I am a proud Puerto Rican and Native New Yorker. Raised in the housing projects of the city, my brother and I beat the fate of those we grew up with (addiction, single parenthood etc) by focusing on education. As a Christian, I was always drawn to helping others so it was a no brainer that I'd end up working in the mental health field. I received a scholarship and graduated from Fordham University's Graduate School of Social Service but shocked friends and family when I decided to join NYPD. Policing was crisis intervention on steroids and I loved it but it wasn't long before I realized my coworkers were absorbing tons of trauma and were not given any training on how to deal with it. After paying my dues on patrol as an undercover officer in narcotics and as a sergeant, I was given the opportunity to work with officers who's personal problems were affecting their job performance. About eight years into working with officers that suffered from different levels of PTSD, September 11th happened. I almost died that day. For 16 years I've had to live with the same disease that I once upon a time treated.
The furthest thought from my mind was that I would ever develop PTSD. Months after debriefing and working with the other officers who had experienced September 11th up close and personal, I had a verbal altercation with my then Captain who was making everyone's life at work miserable. I walked about 15 feet away from her and thought, "I can get her from here." As quickly as the thought of taking a life crossed my mind was as quickly as I picked up the phone and made an appointment to see a very good doctor. This doctor walked me through all the symptoms I knew so well but up to then had ignored. I constantly relived it, dreamt about it and zoned out because of it. I had lost a lot of weight, was in a bad mood all of the time and and any little thing would make me jump.
For seven years, I worked on erasing the memories only to realize that they were mine to keep and I had to learn to live with them. Even today, something you say, police sirens, the smell of smoke, an old movie where the Twin Towers come up in the background, or the meat section of the supermarket can send me into a "moment" where I see some part of what I lived. Thankfully, unlike years ago when I would relive September 11th as if I were actually there, I'm not transported back but instead it feels like when your TV is on while you're doing something else.
I stayed on with the department and retired nine years ago. I still do disaster response work and since retirement, I've been a social worker, college professor, community advocate, have worked with the Pulse affected community, helped in Puerto Rico after hurricane Maria and currently work at UCF's PTSD clinic. The many years of working with officers who have PTSD and my having acquired the disease gives me a unique perspective on how clinicians can work with first responders. The only down side has been that other clinicians tend to treat me like a patient instead of a colleague and it takes a minute to get them to recognize what I bring to the table. I'm beyond happy for the opportunity to share what I know.
Not everyone with PTSD is as fortunate as I am. Although I didn't initially realize what was happening to me in the months after 9-11, I knew I needed to find the right doctor to treat me, I knew I had to grow a relationship of trust with this person, I knew I had to accept her diagnosis, I knew that as much as I intellectually knew about my diagnosis I had to work through what had happened for as long as it took (that included saying the letters PTSD in reference to myself). Most of my fellow first responders had to learn this from scratch. Mental illness does not come with an instruction manual.
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