by Rob Leathen
I went public not for any sympathy and not for any pity but because I firmly believe that silence does nothing but strengthen stigma. Rob Leathen
So my first visit with my psychotherapist. How did it go? It was amazing! I was early, very early, as I always am. I sat in the waiting room looking around at all the signs, posters and books dealing with trauma, PTSD, support systems and the like. In that 20 minutes while I
sat there (yes I was that early), the gravity of why I was actually there set in and manifested itself as what I call an “almost”. For me an “almost” is defined as a welling up of emotions to the point of almost uncontrollably bawling my eyes out but then, as I have done so often before, stifling back those emotions and tears until those emotions and tears are no longer visible to the outside world. All part of that “mask” that many wear.
I was greeted by my therapist and taken upstairs to her office. Yes, she had a leather couch which, of course, prompted me to ask if it was the proverbial leather couch found in all shrinks offices. She laughed and said she wasn’t going to make me lay down on it.
Okay, that was a good start… a little humour icebreaker. After the formalities of introducing herself, I was quite relieved to learn that her specialty was PTSD in first responders and that she was quite aware of the firefighter and fire service culture. Ah, common ground!
We talked about my family and my history in the fire service, then the question I feared the most… “so, what brings you here?” I guess it was meant to open the door to the discussion because she obviously knew why I was there. It was one of those psychotherapist traps…
I know it, and I fell for it! I talked about the feelings I was aware of. You know, cold, emotionally numb, blow-ups, bitterness, sleep issues, avoidance to name just a few. We briefly touched on a few past emergency calls that I brought up but didn’t delve into them very much at all. I brought up a friend and co-worker’s suicide which once again lead to an “almost”.
We talked about my childhood and what I was like after my mother’s death. I was obviously getting quite worked up because she quickly talked to me a little bit about deep breathing and EMDR therapy and progressive muscle relaxation. I really wanted to lay on the couch but thought to myself, “Nope, not going to lay on the therapist’s couch, that’s how all the flood gates open!”
She handed me two wired handheld fobs that I held in each hand that vibrated alternately from left to right while she guided me in deep breathing. Little did I know but that was my first introduction to EMDR therapy. I remember I told her that it was like a guided meditation. I like guided meditations. What do you know, it actually worked and I started to calm down.
We talked quite a bit about my comments that I’m a control freak. Bottom line while she didn’t specifically come right out and say it, but at first appearances, the control freak in me had a stronghold over the emotions that I should be experiencing from the traumatic calls I have gone to over my career as a firefighter. Holy crap, if that’s not what my “almost” cries are I don’t know what is!
There were many “almosts” during that initial meeting. Not bad for a first meeting I guess! Although it was never specifically mentioned that I had PTSD, everything we talked about revolved around it. Ya sorta like if it quacks like a duck, swims like a duck, looks like a duck and flies like a duck it’s most likely not a dog. I’ve had many more therapy sessions since that initial one. My official diagnosis, which has allowed me to progress in my recovery to the point I am now, all with the help of my therapist.
About the Author: Rob is a 27 year veteran of the fire service holding the rank of Acting Platoon Chief for a mid-sized Fire Department in Ontario, Canada. He has held a variety of roles and ranks throughout his career including volunteer firefighter, fire dispatcher, career firefighter, Acting Captain, Captain, and Acting Platoon Chief. Rob has also been heavily involved in his local firefighter association holding positions on the Health and Safety Committee and Association President on two separate occasions. Rob is also a vocal advocate for 1st responder mental health using his lived experience with PTSD and depression to help educate others through talks, presentations, and published writings.
Also by Firefighter Leathen
Stigma and the Elephant in the Room, to the Point of No Return and Back