Feb. 3, 2015, Port Severn, Ont. - In my last blog, I talked about my experiences with three of the four mental health issues that I’ve struggled with. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is the fourth and most difficult, and seems to run in tandem with depression.
Last week’s episode of 16x9 The Bigger Picture on Global Television focussed on the PTSD crisis among Canada’s first responders. I was surprised that it was only a 30-minute segment, but it’s a step in the right direction, and I have great respect for the three men who told their stories. It takes great courage to open up and show that kind of vulnerability.
I posted it on Twitter to recommend it to first responders, and received a comment from a fire chief in Alberta. He said he teared up watching it and that we need to get our brothers and sisters the help they need. In his province, PTSD falls under presumptive legislation. By raising awareness, the goal is that it will be in all provinces in the near future.
I didn’t tear up while watching the episode, I got chills. The kind of chills you get when something you’ve just heard instantly resonates. As I listened to the RCMP officer, the paramedic, and the firefighter tell their stories, I went back in my mind to the place that they described, my own personal black hole.
I had waves of PTSD. I say waves because the first time I experienced symptoms they were caused by fire calls to which I had attended. The second time I experienced symptoms was when my buried childhood memories first started to bubble to the surface, and the third wave occurred last year when I was off work on stress leave.
I have been a volunteer firefighter for 18 years, and although I can still recall vivid details of the first fatal accident that I attended, the memories don’t affect me on a cellular level. I’ve been told that most firefighters remember their first fatal so I guess it’s par for the course. I’ve seen my fair share of brutal car accidents over the years but the two that created shock waves in my world were very similar and occurred within two weeks of each other in the heat of June.
Both were transport accidents, both involved fire, both had fatalities, and I was first in on both of them. The first of the two was my first fire fatality, and it left an impression on me that will never go away. My partner and I didn’t know the driver was still in the vehicle until after the fire was knocked down and the victim was pointed out to us. The image again returns to my mind as I write these words.
The second call involved a transport and a car, and another victim. This time, it was the smell that got me. I didn’t realize what the smell was until someone mentioned it. I was almost sick right then and there.
Within a day or two, the flashbacks started. I kept picturing the victims of both calls, but most disturbing was of the second call. My mind insisted on filling in the details of how the accident occurred, and how the victim died. I began to have trouble sleeping and had no appetite. I felt fragile. I remember driving up the highway one day and before we even got near to where the accident had occurred, I began hyperventilating. Other times, I would glance at a passing car and images of broken bodies and smashed cars would fill my mind. I didn’t know then that it was PTSD; I just knew I was in trouble. That was roughly 13 years ago.
When I was off work in 2013, I was at my lowest. Years of suppressed memories, emotions and negative experiences caught up with me and I was forced to sit on the sidelines while I got myself sorted out and sought out the help I needed.
While at home one day I was watching a movie with a well-known actor whose movies I typically enjoy. In this particular movie, there was an unexpected traumatic scene that caught me completely off guard and affected me to the core. I had never personally experienced the abuse that occurred in the movie, but it hit a nerve with me and within hours, the flashbacks started.
When I closed my eyes to go to sleep, the scene flashed in my mind and rattled me, and it continued for days. I finally told my husband about it saying, “It’s like certain things get right into my head and I can’t prevent them from affecting me on an emotional level.” Normal people shrug things off, but I didn’t seem to have that ability.
The flashbacks are devastating because they’re not merely a static picture in your mind, they are images that move, that have a life of their own. And there are emotions tied to those images that you feel deeply within in your body. They are a triple threat with the power to bring the strongest man or woman to their knees with a fear like no other.
There are other symptoms of PTSD, but in my experience the flashbacks are most disturbing because you have no control over them; this causes feelings of helplessness and hopelessness, and depression tightens its grip.
In my darkest moment, I suddenly understood the concept of suicide. I said to my husband, “I know why people chose to end their lives.” He looked concerned, and waited for me to continue. “It’s the never-ending torment, the emptiness, the inner turmoil that no one understands; no matter how much they love you, they can’t know how it feels unless they’ve gone through it themselves.”
I was very clear that I wasn’t going to go that route because I knew that no matter how bad it was for me, I would not leave my two daughters without their momma. That was the thread that I held on to; my love for them was what pulled me through. My lifeline – my girls and my husband.
PTSD is a battle for your sanity. Asking for help when you’re a first responder – whose purpose is to help others – is a battle from within.
Been there. Done that. Survived it. Here to help.
Jennifer Grigg has been a volunteer with the Township of Georgian Bay Fire Department in Ontario since 1997. firstname.lastname@example.org @georgianbayjen