Indian Ernie: Between Toughness and Awareness, PTSD

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Editor’s Note: Since January 1st, 2015 at least four Canadian first responders have committed suicide. Since April 29th, 2014, thirty-four first responders have killed themselves.

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In 1999 I unintentionally brought my wife with me on a police pursuit which ended with the deaths of two people in Saskatoon.  A couple celebrating Valentine’s day were killed by a stolen car driven by a criminal out on bail for robbery among other things. I did not actually have my wife with me but in the days and weeks afterwards I would physically go through the driving motions and mumble, talk or shout the dialogue from that night while I was asleep.  My wife told me I was reliving the incident frequently and I thought she was exaggerating until she told me details I had not told her or anyone else.  It upset me and I quietly vowed to be stronger. It did not work.

Over the years my wife in what must be the eeriest of experiences in our home in the middle of the night has heard me confront armed suspects, notify next of kin and describe death scenes to the coroner or detectives. In the morning over coffee I was back to normal or so I thought talking and laughing like my old self.  My wife worried and told me I needed to talk to somebody to work things out.  I was dismissive. Who would you talk to who could relate? My family had no training or support in the early years even if they had reached out for it on my behalf.  So we all just learned as we went along.

Seeing trauma and violence is not the normal day to day routine of most people.  It effect’s us in cumulative measures and gradually we are changed as a person. 

I have been the first or second officer through the door at more than twenty murders in the course of my career.  The smell of blood is something that can never be described, only experienced.  Fear and grief radiating from victims can be so intense you feel it in your bones.  Suicides and sudden deaths where you have to search a house for the deceased can have your heart rate in the 200’s for prolonged periods. The shock of finding them never diminishes even with the blackest cop humour as a salve.  You operate at a level of intensity and hyper vigilance for so long that quiet times are physically hard to take.

When things happen to you that you have no control or influence over rate high in the difficult to put behind you category. House fires, injury, vehicle accidents and medical emergencies- where you were forced into the spectator role, all mark you as well. I coped or survived by working harder and more intensely. In reality I was not coping at all.  I over compensated with my family.  I spent all of my off duty time with the kids and when they turned into teenagers I could not understand why they pulled away. It was the normal growth of children so in frustration I worked even harder. My wife who understood better than anyone else, even though I could not see at the time, just weathered all the changes in me.

Any first responder recognizing themselves here, or any family member seeing their family member in this narrative, could save themselves a lot of stress down the road by reaching out to their organization or peer support groups right now. Lessons are only lessons if they are learned.

Post-traumatic stress disorder in first responders has received a lot of attention in the past few years.  It used to be called burn out when I first started and before that people would say the effected person had lost their nerve.  I am not a mental health professional by any means I do have some insight on PTSD.

I have never been officially diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because almost right up until the end of my career I did not want to admit how much all the things I had seen and done had affected me.  So I have never talked to a mental health professional.  When I was forty I was having anxiety issues and got my first medical in years.  The doctor told me dismissively it was not his department and I never pursued it again. Nor did I get another medical for years afterward.

Almost all first responders want to be seen as confident, brave and capable. They want to help, it is how they are wired. In short they see themselves as tough enough to take whatever comes their way. The toughness quotient is generational.  Older generations did not like to acknowledge cause and effect.  The old days when men were men and we all know the rest. Mostly, I venture, because we had no idea how to deal with people who had seen too much tragedy. We just hoped they would work it out themselves.  This was my generation and the army as much as I loved it just entrenched the view. I would figure it out on my own. I think we are more enlightened now.  The enlightenment comes from emergency services looking inward and acknowledging not everyone had the same coping capacities.

Tragically too many suicides took place between expected toughness and awareness.

This, for first responders, is where the cause and effect came to a tragic end for some.  They have to realize they are not alone.  Most first responders will work far past the first warning signs because they do not want to look like they have lost their nerve.  Their families and friends will often see the changes in their loved ones even before the first responder’s peers will. Once I admitted I was having a hard time with some calls, and especially when I was off duty, I began talking about the effects of the job almost in the third person to Constables who worked with me so they would not have to go through what I did.  It was therapeutic for me as well. As much as you might think you are on your own there is always someone who understands. Talking releases some of the tension and every time you talk you bleed a little more off.

Even now, 15 months since I retired from policing, you will only get a 70 percent admission of the effects the job had on me. First responders will do their duty. Acknowledging PTSD is at some point a reality they will have to face as a way of lessening its impact when it arrives. Just having the awareness is already a mental safeguard in place. They will not in a wholesale rush go to their doctors so they will not have to work.

They do what they do because they care.

It is real and every individual has a different capacity for how much violence or trauma they can stand.  By acknowledging it is real on an organizational level it could save millions of dollars in sick time and possibly some lives.  It is this common sense approach the more progressive leaders have begun to see as an investment in their people.

For all of us, because I am a civilian now too, it is important to realize the mental health and well-being of the firefighters, paramedics and law enforcement officers will affect the way they perform their duties. (Law enforcement officers include conservation officers for you Northern folk). Poorly performed duties affect us all. We need strong men and women to defend us, save us and treat us when we are in peril.  We need to recognize there is a price attached for these people doing this day after day. Just acknowledging that PTSD exists to yourself as an individual will go a long way in helping you see first responders in a different light. owl_feather

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