Carbon Monoxide and PTSD. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is a lot like carbon monoxide. It’s odourless, tasteless and if left untreated, can be deadly.
It’s the middle of February in my hometown in Nova Scotia. It’s minus-34 degrees with the windchill – and just beyond the warm cozy walls of my home, there are blizzard-like conditions raging with such ferocity that one can see but a few feet in front of them. I glance at the time, 3 A.M. – then, the tones shatter the winter night’s silence. Jumping to my feet with the adrenaline flowing I make the treacherous trek to the fire hall, jump on a rig, and spend hours in the frigid cold, soaked and frozen, tired and starving.
This scenario was repeated an untold number of times in my fifteen years as a firefighter. Many calls I responded to ended in tragedy; a few of them hit very close to home. What separates the volunteer fire service from any other volunteer organizations isn’t the time and dedication that goes into volunteering.
It’s volunteering to run straight into the belly of your community’s most dire moments, and it’s very physically taxing. Also, in a moment your life can be changed forever. The difference is that one requires you to sacrifice your time, while the other may require you to sacrifice your living, your family and even your life.
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For some of us, however, something else happens. As one might well imagine, the things that one encounters as a firefighter take a significant mental toll. Seeing things that no human should ever have to see, takes a physical toll by virtue of doing all you can to mitigate the suffering. But many, myself included, have and are experiencing a slow accumulation of a different form of exhaustion: a mental stress-produced exhaustion.
This mental exhaustion is a by-product of each and every critical incident – at least that’s how I experienced it. Known as critical incident stress – check the link for definition – it was slowly poisoning my mental health, first numbing the mind and body for a week or so, then dissipating until the next tragic scene.
Looking back now, I never caught on that – even though I seemingly was over the last call and the call before that – these critical incidents were leaving a poisonous residue in their wake. Not only was there a remnant of all the things I had witnessed, but it also turns out that these bits were far from benign. In fact, its effects are what I call the mental carbon monoxide. Carbon Monoxide is odourless, tasteless and slowly accumulates in the body. It can have tragic consequences if it goes undetected.
If one is unaware and keeps shoving it deep within, or your department fails to recognize the importance of early intervention, then what can happen is that this slow build-up of mental pain can go undetected for, in my case, years.
The damnedest thing about manning up, is that this form of psychological work injury doesn’t care about your manhood and how busy you keep yourself. Therefore – no matter how hard you try to avoid it – if it’s not dealt with, it will, like carbon monoxide, slowly accumulate.
And like carbon monoxide, you can’t taste it, can’t smell it and may not be able to detect it. And yet, you may very well suffer its tragic consequences. When it goes from short-term (critical incident stress) to longer-term post-traumatic stress disorder, one can then consider themselves clinically sick from letting years and years of psychological trauma fester.
I have, unfortunately, fallen victim to the man-up, tough-guy mythology. Now, retired from the fire service and living with PTSD, I can tell you that it’s a special kind of hell. Looking back now, I see PTSD is much harder to confront than it ever would have been to seek out help before the poison of this mental disorder hijacked my mental health and gave me little recourse but to fight for a sense of normality.
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If being a man is all about strength, then use your man strength to reach out. Your family will thank you for it… Make no mistake, this disorder, PTSD, can have very deadly consequences if left to fester and spread.
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