The small, quarter-sized headset behind my ear with a yellow heartbeat running through it may seem like a foolish thing to tattoo on one's body. But for me, it was a symbol of something that will forever be a part of me mentally, emotionally and now physically. It was about putting something dainty and beautiful near the place where so many wretched and dark things had been introduced to me.
When I was training to become a 911 dispatcher, someone told me, "You won't know if you've made it until you take your first screamer." Looking back, maybe I should have run. What I thought was just an attempt to scare me ended up being a huge, flashing caution sign. They were right — that first screamer will make or break you and regardless of what it does, you will never unhear those screams.
At 19 years old, I had no clue that this career choice of mine would change me forever. Growing up in a village with a population of less than 600, I was rather naïve to the harsh realities of this world. I went from living in a world of small-town hospitality to the war zone we call society. At 20 years old, I started seeing a therapist twice a month and at 21, I was diagnosed with PTSD. In a matter of less than three years, this career defeated me.
I had heard it all.
"You need to find another job."
"You have to do what is best for you."
"Sometimes the things we love aren't good for us."
There was no way to explain to my loved ones who were deeply concerned, that none of those things mattered to me. There was no other option than simply figuring it out. Figuring out how to sleep for more than two hours at a time again. Figuring out how to stop replaying the things I had heard on repeat. Figuring out how to survive this career that I love so much.
The light in this darkness was, ironically, being a 911 dispatcher. If you don't know one, you should. I believe I was given those challenges to overcome because I was capable of doing so.
The biggest lesson I have learned is what I, along with public safety telecommunicators all over the world, are truly made of.
We are strong.
Imagine talking to a little girl who just witnessed her parents get shot. The calm in her voice is terrifying because how in the hell is she so calm?! What do you say to her? How do you tell her everything is going to be okay? Or do you just not tell her that? How do you ask her to walk you through exactly what happened, making her relive it when you really don't even want to know yourself? How do you swallow the lump in your throat and get through that phone call?
We have self-control.
Imagine how difficult it is to take a barking dog complaint after you just got off the phone with someone who found their loved one not breathing. You disconnect from a call where you spent minutes, that felt like hours, giving CPR instructions and listening to your caller beg God to not let them die. Only to answer the next call about a barking dog. How do you find the willpower not to tell that guy where he can go shove it?
We are compassionate.
Imagine picking up the phone and hearing someone tell you they want to die right now and that they have the means to complete that task. Through the phone how do you remind them how precious life is? How do you ensure the words coming off your tongue, through the phone, into their ear, will be enough to make them put the weapon down? How do you find the words to tell this stranger that their life matters to you?
Imagine hearing your deputy call out 10-79 (notify coroner) Not one, not two, not three, not four but FIVE times on one incident. The sound of his voice saying that 10 code will echo in your mind for months to come. How do you learn to tune that out? How do you train yourself to unhear his voice when your very job is to know it by heart? How do you wipe the tears, walk into the comm center and plug in your headset without hesitation every day that follows?
Dispatchers don't talk about PTSD. How dare we have nightmares when we were never on the scene?
How dare we become overwhelmed, when we sit comfortably at our desks for 12 hours? We are just secretaries, clerical workers, receptionists. How dare we even consider ourselves to be first responders? Not only is the world telling us these things, but we too deny that we are entitled to feel a certain way about the responsibility we carry on our shoulders. We ignore the thoughts inside our heads telling us "You are not okay." We avoid acknowledging that we are struggling. We laugh when we want to cry and sing when we want to scream. We joke about the scary stuff to make it a little less terrifying. We ask other people if they are doing alright when we really want someone to ask us.
We don't talk about PTSD. I think if we did, we would find it to be a common diagnosis in most of us.
Maybe we don't discuss such matters because we are afraid — afraid we will conclude that the job itself is no good for us. That morally we will have to decide between our mental health and our calling. The very thing that defines us is also the most damaging part of our lives. We are stuck in public safety because it makes us who we are. Maybe we don't talk about it because we want to be strong for ourselves like we are for our callers. We want to use the self-control we have perfected throughout our many twelve-hour shifts to control our own thoughts and emotions. We want to have the compassion we have for complete strangers for ourselves too. We want to persevere through life the way we persevere through work. We want to feel unstuck. We want to feel like we are choosing this calling, instead of feeling like it chose us, and we have no way out. Unless we start talking about it, unless we start doing something about it, we will not remain strong, we will not be able to control our thoughts and emotions, we will not be compassionate towards ourselves and we will not persevere.
Dispatchers don't talk about PTSD. But we should start.
The nightmares will stop, the flashbacks will fade, and you will stop hearing your officer's voices in your sleep. The lump in your throat when you answer those calls will shrink. The intrusive thoughts will disappear, the unhealthy coping mechanisms won't be needed anymore and 911 telecommunicators will be okay.
"Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God." Matthew 5:9