author’s note: The decision to go public with my PTSD diagnosis has not been taken lightly; at the end of the day, my purpose in sharing is to comfort those working through job-related stress. You are never alone.
Tonight, I had the opportunity to attend a mindfulness workshop for first responders; I was invited by a firefighter who knows I do work with my peers & PTSD. While this would be my first class of its kind, I do practice yoga on occasion in my basement. I’m aware of the many benefits, including stress management and greater action-based intent, of quieting your mind. But I’m going to be honest, I’ve never been able to silence my thoughts and focus on my breathing–I’m a mom to a first grader & two rescue puppies with a long list of work & projects! Who has time to sit and count your breaths these days anyway? Needless to say, I was a bit doubtful (sorry, Jim!).
Walking into the host location, I felt the (now normal) surge of adrenaline (hi, constant fight-or-flight mode!) and nervously stammered as I was introduced to new people. This is probably the most difficult personality change of my PTSD; I no longer feel as confident in social settings as I once had. I’m sure this comes as a surprise to those in my life–I’ve gotten used to donning that mask. But it’s important to work through these supposed deficits and that’s what I planned on doing. I was here tonight to try something new and to share my experience within my network. So I introduced myself and took a seat; us cops, firemen and EMS sat in a circle. I was beyond nervous. That’s another one of my PTSD-born attributes—the desire to bolt from an uncomfortable and unfamiliar setting. I’m talking about an actual need to turn around and run! It was a fleeting thought, but it was there nonetheless.
The meditation portion was led by a woman, ironically, with a beautiful Irish accent. That put me at ease, she reminded me of my Irish family. She led us through a 20 minute practice. It was very difficult to focus on her words and be present exactly where I sat. I was ruminating about an earlier disagreement and rehearsing in my mind what I wanted to share with the group. Every so often I would relax but as soon as I realized it, I tensed up again. Inhale deeply. Exhale. And again. The sound of a fire engine wailed down the street and passed the building. Man, I wonder what they’re going to. I hope they’re safe. Breathe in, breathe out.
“Plant your feet firmly on the ground and feel the energy come up from the Earth.”
Wow. I like that. Acutely aware of my body now, I thought of my feet as meeting resistance from the ground, not as energy. But, wow. I was so surprised how different (how positive!) a simple action could be construed if you just thought about it differently. Shortly after my diagnosis, I used to think of my PTSD as something that happened to me, something that ruined me. I’ve been able to change my thinking. Yeah, it sucks. And it’s difficult. But I’ve built such a position of power out of that struggle. I’m able to share my story and help others to see there is a light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Granted, I’m still making my way out into the light. But I made the most progress when I approached the problem from a positive standpoint. That, in addition to more openly talking about the journey, has forever changed my mindset.
Breathe in. Breathe out. Relax.
I left class feeling calm. I was able to share the most I ever had of my story with the group. I didn’t feel judged. Most importantly, I didn’t feel alone. Time and time again, people tell me how harrowingly secluded they feel in their emotions and journey. I hope as an industry we can change that. Any tiny bit of progress would save a life. We’re here to do that for others. Save a life. Isn’t it about time we do the same for ourselves?
My name is Kelly. I have 5+ years in the fire service and many, many more years in EMS. I was diagnosed with PTSD following a suicide by fire/structure fire in 2014. I’m here to break the stigma of mental health in the fire industry and in all emergency services. It’s ok to ask for help, even though we’re used to being the ones called upon to do so. I know my struggle will have been worthwhile if my story can spare just one life of a fellow firefighter, EMS worker, or police officer. Follow me along on my journey; it’s not so lonely and scary as you maybe once thought. We’re all in this together.
All American Rejects/Move Along, 2005.