incident? Why now? Why me? These were questions I had no idea
how to answer. I was referred to a trauma therapist and the long,
often grueling journey to my healing began. I was diagnosed with
post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which as defined is a mental health condition that’s triggered by a terrifying event, either by
experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks,
nightmares, and severe anxiety as well as uncontrollable thoughts
about the event.
Every time we respond to an incident, we are responding to the
unknown. The fire alarm can turn out to be a structure fire as
easy as the car into a pole is nothing more than a fender bender.
With each incident we respond to, we each will be affected differently. Some will walk out of the firehouse, never to be seen again.
Others will be fine for five years. Some may not have effects for
20-plus years, if at all. It only takes one event, one incident to
become “the one.” Things like sadness, helplessness, and guilt are
normal emotional responses. Normal physical responses include
pounding heart, cold sweats, and racing thoughts. The effects of
traumatic stress include intrusive memories, flashbacks, and recurrent unwanted memories; avoiding talking about the incident or
avoiding people or places; negative feelings about one’s self, feeling
emotionally numb, and having a difficult time maintaining close
relationships; and changes in emotional reactions, such as irritability, self-destructive behavior, and trouble sleeping.
The trust between the therapist and patient must be present
from the beginning. The ability to open the deepest, darkest
closets, as well as explore all the demons that are inside each of
us, is imperative. My trauma therapist is a kind and caring soul
who, while able to open those dark closets, is always able to help
clear them and close that door again. She began by hearing my
story and then explained how the therapy would work. Words like
intrusive memories and secondary traumatic stress became commonplace in our conversations. Emotional and physical symptoms
were discussed in depth. The therapy that was decided on is called
eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR.
Sessions were intense, often leaving me drained. The brain is
taught to see the traumatic incident in a different light. It doesn’t
make you forget but rather makes you see the incident in a less
distressing way. The process of EMDR can take a few sessions
before results begin to show and often doesn’t require long-term
therapy. I cried through many sessions, often questioning why I
was doing this to myself, but I refused to let this incident control
me. It would not define who I was. I was better than this. There
were days I hated my therapist but, ultimately, I knew she was
truly there to help me. And she did. I continue to work with my
therapist on a regular basis as we continue to identify other areas of
trauma and stresses that have been kept inside for many years.
Therapy today is not the taboo subject it was 10 years ago. To
accept that there is an issue bothering us is now acceptable. To
admit we need help following an incident is much better than
drinking away our demons. In the past, we would return from a
bad incident, head to the bar, and drink and joke and make light
of the incident. This has led to many firefighters developing drink-
ing problems, creating problems at work and home and even lead-
ing to divorce. The issues we face today regarding traumatic stress,
PTSD, and even depression are leading far too many brothers and
sisters to take their own lives.
We can no longer continue to push our demons into a corner
and expect to come out alright. This is an epidemic that we must
be on the forefront of. We must care for each other and look
for the signs of traumatic stress in each other as well as within
ourselves. We need to be able to identify safe people, people who
will listen without being judgmental. Often, we just need to be the
proverbial shoulder to cry on.
If we learn to identify the signs of traumatic stress in our brother
and sisters and, more importantly, within ourselves, we can work
to stop the dangerous trend. We can take mental health in
emergency services head on and make sure help is available to all
who need it. If we can save even one brother or sister from
committing suicide, we have made a start.
Jacob Oreshan III is a 30-year veteran of the fire service and an assistant chief
with the Boght (NY) Community Fire Department. He is a New York state certified
firefighter, fire officer, fire service instructor, code officer, fire investigator, and hazardous materials specialist as well as a national certified firefighter, fire officer, and
hazardous materials technician. Oreshan has developed several specialized courses
in the field of hazardous materials and homeland security, including first receiver
decontamination; terrorism, bombs, and schools; and chemical suicides: information
for the first responder.
We must care for each other and look for the
signs of traumatic stress in each other as well
as within ourselves. (Photo by Shaun McMahon.)