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Changing the Narrative of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

Register-Herald - 6/30/2018

June 30--SUMMERSVILLE -- Sean Riley, founder and president of the crisis referral service Safe Call Now, urges public safety employees to reduce the stigma of asking for help.

First responders, police officers, firefighters, and others attended Thursday's first day of Armor Up, a two-day post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) training event.

The event began with Nicholas County Sheriff William F. Nunley sharing a few words about Dean Motta, a fellow officer who took his own life almost one year ago.

Nunley read a heartfelt letter which he had written for Motta's memorial service.

"We don't have to read another letter like this ... it is OK to ask for help."

This idea of "asking for help" is what led Riley's presentation. On multiple occasions, he urged the crowd to break the stigma.

"Why do we have to wait for the problem to get full blown?"

Public safety employees go through trauma every day, and more times than not, the events are one after another after another with no reprieve.

Addressing Sheriff Nunley, Riley posed a simple question, "Are your men trained?"

The answer is yes, of course. Any public safety employee must be trained to endure even the most horrific of outcomes while on duty.

According to Riley, this is exactly the problem.

Yes, these men and women are put through rigorous mental and physical training to deal with situations while on duty. But what happens when these men and woman are off duty, at home with these painful and horrific images still in their heads?

Riley mentioned linear thinking. Police officers, for example, are taught to be linear thinkers. They see a problem, they think of a solution, and they act. This process can happen within a matter of seconds.

"Anxiety and depression are not linear," Riley stated. "Sometimes it takes months after the traumatic event for these problems to surface."

----As an example, Riley brought up a slide of his friend Chris Fields, who was a firefighter at the time of the 1995 Oklahoma City federal building bombing.

Perhaps one of the most remembered pictures from this incident is Fields cradling 1-year-old Baylee Almon as she took her last breath in his arms.

This event took years of counseling for Fields to process and deal with the post-traumatic stress he suffered from this event.

"Trauma in an event is the catalyst for unresolved trauma in your life," Riley said.

He relayed that most times, the PTSD does not come from the most recent traumatic event, but that this event sparks trauma that we have buried deep inside us for years. Riley calls this the "family of origin."

Yes, Fields suffered from PTSD after the Oklahoma City bombing, but holding Baylee in his arms while she died was not his family of origin.

Riley studied the picture of Fields and Baylee for years.

"Look at his face," Riley told the crowd. "There's no pain. If anything, he looks relieved."

Riley questioned Fields about this a few years ago; Fields confessed that he was molested as a child.

"In that moment you weren't thinking about Baylee, you were thinking about the day you died emotionally as a human being," Riley told Fields.

He responded, "Yes, that is exactly right."

Seeing Baylee die was Fields' catalyst, but it was not his family of origin -- it was not the heart of his PTSD.

----As the training continued, Riley educated the attendees about how to recognize PTSD in themselves and in their co-workers, and how to get help if needed.

Riley then told his own story.

Riley was a police officer for almost 20 years with the San Diego County Sheriff's Department and the Kirkland Police Department until he was indicted for prescription abuse -- "doctor shopping" -- in 2005.

Through this experience, Riley suffered from PTSD, anxiety, and at one point was ready to end it all.

He was sentenced to three years of probation but got off in two. When he went to re-enter the workforce, Riley realized that he wanted "to get up front" and make a difference.

"I saw what was happening, and I knew there was a better way to help."

This desire to help others like himself is what fueled Riley to quit his job and create Safe Call Now in 2009.

Safe Call Now is a crisis referral center for any emergency services personal and their families. The center handles mental health issues, domestic violence, financial problems, personal crises, and so much more.

Anyone who calls Safe Call Now will be talking to a live person who is familiar with what the individual seeking help is going through.

"I only want you to have to make one phone call to get help," he said.

----The training ended in an emotional silence as Sam Motta, widow of Dean Motta, stood up to tell her story.

Dean was a Nicholas County Sheriff's deputy until 2015, when she and Dean had to move to Ohio County because of layoffs.

"Leaving made him feel isolated," she said. "He lost his identity."

Sam mentioned that Dean had shared his trauma from both the police force and his previous military background, but that he had never talked about his feelings.

In 2016, Dean was a first responder to an accident in which a little boy fell into a creek and was washed away.

Dean began to dive into the water to try to find the little boy, but his sergeant told him to get out and wait.

Dean waited on the edge with the boy's family until the dive team pulled the child's body from the water.

"What is the point of me being here if I can't save that little boy?" Dean had asked.

In less than a year, Dean was involved in several other traumatic incidents which left him feeling useless because of the outcomes.

"It was trauma on top of trauma on top of trauma," Sam said.

She described the day Dean tried to take his life as a normal Wednesday.

"He seemed fine... We were absolutely perfectly happy."

That was until Dean got a call about a case he had been working on -- the catalyst for Dean was that he did not agree with the outcome of the case.

"His face went as black as thunder," Sam recalled with tears in her eyes.

Shortly after the call ended, Sam heard several shots coming from outside. She said she looked right at Dean and that he didn't recognize her.

"He couldn't cope with the stress and anxiety."

Sam called the police, and when Dean tried to change the clip in his service weapon, she charged him.

The police, who had arrived to the house, pulled Sam inside as they tried to talk her husband down.

What they didn't know was that Dean had another weapon clipped to his side.

The crowd listened as Sam relived hearing that final gunshot.

Somehow Dean had survived his attempt, but had gone into cardiac arrest because of it. He was raced to the hospital, where the doctors told Sam it was possible that he would have brain damage.

Sam waited three days for news.

On the third day the doctors told Sam that Dean had 15 percent brain damage and that the most she could ever expect was for him to open his eyes. Sam and Dean's mother made the decision to take him off of life support.

"I am the aftermath," Sam said through tears. "I am the person that has to pick up all the pieces."

Dean's death destroyed Sam. For months after, she questioned whether his death was her fault or if there was something else she could have done. She quit her job and isolated herself in her home for weeks.

"I wanted to die... He was my whole life, my best friend, and I wanted to be with him."

Sam mentioned that the first time she heard fireworks after Dean's accident, she lost it.

"I broke down and I couldn't figure out why."

Sam ended by saying that although she didn't necessarily want to talk about Dean's death and her own struggle with PTSD, she would if it could help someone else who is struggling.

"When you have a trauma to your brain and you don't seek help, you can't cope with it."

Thursday's training ended as Riley left the crowd with this statement: "The secret to life is that life isn't fair. Bad things happen to good people. The question is 'Can you make it work?'"

For more information on Safe Call Now, visit safecallnow.org. For more information on Armor Up, visit armorupnow.org.

___

(c)2018 The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.)

Visit The Register-Herald (Beckley, W.Va.) at www.register-herald.com

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