Stigma and the Elephant in the Room, to the Point of No Return and Back

by Rob Leathen

I went public not for any sympathy and not for any pity but because I firmly believe that silence does nothing but strengthen stigma.

Rob Leathen

Early in February 2019, I knew something wasn’t quite right with me. The continual arguments with my wife, the emotional outbursts, unexpected crying and anger. Anger with everybody and everything led me to the conclusion that I needed help. I started weekly therapy for what was likely PTSD

Stigma? “Screw the stigma,!” I thought. I went public with my PTSD battles. If just one person asked me one question about PTSD or one person reflected on the state of their own mental health or one person already suffering no longer felt alone than my going public was worthwhile. Little did I know my PTSD journey would turn in an unexpected direction.

Early in my journey, before I had my official diagnosis, my life was a complete mess. Tons of emotional outbursts, isolation, lack of sleep, flashbacks. I felt like my life was a real life Jenga game. Every day I was pulling out a block waiting for it all to come crumbling down. My PTSD symptoms were uncontrolled. I had absolutely no idea what my triggers were and I truly had no real understanding about what was going on with me physically or inside my brain.

I learned later that it was during this time that my wife had considered leaving me. During these early days, I felt completely overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless and desperate to escape the inner turmoil. I learned in those early days that emotional pain is so much worse than physical pain. With physical pain you can point to it. How do you point to emotional pain when it has no apparent pinpoint source and invades every part of your body, mind and day-to-day life?

Sunday, June 2, 2019, was another typical PTSD fueled, f&cked up day for me. Another argument with my wife over nothing of importance that, of course, I started. Still feeling overwhelmed, hopeless, helpless and desperate, I went for a 5 hour drive to, as I had done so many times before, isolate myself. I found myself at the end of a dead end country road. It was there that I made my decision on what I believed was the only way to escape the emotional pain and feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. I made my decision about suicide. An amazing calmness washed over me and for the first time in many, many months my mind was calm, very calm. Incredibly scary calm. I didn’t have a plan. That’s what the next couple of days were going to be for, to figure out the how and when of my decision.

Over the next couple of days, I thought a lot more about my decision. I thought often about a friend, co-worker and platoon mate that died by suicide and the state that his young wife and son were left in. I realized that while stigma surrounding mental health still exists, the stigma surrounding suicide is 10 times worse. I didn’t want my wife, son and daughter to have to live with that stigma for the rest of their lives. I made the choice to step back from the point of no return. I chose to live. It was because of the stigma surrounding suicide that I waited almost four and a half months to be open and honest with my wife and my therapist about my suicide decision. Yes, I was a victim of stigma.

It was then that I came face-to-face with the elephant in the room. I have networked with many 1st responders since those early days and was at a loss to figure out why so many always talked about “the dark times,” or “the dark place” but very few actually used the word suicide. I came to the conclusion that “the dark place” or “the dark times” are the secret code words that many use to avoid using the word suicide, perhaps because the stigma surrounding suicide is so great. The elephant in the room has been revealed. I did my time with stigma and will not rely on the elephant in the room to convey where I was. I will use the word suicide to take its power away and to help break that ever so strong stigma.

Yes, I chose suicide but was able to step back from the brink, to step back from the point of no return.

I continue to go to weekly therapy with my therapist who has become the third most important woman in my life besides my wife and my daughter. It’s a love/hate relationship actually. I love that she is compassionate, understanding and provides empathetic help and guidance. I have recovered to a point, but I hate it when she challenges my negative thoughts and thinking patterns. Tell me anybody that likes being shown when they are wrong. I hate it when she encourages me to deal with those parts of me changed by PTSD; such as, my core beliefs and cognitive distortions. All those things that really are painful to look at through self-reflection but I truly love the person I’m becoming.

We have done many different forms of therapy from CPT (cognitive processing therapy) to CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy) to BA (behavioural activation) for depression, all of which deal with the cognitive distortions, negative thinking patterns and changed core beliefs. We have used EMDR (eye motion desensitization reprocessing) to deal with the problematic memories from the difficult calls I have responded to. I can’t lie, it hasn’t been easy, but recreating and reinventing oneself into a new and better person never is.

About the Author: Rob is a 27 year veteran of the fire service holding the rank of Acting Platoon Chief for a mid-sized Fire Department in Ontario, Canada. He has held a variety of roles and ranks throughout his career including volunteer firefighter, fire dispatcher, career firefighter, Acting Captain, Captain, and Acting Platoon Chief. Rob has also been heavily involved in his local firefighter association holding positions on the Health and Safety Committee and Association President on two separate occasions. Rob is also a vocal advocate for 1st responder mental health using his lived experience with PTSD and depression to help educate others through talks, presentations, and published writings.

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