By Jody Trager, PhD, Program Director at Promises Malibu Vista One of the greatest gifts…
Firefighters & Addiction: When the Heroes Need Help
Firefighters are true heroes. They save others and risk their lives on a daily basis. They devote their lives to rescuing others.
They are the ones running toward the fire when everyone else is screaming and running away and they comfort those who have been traumatized.
That’s why it’s so hard for them to ask for help when they are struggling, especially when it comes to firefighters and alcohol abuse, substances and other addictions.
Trauma is an underlying issue when it comes to addiction. It impacts firefighters in significant ways.
- Unresolved childhood trauma and pain. There may be a story behind why they choose their profession. People who are abused or feel helpless to stop abuse or chaos in their childhood homes sometimes find themselves drawn to the helping professions. And they are stellar examples of commitment to the work. But in the course of doing their jobs, childhood pain can be triggered.
- Cumulative trauma. This builds on a daily basis. It’s normal for civilians to freak out when they are involved in a fire or observing one in progress. But firefighters have no time to react or express emotions. They are the ones who must stop the building from burning and in order to do their jobs they have to be strong and take action. This keeps them in a perpetual state of flight, flight or freeze mode. They often do not even realize that the daily dose of tragedy they are exposed to takes its toll, with each traumatic experience adding to the next.
Anatomy of Addiction in Firefighters
- Trauma, unaddressed, eats away at people. For someone who is supposed to be a “hero,” it is hard to admit they’re in pain, and they may not even recognize their pain to begin with. Even though firefighters have a special fraternity with their “brothers,” they work in an environment where they are supposed to “suck it up” and not appear weak in any way.
- They remain silent about problems and instead try to quell the pain by reaching for a drink, or a substance, or by turning to other addictions, such as porn or gambling. Firefighters and alcohol don’t mix when drinking becomes a way to self-soothe.
- Things go awry at home because firefighters also keep their pain from their spouses and can’t turn off the day job. The skills needed to save lives out in the world do not match what is needed to keep a marriage healthy. Home life deteriorates and is no longer a strong base for anyone in the family.
- As the addiction escalates, maladaptive behavior takes over as the firefighter turns more frequently to whatever they are using to try to blunt the pain inside. Unsavory behavior may follow, such as affairs or illegal activities. Dual addictions may form. Eventually, the firefighter isolates as they become lost to the disease of addiction or alcoholism.
Getting Help for Firefighters
Firefighters face destruction every day. Just as they carry out small children from the flames and give them a chance at life, they need to know that they deserve help, too. Here are the first steps to recovery.
- Admit things are out of control. It doesn’t make anyone any less of a hero to acknowledge they need help.
- Connect with other first responders. People who save others for a living have their own language and it’s beneficial for a firefighter to get into a workshop or program designed for people who know what it is like to face tragedy and danger every day.
- Learn mindfulness techniques. Trauma keeps people stuck in an incident as if it’s still happening, and it can lead to maladaptive self-soothing behavior. There are many mindfulness techniques to help firefighters ground themselves and cope in healthier ways.
- They are not alone. It’s honorable to reach out for help and there are others suffering in similar ways. Sharing stories and pain with like-minded people is a great step toward healing.
Prevalence of symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder in German professional firefighters
Mindfulness is associated with fewer PTSD symptoms, depressive symptoms, physical symptoms, and alcohol problems in urban firefighters.
Longitudinal study of probable post‐traumatic stress disorder in firefighters exposed to the World Trade Center disaster
First Responders and Physiological Trauma