In twelve years as a paramedic, I have cared for twelve patients in cardiac arrest who were discharged from the hospital neurologically intact. I have spoken at state conferences, written articles for trade magazines, teach about a variety of topics, and have a master’s degree. I am married to a wonderful and supportive person, and we have two wonderful children. Seven years ago I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder, and three years ago I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
I knew that something was wrong when I was a teenager. I’d have periods of racing thoughts, bursts of energy, and rapid speech patterns, followed by periods of feeling numb, angry, and hopeless, which got worse after I started shift work as an EMT. I was ashamed of having these symptoms and tried to hide them. Part of it was denial, the other part was fear that getting help would be detrimental to my career. During one particularly difficult time in my life, which coincided with a manic period, I failed the psychological evaluation for a service I applied to.
That was one of the most devastating experiences of my life – not because of the job – but because it was confirmation that I had a problem. It should have been a wake-up call to get help, but I instead I worked harder to hide my symptoms. I was afraid that I would not be hired at any service that did a comprehensive background check with a mental health diagnosis. I was able to white-knuckle it through my symptoms during the psych eval at the next service I applied to, and worked there for several years.
I first saw a therapist and started taking medication for anxiety. That was difficult, but I rationalized that it was okay for paramedics to have an anxiety problem, but not bipolar. Finally the stress associated with children, shift work, and all the other projects I had taken on finally became too much. I started taking lithium, which has helped a great deal. Now I wonder if I would pass a psychological screening process with my diagnosis and medications I take, or how many people would want a paramedic with bipolar disorder to show up at their house. These fears stopped me from getting help for a long time, but I became a much better paramedic, spouse, and parent after I did. I’ve accepted that I cannot control having this illness, but that I can control how I manage it.
I have not told any coworkers about my illness, and I am not ready to go public about it yet. I applaud the EMS people who have recently, and hope things like this forum help end the stigma of mental illness. If you need help, please get it. Your life and your family much more valuable than any relationship with an employer. Be honest with yourself and don’t wait as long as I did.