PTSD led to suicidal thoughts, says P.E.I. man
John MacDonald helped with the clean up after Swiss Air crash in 1998
A Charlottetown man with post traumatic stress disorder is talking about his symptoms because he wants others who are struggling to get help.
John MacDonald developed PTSD after helping with recovery efforts after the Swiss Air crash in Nova Scotia in 1998. He was part of a five-person team asked to clean up Pearl Island in Mahone Bay, near the crash site. The Island is about 600 metres long and 200 metres wide.
MacDonald says officials had decided to wait for three weeks after the crash so more debris would wash up. He said seeing the debris along the shore from the helicopter, two members of the team decided not to join in the cleanup, leaving MacDonald and two teenagers to do it on their own.
"I remember looking over the bank and there was, there was everything," said MacDonald.
"There was pieces of suitcases, clothes, pieces of the aircraft, wiring, ceilings and walls. We headed into it. We started collecting all that."
At one point, while he was bagging debris along the shore MacDonald said he got ahead of the other two, and came across something that still haunts him.
"Sitting on a rock was an aircraft seat, part of an aircraft seat, with a suitcase, piece of a suitcase and a stuffed teddy beside it," he said.
"That was probably one of my worst moments of the day. There was more to come but that, I think the mind just cannot register something like that."
MacDonald and the teenagers also recovered the remains of two victims from the island that day.
Undiagnosed for years
MacDonald said he did a debrief immediately after the search with an RCMP critical incidence stress officer. He said he was so traumatized he doesn't remember what he said.
I didn't really know what it was at the time.- John MacDonald
In the following days the trauma symptoms started, but MacDonald didn't recognize what was happening.
"The damage was already done. I didn't realize it, as most people with PTSD [don't]," he said.
"For the next year, I had all kinds of problems, stuff that was completely out of my character. I was never much of a drinker, I started to drink more, partying. My family broke up. There was financial problems. I had no clue that was in any way connected to the incident."
A year later, after a night of partying in Halifax, MacDonald drove out to Peggy's Cove to the Swiss Air monument with suicidal thoughts on this mind.
"I had some bad thoughts, about doing something, which was completely out of character for me," he said.
"People probably have a hard time understanding how somebody could get to that point. If you don't reach out for help, you will do almost anything to stop it."
While he only had that one time when he considered suicide, the Swiss Air crash continued to haunt him. He would have flashbacks day and night, along with trouble sleeping and concentration problems.
"Disassociation is a big problem with people with PTSD," he said.
"You're there but you're not there. You know people talk to you, [but] you're really not there. You're at your event."
Despite all his struggles MacDonald didn't ask for help. He still hadn't connected the symptoms to PTSD, and he said that's not uncommon.
"People have traumas and it's locked in [a] sort of a file cabinet in the back of your mind. Slowly it will seep out. You will start to remember things you didn't want to remember. It really shook my life. I didn't really know what it was at the time," he said.
It took MacDonald 14 years to ask for help. That's why he wants to speak out now. Although his experience is hard to talk about, he hopes sharing his story will encourage others with symptoms to get help.
Managing symptoms has been better after seeing a psychologist and joining a support group, he said. He also checked in with the two teenagers that cleaned up with him that day. He said one of them has also been diagnosed with severe PTSD. He's not sure about the other one.
MacDonald will share his story at the Heroes Are Human PTSD tour, which stops in Charlottetown at UPEI Wednesday night.
with files from Laura Chapin