Proud to be broken?

“Easy now,” says the medic to his partner as they get ready to set their patient down on the litter. They had just extricated a large man from his upstairs bathroom, carrying him precariously down the stairs. The medic stands up and winces. His back is on fire; lifting someone out of the no-man’s land between the shower and the toilet is never ergonomically easy. He had felt the pop in his back as he was lifting and was doing his best to ignore the growing spasm spreading through his back. 

His partner looks at him with concern. “Are you okay?” 

“Oh yeah, I’m good,” he replies, attempting to smile between gritted teeth. He’s breathing rapidly at this point because it’s quite painful to take deep full breaths. Yet even through the pain, he feels pride creeping in. He has finally made it. He can finally list himself in the ranks of those that have been worn down and injured themselves doing good for others. 

Yes, he has served his community well up to this point and he had dutifully done all that was asked of him. But now – now he has actually injured himself in doing so and can join the ranks of so many that have come before him. He is now finally one of them, the ones who get to stay home on doctors orders, the ones who get to spend his time and precious money on doctors visits and medications. Maybe if he is really lucky, this will even end his career. 

As his supervisor relieves him on the call and sends him to the workers comp office, he can feel his back spasming out of control. He can barely find a comfortable position. He knows he’s likely to miss work for quite some time, maybe even forever. But he smiles despite it. He has finally done it: he has earned his injury.

As I write this (hopefully obvious) tongue-in-cheek fictional story, I have to keep reminding myself to not bite my own tongue off. It’s an absolutely ridiculous scenario. No one wants a back injury, no one wants to hurt and ruin their health or livelihood. And certainly nobody is proud of being hurt or wears their injury as a badge of honor, right?

 Right??

“…PTSD is earned by doing what others fear,” the meme read. It was imposed onto a black and white image of a tactical operator. My sister, also a paramedic, had sent me the meme following a conversation about how there seems to be an emerging culture of pride in mental illness in the wake of bringing awareness to and breaking the stigmas surrounding it. “You wanna handle this one in your next post?” she asked. I did.

This meme as well as other posts with similar sentiments have been shared far and wide across multiple social media platforms. It seemed to illustrate her point well. There is a growing movement of people taking pride in their psychological trauma, wearing it as a badge of honor, or using it to justify behaviors in some cases.

But is this an emerging culture? Or is it the rare exception of a couple people with some  misconceptions?  While I don’t have a definitive answer, anecdotally I can think of more than a few examples of clinicians taking pride in their trauma.

“Oh dude, you remember that call we had up on *** road? Man, that shit still messes with me.” 

“Oh yeah, I remember that one. Are you good? Did you ever do anything about that?”

“Hell naw man, gives me a reason to drink!” 

But why would we do this? I think the answer is simple really. It’s easier to recognize a problem than it is to fix it. It’s becoming socially acceptable to recognize our trauma. So many will stand with their trauma but not seek help for it because that’s the hard part. Instead, they will emanate pride for having it and they will use it to justify their misery. They will justify their irrational behaviors, mood swings, and poor coping methods as an acceptable part of having trauma. And they will justify it all by saying they’ve earned the right to be that way through selfless service to others. As if having PTSD is the mark of having experience and having actually been in the thick of it, of having your metal tested.

Sure, we can and SHOULD be proud of ourselves. We can be proud of our work and the role we play in often awful situations. The difference is being proud of our trauma vs being proud despite it. We can be beaten down and hurt and hold onto our pride, but we can not misconstrue that as being proud of our trauma.

PTSD is disorders brought on literally through psychological trauma. It often results in doctor visits, medications, and therapy. It can be debilitating, career ending, and too often, fatal via suicide. It’s a serious work-related injury, not a status symbol. We wouldn’t be proud of a back injury or any other injury. We shouldn’t claim to have earned our PTSD with pride.

The fight to bring awareness and break the stigma surrounding those struggling has been a huge step in the right direction. But the interesting thing about humanity is someone will always misinterpret intent. The intent of breaking the silence surrounding PTSD in emergency workers is to recognize it as a problem, not celebrate it!

If we accept a culture that celebrates PTSD as a badge of honor received for doing what others fear, we are killing any chances of being able to prevent it, treat it, or improve our situation.

Are we glorifying mental illness?

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One Comment

  1. Wife of a true PTSD survivor says:

    Those who truly suffer from PTSD and the side effects I feel like don’t carry this attitude. They hate that they are haunted by memories they would do anything to make go away. There will always be the few that try and gain attention or use a disease/wound as a way to draw attention or to excuse their behavior. There are those that truly do have PTSD and those who have seen some shit but it doesn’t haunt them. It doesn’t effect their day to day life. I think that is the key difference.

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