Stories of Hope: An Interview with Natalie Harris
This is part of a series featuring individuals who share their life experiences with mental health issues. Recently, I asked paramedic, blogger, and mental health advocate Natalie Harris about the challenges she has faced and how her journey of recovery continues to unfold. Here’s our interview:
DS: When did you first started becoming aware of concerns related to your mental health. How did these issues affect you before you sought treatment?
NH: When I was quite young, I can remember feeling ‘off’ or ‘weird.’ That may seem like an odd statement, but it’s really the best way I can describe it. I would actually use those exact words when trying to explain it to my mom. The response I often got was, “It’s your hormones,” or “Just go play and you’ll feel better.”
So I would cry a lot, alone in my room. I don’t think my mom was necessarily being mean. Looking back now, I think she just didn’t understand. The feelings would sometimes get so bad and eventually erupt and I would run around my room and rip everything off my shelves and scream at the top of my lungs. I was so frustrated with the feeling! I just wanted to be better!
After these events, I felt unbelievably guilty and embarrassed, feelings that would suffocate me for years to come. I would sometimes take hours to put my room back a certain way. In my out-of-control world, my room was the only thing I could control, so I kept it perfect. I thought if my outside was perfect, my inside would be too…but that belief would only last for so long.
DS: You’ve spoken about a paramedic call you responded to that was extremely traumatic for you. Could you say a little about that experience and how it affected your mental health?
NH: On May 2, 2012, I got a call that pushed me over the edge I was barely clinging to at best. I was one of the main paramedics at a double murder call. Two women who were allegedly part of a satanic cult were brutally murdered and left almost decapitated. My patient was the murderer. The details of the call are gruesome, and much of them were published by the media. Every cell in my body can recount that day and the feeling I felt when I walked into to the hotel.
After testifying at the trial two years later, and having to see my patient again, my post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) began to rear its ugly head. Nightmares felt like a cauldron of putrid mental illness ingredients slowly mixing together and bubbling over, and I couldn’t do anything about it.
As I lost sleep I got even sicker, and I began to drink on a regular basis to quiet the ‘bad’ calls that occupied my mind. I found drinking worked as my immediate way to escape the reality of me possibly being too sick to not be able to do my job anymore. But slowly, even drinking couldn’t curb my irritability and nightmares. I started to learn my “bad call pattern,” which included three days of draining and embarrassing depression. Sadly this became my new normal…which is clearly not normal at all.
DS: What was the turning point that led you to decide to seek help? What diagnosis did you receive?
NH: I actually have two separate turning points, both involving my children. I was so sick when my depression and alcoholism was at its peak that I could barely see how much my family was falling apart until the Children’s Aid Society intervened and restricted contact with my son to supervised visits until I had completed rehab, and proven that I was working on healing. That was when I stopped drinking, but I still refused to accept that I was an alcoholic.
The second turning point was when, while I was away at rehab, my daughter became very ill and almost died. I was such a wreck crying and screaming that I wasn’t allowed to make the three-hour drive to go and see her until the next day, and thinking about her being alone because of my actions tore me apart. That was when I came to accept that I was in fact an alcoholic, dug in deep, and found strength to truly begin to recover. My official diagnoses to date are: PTSD, Alcoholism, Anxiety, and Major Depressive Disorder.
DS: What has your treatment consisted of, and what have you found that has worked well for you?
NH: My treatment is made up of a lot of components, but the primary resources which helped me the most were the Partial Hospitalization Program (PHP) at Royal Victoria Hospital, the Homewood Rehabilitation Centre, and writing my personal blog. They all played such a pivotal role in my recovery.
The PHP program was where I learned about cognitive behavioral therapy, co-dependency, spirituality, anxiety disorders, and how to build and use a crisis plan. The Homewood Rehabilitation Centre was where I tackled my PTSD demons with fellow first responders and began treatment for my alcoholism.
But if I had to choose one specific treatment that worked the best for me, I would have to say it was the creation of my personal blog. On my first day of PHP, I came out to the world about my mental health illnesses and over the past year I have had over 140,000 viewers. My blog even reached the eyes of my mental health advocacy idol, Canadian Olympian Clara Hughes. She has since shared my blog on her Twitter page, and she wrote the foreword for my blog, which I hope to have published soon.
DS: How are things going for you now? What have you learned that has helped you stay positive and healthy?
NH: Things now are really great! I have recently returned to work in a new trainer role and am adjusting very well. My children have their mom back better than ever and I am loving every day with them. I maintain my health by mediating on a regular basis, participating in my 12-step groups, writing, and continuing my advocacy for mental health initiatives.
In fact, I recently hosted an event with over 200 guests, where I shared my story. I had support from my Paramedic employer, local Police and Fire Services, the Canadian Mental Health Association and Clara Hughes herself to name a few.
I am currently working with the Canadian Mental Health Association on developing the framework for a solution-based peer support group for fellow first responders, military members, communications officers, and health care providers who require support separate from that which their employer’s offer. I hope to have it rolled out early in the new year. (Editor’s Note: Find out more about Natalie’s “Wings of Change” Peer Support program here.)
I have several more upcoming speaking engagements scheduled, as well as a feature article being published in the Canadian Paramedicine magazine. Life is really good, and I am so grateful for that!
DS: What would you like to say to encourage others who are still working on their journey of recovery?
NH: I would tell them that even though they may feel like there is no hope for them to experience happiness, to not give up on their dream to truly smile. I use to obsess about suicide every day! And now I can’t even remember what that felt like.
Even though it may be extremely difficult to see hope in this life right now, please believe me when I say life can be so beautiful. I would also encourage them to talk to someone about their struggles and experiences. I know first-hand how suffocating the stigma of mental illness is, but the more you talk, the more you will see that the people who love you will support you.
There were times when I wished that people could just read my mind and see how much pain I was in, but they couldn’t. Talking is like finally releasing the cork in a bottle. It allows you to breathe and stop feeling so much pressure and darkness inside. It was definitely my best medicine.
Natalie Harris is an Advanced Care Paramedic and a Paramedic Program educator at Georgian College in Ontario, Canada. She is now an active mental health advocate and public speaker providing education on the importance of first responders’ mental health and the very real possibility of recovery through stigma-free talk. She is the author of Save-My-Life School: A first responder’s mental health journey. Please check out her wonderful blog which chronicles her challenges and triumphs, or connect with her on Twitter or Facebook.
Thanks so much to Natalie for sharing her incredible story of hope!
Here’s a question: Would you like to share your story of hope? I plan to feature more personal accounts like this from time to time on my blog. If you are interested in sharing your story, please notify me via my contact page. Also, please subscribe to my blog and feel free to follow me on Twitter, “like” my Facebook page, or connect on LinkedIn. Thanks!