For Matthew Heneghan, author of the newly released memoir, A Medic’s Mind, writing became a way of “letting the poison out”.
“I was not gifted with a natural ability to write,” Heneghan told us. “I merely endured the experiences required to give my soul the time it needed to learn how to cry. What you see on paper or page are not letters and phrases from me...they’re tear drops.”
Heneghan was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) following his time as a paramedic and medic in the Canadian Forces. He first started sharing his experiences publicly in a blog. Writing started as a selfish endeavour, Heneghan explained, until he began receiving emails and private messages from people all over the world that helped him realize he wasn’t alone.
“Though I may no longer be able to respond in an ambulance,” Heneghan told us, “maybe my words can carry the healing needed from both myself and those whom require it.”
Thus began his journey of penning a memoir about his life from his experiences of abuse in childhood to his days as a medic and paramedic, his struggle with alcoholism, and the mental health fallout he continues to battle.
“PTSD impacts me every day,” Heneghan told us. “I spend much of my time focusing on managing reactions to triggers such as sirens, loud and unexpected noises, smells, tastes and flashbacks—it’s exhausting."
According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can happen to people who’ve experienced or witnessed a traumatic event. During and after World War I and World War II, it was known as “shell shock” and “combat fatigue”. Though often associated with military personnel and veterans, PTSD can happen to anyone and affects approximately 3.5 per cent of U.S. adults.
A recent study that looked at PTSD rates in 24 countries found that Canada had the highest prevalence with 9.2 per cent of Canadians expected to suffer from PTSD as some point in their lives.
Symptoms of PTSD can include intrusive thoughts, prolonged flashbacks and nightmares, negative thoughts and feelings, and intense reactions to loud noises and touch. For a diagnosis of PTSD, a person must have had symptoms lasting longer than a month. Many people who suffer from PTSD start experiencing symptoms within three months following a traumatic event, however, symptoms may also begin appearing later. Related conditions include acute stress disorder, anxiety disorder, adjustment disorder, disinhibited social engagement disorder, and reactive attachment disorder.
PTSD is treatable through therapy and/or medication.
"I am working with a therapist twice a week," Heneghan told us. "I have hope that with continued hard work, I will get better at managing and thriving.”
Heneghan’s book is divided into three parts, the First Jacket, the Second Jacket, and the Third Jacket, depending on the literal and metaphorical jacket he wore at different stages of his life, first, as a medic in the Canadian Forces, second, as a paramedic, and third, as a PTSD survivor.
“It was a nice way to categorize everything—putting it into jackets—seemed right,” Henegahn told us. “As for what I am donning today… well… I guess it’s less of a physical wear than it is a symbolic one—recovery. I am wearing an ethereal jacket of momentum, moving forward. It’s a process, a second to second, minute by minute process. I have learned that I cannot hide from what I feel. So when sadness comes, I have to sit with it, accept it and allow it to be there, because it’s normal. Natural. And sometimes, it’s just alright to not be so alright.”
One of the enduring themes that emerges from Heneghan’s book is hope and his ability to persevere and overcome the most tragic of circumstances, a strength of character which may or may not be connected to Heneghan’s childhood hero, Superman.
“I fell in love with that man from Krypton at an early age,” Heneghan told us. “Something about how handsome he was, how selfless and caring he appeared to be… it was inspiring. So much so, that I demanded my mother procure me a Superman outfit at the age of four! I say ‘demanded’ because I actually have a memory of standing on a kitchen chair with my diminutive arms rested at my hips, proclaiming boisterously to my dear ol’ mum that I was, Superman! And you know what? My mum made me an outfit! I became, Superman.”
Heneghan explained that in the years that followed, and with the death of his mom, that memory, that symbol of a man striving to heal the world has stayed with him.
“I learned at an early age that the world was broken,” Heneghan told us. “My mum was diagnosed with cancer, multiple times. The world seemed unfair. So, I wanted to do whatever I could to put a little piece of it back together again. I never got to wear a cape. But I did end up in a pair of deep navy blue’s and a stethoscope. I began trying to piece the world back together. Right the wrongs and glue the shards. Sadly, I cut myself on those broken pieces… seeing humanity at its worst can have a profound and lasting impact on a man. Super, or not.”
Though heartbreaking, Heneghan allows space in his book for his sobering sense of humour to emerge, recounting hilarious epics of his time as a paramedic including one call to the apartment of a sweet, old lady suffering from chest pains with a shelf full of movies, movies she starred in, movies of a certain kind of genre, without giving too much away.
“The juxtaposition of hilarity and heartbreak are what make up A Medic’s Mind, my mind, anyway,” Heneghan told us. “The dichotomy of funny and sad shaped me and impacted me on equal levels, just in different ways. And I am not trying to punish the reader… I don’t want to bash them over the head with my horrible experiences. Life is more nuanced than that. I think as such, it’s important to tell both sides. And as a side note, sometimes it’s easy for me to get lost in the halls of pain, loss and anguish… forcing myself to recall the funnier times… the lighter times compels me to remember that not everything is bad.”
Heneghan said he hopes that people reading his book will come away knowing they are not alone.
“My time on the rig is over now,” Heneghan told us. “I’ve learned to accept that. After my mum died by way of suicide in 2017, I knew right then and there that I would never again be able to respond to another suicide and be as objective as I would need to be… I’ve hung up my stethoscope and taken the gloves off… my shift is over. But my mind will always be mine. I’ll always be a medic.”
Patricia Tomasi is a mom, maternal mental health advocate, journalist, and speaker. She writes regularly for the Huffington Post Canada, focusing primarily on maternal mental health after suffering from severe postpartum anxiety twice. You can find her Huffington Post biography here. Patricia is also a Patient Expert Advisor for the North American-based, Maternal Mental Health Research Collective and is the founder of the online peer support group - Facebook Postpartum Depression & Anxiety Support Group - with over 1500 members worldwide. Blog: www.patriciatomasiblog.wordpress.com