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Overcoming PTSD and Finding Resilience: A Conversation with Emily Zufelt from What's Your Twenty

June 27, 2023

In this edition, we have the privilege of chatting with the incredible Emily Zufelt, the strong and spirited individual behind the powerful project "What's Your Twenty." We delve into a topic that affects millions worldwide but often goes unnoticed: post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD can cast a long shadow over a person's life, leaving them feeling trapped, isolated, and haunted by memories. However, today's discussion is all about hope and the strength of the human spirit. We'll uncover the incredible story of Emily's personal battle with PTSD and how she overcame it and found resilience and purpose in helping others.

In our conversation, Emily will share her journey, the hurdles she encountered, and the powerful lessons she learned. We'll explore the coping mechanisms that worked for her and discover how she channeled her pain into something beautiful and empowering.

Whether you're someone who has personally experienced PTSD, a caregiver seeking guidance, or simply someone with a curiosity for personal growth, this conversation is for you. It's a reminder that no matter how dark the tunnel may seem, there is always a light at the end.

Tell us about yourself.

So normally my previous life, I would have answered that by telling you what my job was, what my position was, and who my organization was. Because so many first responders identify with their job and their uniform, they don't have a life outside of the job. I wanted to let everyone know that you are more than your job, you are more than your uniform, and you are more than a position in an organization. So as for who I am, I'm passionate about learning. I'm passionate about understanding what goes on. And I want to eat up all of this information and education. Knowledge is power. And the more knowledge you have, the more information you can spread and help others. So that's really what my purpose is right now, what I am about.

Can you share with us a bit about your personal journey as a first responder and how it led you to focus on the topic of PTSD?

I was very young when I started in a uniform position, and right from day one, I have to tell you that I thought I would come into things to make the world a better place. I thought it was going to change things. Little did I know when you're so young that it's the world that changes you. And I think that many first responders, and front workers have no idea what they're about to encounter when they enter a position of first responding. There were definitive moments for me in a police detachment setting that was, at the time, already passed up support for employees. And I wasn't healthy right at the beginning, and I couldn't exist in that environment or function in that environment. And so, I chose to exit the uniform side of things and switch over to the civilian side of things, where then I became a 911 emergency police dispatcher. And again, I said I became that. But that's where the profession that I took on. As time passed, I became further unwell with exposure to trauma. And as that happens, the body breaks down, and then the brain becomes injured from overexposure to trauma. It got to the point where I couldn't function anymore, and I had to, with no choice of my own, but because of doctors to go off work and get myself well. So ever since my diagnosis with PTSD, that's been my focus.

In your experience, what are some of the common misconceptions or misunderstandings about PTSD among law enforcement and healthcare professionals?

I think the number one misconception is what it is. So many people see and hear PTSD, and they go disorder. What it is is that the trauma has changed the makeup of the brain. It's an injury. So I like to refer to it as PTSD, post-traumatic stress injury. And it would be an injury just like any other. If you had broken a leg, police services would let you be off duty with a broken leg until you recovered properly, and they would give you the proper resources for that. So not so much the same as having an injured brain from PTSD because it's not a physical injury like another major or a few other significant misconceptions. If you look at the language used around PTSD, particularly for the people who have it, they refer to themselves as messed up, broken, toxic, weak, or too sensitive. That could not be further from the truth. What it is. When we have trauma and our brain changes, our body works biologically correctly to switch off certain functions because it goes into survival mode for us. So we're not weak. We're not too sensitive; we're not toxic. We're operating as a properly functioning body and brain. Some of the other things that I would say is that people feel as though PTSD is right in someone's head, they're making it up, and that they should be able to, like a switch, turn it off and get better, put on a smile, go for a run, you'll get better. It's just not the way it works. It takes time. It takes work. It sometimes takes years to understand what's going on and put in a position to become well from PTSD. The other thing that is a massive misconception is that once you have it and are labelled with it, people feel it's a life sentence. And that isn't the case, either. I'm proof PTSD is not a life sentence. You can heal; you can recover. Not only can you live with it, but you can also thrive after it. I wholeheartedly believe that.

As the host of your own podcast, what motivated you to create a platform specifically dedicated to discussing PTSD and its impact on law enforcement officers and dispatchers?

Well, quite honestly, my diagnosis, I have to be honest and tell you that before I was diagnosed with PTSD, I was one of those individuals who would stigmatize others. I'm not proud of it. But once you know better, you do better. So we don't understand it, especially if you don't have it. So for me to go get this diagnosis, I needed to know what was going on, what was going on with my brain, How do I get well, how do I get out of this? Because we have no idea. Part of the issue with my own PTSD is that it's such a black hole. It's a continuous downward spiral, and you don't have a way out. You don't know how to get out. And unfortunately, a lot of my time and a lot of other first responders' time with PTSD, we head over to suicidal ideation, and some members take their lives as well. There is an excellent propensity for first responders, military members, and anybody suffering from severe PTSD and CPTSD, complex PTSD that take their lives. So once this had happened, I had to make a choice. The choice was to lie down and die or to get up and fight. I chose the latter. But what allowed me to do that was seeing somebody else publicly stating that they had PTSD. Their story, their words identical to what I was going through. And I felt normal, and I had hope for the first time. What this individual did make an environment for me, and it was just online that I saw it happen. But it opened the door to say, Hey, maybe there's a chance because that person isn't laying in bed, that person isn't sick. This person right now is up and speaking about it. Maybe that's what I need to do too. So that's the birth of the podcast, was seeing somebody else tell the truth about what was going on with them. If you can imagine if that person's feeling it and then I'm sitting there and I'm feeling it, we need to hear and see stories of people just like us, and the things about that are just like us are the ones that are coming out of it, the ones that are healing and the ones that are recovering. We need to hear and see those stories to know what's possible. That's where our hope is. I have to tell you the number one weapon against suicidal suicide is hope.

How do you approach the topic of PTSD on your podcast, and what kind of stories or experiences do you typically share with your listeners?

There's only one way to come at this, and it's head-on, open, and honest. And what you were talking about. Authenticity and vulnerability, you got to be raw. You know what? A lot of first responders, these people, you can't pull one over on them, and they're not going to respond to flowery things. No, it would help if you came at them naturally, and they need to be able to be real. So I will talk about the symptomology. I talk about suicide. I talk about the lack of support from the organizations and the lack of responsibility, acknowledgment, and accountability from the organizations. And these are all the things that people are feeling daily. We have the trauma from on the job, but we also have secondary trauma from the organizations themselves.

By not supporting us, we all signed up to be a part of a family. And when the top family members are turning their back, that is a whole other type of trauma that damages you in a way that you just can't explain until you actually have it happen. So I discuss those because it needs to be heard. It needs to be said. So many first responders feel as though they don't have a voice or feel that if they have something to say and they say it, they'll be retribution. So they don't. I've taken it upon myself to be that voice. What more can happen to me? What more can happen? I've been down in the ditch. I've had a plan to take my life. There's nothing that nobody can do to me right now that I can't overcome. So I'm just going to say it.

The other thing, too, but the stories that I'd like to tell are the ones for those down there who came back and are sharing that story. And then there are greater ones that also do something with their adversity, and they turn it into advocacy. That's those are the people that I put a spotlight on. But again, as I said, it's the stories we need to see and hear ourselves in storytelling. And it has always been around, always been around. And that's how lessons were taught. That's how children were taught. So this is how we'll teach each other. We'll learn and teach each other to recover together through stories.

Can you tell us about the most memorable guest that you have had on your podcast and why their interview sticks with you?

I'm not going. I can't just do one. They're all amazing people. And each one of them brought something different. Unique, special to the show. To mention a couple, I had Canadian Senator Patrick Brazeau come on the show. What was so unique about him is that not only was he struggling with trauma, PTSD, and addiction, but he did it publicly and in real-time. So he had this glorious public downfall where we all would be hiding. And because we feel shame around that, right? We feel guilt. We think about all those horrible things we'd be hiding in our bedrooms, but not him yet to take it on the chin twice because Trudeau got them, but he had to take it on the chin and do it publicly. This man came back, and not only did he come back and get sober, he became well, and now he uses his platform still as a senator, an independent one now, but as a senator to go ahead and discuss suicide for young people. So that's amazing. I look at Cheryl Hunt. She's my first female on the podcast firefighter. I mean, she is here. She is breaking—so many glass ceilings as a woman in a male-dominated profession. And yet the harassment that that woman underwent blows my mind in this day and age that another human could be treated this way. But if I had to narrow it down to one, I would have to say my heart will probably always belong to the very first guest I have had. Sorry. And that is veteran and London Police Sergeant Andrew Goss, who came out with his service dog, Briggs. And the reason why Andrew and Riggs will always have a space in my heart is they gave me a chance, and we all had to start somewhere. I was a nobody. I didn't know how to podcast. I certainly didn't do interviews with anybody. I drove to London, which was an eight-hour drive. I saw Andrew on a video that his police association had put out. What he said was beautiful, and I felt This was the person I needed to kick things off. I called him up in the spring, and then nothing was ready. There is no website ready. Again, I didn't have the equipment, but I knew I needed to run the show. So I called him up. He agreed. And then it wasn't until the fall in November that I went and said, Hey Andrew, I'm ready to go. And he goes, Let's do this. So the fact that Andrew gave me a shot is that we all have to start somewhere. He gave me that. And, of course, Briggs is a walking billboard for health, education, service dogs, and then a couple of others. I can't. You look at Chad. Chad, from sea to sea for PTSD. Ted Kennedy, you look at John Archambault differently. You have Corey from Magnotta Industries. These individuals if it weren't for PTSD, I would have never met them. I would have never learned from them and wouldn't get the privilege to call them my friends. So and I can honestly say these people are my friends right now. So yeah, they're all fantastic. But Andrew Andrew takes that takes the cake.

What are some of the coping mechanisms or strategies that you have found effective in managing PTSD symptoms, both personally and through your interactions with other officers and first responders?

It's got to be self-regulation. That is the number one, hands down. If you cannot self-regulate, regulate your emotions, and how you react to something, you know, to learn that there's a difference between responding and reacting. I came from a place of reaction. I'm like, and now I get to take a moment to self-regulate, and then I can respond. Now that's a skill. They didn't. I wasn't taught that skill until PTSD came along, and then I had an occupational therapist. So that was that's number one, self-regulation. One of the other things that I do is there are grounding techniques, which can seem a little odd for people, but we and I said we, as people with PTSD, are so much up in our heads with either anxiety or depression. So you're in the posture in the future. You're struggling with all these other different tenses, but you're never in the present moment. And because you're so up in your head, you're not in your body. So to get back to the present moment and to get back into your body, you do grounding techniques. So one of my favourites is walking through the grass in my bare feet, or with I'm gardening, I'm in the dirt in my bare feet, scrubbing after. But let me tell you, you are connected to Earth, and you are connected to nature, and it does ground you. There are great breathing techniques as well. And I'm not a big breathing technique person, but I will tell you another guest that I had on the podcast; Jacob Marte is a firefighter, but he does the Wim hot breathing technique and cold called is called cold therapy, Extreme cold therapy where you get into the ice baths, and he does the courses. And, of course, I did anything and everything to get well. So I went into ice baths to go ahead and to have cold water submersion ice water submersion that did that as well. So I enjoy that. Now I take cold showers in the morning. I couldn't have ever imagined doing that in the past because I like to burn the skin off my body with how hot I like it. But now I'm a cold water girl. And yeah, those are healthy techniques.

The next one, I think, is one of the biggest ones, would be exercise. Exercise is invaluable. We get a chemical cascade whenever we exercise; these chemicals are made that go ahead and send things up to the brain, the messages to the brain, and you end up with these neurotransmitters. You get to end up with dopamine. You end up with more neuroplasticity. So basically, your ability to change things in your brain, exercise does everything, the ability to go for a run and to breathe. You're focusing on your breathing, the rhythm, and the ability to work at the gym. You're focusing on a muscle group, returning you to your body. And it's one of the healthiest things you could do for yourself. So I would say self-regulation, exercise, and grounding techniques.

How can departments better support police officers and dispatchers who may be struggling with PTSD, and what changes do you think need to be made within the law enforcement culture to foster a more understanding and supportive environment?

Well, first and foremost is education. And I don't just mean these mental awareness, regular talks. I mean psychoeducation to become trauma-informed. That changes the game. If you understand what trauma is, why it's affecting your brain, and how it's affecting your brain, then you can see that you can do something about it and find the solutions that work for you. So it has to be psychoeducation, and it has to be on a level that people will respect and understand where it's coming from. And what I mean by that is that not a lot of command staff know where the people have been with PTSD.

We can't keep asking people who haven't been to specific locations to lead us back there. It would help if you had the people who've been there to be the ones to lead others out, to show them the way. That's one thing that needs to happen. One of the other things that I would say detachments need to do for organizations is purpose. Whenever you have an individual who has been off on leave to get well, and this individual wants to come back to work and wants to work for the organization, you can not stick that individual in a closet. You can not put them in the basement. There's no purpose there. An individual coming back who struggles with PTSD they don't need a reason to stay in bed. They have that reason every day to stay in bed. They need a reason to get out of bed. So what they need is purpose. A good leader is going to see the strengths in their employees. So if an individual is coming back with experience, with mental health, with resiliency, and being capacity based, use that strength, harness it and give that individual a position that will provide them with purpose so that they can thrive in the position instead of putting them in the basement. They don't have a purpose. They go back off work again, or they take their lives because they feel worthless, that their organization didn't help to help with that.

In your opinion, what are the key takeaways or messages you hope listeners gain from your podcast episodes on PTSD? And what is your ultimate goal in terms of the impact you want to make in this area?

I think some of the main key takeaways; we're not alone. None of us are. We aren't. That's that human connection. The other thing is that we're stronger together. It's strength in numbers. There are more of us with mental health issues and struggling than without. And that's a sad reality. But it's true. So if we bring those strength in numbers and use our voice, we actually have the majority. Let's keep saying something about let's make the change. And if you can't get people to change, you become it. If you can't have the leaders to do what we need them to, become the leader. So that's number one. One of the most significant impacts I want to highlight is to end first responder military veteran suicide. There's no reason. There's no reason this is solvable. This is healing. Nobody needs to go that way. But because they're afraid, can't speak, or the resources aren't there, people are taking their lives that need to end. And that's the biggest impact. And if one person sees my social media page, one person hears a podcast, one person does this little Tom, and they choose not to take their life that day that I'm happy. But if we've got one, let's go for more. Let's go for more.

Is there anything else that you would like to talk to us about today?

Yeah, there is a couple of things. So number one is to say yes to something and take it if there is an opportunity, a resource, or some help. I was against all of it. It's alright. It's going to help you get above. It will help you heal even if you don't understand it, if it doesn't make sense if you're embarrassed, don't like it, or even angry. And let me tell you. It was in doing and saying yes, that are the little steps that got me about each time I, you know, there's WSIB Worker Safety Insurance Board for people, you know, not only that's the other four letter acronym that people panic about. Right. That I'm embarrassed about that. You know what? They are there to help you. It doesn't have to be a horror story if you lean in and tell the truth to them. Do they work for you to help you get about OTS and occupational therapists? They're like, I don't need that. I don't want an occupational therapist immediately when someone's not feeling well; your occupational therapist thinks they will be forced back to work when they're suicidal and know that they can't. That's not what it's about. It's about functionality. It's about helping you figure out how to get your laundry down and brush your teeth again. Say yes. If your friend wants to bring over three frozen meals, take the kids for two hours. Well, wash your laundry. Say yes. Just start saying yes. The other thing that I talked about earlier was the put in the work. Get therapy, and you don't have to do it all at once. You don't have to do it all the time. It's small, consistent steps over time, small, consistent actions over time, and putting in the work. The only person who's going to benefit is you. And if you don't put in the work, the people are not going to reap the benefits are you put in the work. And then the last one is it takes time, it takes so much time, and don't compare yourself to somebody else to go; why are they already back at work and I'm still over here? No, it's going to take time. Have Grace look at the top of that mountain and realize, Am I going to do that in a day? No. But if I take one step today, one step tomorrow, and do those little increments, I'm at the top of that mountain. I'm looking back and seeing all those steps. It takes time. Just give yourself the time.

Emily Zufelt Bio

Emily Zufelt, creator and host of the global mental health podcast, "What's Your Twenty?" is a passionate advocate who has dedicated her career to making a difference in the lives of others. Her journey began with a role at a rape crisis centre in the Public Education sector, where she discovered the power of spoken words to educate and inspire authentic change. During her time at the centre, Emily gained valuable insights into the impact of trauma on individuals and communities and developed a deep commitment to promoting healing and resilience.

Building on this experience, Emily went on to join a police service, where she served as both a uniformed member and a civilian 911 emergency police dispatcher for over twenty years. Her voice became a familiar presence over the radio, as she worked tirelessly to ensure the safety and well-being of the public and the officers in her care.

Today, with the podcast and as a Certified Trauma & Resiliency Life Coach, Emily has shifted her focus to mental health advocacy, drawing on her extensive knowledge of trauma and its effects to raise awareness about PTSI/PTSD and the importance of post-traumatic growth. Through her work, she seeks to empower individuals who have experienced trauma, and to promote a greater understanding of the challenges they face.

Emily's voice remains a powerful force for change with her passion, dedication, and unwavering commitment to making a difference as she continues to use her platform to educate, inspire, and promote healing in all those she encounters. 

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