By Vanessa Stapleton – President Armor Up West Virginia
We have an entire month dedicated to mental health awareness, yet we lose more first responders to suicide than we do line of duty. We could all give our best educated guesses as to why we are losing so many to suicide. I could even give you my many thoughts on this, such as: stigma, lack of resources, lack of access to these resources, insurance that doesn’t want to cover treatment (West Virginia specifically), and financial inability to afford the few resources that are accessible.
Now, more than ever, with the uncertainty surrounding all of us, it is important to keep ourselves healthy, mentally. I, personally, have been fighting anxiety and PTSD for some time. It started as depression when my marriage fell apart. Being a first responder family was hard enough. When you add on the job injuries and PTSD to a marriage, things can get even worse. Without the right help, PTSD can lead to alcoholism and addiction. There are those willing to get the help they need, and those who are not. Those who do not take the help leave a trail of damage behind in the faces of their loved ones. My children and I were damaged tremendously trying to save someone who was never willing to save themselves. Depression hit me hard. Lack of support from those I thought would be supportive only escalated my depression.
I knew I needed to take care of my mental health because I have four children watching me. They need to see me persevere. They need to see that it is ok to fall apart as long as you do the work to put yourself back together. I started counseling. It was good. I learned a lot about my decisions. It was nice to sort out some things and have someone to listen without judgement. A year into counseling, I lost my insurance. I spent a little over a year just “surviving.” You know what I am talking about when I say “surviving.” The days where you don’t really enjoy life, but you get through the day. My trauma was really taking a toll on me.
Of course, I did not actually know what was wrong with me other than I had lost my joy. I didn’t want to be around people because I was just done with “people.” I could so relate to the commercial of the woman walking down the street solemnly holding up the cardboard smiley face in front of her so people would think she was normal. I felt like that every day. I was having trouble sleeping. My nightmares weren’t necessarily what happened to me, but I woke up with the same feelings of helplessness and isolation that my trauma gave me. I started to have crippling anxiety. It completely caught me off guard. One day, I was driving across five states with excitement, the next day I was crippled with feelings that I was going to die in a horrible car crash, armed robbery, hurricane, tornado, or whatever could possibly take me out. Even worse, I began to panic that my kids would die horrifically. I had never experienced anything like this before. It was the scariest and most miserable time of my life. I thought I was going absolutely crazy.
Thankfully, I work with amazing organizations like Safe Call Now and Serve and Protect who have vetted the best counselors across the country. I set up counseling with a trauma therapist who agreed to see me without insurance. I had to pay a copay. I remember when they told me what my copay would be that I decided I would pay whatever it took to feel better. I didn’t care if I had to eat Ramen noodles for months, I had to put my mental health as the number one priority. I could not continue to live just “surviving.” I wanted to enjoy life again. I wanted my kids to see me enjoying life again. I deserved to live a healthy life. My children deserved a healthy mother. That was the turning point for me. Counseling with a therapist who specializes in trauma literally changed my life.
Within the first session, I had hope. She gave me coping skills to use when my mind went running off. She gave me exercises to do to reel my mind back in when it started to run wild. The first month she taught me grounding techniques. Then came the hard part. We had to process my trauma. She taught me to feel my feelings. If I can be honest for a moment, it sucked. Some of those feelings were not pretty. It was hard. But then suddenly, it wasn’t so hard and it began to feel better with every session. Every time I had to walk through my trauma and my feelings, I learned more about myself and how strong I am. Processing the trauma got easier, but most importantly, it was a release. I felt this release from my entire body. It was like a breath of fresh air. Suddenly, I was not just surviving any more. I was living! I had joy again!
I am sharing some very personal details of my mental health journey because it is important for every single person out there to know that it is ok to struggle. It is ok if you are just surviving today. The important thing to remember is that it is ok to fall apart as long as you will do the work to help yourself overcome it. You deserve to live and not just survive. You deserve to live a healthy life. Also, if you have a setback, that is ok too. We all have them. Just pick up the phone and start where you left off. I had a month where I increased my therapy to once a week again until I got back where I needed to be mentally. I am not even ashamed of that. I am proud of that. I deserve that kind of care. So do you.
If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:
Safe Call Now: 24 Hour Confidential Hotline: 206-459-3020
For more information on the First Responders program: Click here
Or call Shannon Clairemont at 661-466-6352 or Vanessa Stapleton at 304-651-3008