Tamara Carley, a Parole Officer at Beaver Creek Institution, still remembers the first case file she ever reviewed. A father had murdered his wife in front of his two children, one a baby and one a small child. In the file was a picture the little girl had drawn of the event for his trial. To this day, Tamara could still tell you what type of paper it was drawn on, what it looked like, and what it felt like. It was just one experience of many during the course of her 18 year-long career with CSC that has impacted Tamara and her mental health.
“No one ever sat me down and told me what I was getting into with this career,” she says. “I was young, I was new, and I had no idea what I was doing. I have never felt prepared for what this field could bring or what I needed to do to build up resiliency to it.”
Tamara has been diagnosed with anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of her work with CSC. It wasn’t a result of one single event, but rather a build up of several that were difficult and disturbing for her, in addition to a working environment that has her on high alert at all times.
“Working here is like working in a different world,” she says. “Most of your days are inside the institution, which is completely different than anything you would ever experience. You have to be hyper-vigilant about what’s going on around you because your safety can be threatened at any time. That is a weight that you carry around with you. It’s like carrying a bag of rocks around, and the bag gets heavier and heavier and you don’t realize it until it’s too heavy and you’re weighed down.”
In Tamara’s case, she was sixteen years into her career when she finally broke down. She had lost her brother to suicide. She was experiencing personal problems at home. And her job was difficult for a number of reasons, including the subject matter and a strained relationship between staff and management. The weight was too much to carry. She went on stress leave for two years to deal with the symptoms she was experiencing.
Not sleeping. Not eating. Debilitating anxiety. Constantly irritable with loved ones. Marital trouble. It became so difficult for Tamara to go to work that when she was placed in between two doors at the entrance of the institution, a standard practice so that employees can receive their equipment and have everything scanned for security purposes, she would experience panic attacks. She would be shaking and sweating uncontrollably, her heart rate would soar, her arms would go numb, and she would feel like passing out. Feeling like she couldn’t escape her environment was overwhelming.
“I was sitting in my doctor’s office and it hit me. It was like a light bulb went off. I thought, ‘holy crap, I’m experiencing depression and anxiety.’ When I saw the doctor, I broke down and she put me off work immediately. I finally felt like I wasn’t going crazy. I felt like there might be hope for me yet.”
Still, it wasn’t easy for Tamara. Her marriage officially came to an end. She continued to raise her children, rushing them to hockey and dance and everything in between, all while she could barely bring herself to get out of bed in the morning.
“I remember sitting in the dark corner of my bathroom and wanting the world to end. I couldn’t reason with myself that I had three healthy children and that I was going to be ok. There was no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Luckily, Tamara’s medication kicked in and she found herself much more stable. Today she relies on a support group of family and friends to get her through the rough days. She is back at work, but still struggles from time to time. The work is no easier. The case files are just as difficult as they have always been. The institution is still a place where one’s safety could be at risk at any time. For some people, that’s ok, but for others, it can be stressful and draining. Tamara is one of those people. She has found ways to make the situation work for her.
“I’ve learned to compartmentalize a lot more,” she says. “I monitor how much I take on, and take a step back when it gets to be too much. I have been accommodated to work one day a week from home. I still take medication, which is going well. I take care of myself by exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep. I still seek counselling when I need it. It’s an ongoing process. I’ll never stop doing these things because I can’t. It’s what I need to do to get through my days.”
Tamara is sharing her story in the hopes that she can help others do the same. She knows she isn’t the only one struggling, and wants those who may be doing so in silence to come forward. Whether it’s to a co-worker you trust, a loved one, your doctor, or the Employee Assistance Program, she encourages you to get the help you need.
“If you need help, it is available. Don’t be afraid of the stigma. I fight the stigma everyday and together we can break it. Mental illnesses are just like any other disease. Someone with diabetes or a heart condition can talk openly about their issues, and it’s time that we do the same for this.”
Please visit the Workplace Mental Health Injuries infonet page for more information about this important topic as well as resources available to you.