I couldn't move… my legs, my arms, none of my voluntary muscles were voluntary, I was paralyzed. Something bad had happened. My eyes wouldn't turn to the side, I couldn't move my eyes! I laid supine surrounded by noises and activity, but it was all babble. I stared straight up engulfed in a swirling red and black fog as high as my peripheral vision would allow culminating in the blinding brightness directly above me.
My throat was so dry and painful, it hurt awfully just to breathe. I focused my entire being on breathing. Something had happened, I was scared. I searched my brain, but everything was muddled, I wanted to cry but if I stopped focusing on breathing, I would surely die. The swirl continued around me, I wanted to turn my head so badly, I wanted to turn my eyes.
"Earle, Earle come back, I think we've got him."
"Earle?... that's me, he's talking to me! Oh God my throat hurts."
A hand startlingly appeared out of the black and red swirl and then disappeared as rapidly.
"Earle, look at me, focus on me."
I wanted to focus but I couldn't turn my eyes, I couldn't close my eyes, the brightness burned into my eyes.
The black and red swirl receded, the divers materialized in their red and black Viking dry suits.
"He's back, we got him back!"
I could move my eyes. Oh my God I could move my eyes! I could see the divers encircled around me. My consciousness ceased their resuscitative efforts; cutting the dry suit off, assembling the oxygen and BVM, placing the defibrillator pads, Jim giving me rescue breaths, JJ compressions, Tony requesting resources. I rested my eyes, no longer staring straight up at the broken clouds, the reflected sunlight from snow and clouds no longer assailing my sight. Jim's face appeared, "Welcome back, Earle."
I was still confused but knew something significant had occurred. I was breathing now. Things were better, but I was still scared. I was terrified.
Someone asked a question, it was gibberish, I focused intently, I knew they were talking to me, but I couldn't understand. Why was everything so hard?
"What's your daughter's name?"
Pete asked. "Bella? Yes…Bella," I was so proud of myself for remembering and so sad I couldn't remember my daughter.
My body moved in the air, I still couldn't move my limbs, they were loading me in the ambulance.
"Take care, Marine." I hadn't been called that in a long time. I looked at Mike, a firefighter and former Marine, he patted my hand and closed the ambulance doors, he looked like he was going to cry. The doors shut; things were coming back to me. I began to recall the events under the ice. My wife and kids met me at the hospital, firefighters and friends wandered through the ER, either waiting appropriately or nonchalantly walking to my room. I was medically cleared and discharged several hours later.
That night the nightmares started.
The next day anxiety set in. Over the next few weeks, I experienced bipolar-like mood swings, panic attacks, helplessness, confusion. I knew I was losing my mind. I was scared again. I didn't know what to do.
Two buddies knew a psychologist and scheduled an appointment. She told me if I didn't feel the way I did, that would not be normal. She validated how I was feeling. She diagnosed me with a hypoxic brain event, I had been without oxygen for about five minutes. In Idaho at the time, psychological trauma and mental health were not recognized as a form of occupational injury, so a worker's compensation doctor had to manage my case. He was not a mental health specialist. Unfortunately, after the first few months with the psychologist, I was on my own. I stumbled along trying to piece my mental health back to together, too often self-medicating with alcohol.
Over the next decade as I tried to understand what had occurred, I would come to realize that I had suffered PTSD. Following is my understanding:
My amygdala, the threat/fear system was basically stuck in the "on" position, resulting in hyper-vigilance. I also experienced chemical "dumps" for the next several weeks. I don't know if it was adrenaline, cortisol, or another chemical. I would just experience random "dumps" causing tachycardia, anxiety, and eventually a panic attack. I had never experienced anxiety like this. I also later learned of the "filing" problems associated with PTSD. The brain cannot reconcile the event as it is not stored and contextualized correctly, so if the brain thinks something is similar to the original experience it returns to the original event.
Only two years ago while attending a mental health for first responders conference I learned that psychological trauma results in an actual physical brain injury. The presenting psychologist and I are now part of a group conducting a case study of my PTSD after drowning, (organized by Justin Sempsrott of course). As part of the group dialogue, she posed this insightful comment:
An interesting question revolves around the fact that your PTSD occurred in the context of diving. I have never been a diver, but it strikes me as a super kinesthetic kind of experience where your awareness, and experience of your world, is predicated on different kinds of "knowing," different awareness and monitoring processes. How transferrable are these unconscious and conscious processes to normal life on land in a non-diving context? I am not sure. But it strikes me that your PTSD triggers, your intense emotionality, all of the feelings and behaviors that came with your PTSD were devoid of the original context (and environment) of the trauma. Your brain was still scanning the environment for danger signals, and responding to them as such, but they were totally devoid of the context of being underwater and engaged in diving. How random and inexplicable they must have seemed!
That assessment would have helped tremendously thirteen years ago. Somewhere in my mental health odyssey I discovered resiliency. I had never considered building personal resilience. In my youth I bounced back from anything. But life takes bites, and the toll of life continues. The life of a first responder takes bigger bites. The average American experiences 3-4 traumatic events in a lifetime. First responders experience 3-4 per year. They encounter death in its most gruesome forms, up close and personal and for many, monthly. No firefighter leaves the job uninjured. I believe personal resilience is equally as important as operational training and experience. I am an initial member of our peer support team formed eight years ago; the fire service is getting much better about mental health, but resilience training is still in its infancy.
I understand resilience as self-awareness and character building. In hindsight my resiliency was at a lifetime low on the day of my drowning. Reading and listening to experts on resiliency, so much of it seems simple but I think the point is just to keep it in front of you. Resiliency nurtures the spirit and should be as much of a daily routine as a workout or meals.
The following few resiliency prompts resonate with me.
- What brings you joy? Go do it.
- What did you first love about the job?
- What gives you meaning? I lost mine as a dive leader and instructor and have redefined myself as an artist and writer.
To develop his character Benjamin Franklin worked almost daily on 21 different character traits. I'm no Ben, so I limit myself to three: gratitude, tolerance, and humility.
Click here for Part 1