Dispatches: Solving the puzzle, discovering ACE
Jennifer GriggFeatures firefighter mental health PTSD
Life is all about finding the missing puzzle pieces and I think I just found another one of mine.
You see, I was diagnosed with depression, anxiety and PTSD back in 2013 but these problems were issues I’d struggled with most of my life
I knew some of it was likely tied to early childhood experiences and the extent of trauma I was exposed to being a volunteer firefighter for over two decades, but there were other factors I wasn’t aware of until I was older.
Genetics was one of them, an important one considering a family history of depression, alcoholism, drug addiction and suicide attempts. The dynamics of my childhood family added to my already shy and introverted nature. However, rather than understand how these factors (and several others) were determinants in what I was experiencing (because it wasn’t something I learned about until later in life), I did what anyone else does in similar situations: I judged myself.
I judged myself as being frustratingly insecure, ashamed, anxious and afraid to trying new things. I felt anxious for no good reason, and felt needy a lot of the time.
Therapy and medication really did help and I turned to one or both whenever things got to be too much for me to handle on my own. Though a psychiatrist once told me that given my history I’d be on medication for the rest of my life, I’ve been free of them for three years. I’m happy, healthy and generally navigate life quite well. I’m human after all so I still stumble sometimes. The best part is that I managed to tackle my social anxiety by learning body language, and loved it so much I became certified as a coach, but that’s a whole other column.
When I delivered presentations I’d tell firefighters that if they suffer from depression and/or anxiety, they’ll likely be affected negatively in this role. But — and it’s a big but — that absolutely does not mean that you can’t do the job. You just need to be aware that it’s a possibility and have access to the tools and resources to support yourself.
There are many concepts I’ve learned along the way that have helped me understand the journey. Wounded healer is a term created by psychologist Henri Nouwen 1972. The idea states that an analyst is compelled to treat patients because the analyst himself is “wounded.” The idea may have Greek mythology origins. I found this definition on Wikipedia. Totally made sense to me because I’ve long held the opinion that it’s our trauma that connects us and allows us to recognize it in others and help others. I believe that the concept also applies to those who enter other “helping fields” such as fire, police and EMS as well as other emergency services.
Here’s another fascinating piece of the puzzle that found its way to me through a unique path and I believe this to be the part that brought it all together for me.
Back in July, I had the distinct pleasure of doing a Zoom interview with Ernie Stevens and Joe Smarro from the HBO documentary Ernie & Joe: Crisis Cops. I was in awe of these two gentlemen and their entire team in the mental health unit of the San Antonio police department the first time I saw the documentary earlier this year. If you’ve not watched the documentary, I urge you to check it out.
Something Joe said in the interview stuck with me and led me down the research path to learn more. He’d made a reference to ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience) and ACE scores in relation to those who enter the military. He was in the U.S. Marine Corps prior to entering law enforcement and he referenced a correlation between scores of 4 and those who enter the military. He said that those who enter the military do so for one of two reasons: to escape their environment or to create a better one.
Talk about an “A-ha” moment.
The ACE score is a simple evaluation tool made up of 10 questions in which you score a point for each statement you experienced in childhood.
The ACE Study, as explained by Dr. Nadine Burke Harris, now the surgeon general of California, measured five types of abuse and neglect: physical, verbal and sexual abuse; physical and emotional neglect and five types of family dysfunction: a family member with mental illness, or who has been incarcerated, or is abusing alcohol or other drugs; witnessing a mother being abused; losing a parent to divorce or separation.
To me, understanding the evaluation and score not only explains why so many of us are drawn to emergency services, but also why so many of us struggle with mental or physical health.
Here’s the good news. We are not necessarily permanently damaged goods because of our adverse childhood experiences. Science has proven that certain activities support healing and it’s not just therapy. Exercise, meditation, journaling, healthy diet, etc., all greatly contribute to well-being. You can heal from your early experiences. And your ACE may be the reason you are so good at being a first responder. It allows you to offer compassion and empathy in a very deep and personal way. For me, taking the ACE questionnaire was like finding the missing piece of a puzzle, and perhaps it can be for you too.
Knowing your ACE score is a powerful self-assessment tool, and having an awareness of the effect of ACEs on others allows you to approach people with a whole new level of understanding.
Jennifer Grigg has been a dispatcher, volunteer firefighter, FPO inspector and instructor. She is now a resilience and empowerment coach and certified body language trainer. Contact Jennifer at email@example.com or jennifergriggcoaching.com.
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