Ray and Rae McKenzie at Times Square in New York City in 2010.

Helping the helpers

The fight against PTSD is a never-ending battle, but two Sooke couples are lending a helping hand

When police Sgt. Ray McKenzie arrived at the home he knew something wasn’t right.

He had been called to a suburb in Calgary where a toddler had been found unresponsive in a bathtub of water.

Closer examination found the toddler had been assaulted and placed in the tub by one of his parents to cover up the crime that just took place.

As paramedics worked on the child, hope dwindled. They quickly moved the toddler to a waiting ambulance and rushed him to hospital.

McKenzie, a patrol sergeant with the Calgary Police Service, immediately organized an escort for the ambulance. Police units from across the city blocked intersections to help get the ambulance to the hospital quickly.

The child died soon afterwards.

McKenzie finished his shift and went home.

The next day he resigned from the police force.

•••

For years, McKenzie, now a Sooke resident, suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, more commonly known as PTSD. It built up over a 30-year military and police career where he has been witness to what most would prefer not to.

The 2006 incident, for whatever reason, put him over the edge. “I was at a pretty dark place at that point. There was no light at the end of the tunnel,” McKenzie said.

That dark place would soon find a glimmer of light.

•••

PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can develop after a person is exposed to a traumatic event, such as warfare, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents or physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood.

In Canada, about 2.4 per cent of adults have PTSD in a given year, and nine per cent of  people develop it at some point in their life.

It was officially recognized by the American Psychiatric Association in 1980.

Symptoms may include disturbing thoughts, feelings, or dreams related to the events, mental or physical distress to trauma-related cues, attempts to avoid trauma-related cues, alterations in how a person thinks and feels.

Most survivors of trauma return to normal given a little time. However, some people will have stress reactions that do not go away on their own, or may even get worse over time, say experts.

“PTSD is not just one disorder,” said Dr. Timothy Black, an associate professor with Educational Psychology and Leadership Studies at the University of Victoria and a clinician specializing in PTSD.

“In the real-lived experience there is a whole bunch of ranges of how debilitating it is for people. For some, it’s absolutely debilitating. Other people manage with it, but it’s still debilitating.”

PTSD is believed to be caused by the experience of a wide range of traumatic events and, in particular if the trauma is extreme, can occur in persons with no predisposing conditions, and most people who have experienced a traumatic event will not develop PTSD, Black said.

Still, PTSD is hard to diagnose, and sometimes even harder to convince someone they have the disorder.

“A lot of what happens to people with PTSD is that they check out. They isolate themselves, and in whatever way they do it, they end up leaving society,” Black said.

“I don’t look at the symptoms of PTSD anything other than really understandable reactions and attempts to deal with troubling memories and experiences.”

•••

But as devastating as PTSD is for the sufferer, it can have equal and devastating effects on a relationship.

Rae McKenzie, Ray’s wife, made a vow years ago that if her husband ever wanted to leave the police department she would support him. If they needed to make a change she would make it happen.

That change came in the spring of 2010 when the couple decided to sell their house and belongings and make an epic motorcycle trip around North America.

The lifestyle change that was about to occur wasn’t just about Ray’s battle with PTSD, but also his wife’s way of trying to figure out if she wanted to stay with him.

“It was a make it or break it trip. I was at my end point. We were living with PTSD long before it was diagnosed and when it was diagnosed it blew into our lives in a grand way,” Rae McKenzie recalled.

“I love the guy dearly but at the time I was just tired of what was going on.”

It resulted in saving their marriage and be the subject of Rae McKenzie’s first book: Love, Laughs and Road Rage. The book centres around Ray McKenzie’s PTSD and how the two dealt with it.

Secretly, Rae McKenzie kept a journal of their escapades which later resulted in the 60,000-word book. The journal was never shared with her husband and he didn’t know about it until she decided to write the book last year.

Over the course of six months, the McKenzies endured two motorcycle accidents, arguments and adventures, all good fodder for her book.

The years following the trip, the McKenzies have continued to work on the PTSD issues, but the book helped.

Ray McKenzie, who edited the book, said when he read it, he discovered he was not a very nice person.

“It’s very, very difficult to throw that out there, but at the end of the day, that’s the reality of what happens,” he said.

Rae McKenzie sees it a different way.

“It’s [the writing process] quite cathartic. Reliving some of those times was actually pretty good. I feel the ghost has been let out of the closet.”

•••

Chris Linford, another Sooke resident, has also endured PTSD, but he’s taken it a step further in the hopes of helping other soldiers and veterans.

A career army officer, Linford spent 33 years in the Armed Forces, mostly as a nursing officer. He left in 2014 due to PTSD.

Linford was deployed to the first Gulf War in 1991, Rwanda in 1994 (where he believes he got PTSD) and Afghanistan.

He said many soldiers keep quiet about PTSD due to the stigma and fear of losing their career.

He was able to hide it until 2004 when he lost his ability to sleep and became an insomniac for about three months, it had ramifications both in his career and personal life.

“I was pretty arrogant and sure I could manage it all. It got to the point where I was not sleeping, and I was doing a very intense, high-stress job in the military at the time and it got the better of me,” Linford said.

“In Rwanda there were dozens of things that happened every day … any one of them could have given me PTSD. It was just too much. It was just overwhelming. There was no time to process what was really happening.”

After he left the military, Linford began working with the federal Veterans Transition Program in Vancouver as a facilitator.

He soon found veterans wanted to take something away from their counselling session and share it with their wives.

That’s when Linford and his wife, Kathryn began working with psychologists and created COPE – Couples Overcoming PTSD Everyday.

The idea behind the program is to get the couple working together as a team to fight PTSD rather than just the veteran in isolation.

Five couples are invited to a five-day retreat at Bear Mountain Resort in Langford to improve their relationship. It is fully funded by Wounded Warriors Canada.

So far, Linford and his team have held seven retreats and more than 70 people have graduated.

“I knew it was needed because so many people were asking for it,” he said.

“I had what I consider a wonderful military career, despite being injured, but it all pales in comparison in what I’m doing with COPE now.”

For more about COPE, please call 250-213-7910 or email cope@woundedwarriors.com.

 

Books shine light on PTSD

Both Rae McKenzie and Chris Linford have written books on PTSD both from the perspective of the injured and the spouse who endures it.

Love, Laughs & Road Rage was written by McKenzie earlier this year and its chronicles a motorcycle trek around North America where her relationship with her husband was put to the test and endured. The book is available in local book stores.

Warrior Rising- A Soldier’s Journey to PTSD and Back was written by Linford and it centres around his battle with PTSD. “My book is intended to be a springboard for other veterans allowing them to realize they are not alone with this injury; and there is hope, writes Linford. The book is available online at awarriorrising.com or through http://woundedwarriors.ca