I will occasionally write posts about some of my experiences over the course of my employment with the National Park Service, however today I am focusing on the impact of untreated mental health issues in the workplace. It was a long journey to discover why I reacted to events as I have throughout life, particularly considering the damage my erratic moods and behavior impacted relationships. Of particular note is the problems this created in the workplace.
Frustration is a difficult think to address. In my case it often led to harmful behavior. I could be reactive, temperamental, and often downright mean. A reputation for being a curmudgeon followed me around as well as being an outright asshole, although the latter was sometimes undeserved. The slightest detail could go awry and send me into a fury or spiralling into sadness. Confident one moment and completely lacking in self-esteem the next. My internal mechanisms were a maelstrom to navigate. I could not process anything outside a limited scope of comprehension, especially when my mind was in a dull state, which I have addressed before. How do you live knowing that you will lose control at some point and suffer the inevitable guilt resulting from these actions?
I lived with irrational behavior and guilt my entire life and still do to some extent. But, until my mid-twenties, everything I did ended in some manner of self-destruction. It was around 2001 when an event occured to set in motion years of introspection. What happened to cause this is a topic of shame to me that I will elaborate on later. But, a soft rebuke to a comment led to the question of why I acted as I did. I did not understand depression, anxiety, hypomania, or any of these conditions, but time would change that to some degree. I’m still rather ignorant all these years later, but I am sufficiently self-aware to regonze when my mind is off-kilter. I briefly went to a Christian counselor that was recommended to me. She is a lovely lady and quite caring, but it was still not the right time for me to accept assistance. I still did not fully accept what was happening.
Real change did not occur until after I had begun to work for the park service in my thirties. I made so many mistakes. My social skills are still weak, but they were often atrocious then. I hid the worst of these behind a mask, concealing my ineptitude interpersonally with false confidence. I was still unhinged, but slowly began to recognize issues that later could be properly named and diagnosed. Acceptance of my chronic depression came after a few more years and that brought with it a degree of confidence in my ability to manage myself. There were successes and failures, naturally, but, through perseverance, there came a sense of relief. Knowing that you cannot simply stop the root of the problem, but discovering that it could be monitored was exhilarating. Eventually I became open about these troubles and spoke about them to ease the pain I suffered in private. Some people thanked me privately, saying that my public admissions encouraged them to seek aid for themselves. I still had not sought specialist treatment, but two events would change that.
My parents had, over the course of their lives, been EMTs, paramedics, and fire/rescue volunteers. Those experiences led to discouragement, and rightly so, to pursue higher emergency training. I had been exposed to some of what they had dealt with, but not the worst of it. Untreated depression and anxiety did not mix well with a significant emergency. I had met the family that morning and spent several minutes enjoying their company. One of them was silent, though, and proved through hindsight to be a sign of what was to come. I was ordered from my station without explanation to lead paramedics to the scene of an incident. I speculated on the nature of the emergency as we traveled, though I was still unprepared for what I encountered. There was the family, inconsolable and broken, and the silent member was nearby with a team administering CPR. Not seeing an immediate place to insert myself, I took over running communications between the rescue crew and supervisory staff. My fellow rangers and the paramedics wore themselves ragged to save someone who all knew was gone. A fatal heart attack had taken a pleasant soiul, but knowing the truth of the matter and refusing to stop in the face of defeat is a characteristic of emergency response.
I refused to leave the basket as we carried the man out. Being so stubborn nearly put me down with muscle injuries, but it was the only way I felt able to contribute. I felt useless and incompetent, that there was more3 I could have done to be of service. The thought that what I had done was a vital part never entered my mind. Someone was dead and I was powerless. There was a brief after-action response to record our names, official titles, and grade levels before being dismissed. I promptly retrieved cigarettes and a lighter and hid while having a complete breakdown. Tears, shakes, twitching muscles, and a relentless barrage of nicotine. I did not work the patient, but being mentally unwell meant that it was a perfect storm in my mind. It would be nice to say that I overcame this when arriving at my next park, but that was not the case. I backslid in a bad way and it showed.
A previous supervisor made a recommendation during one of visits to the previous park. There were services available to employees that included a limited number of visits to a mental health professional. When the season was over, I followed up with the referral to a counselor near my home. Five sessions over 6 weeks and we reached the point where he determined there wasn’t more he felt capable of doing. Psychiatric help was the next step, but, again, years would pass and a crippling loss would send me to a doctor. Professionally, I continued to deteriorate. Another year and a new park, with a compassionate and understanding supervisor. He was satisfied with my performance over the coming years, but I was not. Years of effort to better myself had been unraveling at an accelerated rate. The saving grace was his trust in me. He acknowledged my seniority, when appropriate, as an experienced seasonal employee. I found myself entrusted with leadership of our district on a number of occasions. I wanted to regain control and live up to the confidence he had in me. Then it happened.
Getting to this point of the post has led to me devouring chocolate and breathing nicotine, but even stimulants are keeping the rise in my heart rate at bay, much less the feeling of tears welling up. I went out to the porch of my quarters to hang out with the only other occupant. He was easy-going and a good influence on me. Scrolling through social media brought a halt to the conviviality. Something was wrong and I sent out messages to find out what. It wasn’t long before the news arrived: One of brothers was dead. I only have two siblings, but have an extended family that I have adopted. Among this group, I was the “old man.” It was good that I had a strong personal and professional relationship with my housemate. He saw my come apart as my world suddenly upended. Likewise regarding my relationship with the supervisor, who promptly upended the schedule for an unspecified period of time so that I could go home. There is so much more I could say about these events, but some are not my place to speak of and the rest I am simply unable to even after so many years.
The personal loss was so great that I contacted the previous counselor and asked for a psychiatric referral. Some people have trouble finding the right doctor for them. I was fortunate to find mine on a random choice. It just dawned on me that I have been in the care of a psychiatric professional for over four years. We talk about nothing and everything. The relationship has reached a point where I go in for updates. With his assistance, I have a considerable amount of control, although the trade-off is to be medicated almost numb. Some people criticize this approach, saying that it is unhealthy. However, this is often from people who have not had similar experiences. There is a point where a person would be fine to sacrifice their emotions to silence the chaos in their mind. That’s where I am at currently.