Prior to working for CSC as a Case Management Assistant at Saskatchewan Parole, Scott Macfarlane was a soldier in the Canadian military for 21 years. Like many people who have served in the military, Scott suffers from a mental health injury as a result of his job. Coming to CSC in 2008 after his military career ended was something he needed.
“After leaving the military I thought I was just going to retire and do my own thing, but because of my injury I wasn’t able to negotiate that. I needed more structure in my life, so I went through the priority hire program and this position came up. I was married to a girl from here so I took the first job that became available to me and I am still here.”
Scott’s injuries are from work he did in the military – work that many of us couldn’t begin to fathom doing or surviving.
“My first injury occurred on a domestic operation. We responded to the Swissair Flight 111 crash in 1998 near Blandford, Nova Scotia. To this day the smell of jet fuel, the smell of dead animals or garbage, and the sight of a yellow generator can trigger me. The generator was one thing I recall spotting amidst the fog while we were moving human remains into a tent on site.
“There were two other major incidences in the military as well. In one, one of my subordinates who was also a friend was killed, and the second was when I was in Bosnia working on the excavation of a mass grave site. As you probably know, with PTSD if you don’t get treated for your initial injury, each additional exposure gets exponentially worse. That is what happened to me.”
Scott remembers that after his initial injury, something wasn’t right but he kept going. Six months later, his symptoms grew worse. Still, he didn’t seek help until he returned from Bosnia in 2006 and found himself struggling to function. That means that from 1998 to 2006, Scott went undiagnosed. Eventually it all became too much and Scott finally sought help.
Although Scott wasn’t sure exactly what was happening to him at the time, he recalls that during the period when he went untreated he was hyper-vigilant and became more withdrawn.
“It got to the point in 2006 where I would have conversations with co-workers and family members and not remember any of them. My ability to process information became very limited, and my fight or flight was exacerbated. For example if my wife and I were having an argument – something lots of couples do - I perceived it as very intense and wanted to get myself out of the situation, so I would leave or try to find a way to get out. My ability to cope was seriously hindered.”
Scott was also experiencing sleeplessness, nightmares, and survivor guilt.
“Once I was a happy vibrant person, but after this occurred I was withdrawn and quiet and didn’t share. When you go through something like that you don’t want to share the things you saw because you don’t want other people to have to experience that as well, so there is a fear and of course there is a fear of admitting to yourself that there is anything wrong.”
When Scott’s wife told him he needed to seek help, he went to see a psychologist at the base hospital, but he was scared to open up about his issues because of the stigma and the fear that his job would be affected.
“I was in the military in a position of authority and I was afraid to say something because I didn’t want to lose my position, but that’s exactly what happened. As soon as I told my commanding officer that I had a critical stress injury, I was removed from my position of authority immediately. That day. It was devastating. I had just received a Commander’s Commendation 6 months before that for doing good work.”
Looking back, Scott understands why this happened. He can see that his best interests were being taken into account and that every effort was made to remove unnecessary stress from his daily life. At the time, however, it was difficult for him to accept.
Scott’s personal life was also profoundly affected by his injury. He lost two marriages.
“You have the same problems everyone else has in their life but when you suffer from a traumatic injury, things are heightened. What may be a normal circumstance for one person, might be catastrophic for someone with a mental injury.”
Scott was diagnosed with PTSD and major depressive disorder. Getting the diagnosis wasn’t the hardest part for him, however.
“When I wasn’t well, I thought that once I got my diagnosis my life would be immediately better, but it wasn’t. It got worse because I had to start processing all the traumas that I had been through. For all those years I suppressed things, but then suddenly I needed to start dealing with it. I had to talk about it. I was put on medications and medications that had significant side effects. It was horrible.”
These side effects included yawning, an insatiable appetite, and sexual dysfunction. To counter the effects of the anti-depressants, he was put on sleeping medication that affected his mood, making it that much more difficult for him to deal with his issue.
Although Scott is doing much better today, he says the work he does here at CSC can be a trigger for him, as it is for many people who live with a mental health injury.
“In my daily job when I am reviewing offender files, which include victim impact statements or court documents that describe crimes, it is difficult. That in itself can cause an injury. It can also re-injure someone or cause a second injury. I talked to my doctor last week about a file I was reading because I am aware of my triggers now and know when I need some help to get through.”
To maintain his mental health, Scott visits a psychiatrist a couple of times a year and a psychologist a couple of times a month. When he was very acutely ill he would go to see his psychologist once or twice a week. Scott conveys that having this injury is “kind of like being an alcoholic - you always have to be vigilant.” He leads a very disciplined lifestyle, practices yoga regularly, maintains a healthy diet, and remains physically active. This is important for Scott as he says not taking care of himself physically can actually enhance his PTSD symptoms. In addition to maintaining a healthy lifestyle, Scott also attends a peer support group with veterans. This reminds him that he is not alone in this battle, and wants others suffering alone to know the same.
“If there is one positive thing that stands out in my mind from this whole experience, it’s the day I walked into my first group meeting and listened to the stories of other people in the group. We don’t talk about our particular traumas, but we talk about our symptoms. To sit in a room and hear somebody say they have the exact same symptoms as me made me feel normal because it’s easy to feel like there’s something wrong with you, and that’s just not the case.”
Scott knows that had he been treated immediately following his first traumatic event, it would have most likely remained a stressful incident and not manifested into a full-on mental health injury. Doing so would have also prepared him for the subsequent traumatic events that followed in the years to come. His message to you? If you experience a traumatic event, seek help immediately. Don’t let it become worse than it already is.