I served 12 years in the Army with a few combat deployments to Afghanistan, receiving a Purple Heart during Operation Enduring Freedom VIII. Shortly after leaving the military, I joined the fire department, Golden Gate Fire Rescue (now Greater Naples Fire Rescue) close to my hometown of Bonita Springs.
I started having PTSD related symptoms after leaving the Army but I simply shrugged it off. PTSD, or the stigma associated with it, was not something I was willing to accept that was something weak people developed. I thought everyone else just had a problem dealing with me, none of it was my fault. The only emotion I had was anger and I was angry all the time, I lashed out at my wife, friends, and family. It didn’t help that I was drinking all the time and I would only sleep a few hours a night. When I did sleep, I had ultra-realistic nightmares that I would often be too paralyzed to wake-up. When I was awake, I was hyper-vigilant, angry, stressed, depressed, apathetic, unemotional, and destroying another marriage.
I thought this was going to be my life and that was that.
Meanwhile, I was still responding to fires and other emergency calls. Some of these calls triggered different emotional responses that exasperated my condition. Again, I pushed these natural responses as deep down as possible. I was a Firefighter, and Combat Veteran I could not have PTSD, not me…
Finally, my awesome wife was able to talk me into seeking help. I really did not know where to turn, I still did not think I had PTSD and sought help with my family physician. A few years passed with me trying multiple medications that did little to nothing to help my underlining issues. Ultimately, my family physician informed me he exhausted his medical abilities and advocated to seek a specialized mental health professional.
Eventually, I had a salty Lieutenant open up about his own struggle with PTSD and he gave me information for his psychologist. I was shocked, here is this highly respected, quiet, 25-year veteran firefighter who is struggling with PTSD, I thought maybe talking to someone wouldn’t be the worst thing to do, so I did.
After seeking help I can definitely say I am a changed person. Opening up to psychologists and psychiatrists was difficult, I had to find ones that I trusted. It also took a huge financial toll on myself and my family, because I did not know where to turn and many Mental Health Physicians do not accept insurance. EAP is a great program and concept; but, my issues surpassed their expertise. It takes a unique person to be a First Responder, whether it’s a firefighter, a law enforcement officer, an emergency medical service provider, or an emergency dispatcher. Subsequently, it takes a unique person to understand the intricacies behind what we do, the toll it takes on us, and the messed up ways we cope with problems not faced by the everyday citizen. Not just any provider knows what we consider normal behavior.
I still have a long road ahead of me, and will not be the same person I was before, at least to some degree, but that’s okay it just takes work.
So please reach out and help make a difference in changing the lives of your local heroes that are suffering in silence get the education, and treatment they deserve!