In the late aughts I was enrolled with the National Civilian Community Corps and deploying across America as a disaster relief first responder. This was my dream. I wanted to be in humanitarian work on the ground for the rest of my life, and had known that for a decade. I intended to apply for the Peace Corps next.
We got the call for the 2009 tsunami that hit American Samoa. It had been only 24 hours since the earthquake and tidal wave. We were packed up, shipped back to base, briefed, packed, and flown to Pearl Harbor to await a C-15 to take us the rest of the way because civilian flights were not allowed on the islands due to damages and debris.
I had trained with the Red Cross, FEMA, and others, and was totally prepared. We were deployed for only three weeks, rather than our usual two months, because we were entering as first responders. The Red Cross finds that three weeks / 21 days is the limit before PTSD / PTSI sets in.
What wasn’t factored in was an aftershock earthquake that would be tsunami likely. We were case working along the coast when the bells started ringing and we had to run with the people we were there to serve showing us up the mountain to safety. I no longer have this memory. I know I was there because I remember before and I remember after.
The long and short of it is we were government property, so once they determined we had time, we left the locals and were bussed to higher ground that was controlled by FEMA. After some time the all clear was given, no second wave hit, and we went back to work.
This is when trouble began for me. We received no support for the fact that we in some ways just lived what our clients had experienced. Referred trauma was already a factor and this made it worse. Let alone the fear, running, confusion.
I redeployed several more times that year, and got worse and worse. I was having breakdowns approximately monthly. No help was provided by my supervisors or counseling staff.
I return home after my term ends. Night terrors. Disassociation. My friends act like I’m a stranger because I’m no longer myself.
It took years for me to accept help, because PTSD / PTSI (it’s being recoined an injury instead of a disorder) is blamed for mass shootings and I didn’t want to be subject to prejudice.
It finally got bad enough for me to get help. Something I was able to finally process is, like you, the loss of my dream. Every time I walk into a Red Cross I now have a panic attack. I stopped trusting other supervisors so I created a nonprofit so I could do the work while relying on myself but it was still triggering. I had to give up.
Finally I started the path that may also work for you. Rather than mourn, I began considering what about me drove me to want to do that work. What was the root motivation? For me, it was an innate helper tendency, a love for people, an interest in making the world better. It was a long road to tease out and understand these aspects of myself, and then find out how I might use them in ways that still brought me joy.
In the meantime I had started a few organizations and businesses because I no longer trusted others to supervise me with my best interests in mind. It took nearly a decade but I decided to start coaching because I was already coaching friends on their businesses. I got good at something accidentally (business), and my love for helping, empowering, and bettering the world was coming out in coaching others I believed in. I’m still starting my own businesses, but I have a wider impact by also helping others be successful sooner with theirs. I am choosy about who I help, so in a way, I’m still having humanitarian impact.
If you feel you’ve lost your way, think about why you wanted to do what you love in the first place. Dig down toward the root. You may want a guide, counselor, or coach to help. I found books helped as well (happy to share). Once you know your motivation you’ll be able to search for other ways to use the same desire in a previously unforeseen way.