I AM A STOUTHEART

A grown man isn’t supposed to cry. In that moment all I could think was Crying makes you seem weak. Small. Not like a man.

So, then why am I crying again? I am in the middle of yet another panic attack. The shower was running, but I couldn’t step into it. The feeling of liquid on my body made my mind race and skin crawl. I can’t go to work today. I need to call in. But my shift starts in an hour. What will they think? Will I be in trouble? Will I lose my job? Then the baby starts to cry. Screaming because she’s lost her soother during her nap. That sound, that specific pitch, a noise coming from my own daughter, snaps me right back to the worst day of my life.

This was my life. The life of someone living with untreated, undiagnosed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Why was I living like that? Because stigma taught me that real men don’t ask for help. Well, that stigma and those thoughts? They almost cost me everything.

It was May 5th, 2012. I was driving back to my work from dropping one of our residents off at a family member’s house when I pulled up to a stoplight. It was a busy intersection right in front of a large shopping mall and an onramp to the highway. People are all over and traffic is heavy in both directions.

While fully stopped at the light, I was looking in the rear-view mirror to make sure the cars behind me had come to a complete stop when I heard a loud bang and crunch. I shot my eyes to the front just in time to see two people flying through the air. A man and his wife who had been riding a motorcycle had just been hit by a minivan. The impact of the accident had so much force that the man’s bucket style helmet flew off. Brakes squealed, people screamed and before I even realized it, I was out of my work van running to help them in any way I could.

I’m the only one who did.

The accident scene is chaotic. People are on their phones, yelling and shouting. I’m a trained medic and am doing my best to help a man who is badly injured. He’s face down and had just stopped breathing. He’s much larger than I am and I’m trying to roll him as safely as possible. I need help. His wife is fully conscious and facing us. She’s badly hurt as well. As I struggle to roll her husband, I’m shouting to the now-growing crowd around us to help her, or to at least move her out of the way. But no one helps. I yell for someone to help me, offering to coach them through what we need to do to roll him safely. No one comes.

Struggling to do whatever I can, I force my arm underneath him, cutting myself on glass and broken pieces of his motorcycle. I can hear sirens in the distance but they can’t arrive soon enough. A man finally runs out of the crowd and grabs the injured man by his belt and helps me roll him. He’s on his back now; I can finally get to work. I lift my head to give my new helper instructions but he’s already gone. The injured man, whom I’m now cradling his head, is looking up into the sky through blank eyes. He’s gone. Now all I can hear is screaming. It’s his wife. Someone finally comes out of the crowd and moves her, but not before I catch her eyes directly with mine. I’ve failed her. I’ve failed him – Mike Jeffries – and the day I met him was the day he died in my arms.

The days following the accident were the days when I first noticed that something was wrong with me. I would have nightmares, recreating the accident. I’d wake up and I couldn’t sleep again until I completed treating the injured the best I could in my mind. I’d play back what had happened and would wonder why no one would help me. Did I yell too loud? Were people afraid of me because I had panicked and screamed too aggressively at them? What If I hadn’t wasted so much time trying to get others to help and just done what needed to be done myself? Why wasn’t I stronger? Bigger? Did I do enough?

I take care of people for a living. Disabled adults who require total care. Often times the idea of going into work and giving my all to somebody else took too much of what little I had left. I continued to push through my panic attacks the best I could. However, my anxiety and my depression were quickly getting the best of me. I went almost four years without seeking help after the accident. I would have panic attacks on the way into work, at work, at home before my shifts. I wasn’t sleeping and I wasn’t telling anyone what was wrong in fear of seeming like I wasn’t “manly enough” or “being a baby” or that I was crazy. Often, which eventually turned to a daily need, I controlled my anxiety and stress with alcohol. My physical and mental health were getting worse and I was quickly was spiralling out of control.

It wasn’t until one day after a 12 hour shift at work and my daughter started to cry and scream that I completely lost control of myself. That day my wife gave me an ultimatum. She knew I was sick. Beyond the type of sick that is cured by a good night’s sleep and a day or two off work. She also knew I was too stubborn to go and ask for help on my own. So she told me, “Go get help, or I’m taking the girls and leaving.”

At my worst I had missed 71 days of work over the course of 15 months. It was causing a massive problem with management and I found myself under review and on the verge of being let go. At this point I had started opening up to friends and family about my mental health, but I was still hesitant to talk about it at work. I had filled out the paperwork needed for additional days off due to medical reasons, however these forms were vague and not very relevant to people with mental health issues. My doctor, who was frustrated with the lack of support I was getting at work, filled out the forms as vaguely as the questions on the form were asked, simply stating, “Greg will need additional time off, sometimes with short notice for medical reasons.”

My workplace did not have experience dealing with mental health and I had no desire to discuss my mental health with people who were trying to remove me from my job. So instead we fought.

Lawyers, mediators and threats of arbitration dates loomed over us. I was fighting for what I thought was right, and they were fighting to protect their business. This battle lasted for a little over a year before we were able to settle outside of arbitration. The settlement? I asked for an apology and a chance to prove I wasn’t who they thought I was. They asked only that I work on my attendance.

But then something new happened. About six months later, I was given an opportunity to sit on a committee which was focused on shifting the organizational culture in our workplace. This committee consisted of front line employees, management and senior management who saw us working together to bring change to the workplace. At my first meeting I mentioned that I had an idea. I had a dream where that even on their worst day, an employee would rather come into the workplace because of the support systems that we have created for them, rather than stay at home and battle their mental health alone. The committee loved the idea and offered me the opportunity to find a program which best suited our agency’s needs, and then I would be given the opportunity to pitch the idea to senior management.

In April of 2018, I pitched my idea of signing the Declaration of Commitment to the National Standard of Psychological Health and Safety in the Workplace and implementing it as a full mental health system for our employees to our senior management team. This is the same team, two years earlier I was fighting for my job against. The presentation was a massive success and in May of 2018, six years after the motorcycle accident that changed my life, Ottawa Carleton Lifeskills became Canada’s first Developmental Services Agency to implement a full mental health system for its employees. The program, which now has a full team assigned to it, showed such promise that it has since been written into our agency’s five year strategic plan for growth and development, which was published in May of 2019.

Today, our mental health system that we have implemented for our 230+ employees allows us to react in real time to problem areas in our agency. We do this by offering a website which allows our employees to anonymously fill out surveys and quizzes and we receive the aggregate report data. Depending on the results of those scores, we release the tools and resources our staff need in order to shift their stress levels, curb anxiety or practice crucial conversations by way of role playing and getting people comfortable with the idea that it’s OK to not be OK. Our overarching goal is to have mental health be seen as an everyday topic where everyone is as comfortable as possible talking about it when it comes up. It’s a long process, maybe even an infinite one, but we work on it every day.

We’ve even started helping other organizations from all over the world start establishing their own mental health programs as well by way of live streaming webinars and tutorials. We’re looking to inspire change in the way these workplaces view the mental health of their employees and assist them in showing them the tools and resources they need to set up programs just like our own.

Myself? I sought out the help that I needed in the spring of 2016 and have established a routine that I practice when I’m feeling not myself. I’ve learned that mental illness and its recovery can look like many things. I’ve learned to live day to day navigating the effects of my illness and I’ve learned the most effective ways that I can protect myself when I am feeling overwhelmed. The biggest thing for me is getting out and telling my story. I’ve learned the importance of #TakeOffYourArmour and being honest with those around you about how you’re feeling. I find true peace from my battle when I am able to help others. Today, through my storytelling I have become a dealer of hope, an igniter of change and I can say in confidence that while I do have PTSD, it sure as hell doesn’t have me.