I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
I don’t often share that I have PTSD. Probably because of the reactions I usually get: confusion, disbelief, bafflement, skepticism. Questions like, “you had to deal with noisy campers or something?” or, “people having heart attacks, something like that?” In fact I think peoples’ insistent and very incorrect picture of the bucolic and tranquil life of the friendly park ranger has contributed to the isolation I have felt in struggling with the emotional aftermath of the traumatic events I encountered. If I were to tell people that I was a law enforcement officer and leave out the part about being a park ranger, people might at least expect that I had encountered horrific traumas.
If you too have difficulty imagining how it could possibly be difficult entertaining folks about nature all day long, while getting to live in a park, a little education first:
Criminals camp too. In fact wanted criminals gravitate towards campgrounds. It is one place they can stay without revealing who they are. No background check. No contract. And those criminals can bring with them criminal activity: theft, assault and battery, driving drunk, driving recklessly, being disorderly.
Particularly for the park ranger who is also a law enforcement officer, that means their job description includes dealing with these offenses and offenders including writing tickets, evicting, arresting, and knowing that someday they may need to use lethal force (certainly the most burdensome responsibility I have ever carried – and no, I never had to shoot anyone).
And there is another aspect of rangering that folks may not consider: emergency medical response. Regardless of a ranger’s training (I only had basic first aid), they are likely to be the first responders to emergencies such as not only heart attacks, but wildlife bites, stepping barefoot on razor sharp shells, falling into fires, diabetic episodes, psychological breakdowns, suicides, drownings, missing children, and car accidents.
Going into it I knew that over the course of a very long career I may well encounter something horrific like an untimely death, though I dared to hope that I wouldn’t. I certainly could not have predicted five deaths all in one summer, not to mention innumerable other medical emergencies, close calls, and encounters with wanted felons. But that was my experience.
Now, several years after all that began, my healing journey is finally getting traction.
I am firmly NOT a believer of the “meant to be” philosophy. Not anymore. In fact I think PTSD is the result of Life giving a person more than she can handle.
In order to start healing, I had to accept how profoundly these experiences had changed me. I too had to accept that I had become a different person, accept who I had become. Someone whose courage, will, and resilience had abandoned her. Someone who became anxious and overwhelmed by even the mundane stresses of life. Someone who had become so hyper vigilant that she anticipated danger and tragedy everywhere. I had to accept that my understanding of Life was completely inadequate.
There is so much to that story, those several years, the events that were cumulatively “too much.” And the events after that summer that continued to trigger me and keep me off-balance, in a constant state of adrenaline rush. And the events after leaving rangering, where I started to become vaguely aware of my uncharacteristic lack of ability to weather life’s storms, and how as time went on I seemed less and less able to cope, until I felt like a mere shadow of who I’d been. I was angry, desperate and confused… until that moment when I knew in my gut that my experience had a name: post-traumatic stress.