Episode 8 PTSD – Let’s Talk About It
Hosted by: Rosalind Peck Guests: Mike Akpata, Bonnie Racine, John Casey
Excerpt Episode 8 PTSD – Let’s Talk About It
Attitudes are changing about PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In this podcast, you’ll meet people who have experienced traumatic events.
PTSD sufferers don’t have to be silent anymore.
Transcript Episode 8 PTSD – Let’s Talk About It:
Rosalind Peck 0:08
Welcome to better together with a life worth living. I’m Rosalind Peck. Our stories teach, inspire and bind people together.
This episode is made possible by supportive, generous sponsors.
In this podcast we’re going to talk about PTSD. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is usually triggered by a terrifying event and can be debilitating.
Today we’re going to meet some people who have experienced multiple traumatic events, but have found ways to cope with them and are able to live productive lives.
We’ll also hear about programs that help people deal with PTSD.
My first guest is Michael Akpata. He has worn many hats in his life. He was a Windsor police officer and a Canadian military reservist. He is now a LaSalle town councillor and teaches at St. Clair College. Mike knows PTSD firsthand. Welcome, Mike.
Mike Akpata 0:58
Very glad to be here. Thank you for the invitation.
Rosalind Peck 1:01
Let’s start with your Windsor police experience. How long did you do that for?
Mike Akpata 1:05
So, I was with Windsor police for 21 years very privileged to have enjoyed the career. I worked in different departments, I worked in drugs and gangs and training branch and fraud. And as most officers or frontline emergency workers do, came to know the city late at night when people were having their worst day of their life and was able to assist them work through it and do my best to reassure them there was still humanity left in human beings.
Rosalind Peck 1:35
Was there any one event from when you were a police officer that caused you to get PTSD?
Mike Akpata 1:40
Well, I’m very careful when I say that. I’ve never been diagnosed. I just understand the reaction to unique events. And I do have one very specifically, it was fireworks night, it was 2006, which would have made it June 27, about 12:08am. So maybe on the 28th. A call come out for an officer being stabbed on Huron Church (Road). And like all other officers, you stop what you’re doing, because you hear the officer needs assistance, that somebody’s been stabbed and drive out there. And I look at that day. And I remember a number of things that sort of start to lead to the disjoint of memory. I remember going down Riverside Drive probably about 140 or 150 kilometers an hour. And selfishly, it was less than 90 days after Senior Constable John Atkinson had been murdered. And I can’t do another funeral.
And when I arrived, I got into the car and started to run towards the other officers. And from a first aid perspective, I saw that the officers were standing, which is not common. If you’ve been stabbed or seriously injured, you should be down on the ground. So right off the bat, my mind started to suggest to myself that this was not as bad as it was. And as I’m running towards the two officers who are walking towards me, I see the soles of a child’s feet on the ground. And I say to myself, who’s changing a diaper in this Gong Show. I used some different language in my head. My daughter was just born. So, if you’ve ever changed the diaper on a small child, you usually come up and you see their feet and you go through these types of things.
I remember looking at the child, and there was an officer holding an IV bag. Paramedics already arrived. And I’d never seen anyone’s eyes so big. And what I saw on the ground was sort of a dark, wet spot under the child. I later came to know that the child had been stabbed in excess of 22 times and was slowly dying, on the road, on Huron Church.
So, you know, job now moves from the officers are okay because they’re up and walking to this is the priority. And I stood there and said to the paramedics, what can I do? I’ll never forget the supervisor who said to me, Mike, this is a “three hands call”. There’s three of us here. We need three sets of hands to try to save this young child. You’re driving the ambulance. So right off the bat, I’m like, okay! I’m driving the ambulance. That’s bad. Ambulances are top heavy. I’m used to driving a Crown Vic and I’m used to driving fast.
I remember sitting in the ambulance while they worked on the child. They tapped on the back and we went to the Dieu (Hotel Dieu-Grace Hospital). We pull up to the Dieu. And the doctor who was working that day, I’ll never forget her. She looked and she saw him. They immediately started working.
So, I’m in the room with the doctor who’s working on the child. And I remember her. She’d put four units of blood into this two-year old. And we were getting ready to take the child to Receiving (Hospital) in Detroit. And they were getting everything set up. The tunnel was blocked. And I remember her putting in the last bit of blood. And then this red foamy blood coming from the back of the child. And I knew what it meant. It meant that there was a rupture in the lung, and the air was going into the blood.
After two or three gasps, the child died. And I had to get on the air. Because everyone was waiting. When I say everyone, the entire police department was tuned in to hear. First of all, how their colleagues had done. Second of all, what was going on with this. Multiple officers had blocked the tunnel which shut down the tunnel to get over there. DPD, Detroit Police was ready to meet the ambulance and escort us. I had to get on the air and say you can release the tunnel.
Everybody knew what that meant. That the child had died. But that doesn’t stop it. The investigation, in progress, became a murder. So, myself and the doctor went over injury by injury on the child. Documented every stab wound. Every injury. But I still have to go back to the station. Multiple reports to write and was done probably 12 to 13 hours later. But I’d still worked a full shift.
And I remember one of the superintendents came. Myself and the partner were in the elevator going up to the change room. And he stopped the elevator. And it’s one of those – almost a movie-type scene. He stops the elevator. He says, ‘are you guys okay?” And coppers are hard people? Yeah, we’re fine. “No!” Just how he said it? “No! Are you okay?” Both of us start to cry.
Rosalind Peck 5:57
Wow. That’s quite an experience. Now, was that before you went overseas?
Mike Akpata 6:03
It was before I went overseas. That was 2006. I was deployed with Second Battalion, Royal Canadian Regiment to Afghanistan in 2007.
Rosalind Peck 6:11
Okay. And just what happened to you over there?
Mike Akpata 6:13
So, I was with the force protection platoon, everything that moves in Afghanistan moved by road. So, we were in armored fighting vehicles. We escorted logistics convoys into all of the forward operating bases. So, the Taliban would plant IEDs in the road. We would drive over them. They blow up and Canadian soldiers would die. Unfortunately, 22 young Canadians were killed on my tour.
We had a number of close calls. We were shot at. Things exploded. You’re flying around, in what I call Code Red. You’re at the most heightened level of awareness. And that becomes normal.
There were only so many roads in Afghanistan to move through Kandahar, to the places that we went. So, if there was an explosion yesterday on the road, Canadian forces and Afghan allies filled it in and we drove over the same spot the next day. So, there were some times that it was white knuckling, wondering what was going to happen.
But it was the responsible thing, from my perspective, to do. I was a reservist I had been a reservist for a number of years, and I believed that I had a responsibility when the government called and it was my turn to do my duty.
Rosalind Peck 7:16
What impact did these events have on you.
Mike Akpata 7:20
I describe it like this. If we talk about the warfighting experience, I’ve got friends who’ve lost close friends who’ve been in command decisions, and soldiers who make it back unscathed. Like I did. I’m very, very lucky. It has nothing to do with my skill, or my cunning or my ability to soldier. It has to do with the wheel of fate. The wheel spun and my number didn’t come up. So, one of the things that happens is, you wonder, why am I here?
As someone who made it home, I owe these young faces something, to talk about them and do whatever I can. Because I’ve got friends who’ve gone on multiple tours, and will never speak of their experience because the things that they saw, the things that we all participated in when you’re warfighting, it affects you to your core. And much like a videotape, and I describe it as that, these things play over and over and over in your head. So specific days through my tour, I can tell you exactly where I was. I can tell you what the smells were. I can tell you what transpired that day. And as I work through those days, some of them are more difficult than others, because they were horrible days for what we did. And there’s still that wondering, why am I here?
Rosalind Peck 8:39
You have a family, Mike, tell me about your family and how they’ve been affected by PTSD and your experiences.
Mike Akpata 8:45
In my house, I’ve got veterans, friends that come over and my children have been exposed to a side of war fighting, that is not glorious, it is not glamorous, and sometimes it’s downright disheartening. They’ve seen me cry, they’ve seen friends of mine cry on these days. And my responsibility is to explain to them why I did it. To make sure that they understand, that when soldiers or coppers that I worked with come by, and we just go downstairs to have a chat, or we sit on the front porch. Not all our conversations are good. And that it is a multiple support program that we have, where I say, give me a call at three o’clock in the morning, if this is a bad day, and I’ll be up and I’ll do it.
When I look at my children, and I recognize what I have, and what these fallen Canadian soldiers will never experience, it weighs on my mind. But my children level me out because I’ve promised myself to be the best father, parent, Canadian I can possibly be, so that they understand the self-sacrifice, of not only me, but those who didn’t come back.
Rosalind Peck 9:54
What exactly sparks your PTSD today?
Mike Akpata 9:58
It can be a smell. One of the ironies of life is the buses that we have in Windsor have the same diesel engines that we had in our vehicles. So, you’ve been behind the bus or you’ve crossed the street, when the bus starts off in that black smoke comes out. And it takes me right back to Afghanistan.
A Canadian fighting vehicle was hit on the Fourth of July by an IED and we recovered the vehicle. It was blown in half. So, on the Fourth of July, living where we live, the Americans are celebrating Independence Day and I can hear the explosions in the distance. And sometimes you can look and see the pops and the color. That’s what war looks like. That’s what it sounds like. I have no problem with fireworks. It’s one of the ironies of my existence that I live so close to the United States, that the Fourth of July will always be an explosion laden day.
There are places and sights and sounds and dates that get that tape going in my head again. It is something that I’m very comfortable talking about. It is something that I want people to know and understand. And here’s the reason why. Even the military for a while when folks would come back, people would say, ‘Listen, I don’t really feel like I belong here’, they would medically release them. The army now has learned and policing has learned and public safety organizations have learned that if you take regular folks, and you put them into extraordinary circumstances, there shall be a reaction, and there shall be a new normal that they come to accept. Now, like I said, even sitting here talking, I’m privileged that I can talk about it. There are some colleagues of mine that would never speak of anything, not because they are afraid, but simply because it is hurtful, private and deeply emotional for them. And what I would like to make sure that people understand is, it is a normal reaction to an abnormal circumstance. It creates a new normal for folks and they’re able to have completely happy, productive lives. There just are times where they may appear to be sad.
Rosalind Peck 12:02
This podcast is about PTSD. Mike Akpata suffers from it. We’ll hear more from him and we’ll learn about programs that deal with trauma, as Better Together continues.
Rosalind Peck 12:17
My next guest is Senior Constable Bonnie Racine. She was a patrol officer for the LaSalle police service for 26 years. She is now the COAST officer and coordinator for the LaSalle police peer support program. Welcome, Bonnie.
Sr. Constable Bonnie Racine 12:31
Thanks, Rosalind. Thanks for having me.
Rosalind Peck 12:33
You’ve heard Mike Patton talk about PTSD. How often do you hear this kind of story from other police officers?
Sr. Constable Bonnie Racine 12:40
In my role, it’s quite often, even within our service, we talk regularly, we speak regularly to one another, and we support one another. And that’s the role of the peer support team.
In my day-to-day role, currently, I’m the COAST officer, which stands for Community Outreach and Support Team. And our role is to go out and to meet with people that have had contact with police, where there’s a mental health component, or an addiction piece to offer them support because sometimes it’s difficult for people to navigate through this system. And we offer that support to them.
Rosalind Peck 13:11
Okay, but that is separate from your peer support. Correct?
Sr. Constable Bonnie Racine 13:17
Correct. So peer support is a group of volunteer officers and members. So currently, we have nine members that are part of our peer support team. Eight of them are officers, one is a retired officer. The purpose of the peer support team is that these people are keeping and knowing very private, confidential, personal information about experiences. And if we’re not a confidential group, then we may as well not exist.
Rosalind Peck 13:48
Okay. How do you help fellow officers and first responders, when they’re in these very traumatic experiences? What do you offer?
Sr. Constable Bonnie Racine 13:56
So first of all, we suggest to our officers, and to our new officers especially, to try and find a therapist, whether it be a social worker, or a psychologist, somebody that they’re comfortable with, and to have a meeting with them. So that psychologists or that therapists become familiar with their baseline – what they’re normally like, on a regular day. So, if there is a traumatic event, and as first responders, we do experience multiple traumatic events over careers, so that they know what they’re like, on a good day.
So, when they do present, and they’re maybe having difficult times, then we know how to support them and where they’ve come from and where they’re at. And if there has been a particularly stressful or traumatic event, one of our members will meet with, or at least touch base by phone or by text, those members and offering them support. If there’s an event we will as a peer support group, we will try and meet with the people that are involved and offer them support, whether it’s just by listening by meeting up with again, or if it’s a long standing or if something is particularly bothering that person. We will connect them with services.
Rosalind Peck 15:06
Can you think of one particular incident where you had to come in as a peer support help for somebody or a group of people?
Sr. Constable Bonnie Racine 15:12
I mean, there’s not a lot of specific events that I can share. But in general, when there are larger events, we will conduct what’s called a peer support debrief. This peer support debrief is a specific debrief to discuss how people are feeling and how people are doing and where they’re at and if we can support them in any way, in those debriefs, it’s a room where there’s no rank, there’s no supervisors, we only allow the people in the debrief that have been involved in the event.
So those are, where we talk about how they felt, and trying to discuss, to get them back to feeling better. And if that can’t happen, and sometimes it can’t, if things are not feeling well, if they aren’t sleeping, they aren’t eating. They’re constantly running through scenarios in their head over and over. And it’s disrupting their day-to-day life. It’s disrupting their work, it’s disrupting their family, then that’s time to seek some extra help.
Rosalind Peck 16:17
When was this program started in LaSalle?
Sr. Constable Bonnie Racine 16:20
So, we started probably about 13 years ago and didn’t do it well. I’ll be honest with that. And now we’ve been established and have a very firm footing, because we know it works. And we know it’s needed. And we know that the membership is happy with what’s happening. And we often will ask people to join in.
Rosalind Peck 16:44
So, this program in reality is fairly new. It’s been developing for quite some time, right. But trauma has been around for a long time. What change led to this type of peer support?
Sr. Constable Bonnie Racine 16:47
Well, sadly, there have been members that that haven’t been supported when within the office and it was a sort of a old school sort of mentality, where that’s part of the job, and you just moved on. And you just went to the next call, and you didn’t really think about it. And if you didn’t think about it, it wasn’t going to bother you. But we know that that’s not the case. And through the years people have gone off with post traumatic stress disorder. And we want to prevent that, because the best place for us to be is at work and helping the community.
Rosalind Peck 17:34
Do you encourage people to talk about the trauma as a way of dealing with it?
Sr. Constable Bonnie Racine 17:38
Absolutely. I think that is the best place to start, is to have a conversation about it, to share with someone that you trust and someone that you value their opinion, and to seek assistance regularly. Because we’re seeing these as you mentioned, as we talked before, you’re seeing these tragic events more regularly than most people do in their life. And to have a conversation it certainly can’t hurt.
Rosalind Peck 18:07
Thank you for joining me today, Bonnie. Senior Constable Bonnie Racine is a peer support coordinator and a COAST officer for LaSalle police.
Rosalind Peck 18:16
Mike, you’ve had PTSD for years, what would you like to tell others who may also have it,
Mike Akpata 18:24
You are not alone. It is not a sign of weakness. It is a sign of strength when you talk. But the same way that we carry good times in our heads, birth of a child, marriage proposals, anything that’s happy, we also carry, unfortunately, the negative things that have happened to us and how you deal with it, or how you believe people perceive you, is also how you’re going to deal with these times that you find yourself in.
Rosalind Peck 18:53
Mike, how important is it for you to talk about your trauma.
Mike Akpata 18:56
For me, it’s very important. I’ve often believed that a burden that is shared is more easily carried. And like I said, I’ve seen the friends that keep things bottled in. And I recognize that I’m not suggesting to anyone that my way is the only way. But for me, anytime I get on stage or any place and talk about it, and relive those events, the impact on me becomes less and less.
I think people who speak about their circumstance, their trauma, their victimization, are some of the strongest people I know. They recognize that something untoward has happened. They decide for themselves, how they’re going to deal with it. And then they very slowly move forward. They will never forget, and it will always be a part of them. They will never be able to erase that day. But there’ll be better.
Rosalind Peck 19:53
Well, thanks for being here, Mike.
Mike Akpata 19:55
Well, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Rosalind Peck 19:57
Mike Akpata teaches as St. Clair College and is a town councillor in LaSalle, Ontario.
Rosalind Peck 20:04
This podcast is about PTSD.
John Casey 20:06
We use horses that are therapy horses. They all have a very calm demeanor
Rosalind Peck 20:13
We’ll learn about programs that deal with trauma, as Better Together continues.
Thanks to the support of generous sponsors for making this podcast possible.
You’re listening to Better Together with a Life Worth Living. I’m Rosalind Peck. This podcast is about post traumatic stress disorder and how people deal with it.
Rosalind Peck 20:37
My next guest works for the Windsor Essex Therapeutic Riding Association. John Casey is the health and safety officer and a facilitator for a program for first responders who have developed PTSD. Welcome, John.
John Casey 20:49
Thanks for having me.
Rosalind Peck 20:50
Glad you can be here. What’s this program called?
John Casey 20:53
This program is called E-A-C-P-T, which stands for Equine Assisted Cognitive Processing Therapy.
Rosalind Peck 21:01
How did you get involved in the program?
John Casey 21:03
Years ago, WETRA, the Windsor Essex Therapeutic Riding Association, had a pilot project that was in the works. And I was actually a member because prior to this, I was an emergency dispatcher and I actually was diagnosed with PTSD. And when I was going through my recovery journey, I was part of the programming there. And that’s how I started my journey and ended up as the prevention officer to WETRA.
Rosalind Peck 21:36
Tell me about the program. How does it work?
John Casey 21:39
Well, E-A-C-P-T uses C-P-T, which stands for Cognitive Processing Therapy, which has been a proven therapy to help reduce signs and symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, and especially in the first responder community.
Rosalind Peck 21:56
Tell me about your experience. I mean, you went through the program when it was still in the early stages. So, tell me what it was like for you when you went through it?
John Casey 20:05
Yeah, so the original program, it was sponsored, actually by the Ministry of Labor. It wasn’t the same curriculum that we’re delivering now. What we’ve done with the pilot project, we’ve pretty much dissected it, and we’ve tried to perfect it. So, the original program, I believe, was eight to nine weeks. And now we’ve grown that into a 14-session program. We use a variety of different exercises, obstacle courses; a lot of self reflection on how the individual sees themselves; how trauma has affected them and how thought processes are after their traumatic experience.
Rosalind Peck 22:43
And the horses. Who doesn’t love a horse? Right?
John Casey 22:46
Exactly! So, we have a great herd of horses right now at the farm. We use horses that are therapy horses. They all have a very calm demeanor, which is very important. The horses there really feed off of an individual’s energy. So, if you for example, come into the barn, and you are very anxious or you’re yelling and screaming, they’re gonna be on alert. They are prey animals and they are on alert because they really have no forms of protecting themselves other than running. Like humans, if they experienced a traumatic experience, they’re going to be on high alert.
Rosalind Peck 23:28
Oh, that’s interesting. So, if somebody comes in and they’re anxious, do the horses help calm them down, or do they try to match their mood to how the horses are behaving?
John Casey 23:40
So, what we do, we have several exercises throughout the whole program. Some of them will be, for an example, we might have an obstacle course. Now when I say obstacle course, I’m not talking about the horses jumping over water, or running a marathon with the individual on their back. It’s important to note that our program is a ground program, which means there’s no mounted exercises.
So, as they go through these different obstacles, we try to relate the traumatic experience they have with the horses, their emotions, as well. So that horse might be very hesitant to go walk over that tarp, because that’s not something that they’re used to. So, what exercises do we use to calm the horse down? We show that to the individual. And that may help them bring their emotions down as well.
Rosalind Peck 24:31
And what would those exercises look like?
John Casey 24:34
Well, what we do, we set up in the arena. So for the obstacle course, we set it up on one side of the arena. They’ll bring the horse. That obstacle course will change, let’s say we do it 0n week two, and week four. Because in life, as we know, there’s always things thrown at us, right? So, they may think they’re going into a certain situation where they’ll remember ‘Oh yeah’, that’s what the obstacle course was. But we will change it purposely. So, they can adapt. The individual and their horse, they may walk over poles, they may walk around barrels, they may have to do a certain, let’s say, figure eight in the arena. But each of those are out of the ordinary for the horse to participate in.
Rosalind Peck 25:18
And for the person as well as for the person. Right?
John Casey 25:19
And for the person as well. Absolutely. So, it’s a learning experience for both the horse each session and the participant. The horse is a tool. We use the horse’s reactions too, and we relate those to the participant’s reactions. If a horse shows that they are anxious, they may start to pin their ears back.
Rosalind Peck 25:39
How long does it take before people in the program show any results?
John Casey 25:43
It’s situational. Someone may start showing improvement within the first few weeks, somebody may have improvement not till the end of the program. All of our results are documented and measured, and then forwarded to our clinician. So, everything is gauged accordingly. The nice thing about the program is prior to entry, we have a long entry process, many questions. So, the program itself can be tailored to the individual.
Rosalind Peck 26:23
So, you have PTSD. How did you get PTSD?
John Casey 26:27
Well, prior to my employment at WETRA, I was employed here in Windsor Essex. I was a 911 dispatcher and call taker. I was on the ambulance side of things. So, I answered the 911 calls, dispatched the ambulances, and as you are aware, I’m sure that usually when you call 911, and ask for help, it’s not usually a good day.
I had a, what I like to call, an index event or a traumatic event, shortly after I started in 2006. Back then, mental health, especially in the first responder community, it wasn’t as talked about it as it is today. Even in the last so many years, it’s improved quite a bit. So, after that event, things were just different. And my work ethic was different. My family life was different. And myself, just as a person was different.
I had initially reached out to some individuals that were higher up to me. And I said, you know, something’s just not right. And, you know, I can remember the one individual just kind of putting his hand on my shoulder and saying, ‘you know what, before you know it, it’ll just be like any other call’. Well, that never was. So, I carried that with me for a long time. And I can honestly say, for close to 10 years, I thought about that specific call. All those feelings, all those symptoms, all the anxiety, all the everything, just those emotions just got worse.
So, my wife and I, we went to a speaker that Essex Windsor EMS had hosted. And it was an individual speaking. He was a police officer on his journey with PTSD. And I can remember specifically saying to my wife on the way home, ‘did any of that sound familiar?’ And she just broke down. So that was my initial kind of cue to say, okay, let’s get this together.
Shortly after that, I made an appointment with my family doctor and pretty much said, I want my life back. This is what’s going on. And we, we tackled it. And it was then decided that it was a work restriction that I couldn’t return to that position. So, I went back to school over time and got some further education. And that’s how I ended up to where I’m at today.
Rosalind Peck 28:58
Oh, we’re glad you did.
John Casey 28:59
Thanks very much. Doing things like this and being involved in the E-S-C-P-T program is very therapeutic. Helping others. When you’re a first responder it’s in your blood. You want to help people.
When certain things happen, you get an occupational stress injury, such as PTSD, it’s a hard pill to swallow. It really is.
Rosalind Peck 29:23
Is there anything else you’d like to add? Anything you’d like to say to anybody who has PTSD?
John Casey 29:28
It’s a long road. But we have this program here. We can’t guarantee that you’ll be completely symptom free when you’re done our program. But what we can guarantee is that there’s hope.
Rosalind Peck 29:44
Thank you for coming in today, John.
John Casey 29:46
No problem. Thank you for keeping the conversation going and bringing awareness to the community.
Rosalind Peck 29:52
You’re very welcome.
John Casey is the Health and Safety officer for Windsor Essex Therapeutic Riding Association and facilitator for the Equine Assisted Cognitive Processing Therapy Program.
As we’ve heard in this podcast, trauma can last much longer than the event itself. The resulting post traumatic stress disorder can have a lasting impact. Attitudes have changed about PTSD. People don’t have to be silent about their situation anymore.
Thank you for listening. I’m Rosalind Peck. Know who you are, where you will go and choose a life worth living.
This episode is made possible by the support of generous sponsors.