I have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome). There, I said it; I admitted it to the world.
How I came to have it? I’m not sure. It’s not something I want; it’s not easy to deal with. After all, I was a suburban firefighter for my entire career. Not that the suburbs are immune from bad calls. But I’ve heard stories from friends who work for busier urban departments. Unbelievable stories of human carnage. Yet I get it........
I actually didn’t know I had it. Not until I started seeking professional help did I realize it.
I knew that becoming a firefighter would be hard, both physically and mentally. What firefighters see on a daily basis can be rough. We see people at their worst moments and seldom see the best of things.
I remember my first fatal accident. I was a new firefighter, a volunteer in a suburb west of Milwaukee. The call was for a head collision on a country road. The occupants of both vehicles were dead on arrival. It seemed like a surreal experience.
Fast forward two weeks, icy conditions on the roads made them slippery. We responded for another accident. Two cars hit head on and then were struck by a third car. When we arrived, the first ambulance was working a traumatic arrest. The second car had three teenagers inside. Two of them deceased and one (the bottom one) was still alive. We worked to extricate them and the third died during the extrication.
Here I was 18 years old and witnessing six fatalities in two weeks. My brothers saw it. They would talk to me about the calls and offer advice. I got through it with their help.
The next 20 years I faced similar challenges and I dealt with it. Accidents, SIDS deaths and suicides. I dealt with them the same way. I’d go to the stress debriefings and most often repress them in my mind. That’s what we do. We don’t want people to worry about us, our burdens. People come to US for help.
May, 2013 was my biggest challenge. One of our firefighters committed suicide. As we walked up to the scene, we recognized his car. We looked down at him and our fears were realized. Both crews worked the arrest and our brother was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Before we went to the hospital, I had to make some phone calls. Our acting Battalion Chief for the day was this firefighter’s older brother. I remember calling an off duty chief, crying telling him of the news. Then we returned to our station, and I had to inform the brother. What do you say? How do you say it?
When we got to the hospital, other crews had arrived from other calls. The entire shift sat in the ambulance bay in disbelief.
We gave our brother a proper funeral. We moved on together as a family.
The next two years were the lowest point in my career. Other job related issues came up and I was getting to the point of breaking.
Looking back, I should have gotten help sooner. I was reserved, slept more at work, disinterested in the job I loved. I remember going to a fire and not even wanting to there. I would come home and be angry. I’d yell at my kids, I was dissatisfied with every aspect of my life and I didn’t know why.
During this time I also noticed that I couldn’t make decision easily. Situations that were once muscle memory type of reactions, now took longer. In hindsight, this was anxiety. Never had it before, why now?
I went on medication for depression but it didn’t help. I developed a stress related skin condition on my hands and feet. Ointment would not work as it just treated the symptoms. It would return after a 2 week dose. My blood pressure was high and I started losing vision.
On January 15th, 2015 I called my wife. I side “I’m not going to work tomorrow, or ever again.” She knew what was going on. My job that I loved so much was killing me slowly.
My employer was less than helpful with everything. They made it difficult to get anything done, any paperwork filed. I even got a letter threatening termination while on family leave. I had to hire an attorney to help with an “exit plan.”
On April 19th, 2015 I retired. It was the saddest, yet happiest day of my life. It gave me doubts if I was really meant to be a firefighter if I was happy about it.
Since that time, I have been adjusting to retired life. As I wrote in my previous blog post “Dealing with Retirement,” I struggled to find my new normal.
In July, I got a text from a friend of mine. He told me that was “going off the grid” for awhile. I knew his wife was sick so I immediately called him to see if things were okay.
He started talking kind of vague. Somehow, our conversation turned to PTSD. I told him I had been diagnosed with it. The floodgates opened. He told me everything. He did so because I could understand exactly what he was feeling.
He hit it on the head when he said that he couldn’t tell anyone else. He said “you know, if I was going off on leave for cancer, everyone would understand. They would feel sorry for me.” He continued on “but PSTSD. It’s hard to come out and say it. What will people say?”
I knew exactly how he felt. No one outside my family knew why I had retired. I worked so hard to get my job and build my career that I felt going out with PTSD was a “cop out.” It made me feel weak, like I wasn’t a good firefighter.
It doesn’t help that my employer (the same one who already had a firefighter suicide) or their workers compensation company doesn’t recognize PTSD as a duty disability. My rejection letter stated essentially that my job is stressful and therefore they are not responsible.
These same emotions were shared with me while attending a class at FDIC. All of us in that room suffered from PTSD. The class soon became a group consoling session. It was what I needed to confirm my belief that PTSDC is a very real thing. But it’s been and continues to be ignored in the fire service.
Recently I was at a wedding. While talking, a good friend of mine asked me how things were. I told him the truth. He got a serious look in his eyes. He asked “Do you remember when I had a close call a few years ago?” I said “yes.” He went on “I relive that image often in my sleep. You told me to get help and I didn’t. But now it’s still there.”
After this conversation, I realize that more guys on this job probably have it. They either don’t realize it or repress it.
I almost let it kill me, literally. I had my “final exit” planned out twice. What kept me from doing it was the realization that I’d leave my family with questions, doubts and without a father. I was lucky that in this crazy time of thoughts, I kept one solid one in there.
You can think what you want. You can believe me or not. But what I went through, what I’m going through is VERY real. You always think it’ll never happen to you, but one day you may find yourself in a pit with everyone looking down on you.......and you’ll wonder how you got there.
Everyone on this community site is here to share knowledge. I am sharing my story so you can take it back. Teach your brothers and sisters that they HAVE to admit when they need help. Teach your company officers and firefighters to recognize the signs when someone needs help. It’s proven that our employers are less than willing to help us, WE must help US.
Here are some links that further disuses PTSD in the fire service.