the dawn of ineffective strategies
The death of my mother and how it impacted me, wow, where do I start except at the beginning. My childhood, actually my teenage years, was no different then anybody elses growing up in the time period of the late 70’s and early 80’s or at least I thought was no different, but then again, I was 15 years old, what did I really know. My father was a blue collar worker driving a truck for a living and my mother was a bookkeeper for a few different small businesses. I had two older sisters but was only really close to the oldest. Like many of that time, my father was authoritative and took a more of a “hands-on” approach to enforcing his authority to raising my sisters and I. It was never about developing our self-esteem or fostering our emotional growth but more about ensuring we had the practical skillsets to “make it” through life. I would never go to him with any of my personal challenges or emotional concerns but only to learn a new skill or task I believed would lead to a more successful or productive life. My mother on the other hand, was the glue that kept our family together. I was told by my older sister later in our lives that it was obvious that my mother really doted on me more then my two sisters. Perhaps because I was the youngest, perhaps because I was the only boy or perhaps because when I was born I was 8 weeks early and back in the 60’s, the life expectancy of premature babies born that early was not great. Maybe she believed I was special. Regardless, of the reasons why, I was the closer, physically, emotionally and intellectually to my mother then to my father.
In 1979 I was in high school and both my sisters had moved out and were busy living their own lives. My mother was ill. I knew she had health challenges throughout most of my life and was aware that she suffered from rheumatoid arthritis for most of it but this time was just a little different. I left my mother and father to head off to school on a Friday morning. I knew there was a chance that my father was going to take my mother to the hospital, but this didn’t really worry me. Again, I was 15 years old, what did I really know about anything. I got home from school later that afternoon to find a note from my mother indicating that they were heading to the hospital. Still, being 15 and full of “piss and vinegar” and not really being truly aware of the workings of the world and how everybody, including myself fit into it, I wasn’t really concerned even when my parents didn’t come home that night.
Saturday morning came around and my life changed forever. I received a phone call at roughly 08:40am from a doctor at the hospital who stated “your mother is not doing all that well, it might be a good idea to come to the hospital”. My heart skipped a few beats, okay, many beats as I quickly ran to the bus stop to catch a transit bus to the hospital. My mind had turned to a tornado of thoughts. To this day I really don’t remember that bus ride. I eventually got to the hospital around 09:30am to find my father and both my sisters there in obvious distress with tears running down their faces. I immediately knew. I didn’t need to be told. My mother had died. As a family we went together to see her, laying in the hospital bed. I actually though that she really did look so peaceful, a thought that surprised me considering my mother was now gone. I had a really strange sense of peace wash over me while standing there looking upon her and whether you believe in the afterlife or not (I am still very much undecided on that) I honestly felt she was in the room with us with her hands on my shoulders. I bawled my eyes out realizing that the comfort of my life was never to be the same and that my mother, the only person in my life that I felt so incredibly close to, was now gone. I also found out that she had actually passed at roughly 08:00am almost 40 minutes before the doctor placed the phone call to me. Yes, even with the under-developed cognitive abilities of my 15 year old brain, I as able to comprehend what had occurred with the doctor’s call and I was pissed!!
I took off and ran out of the hospital, I ran to a place that I could get away from everybody and everything. I sat under a nearby bridge and overpass of the main road the hospital was on and it was there I, for the first time in my life, actually thought about my life and my future, something that is so foreign to most 15 year olds. You see being 15, I was a typical teenager. I was wild almost uncontrollable, believed myself to be invincible and was hanging around with the “wrong” crowd of friends. Lots of underage drinking, experimenting with drugs and lots of rebellious and yes some illegal behaviours. I did things that I cringe at today. My life really was heading in a direction that most parents would not be too proud of.
Under that bridge as I thought about my life and the direction it was going, I made a couple of decisions that little did I know would shape the person I am today. I made the decision that my life was spiraling downward, heading in the wrong direction and that I needed to get control of it and maintain control of it and I decided that now that my mother was no longer part of my life, that the only person I could rely on was......myself. That day under that bridge, I made the conscious choice to become what I now label as a “control freak” and become self-reliant, relying on nobody else but myself. Little did I know that these two “coping mechanisms” would come back to haunt me in my later years as a firefighter.
You see the “control freak” in me required me to ALWAYS be in control of my emotions and every situation I found myself in. While this is a great skill to have when responding to emergency incidents (we wouldn’t be able to actually do our job if we felt what our patients and those calling on our services actually felt) it didn’t help when trying to deal with the emotional aftermath of traumatic calls. Those emotions that come with doing CPR on infants and adults or witnessing death or seeing those things that human eyes were never meant to see or hearing things you wish you never had, all those emotions that needed to be processed to stay mentally healthy were just buried deep inside my psyche in an effort to maintain control of them that the “control freak” in me required. Always being in control of my emotions and the situations I found myself in also didn’t help with the inevitable and to be expected emotional and life challenges of navigating a marriage or navigating the turbulent waters of raising my own two kids. The “control freak” in me is very very strong even to this day (I am working on it however).
When I was eventually diagnosed with PTSD/Depression after 27 years as a firefighter, the self-reliant person I chose to be many many years prior made it extremely difficult getting and accepting help. You see it wasn’t mental health stigma that was the roadblock to reaching out for me, it was the self-reliant belief that I could only rely on myself for all things I need, to fix all problems that involved me, to fix my world. I honestly thought that I could handle the emotional turmoil and screwed up personal life that comes along with PTSD all by myself. I didn’t need help because after all, I could rely on myself to fix whatever the problem was. When I did eventually reach out for help my self-imposed, self-reliant belief that I developed after my mother’s death made it almost impossible to willingly and openly accept the help being provided by my therapist. It took some time before I could open myself up, let myself become vulnerable and let my therapist into my slightly messed up mind.
It has only been through my weekly therapy while I deal with and try and recover from my PTSD/Depression that I have come to realize that those ineffective coping mechanisms that played a significant part in the development of my PTSD/Depression actually began way before I even started my career in the fire service. Somebody once said to me that “none of us come into the fire service as clean blank slates”. I now understand just how true that statement is as I look back on my own life story.