Sunday, August 17, 2008

Firefighters Story-PTSD How I Became 1 in 5

As I've said, 24 years of firefighting in Ottawa's 2 busiest downtown stations over most of my career has been a blessing, an honor, but was also THE major contributor to my ending up in the fight of my life, and for my life. That's how I also became part of the 1 in 5 who suffer and are afflicted with a mental health problem.

Most people , when they think of firefighters, attach a label of sorts or come to think of us as being"rough, tough, and macho" because of what our job entails. I like to think, and HOPE that people look up and respect us. But, this comes with a price tag on ones health.

When people think of firefighters, most come to think of us battling fires, obviously, but we do so many other types of calls to help people also. These may include car accidents, medicals of all types, which include heart attacks, suicides, and any other type of medical emergency you may think of. I've also spent close to 10 years on the water and ice rescue team, and helped boaters and swimmers in peril. Unfortunately alot of these calls were body retrievals. These were people who went missing, only to turn up weeks and sometimes months later. We are the guys who handle this very gruesome and unpleasant task.

You have calls where you are fortunate enough to be able to help people in their time of greatest need, which were the majority, but you also had a few where you did everything in your power, used all of your training, but were not able to save these people.

And then, you have the calls, incidents, that were so horrific and tragic, that they are burned into your memory forever. These calls you never forget and are etched into your memory forever. These are the calls that haunt you. These are the ones that cause you so much internal suffering, pain and trouble, and these are the ones you NEVER talk about.

You suffer in silence. This is where the problems can begin. You dare not say anything to anyone, as that would be a sign of weakness, or so you are led to believe. This is also where my struggle with what is known as "The God Complex" comes into the picture.
Failure is not an option. You strive for, and become use to fixing situations. That's why when you aren't able to help, or you lose someone, you take it very hard. It becomes extremely personal. You're trained, and you pull out every trick you have in your collection of experiences in order to come to a successful conclusion on each and every call. When the situation is beyond your capabilities, you don't accept failing very graciously inside, and for me that meant blaming myself and questioning what I did wrong. The "God Complex".
In one part of my therapy, I had to be taught how to recognize when things were beyond my control. Sounds simple, right? It is so far from simple, and it was a struggle that I had to fight with each and everyday throughout therapy. To this very day, and I know that forever, I will have to use the tools that I was taught in order not to fall into the same vicious cycle I found myself in.
Traumas are cumulative, thats proven. After years of viewing and being involved in many small traumas, their effects took a toll on me personally, and this spilled over into my families lives also.
Then, in January 2003, a fire so horrific and terrible occurred in the west end on Penny Dr, a firebombing where two young kids were burnt to death. I was the lieutenant in charge of trying to rescue those kids. I was only able to get half way up the ladder to their bedroom where they were, but the heat and flames were just too much. This was the beginning of my acceleration into some major mental health problems, as well as being diagnosed with PTSD and a myriad of side effects that go with it.
In September of 2006 I was involved in a major fire in Overbrooke where I went through the 3rd story roof and became trapped in the fire that was raging below me in the attic. The only part of me visible above the roof was my head. I ended up running out of air and saying goodbye to my wife and kids. I was sure that was the end of me and I was going to die. Thankfully, after some amazing work by my brother firefighters, they eventually managed to help me just enough so that I was able to extricate myself from between the rafters where I was stuck. I don't remember much after I was freed as I went into shock and landed in the General Hospital trauma unit. I had somehow climbed down the ladder from the roof to the ground, and eventually woke up the day after, and I was in a dark room not knowing where I was or what had happened to me.
Amazingly, this fire showing me trapped was captured by bystanders on film. Eventaully,part of my therapy was to go through what's called "exposure work" and I ended up viewing myself just about dying in that fire many times over. That came later though.
After healing physically for a few months, I returned to duty. That's when things eventually caught up to me, as inside I was screaming for help one moment, and denying everything the next.
I became numb, and went into what I call "survival mode". I felt like I was no longer the person whom I use to be and I told my wife many times over that I'm not the person I use to be. I'm not normal anymore. I knew that there was something wrong with me, but I figured that I could fight my way through it. Eventually I'd be okay, and get over it.
How wrong I was.
Thanks, till next week, take care, Larry.