Sunday, December 16, 2012

How my first responder processes traumatic experiences

How do our police, EMS, and fire personnel process the tragedies that they witness from time to time? How can they see such horrors and then drive away, go to the store to pick up supplies for dinner and go about their day? How do these events affect them?

The answer is going to be different for each person.

I can't give you the full range of reactions and processing techniques among first responders. But I can tell you how my husband deals with these heart-breaking events.

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My husband seems to be custom-built for a job such as this. He has seen his fair share of sad, gruesome events in his relatively short career. But somehow, it doesn't weigh him down.

I'm different than he is. I'm a worrier by nature, and sad things seep deep into my sinews and tighten my limbs, making me feel immobilized. I have to slowly stretch out the worries and work on regaining my full range of emotion over time. I can't watch depressing movies; they make me feel too sad. Then I'll spend the rest of the evening wishing my overactive imagination would JUST FREAKING STOP coming up with worst-case scenarios for my own family.

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But my husband doesn't have this problem. He can process traumatic events quickly. He has the ability to somehow not dwell on it and not internalize it. Here's how he does it.

Let me preface this by mentioning that the man doesn't remember his dreams. I think this is a tremendous gift. My dreams make the impossible worst-case scenarios possible, then those dreams force me to live through terrible events for a night. My husband doesn't have that problem.

As for how he deals with the trauma as it is happening, he separates the calls into two categories — situations he can do something to fix, and situations where there's nothing he can do and the person has already gone.

If someone is already gone and there's nothing he can do, he leans on his faith and takes comfort in knowing that the deceased has passed through a doorway and continues to exist on the other side. It's not emotional for him, since he doesn't know the person and therefore isn't going to miss them. He's just a visitor who happens to be there when the transition to the next phase happens.

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For people he CAN help, he has the ability to separate himself from the situation and approach it in an analytical "this is what needs to happen next" manner. He's not focusing on the emotional impact of the trauma on the victim or the family; he's focusing on being a good medic and fixing the situation for them.

My husband takes comfort in knowing that he literally has done all that anyone could in the situation. He is there to help. He helps, and then he moves on to the next puzzle. In some ways, this endless line of trauma of various intensities helps him become analytical since it's so frequent.

I think it helps that he's only one small piece of the story, too; he doesn't stay with the patients in the hospital. My husband's interaction with a patient is 40 minutes, at most.

What does get to him and haunts him more than anything else are the rare cases where he perhaps should have done something different. In those cases, he learns from his mistakes and tries to move on.

The rest of us learn about these events through the news. Maybe we know more information about the people involved — the motives, the relatives, the story behind the events — than the first responders do, at least, initially. Maybe that's why we can't fathom being in those situations. Maybe our emotional ties to the deceased form in a different way. I'm not sure. But whatever the reason behind it, I am thankful that there are people in the world that CAN deal with these situations, remain level-headed, and do what needs to be done — especially in situations that would stretch the limits of even the most seasoned first responder's ability to cope.

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In the end, I hope that my husband can easily return to the station, do his shopping, and joke around the dinner table to help ease the tension at the end of a tragic day. I hope he is a little less sensitive to the sadness than I would be. I am glad he has his coping mechanisms already in place, just in case a terribly difficult day comes along, so that processing the grief is second nature to him. On most days, that's exactly what he does. But if all of those defenses fail, I'm glad he has family and friends and counseling to support him, should he need it.
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