Trauma: Who, what, where, when and why
By Brandon EvansFeatures canadian firefighter firefighter mental health wellness
Gaining a different perspective on mental health
Trauma is a word that is being used more and more these days; but what do we do with our trauma?
Eleven years ago, I started my career as a full-time firefighter. Our training on the topic of trauma consisted of looking at horrible images and hearing a few stories of bad calls. At that time, the only experience I had with dead people was at the few funerals I had attended. I had never placed my hands on a dead body before becoming a firefighter, and there was no preparation for the psychological aftermath of the events that would happen in my life.
Fast forward to now, and that surely isn’t the case. There have been hundreds of deceased persons, and I can’t even count the number of times I have performed CPR. However, up until just a few years ago, I still didn’t fully grasp what trauma was, let alone how it would show up, where one might find it and why it tends to linger.
Through a long journey of healing, research and life experience, I’ve come to understand what my trauma means for me. The thing about exceptional experiences, like trauma, is that once they have occurred, there is no erasing them. Now, this doesn’t mean it must remain the same forever; the beauty of the human mind is that we can create perspective. A lesson I have learned through my trauma experience is that this approach can take one out of dark times and into brighter days.
In Dec. 2020, I was a part of a crew that extracted a woman from a house fire. The scene was a known homicide where the victim was beaten and burned to death. The image of her body and her children standing on the lawn stayed with me for a long time; it was hard to shake. At the same time in my life, I owned a gym, and the closures from the pandemic were wreaking havoc on my finances, my stress levels and my relationship. This traumatic experience put me over the edge.
The shift that happened through various therapies was very subtle yet extremely powerful.
“For” versus “To”
“Why is this happening for me” versus “why is this happening to me”. The understanding of this came from experiencing trauma’s impact on my life. Let’s break down the who, what, where, when and why of trauma.
Who is trauma?
This might sound like a weird question.
Too often, we become our trauma; it victimizes us, and we fall into the trap of continually asking ourselves, “Why did this happen to me?” We create an entire identity around our trauma and allow that story to infiltrate our lives. Unfortunately, most often, this takes on a negative narrative that can lead to dark places of unhappiness, anxiety and depression; that is also what happened to me. Once I learned that I am not my trauma, it enabled me to separate from it. From this place of separation, I could now view it as something different.
Our trauma comes from an experience; it sticks around and haunts us because of the narratives our mind places on the traumatic experience. By learning to change this narrative, we can change how we perceive the experience of trauma in our life.
What is trauma?
Is the trauma the event that occurred? Perhaps. But if it’s true that trauma is the event, then why do we continue to suffer from the trauma after the event takes place?
I sat down for dinner three days after extracting a deceased person – badly burned – from a house fire. My wife had made roasted chicken for dinner. The traumatic experience was now over; however, my entire body was shaking, my heart was pounding and I could not bring myself to eat as I was on the verge of vomiting, just from the look of the chicken on the table. My children were trying to talk to me as I stared blankly at the food before me, but I didn’t hear a single word. I was having physical, emotional and psychological responses to the event that had occurred three days prior. The trauma was alive and thriving within me.
Trauma is the emotional, psychological and, sometimes, physical response to an event or incident. After it has taken place, it remains an experience in our lives. We do, as humans, have the ability to change how we respond to this event. Knowing that our response is adaptable is the first step in the healing process.
Where is trauma?
If trauma isn’t the event but how we respond to the circumstance that has already happened, then where is it?
We never know when or how our past experiences will show up in our lives.
There is no correct answer because how trauma shows up is different for everyone. My experience materialized in several ways, such as constant anxiety, insomnia, outbursts of uncontrollable crying in the middle of the night, depression, yelling and swearing at my children – who were three and six at the time – negative self-talk, negativity towards others, and playing the victim card.
One of the most potent therapies I have participated in was neuro-linguistic programming (NLP). It worked by changing my image of the dead body to a pair of jeans and a wreath of roses. I know it may sound odd to you, but it worked for me. Every time that thought enters my mind, I think of a pair of jeans and a wreath of roses.
Why is there trauma?
“Why is this happening to me?” is a question that I asked myself probably ten thousand times. One evening in bed, I broke down and asked this question to my wife, and her response changed my life. She said, “Maybe it’s not happening to you; maybe it’s happening for you.”
As I explored this perspective shift, I kept finding positive reinforcement. “Maybe this happened to show me that even when horrible things happen, love still exists.” The proof was seeing the deceased woman’s children crying on the front lawn.
When does trauma appear?
We never know when or how our past experiences will show up in our lives. Often, it happens unexpectedly.
As a first responder, finding tools to help manage our stress and anxiety helps to mitigate our trauma when it shows up. We train and prepare for the unexpected; our mental health and trauma are no different. By consistently working on healing and discovering new tools that work for us, we can shift our mindset around what trauma is, how it shows up and where to find it. We can start to shift our perspectives about why our trauma has happened for us, not to us.
Trauma is no joke. As a firefighter, I don’t believe we have enough education or tools to help us deal with and manage our trauma. What I’ve learned, and the best advice I can share is to start exercising your relationship with trauma before it happens. Learn how to breathe, talk to a professional early and know that there is always another way to view what has happened.
The entire city would burn down if we waited for the fire to start to learn how to put it out. Learn the tools before the trauma occurs; if it already has, there is no time like the present to start.
Brandon Evans has over a decade of firefighting experience with Brampton fire and emergency services.
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