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How I Learned What Therapy for PTSD Is Actually Like

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If you are anything like me, you probably have a preconceived notion of what therapy for PTSD entails. TV and movies had provided me a very specific imagine that I blame for my lack of enthusiasm towards the subject. I pictured an old brown vinyl lounger where I would nervously lay. The room would be dimly lit with some faint ambient music playing in the background to set your mind at ease. The doctor would be well-put-together, wearing a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches and tiny glasses and the end of his nose. He would sit next to me in a squeaky office chair with his legs crossed. And I don’t know, maybe even have some accent.

• What is PTSD?

He would then administer the Rorschach Inkblot Test in which I would say every image reminded me of a woman’s vagina, ask me if I was breastfed, write some things down on his clipboard and book me in for another session. And as soon as I left, he would secretly contact my employer and tell them I would never be able to return to work as a firefighter.

So yes, I had a very specific image of what I thought therapy entailed. But once again, I was wrong! In the beginning, I was so nervous before each meeting that I would throw up, and on more than one occasion, too. We had to arrive one hour early, so I could have plenty of time to pace around the building. By the way, I can tell you where all the standpipe connections are to not only my doctor’s building, but the surrounding ones also.

Therapy was nothing like I thought it was going to be. In the first few meetings, my therapist and I didn’t seem to talk about anything in particular. We talked about the weather, little dogs, NASCAR and how messed up the U.S election was — you know everyday chitchat. I know she loves Tim Horton’s iced coffee, is a fast reader and is extremely passionate about what she does. To be honest, I can’t even remember when we “officially” started any “real” therapy, or at least not that I noticed. I mean, we talked about what she does and why, we talked about emergency services in general and how difficult it is for humans to be continuously exposed to constant levels of trauma. Little did I know, but my therapist was hard at work the whole time.

She never directly asked how I felt about stuff. She didn’t ask me to write a journal or keep a chart of my feelings. I’m sure that approach may be effective with other people, but she certainly understands her clientele. If anything, it felt more like a casual conversation between old pals. And before I knew it, we were talking about the odd thing here and there, and you know, a few calls that had bothered me. No big deal, just chatting!

After I understood how post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) works, I began to understand why the symptoms exist. My therapist explained it to me like this: Emergency service workers face high rates of PTSD. Think about it. People typically choose to become an emergency responder because they are an extremely compassionate individual who wants to help people. This same highly empathetic individual is continuously exposed to trauma, tragedy, danger, violence and incredible risk. Naturally, this is bound to take a toll on that individual. How can it not? So rather than look at PTSD as a weakness or a sign of softness, think of it as a normal, common and an expected result of your line of work. It’s to be expected!

Eventually, signs and symptoms of PTSD can start to pile up. The behavior of PTSD happens when an individual doesn’t know how to put those memories and experiences away neatly. Nobody can erase a memory, but we can learn how to organize them, so they don’t bog us down. And that’s where your psychologist can help. I learned this is how I can beat PTSD. For me, I simply have to put my shit away neatly. Let me use a garage for an example. When that garage is a cluttered mess, you can’t find shit. It’s a pain just to look for one little thing. You trip all over stuff and start to get pissed off. Now if that garage is tidied up, all that aggravation is avoided. You love hanging out in your garage, as a matter of fact, you invite the neighbors over just so you can stand around in your clean garage, marveling at the whole thing. You get my point.

So why is it that PTSD doesn’t affect everyone? Why is it that some people seem to breeze through their career? You know the ones that seem to make this happen. Nothing seems to bother them. They are always happy, happy! Not a care in the world! Are they stronger, or more resilient? No, not necessarily. Maybe they just know how to put their stuff away better than others. Every once in a while, they might drop the ball and their garage might get a little cluttered, but I believe just as long as you can stay on top of it, you’re good. Remember, everyone is different. We all have our own coping skills and mechanisms and the same thing doesn’t work for everyone.

I’m sure you can see why I feel I won the lotto with my therapist. She is not only my doctor, but I consider her a friend, too. I truly believe she saved my life. So, two big thumbs up to her!

Thinkstock photo via NADOFOTOS.

Originally published: June 1, 2017
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