The greatest gift my parents ever gave me was the ability to think for myself. I was raised to know how to speak up. I was allowed to question things and to be my own person. I never considered that my voice, my sense of self, was something that I could ever be without. I just figured it was as much a part of me as my brown eyes or the freckles that sprinkle my nose and elbows.
When I was 16 I became a firefighter and everything in my world changed. I had found what I was born to do and I tackled it with a passion I didn’t know I had in me. I knew that I had found the job I wanted to do for the rest of my life. But I very quickly found myself in an unwelcome and unsafe environment. I learned that not only did I not fit the stereotype of a firefighter by being a girl; I didn’t fit the female stereotype. I wasn’t willing to succumb to the expectations those firefighters had for me. I wasn’t willing to throw away my morals to do the things these men were asking me to do. As soon as I made it clear that I wasn’t going to cave to their expectations of me, the way they were treating me became extremely dangerous. They were unwilling to accept my presence in their fire house because I wouldn’t become the type of person they wanted me to be. For three years I lived in an environment where I was constantly in danger. Fear became my everyday reality. I stayed because firefighting was still my passion and purpose but the environment was changing me emotionally and physically until I was no longer the same person. After years of enduring this daily treatment, when my stress levels were at their highest, I experienced an attempted gang rape at the hands of three drunk firefighters. In that moment my body reached its capacity to handle stress. I stopped being able to feel a range of emotions and fear and anger became my default state.
I descended into what I later learned is called Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. PTSD is caused by experiencing a traumatic event that is either a singular moment or prolonged over the course of time. Some of its symptoms include constantly relieving the event, nightmares, flashbacks and a debilitating inability to forget the past. I lost my short term memory, my appetite, and my ability to sleep well. My mind was so busy trying to keep me safe from assumed threats, it forgot to give me normal body cues such as hunger and daily memories. I truly no longer recognized myself. Any sense of self or ability to stand up for myself had been erased. I no longer believed in the goodness of people or in my ability to overcome anything at all.
The hardest part of struggle, especially those which cause us to recede into the darkness for months or years at a time, is realizing that the voice telling you you’re alone is lying. When I finally opened my eyes I noticed the help that was around me. It wasn’t that the help just suddenly showed up, it had always been there. One of the most empowering things you can do in this life is to speak up for yourself. Your right as a person on this planet is to ask for and receive help. If you don’t speak up for yourself, who will?
PTSD is an anxiety disorder by nature, but often comes with major bouts of depression. When I finally picked my head up out of the hole of depression, I realized that I was still had that ability to make my own choices. That ability was still very much mine. That was my first step to becoming healthy again. It was me taking my life back and saying that I had the ability to make choices for myself again. Being in recovery regardless of what from doesn’t mean that everything automatically magically gets better. It just means that you’ve made the ongoing decision to keep your voice and your true sense of self louder than anything that tells you you aren’t good enough.
So don’t forget what’s yours. Find your voice and fight every day to keep it.