If you find yourself in a crisis situation, the SMART Members Assistance Program (MAP) is available to help. Please call 877-884-6227 for free and confidential assistance. Your employer also may have an in-house employee assistance program (EAP) available.
Tuesday, June 27, 2023, is Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) Awareness Day in the United States. Until personally impacted, I had always believed that PTSD was reserved for the men and women who had served in the military and that it was a symptom that only those who had seen combat were capable of getting. I was wrong.
Working in the transportation industry can be and often is a stress-filled lifestyle. This is especially true for those of us who are unfortunate enough to have had a critical incident (CI). I’ve been involved in not one but two in my career as a railroad conductor and engineer. Both CIs in my career have been suicides.
Yet such incidents are not limited to people working freight rail. Our bus and transit members deal with road and rail accidents themselves whether it be with another vehicle or a pedestrian. There’s no shortage of headlines in our union’s daily news emails talking about people doing their jobs who are then subjected to unexpected violence by a passenger or even a stranger. While the medical treatment may be completed, the psychological effects of these incidents can linger long after.
In the two Cis I’ve experienced, the train I was conducting was traveling too fast for anyone to have reacted to prevent the incident. Both times, it was a matter of how the crew would cope in the aftermath, rather than if it was going to occur. And in both circumstances, I told myself that logically it wasn’t my fault and that I was fine.
On that last point, I was very wrong.
The carrier I work for has a good Federal Railroad Administration-mandated Employee Assistance Program (EAP) and in both circumstances, I was contacted and asked how I was doing. Both times I told them that I was doing just fine and that I was more worried about my engineer or in one case my trainee. I wasn’t lying to these EAP representatives. I truly believed I was OK. The truth of the matter is that everyone processes these events differently. I was actually looking forward to getting on my next train following those incidents and getting those situations behind me.
Over time, the repercussions of what I had witnessed made themselves more evident. What I had not realized is that I was affected and that it changed my personality. The best way I can describe my situation pre-PTSD diagnosis is that my fuse had been cut very short. It did not take much to set me off. I had become temperamental and volatile at work and at home.
Back on the road working, I had plenty of time alone with my thoughts. Hotel rooms at the away-from-home terminal began to feel more like prison cells than anything. While there, I wanted to get home, and when I was at home, I was more anxious than ever before about when I was going to get called back to work. In essence, I was no longer comfortable in my own skin and was always looking for the exits.
Drinking became a part of my everyday routine. What I realize now is that my anxiety about getting to either end of the railroad was that my reward was 10 hours that I could drink myself numb. I was running from something, but unaware that I was doing it.
Eventually, this caught up to me. I was second out in the hotel, and as I was going to bed, my phone rang with a surprise call to work. The crew that had been first out caught a break and got an unlikely deadhead home. As a result, I got called in significantly earlier than I had calculated. When I got to the terminal I failed a random pre-trip blow-and-go sobriety test.
It was the wake-up call I needed.
As part of the path back to reinstatement, I needed to meet with a drug and alcohol counselor. Through my conversation with this man at a coffee shop, the two suicides came up in conversation. My counselor was intrigued by that situation and asked a couple of follow-up questions. When he diagnosed me with PTSD, I was confused, and ironically pissed off. I told him that I disagreed with his point of view.
At an appointment with my regular family doctor, he asked how things were going at work and I came clean about my suspension. I told him about having to go to a substance counselor. When he asked how that was going, I told him that I didn’t like the guy because “he thinks I’m crazy.” After telling him about the situation, my doctor confirmed that he also was diagnosing me with PTSD.
Since I’d been slapped in the face with this twice now, I did some research on the topic. As it turns out my “short fuse” volatility, anxiety and the spike in drinking checked a lot of the boxes for PTSD. The tendencies that I thought were just me being an old, grizzled railroader turned out to be a diagnosable psychological problem.
What’s more important than being diagnosable, is that PTSD is also treatable. I have started to see a psychiatrist, and my goals have changed. Now I try to get better and heal rather than just subconsciously trying to numb myself and run out the clock until I can do it again.
I am writing this to encourage as many of our members as possible not to feed into the idea that we aren’t supposed to be affected by what we see on the job or the lifestyle we live working in the transportation industry. PTSD is a real thing. We have all discussed the need to defend our quality of life. At its root that is what I’m asking you to consider.
Our lives are dictated by our work assignments. That won’t change any time soon. What can change is that you can stop “sucking it up” and living with the anxiety of PTSD. If you have had a critical incident on the job and now live with heightened anxiety, or you sometimes surprise yourself with how harsh the things you say and do are or feel like a third-party observer with no control over your own reactions, please take it from a colleague who has been where you are.
It is difficult to swallow our pride and admit that you might be struggling to work through PTSD. It sure was for me. But I’m glad I was forced to deal with it, and I hope we all can use this June 27th’s PTSD Awareness Day as a point to reflect on how you might be coping with any CI you may have experienced.
If any of this sounds familiar and makes you as uncomfortable as I was when diagnosed, I personally ask that you use the links below to look into the services that are available to help.
It can get better, and you deserve better.
This column was submitted by a SMART-TD member.