Book excerpt: Save My Life School: A First Responder's Mental Health Journey
Paramedic Natalie Harris shares her experience with post-traumatic stress, overdose and addiction, stemming from a disturbing call
In this intense and engaging memoir, Natalie Harris, an advanced care paramedic, educator and passionate mental health advocate, provides an authentic, raw account of how her battle with depression and suicide after becoming a first responder had turned her life around.
By Natalie Harris, EMS1 Contributor
Stumbling, I make it through my first week of save-my-life school – sober and all! I’m very proud of myself, and apparently many of you are proud of me too. Thank you. I have received at least 200 texts and messages showing me so much love and support.
So, in the spirit of brutal truth, (and because some of you have asked a bit about my past), I think I will share how I landed here. Life so far has been a journey almost beyond words, but let’s skip right to the “Are you kidding me?” stuff.
At the age of eighteen, I became pregnant while in high school. My mom was devastated, and in turn she picked me up from work one day with my bags pre-packed and dropped me off at a home for unwed mothers run by nuns. I believe it still exists to this day. I cried every day and didn’t talk to anyone. The girls there were rough, and I didn’t belong. I spent my time knitting a baby blanket in the basement and had 20 minutes a day on a pay phone in a closet. After begging to return home, I managed to complete high school, had a baby shower in my English class and went to my prom nine months pregnant.
When my daughter was one year old, my mom suffered a ruptured brain aneurysm that required hours of surgery at Sunnybrook Hospital. She fought through a surgery that doctors told us she would likely not survive. However, the injury had turned her into a very different mom from the one my three brothers, one sister and I knew. Her memory was gone and her speech was almost non-existent.
After managing to balance scheduling her cognitive, speech and physiotherapy appointments, I was still a single mom to my daughter and now had my five-year-old brother to take care of – my dad was a long-distance truck driver and rarely home. That same brother (who is now 23), still remembers that I taught him how to read and hold a pencil.
My mom had so many seizures on a regular basis that paramedics came to know our family well. They knew where to find my little brother who would hide, terrified either behind the couch or in the bathroom. My mom had developed such severe psychosis she would barely leave her room. This also caused her to resent me, as I became the household mom by default. After another year of struggling to take care of her, she once again packed my bags (a garbage bag this time around) and kicked me out onto the street with my two-year-old daughter and nowhere to go. I lived in a family friend’s bedroom for a month until I was able to find an apartment.
I desperately needed to find a job, as taking care of my mom had been my full-time job for the past year. I was soon successful, but the money I made each month was still not enough to pay for the car I purchased with my dad. I tried to sell it, but couldn’t. It was repossessed, causing a horrible spiral of depression. Even with my car gone, collection agencies called every day looking for the money I still owed them. It didn’t matter what my story was, or how much I tried to explain that I was excellent with budgeting my money, but was not anticipating being kicked out of my home. They wanted what was rightfully theirs. Soon after, I had no choice but to file for bankruptcy for the $8,000 I owed.
At that point I began to see how much of a toll the depression (clinical or situational? I was unsure back then) had taken on me, and I made a pivotal decision to go back to school. As a single mom, I fought hard to become a paramedic. The program was not an easy one to get into. I didn’t even make it onto the waiting list the first time I applied. But I was determined to succeed and spent the next year stacking my resume by volunteering, and was finally accepted in to the program.
I put myself through school by waitressing, and I bought a beat-up car. As I made the hour-long drive back and forth on the highway every day, I wondered if the bottom of the car would fall out. Fortunately, my grades were the top of the class, and this enabled me to receive an outside scholarship which helped me out immensely. After two years of late nights studying while my daughter was in bed, scheduling 450 hours of ambulance ride-outs, in-class school, waitressing and being a mom, I graduated and was chosen to receive Humber College’s Health Science Department’s Board of Governors Award. I felt I had finally made it! And during the next 11 years I grew as a paramedic and developed an EMS family I love very much.
I felt so lucky to actually enjoy going to work. Not very many people can say that about their careers. I learned something new every day, was financially stable, and made such a difference in people’s lives. I was in my glory. But no matter how much I loved it, each year became a bit tougher for me to cope with. I wasn’t going to let this amazing career slip away from me. I fought too hard for it. I’m sure how I felt was totally normal. I only saw tiny changes in myself in the early years because days just seemed to go by and calls just happened to add up.
I could let most calls move through my mind in a healthy way. But looking back now over all the years, I see how life as a paramedic has changed me, some changes for the good, and sadly some for the bad. This makes me very sad – and mad! I was a good paramedic. I loved helping people. I loved teaching. And I absolutely loved my co-workers. But somewhere along the way, all those good things were no longer enough.
I slowly began to drink on a regular basis to quiet the bad calls that haunted my mind. I stopped talking about these calls to my family – it didn’t seem to help me anymore. I developed a bad-call pattern it would take three days before I would feel better. So the three-day depression seemed to be my new normal.
First responders see things they should never see – sights, sounds and smells stay with us long past the high we feel after a call well-done. For me, it wasn’t an overnight change, but for some it is. I feel a lot of my work-related depression was cumulative, and over the years I successfully masked it with alcohol. But sadly, I inevitably got that big bad call that pushed me over the edge.
I will never forget May 2, 2012. It was the date of a double murder at a hotel in my hometown. Two women were brutally killed, allegedly part of a Satanic murder-suicide pact. The details of the call are too gruesome to replay – it still disturbs me so much.
As a well-seasoned paramedic, I managed to push my feelings surrounding this call to the back of my brain (for two years) – until I had to testify recently and see my patient, the murderer (he pled guilty), again. I had support from my work and fellow paramedics who had to testify that day, and for that I am so grateful, but no one could have prepared me for how I would feel in that courtroom.
Oddly I wasn’t that nervous about testifying – I’d spoken in front of groups for years. 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. But as soon as I got sworn in and took a seat on the stand, the crown attorney promptly asked me to “Please stand up and move to your left so the accused [my patient] can see you … you’re very little.”
Can I what? Are you kidding me? You are ruining my precise plan to not look at him! Why should he get to see me? I stood up and moved to my left, but not knowing if that was a big enough step for him to see me, I turned to look at him to make sure. There he was, behind a huge piece of glass. Uncontrollably, the call rushed back to me, washing me with that horrific feeling I experienced when we walked into the hotel room. It was as vivid, clear and intense as it was in 2012. I felt sick. In the courtroom, I had just learned of new, gruesome details of the call. It was all too much. It felt very surreal. I couldn’t even believe I was there.
After testifying I went home and pushed the knot in my stomach as far down as it could go, because I needed to gather myself to be at a memorial for my good friend and co-worker who had recently died because of a mental health illness. He had taken his own life only weeks prior, and the loss hit our EMS family very hard.
Anxiety was racing through my body, but there was no way I was missing this memorial. Even though I didn’t know the details around the circumstances surrounding his death, I felt I could relate to his pain – even if in the smallest way. I missed him. And I wanted to say goodbye.
When I got home I drank two bottles of wine in a matter of a few hours, but that wasn’t enough. I needed to turn my racing thoughts off! It was all way too much for one day. Seeing a patient who brutally murdered two women and appeared remorseless for the lives he took and then going to a memorial for a friend who suffered in silence – and didn’t deserve to die because of his mental illness – was all … just too much.
I had a bottle of Benadryl in my nightstand. I knew it would put me to sleep. I ate them like jellybeans and listened to music. I was in another world now. It was perfect. I forgot the day – my depression was gone. But I also couldn’t remember how many pills I had taken. I eventually learned it was almost the whole bottle.
Thankfully I was texting my best friend that night who was dispatching for emergency services, and she could tell my texts were off. I wasn’t making sense. She sent a paramedic to check on me, and my friend saved my life that night. I somehow made it outside to the porch in my underwear and a sweatshirt and sat in the cold where I went unconscious.
I was taken to the hospital as a Level 1 on the Canadian Triage Acuity Scale – this is the most critical level. I stopped breathing several times on the way, didn’t respond to pain and was almost intubated. If a patient gets to the hospital quickly enough after overdosing, charcoal can sometimes be administered to help neutralize the effect of the drugs. I was well beyond the charcoal window, so my poor family and best friend just had to wait and see.
The remainder of the night and the following days at the hospital led me to where I am today. But let’s make it another entry. I think you’ve gotten enough info about little old’ me tonight. And I’m sort of done with talking about it for now anyway.
About the author
Natalie Harris is an advanced care paramedic, an educator and a passionate mental health advocate, who is a post-traumatic stress injury, addiction and suicide survivor. She endeavors to break down the barriers of mental health stigma by telling the story of her recovery at awareness events, and by sharing her peer support model, Wings of Change, through her blog, Paramedic Nat.
Copyright © 2017 by Natalie Harris