This Reporting Job gave me PTSD

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Longtime WGN (Chicago) Reporter Marcella Raymond says she’s suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder because of her job.

In a long post to Facebook, Raymond says that decades of knocking on people’s doors and shoving microphones in their faces at the worst times of their lives has taken its toll. “I hate these stories,” she recalls on her way to covering the latest murder in West Englewood. “I’m driving to the scene in the live truck with my photographer as I write this, trying not to cry, thinking if I should pop a valium to get me through the day.”

This is he post she made about her fight with PTSD:

I’ve been conflicted about whether to make this post public or just write it down for my own therapy. Do you need to know these details? But then I think about all the people who have PTSD but only talk about the details with their doctor, therapist, family, and friends. Their experience is entirely theirs, and they can talk about it publicly or not. I am going to talk about my experiences here, so you understand how I got to this point. I’m sure many can relate. It’s pretty gruesome, so if you don’t want to read it, I get it. I don’t want to cause anyone any more trauma.

It’s odd, maybe a defense mechanism, that I don’t always remember all the names and faces and exact dates or locations, but I remember the connections and their stories. They are burned into my brain. This is one of them that affected me deeply.

I was covering the death penalty hearings commissioned by then-Governor George Ryan. There had been several men on death row who were exonerated just before they were to be killed. Men who were represented by lawyers who didn’t care and cops who framed them or beat confessions out of them. This was 1999 at the State of Illinois Building now the Thompson Center. The hearings were in several rooms, before members of the Illinois House of Reps. Maybe six legislators were sitting at a table in front, facing the person giving their testimony. When I got there, I saw the family of Debra Evans. I’m embarrassed to say that right now I had to google her name. The story that involved Evans and her children had been nothing most of us had ever heard before, so horrific and just… beyond comprehension. I wasn’t working in Chicago in 1995, but the story was reported across the country. The suburban woman was killed, her unborn son cut from her womb with scissors. Her ten-year-old daughter was stabbed to death. Her eight-year-old son’s throat was slashed, his body dumped in an alley. The murderers, including Evans’ ex-boyfriend, left the couple’s nineteen-month-old son Jordan in his crib. He and the baby they had stolen from his mother survived. I’m wondering how Debra’s family will relive this nightmare in public. Their testimony is up in about an hour.

So, as I wait for them, I go into a room, not knowing what I would find. A woman was talking to the panel about how her children and others were killed in a fire set by her boyfriend. I think there were ten, mostly or all children, who died in the inferno. Burned to death, suffocated, panicked because they couldn’t get out. The testimony was too much for me. I go into another room, hoping to escape. In there, a mother is sobbing as she talked about a monster on death row, who kidnapped, raped and murdered her young son. He was about seven and was riding his bike home from a park where he had been playing with friends. That’s when he was taken, put in a trunk and never seen alive again.

I can’t stay here. I can’t hear the intricate details of how these men set the fire or lured the boy to death. I practically run out. I see Debra Evans family and go up to them with tears in my eyes. “I just want to warn you. This is going to be very hard.” I walk towards the bank of elevators in the middle of the Thompson Center. Bob Petty, a kind-hearted former reporter from ABC7, asks me what’s wrong. I start crying. He pulls me away from the elevators and the people, shielding me as I sob. “I just can’t do it. I just can’t.” He hugs and comforts me until I calm down. And then I have to get myself together to do a live shot. Write the story, edit it, make sure my mascara’s not running and go on air. After that, my wonderful friend and reporter Muriel Clair could tell I was in trouble and told me to tell my bosses that I couldn’t cover the story again. I had covered those testimonies for four days. I never went back. But she did. That’s how wonderful she is… stepping in when she knew I couldn’t, even though she knew how difficult it would be for her.

In 2003, George Ryan commuted the sentences of 167 people on death row to life in prison.

Four breaths in, hold for four, four breaths out.

Stay safe out there. Talk soon.

She followed up that post with this one:

I should have learned then, but I didn't. For years, I called this my "mini" nervous breakdown, trying to diminish its severity. If I hadn't, maybe I wouldn't be in this position again. Looking back, I realize this was full blown not "mini" at all.

NOVEMBER 6, 2009 4:00 AM

I was working the early morning shift, getting up at 2:30 to be at the station at 3:30, on the air at 5. I called my assignment editor on my way to work as I always did. He told me about a mass shooting at Fort Hood, a military base in Texas. An Army psychiatrist opened fire killing thirteen people, injuring at least thirty. One of the dead was Michael S. Pearson. A twenty-two-year-old Private First Class from Bolingbrook. He was shot in the chest.

I'm told to go to Bolingbrook and talk to Michael's family. My assignment editor said his brother was there. It's just hours after Michael's murder. I knew his family would be raw with emotion, trying to comprehend that they were never going to see him again. The scenario kept playing through my head as I drove.

I'm sitting in my car wondering what to do. Do I go knock on the door? Do I call? I want to put the car in drive and get out of there, tell my producers I knocked, and no one answered. Then the door opens. A man steps out and lights a cigarette. Shit! He sees me. I have no choice but to get out of the car and slowly walk up to him. "Hi. I'm so sorry to be here right now. I'm Marcella Raymond from WGN." "I know who you are. Your guys been calling all night."

"I'm so sorry. Don't answer your phone," I tell him. "Turn it off." We stand there like that, him taking slow drags of his cigarette, me looking away. I'm about to go back to my car when he starts telling me about Michael. He had encouraged him to go into the military because he had served and thought it would be good for Michael. He was a little lost, he says. The military would give him direction. As he's telling me what a great kid he was, tears start slowly rolling down his cheeks. I tell him it wasn't his fault. He was doing what he thought was best. How can we ever know something like this will happen? I tell him I'm going to sit in my car and if he wants to share a picture of Michael or say some words about him, I'll be right here.

I close the door and immediately feel everything closing in. My heart is racing, I can't breathe. I roll down the window. My phone starts ringing. They want to know how quickly I can get on the air. I don't answer. My photographer pulls up behind me. I get into his car and sob. So hard, I'm hyperventilating. I tell him to call and say I can't go on air. That I'm done. I can't do this anymore. I continued sobbing, rocking back and forth when there's a knock on my window. It's Michael's brother with his picture in his hand. "Are you okay?" he asks like I'm the one who needs consoling now. "I'm sorry. This is just the story that broke me." He says he understands. He understands? I'm just a blubbering idiot reporter. He just lost his little brother. He said the Army notification officers who came to tell the family about Michael were crying too. They said this one broke them. We all seem to be broken.

I do a quick interview. Get video of Michael's picture. I don't even remember what I said to his brother after that. Then I went home. I took two and a half months off. Slept for much of it. Had two weeks of out-patient counseling and was diagnosed with PTSD. I tried to get another job, but it was during the recession and I couldn't. So, I quit the morning show and started freelancing. That was not the cure. Ten years later, my PTSD came back with a vengeance.

I will never say that my experience is in any way similar to what Michael Pearson's family has gone through and I'm sure they still are. I'm alive. He is not. I will work through this. They may never. He will never enjoy a night out with friends, another birthday, a holiday gathering. I'm alive. Michael Pearson is not.

As I look back on this post, I just feel stupid. Who the hell am I to have PTSD? I haven't experienced the kind of pain the Pearson's have or anyone else whose family member was murdered. My psychiatrist told me today that there is no quantifier for PTSD. No ones experiences are more severe than someone else's. It's your response to your own experience. It's yours, and no one else's. Four breaths in, hold for four, four breaths out.

Stay safe out there. Talk soon.

H/T Robert Feder