Carbon monoxide and post-traumatic stress disorder
By John Arenburg, ‘The Road to Mental Wellness’
It’s the middle of February in my home town in Nova Scotia, Canada, it’s minus thirty-four with the wind-chill and just beyond the warm, cosy 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; 3h00 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 13 years as a fire fighter. 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 organisations isn’t the time and dedication that goes into volunteering, it’s volunteering to run straight into the belly of your communities’ most dire moments, it’s very physically taxing. Also, in a moment your life can be changed forever. The difference is one requires you to sacrifice your time, whilst the other may require you to sacrifice your living, your family and even your life.
For some of us, however, something else happens. As one might well imagine, the things that one encounters as a fire fighter takes 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 remanence 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 and can have tragic consequences if gone undetected. If one is unaware, keeps shoving it deep within and or your department fails to recognise the importance of early intervention, then what can happen is this slow build-up of mental pain that 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, how busy you keep yourself and no matter how hard you try to avoid it. If not dealt with it will, like carbon monoxide, slowly accumulate. And like carbon monoxide, you can’t taste it, can’t smell it and if you can’t detect it 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 post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) I can tell you that it’s a special kind of hell. Looking back now, 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.
If being a man is all about strength, then use your man strength to reach out. Your family with thank you for it… Make no mistake, this disorder, PTSD can have very deadly consequences if left to fester and spread.
Source: The Road to Mental Wellness