year than in the past ten years. My insurance wouldn’t cover this as a work related injury as they said it is to “be expected in my line of duty”. I was shocked and saddened. It is still a very real injury. A physical injury. An injury that caused physical and mental reactions. Upon advice from my therapist, I got a puppy. I was told it would help with my anxiety, trust and commitment issues. That was successful.
After that, I felt strong enough to try dating again. And what I found was this. Since I was “injured” I was able to allow the process to happen. And not try to control it. I was able to let someone in and be close to me without being the dominant one. I was now learning a new way of being in a relationship. I am glad to say that this relationship may end up being the best one I have ever had, for the simple fact that I am not so fiercely independent. I know I need help. I know I want love.
My eyes still twitch when I am talking about the circumstances of the stressful events that took place. I have gotten back in touch with my tears. They are available at any given moment. I still have foggy days where I am less than focused, but they come fewer and farther between.
I have days where weird thoughts come to mind. I still have startle responses that are inappropriate and send my skin crawling. I have up days, down days, and days that are both at the same time. I have inappropriate moments of over emoting. That is the best way I can say that I “FEEL” too much. I was always sensitive and empathetic, but now that is magnified.
When I started to heal, my left eye twitch became my right eye twitch. How strange was that? I can tell you that I felt it physically in my brain when it happened. It felt like that feeling you get when you are driving fast and a dip happens in the roadway that you aren’t expecting and it feels like the bottom of your stomach falls out, but in my head instead. Very odd sensation to say the least.
I guess what I want everyone to know is this. Just because I am not on scene with officers doesn’t mean I am not affected. I AM. Just because I only talk to the caller for a few minutes doesn’t mean I am not saddened or hurt by what I hear. I AM. Just because I have been a dispatcher for 14 years doesn’t mean I am used to it and can take it. I MIGHT NOT HANDLE IT WELL. It could be a routine call that I have taken twenty times before. The point is that I have heard it twenty times before and this one is TOO MUCH.
I AM NOT WEAK. I am strong enough to know something is wrong with me. I am strong enough to ask for help. How scary to think there are officers and dispatchers out there that don’t ask for help or don’t realize something is wrong. We LOSE them through the cracks. Just query PTSD and stress related deaths and you will find many articles about it. BUT NOT ENOUGH.
Dispatchers deserve hazard pay, or better pay, or both. We deserve time off for stress related work injuries. And we deserve to be recognized as first responders and receive the income tax credit the same as volunteer firemen, first responders and military receive.
What I want to tell any fellow dispatchers or people thinking of becoming a dispatcher, stress is real. PTSD is REAL. I have done my homework. And I am doing my brainwork.
I am a new person. I will never be the person I was before that day. I am a new version of me. Not improved, just altered.
I have read all I can find, and search daily. I joined numerous PTSD media sites to learn more, and share stories and get support. And that is the basic thing to take away from me. GET SUPPORT. Find it. It might not be your family, and it might not be your coworkers. It might be strangers. Because that feels safest. It does for me. Just make sure you are supported somewhere because that feeling of falling with no safety net AIN’T SO GREAT.
About the Author: Angela Beaty has worked at the Marshall County, Iowa Communications for nearly 15 years and cannot imagine life without dispatch. She has two lovely daughters and three adorable grandchildren. Post-Traumatic Stress has been a life changing journey for her. She sincerely hopes that her article helps at least one person. Anyone is welcome to share feedback, comments, ask questions or share their story with her via email
This blog was originally posted online at Grieving behind the Badge Blog, published by The Sweeney Alliance, a non-profit, Texas-based organization that provides training programs and educational material relating to grief, post-traumatic stress, and suicide prevention for the emergency response community and their families in North America. Reprinted by permission of Angela Beaty.
Please see http://grievingbehindthebadgeblog.net for more important resources on critical incident stress and post-traumatic stress management.