“I want to raise awareness. And I want to advocate. In doing so, I hope to help smash any stigma of PTSD.”
As first responders, firefighters are often exposed to traumatic events on a daily basis. It is no surprise then that they are at an increased risk for developing post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). While there still continues to be a stigma surrounding mental health in first responders, brave individuals, such as Tim Linder, are working passionately to break through the wall of misconceptions surrounding this disorder. We had the pleasure of speaking with Tim this week about his experience as a retired firefighter with PTSD. Tim has taken to social media to share his journey with the world and in doing so, he is helping to shatter the stigma and open up the floor for other first responders who may be struggling to ask for help.
To find out more about Tim’s story, take a look at @my_ptsd_story.
PTSD can be hard to describe to someone who has never experienced it – what have you come to understand about what it is and what if feels like?
When I was first diagnosed with PTSD, honestly I had no idea what that meant, and I really didn’t care. I simply knew that I was having an extremely difficult time managing my relationships at home and my performance at work. It had been this way for at least three years. I always justified that I was “OK” because with hard work and determination, I was able to hide how fearful I was at every minute while doing my job as a full-time firefighter/paramedic. I responded without question to call after call in the service of others, never really knowing which one would be my last. I worried about my personal safety (was I going to get shot or stabbed?), I worried about an inability to “save” a life (this had happened to me already one too many times with children as my patients), and I worried about having to extricate from wreckage one more dead body or to cover with a sheet one more adult male overdose victim.
I asked for help only when my wife threatened to leave me as she saw that my increased symptoms of emotional distress, avoidance, negative thoughts about people, and angry outbursts were starting to be mirrored back by my own daughters. And coinciding with the increase in symptoms at home, I was starting to dissociate at work. I was losing any memory of calls that I had literally just been on minutes before. I had difficulty understanding if I was awake or dreaming while in reality stretching a very “real” and very large hose-line up to a garage fire in the middle of the night. And I flashed back to calls involving extreme death almost every time the tones went off for an emergency callout. I was in constant fear. Fear at work and fear at home. It’s funny that ultimately my extreme fear and the associated anxiety, guilt, and shame around my fear became the motivation for me to finally ask for help. This fear had ruled me and now in some way it was going to act as my conduit to healing.
Healing began with asking for help and it continued with me gaining an appreciation for my experiences in the context of my PTSD injury. I have come to understand PTSD as a complex brain injury. For me, there were events that happened that my brain processed in such a way as to protect me during the time of perceived danger. I thank my brain for doing the job that it was biologically engineered to perform. But like ways that I could injure or strain other physical parts of my body, during those times, my brain was actually injured. And my inability to recognize this injury led me to continue with attempts to maintain the appearance of full functioning. Again, COMPLEX BRAIN INJURY! It took a long time to get myself to this point of understanding. And I caution myself that this is my understanding of PTSD. Another person may not experience it as I did and may not view it in hindsight the way that I do. And that is “OK.” What is not “OK” is to feel like there is any shame or humiliation in talking about our experiences with PTSD.
Who or what is your motivation that helps you in your healing journey?
My motivation in my healing journey is quite simply myself. That may sound selfish, but I view it in a way that defines it as “self-full”. Because as a father to three young daughters, my first priority is to be here for them and in support of their growth and development from pre-teens into healthy, functioning, mature adults. The best way that I know how to do that now is to prioritize my mental health and heal. There were so many times that I was not my own advocate. I actually succeeded in so many ways in spite of myself. I ignored what my mind, body, and soul were asking for and in doing so I became less able to be there for my family. Now I realize the importance of educating myself about myself. I strive to cultivate an awareness of self that I can listen to and then utilize to grow my brain power, maintain my physical strength, and increase my spiritual connection. By respecting this mind, body, soul connection, I am becoming the best version of myself possible in this present moment. And for me, therein lies all the motivation necessary.
I had someone with PTSD say to me once that being a man first, and especially a guy whose job it is to serve, protect, or aid, makes it harder to accept and live with PTSD. Can you relate to what he’s saying?
My career as a firefighter/paramedic certainly increased my exposure to traumatic events. The more events experienced that possibly involve death and/or threat of death will by definition make it more likely to sustain the complex brain injury of PTSD. This does not mean that it will affect everyone and thankfully it does not. While it is acknowledged that PTSD is possible, there is a certain part of the traditionally “masculine” tradition of the fire service that does make it less attractive to address with any great substance. I was actually a part of this culture for almost twenty years and do not see it changing anytime soon. I say this without critical judgement as the solutions for PTSD injury prevention can be as equally complex as the actual injury of PTSD. Firefighters are very aware of the physical requirements of the job and wear as a badge of honor the “muscles” necessary to perform the job well and maintain a career that is sustainable. There is not the same respect given to the mind (brain) and soul (spiritual) requirements of the job. It is no secret that these can sometimes fall into a category of more “feminine” requirements of the job. I do not view them that way especially now that for the good of society, the fire professions are resembling more and more the wonderful diversity that is seen outside the fire station doors. I feel we need to “normalize” the mind/body/soul connection as residing in every person and show that it is not more acceptable or less acceptable in any specific gender. I think that it is difficult for anyone (fire service personnel or not) to take responsibility for their own mental health. It may be slightly more difficult being in a profession where the job is to help others. We should allow ourselves the same compassion and empathy that we express towards those that we help. I want people to ask for help. I want to help educate. I want to raise awareness. And I want to advocate. In doing so, I hope to help smash any stigma of PTSD.