A picture paint’s a thousand words, right? I must have said and heard this phrase thousands of times. For me, one glimpse at this image of myself on a breathing apparatus course would change everything in an instant. “That can’t be me. How could I have fallen so far and not even noticed?”
The truth was I had noticed I had chosen to ignore it, all of it. I first reached out for support when the world was very different, 2018 ‘pre-pandemic’. I sat in front of my GP and explained that I couldn’t park the mental flashbacks from a Road Traffic Collision (RTC) I had been the initial officer in charge of over six months ago. All the online PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) health checks I had completed were off the scale. Something is going on, and I am worried about what else may follow. The GP calmly agreed with me, handed me a pamphlet with a number to call for support and showed me the door. I said thanks and then walked away.
18 months later, the very day I viewed this picture, everything came crashing down. I see it all so clearly now, the struggle, the pain, the overwhelming anxiety that won’t stop me from picking at my hands. Fear, regret, guilt they are all there, circling my mind like a thousand vultures that have come to claim the soul of the not yet dead firefighter as I sit, about to enter the fiery villa. Something we train for regularly and are tested on annually. At my lowest, getting out of bed was my fiery villa.
If admitting that I needed help took me 18 months to ask for it the first time, how long had I been waiting to ask that question? It’s a thought that bothers me more now. In life, few people walk into your life that allow you to be better. Claire, my therapist who helped me thrive through EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Processing) and talking therapy, knows how thankful I am for that reason. I built a support network around me. I was motivated not to get back to where I was but to push the boundaries of stigma and taboo and to thrive.
Having PTSD has been a gift, a motivator like nothing else. Through my experiences, struggles and triumphs, I have been able to educate myself and others. It sounds terribly dramatic, but barriers are moving.
Those outside my support network will not know their day-to-day impact on my positive mental health. They never could because life keeps moving forward, and that’s ok. The lesson I have learnt is not to forget the importance of applying a ‘chin lift’ every so often, raising my viewpoint just enough to check where I am going, keeping on my trajectory and learning from where I have been.
In my experience, getting the professional support I needed for my mental health did not come easy. Why? I asked for it? Nothing seemed to fit what I needed, until it did. The man I saw in this picture didn’t allow me to stop asking questions until I felt I was understood, by myself and others. I have learnt how personal to the individual PTSD or any other mental health condition can be. I also understand that it does not define the individual, something I didn’t consider when I sat down in front of my GP, with nobody else but my wife knowing. It would be fair to say my emotional intelligence has grown rapidly since.
I had no agenda when I started writing this blog, but I felt inspired to share. People have felt able to gravitate toward me and tell me that a video I posted on LinkedIn has encouraged them to seek support personally or that they have recognised that someone else may be struggling. Some have said that a presentation or micro teach on mental health awareness has helped them answer some of their own questions on personal mental health. For these reasons, mental health awareness will always be a big part of who I am.
Trust me, I hate this picture. I never thought I would share it with anyone! But equally, I also kind of love it now, because at that moment, I was able to become a better man, a better husband, father, friend, colleague, and firefighter. I think of a better version of me as a ‘Back to the Future’ film moment, living on a new timeline compared to where my past would have taken me if I had not gained support, altering my present and future.
If you are struggling mentally or working in a situation that would benefit from this type of support, don’t stay silent for so long as I did. If you are looking for that sign, this is it! If we are to break the stigma on subjects such as this, we need to keep the conversations moving. This blog is a small part of turning the first cog in the mental health machine.
Cogito now has mental health awareness training for all, not just mental health first aiders. We have established a ‘leave stigma at the door’ concept that allows us all to communicate as openly as we choose and understand the impact we can all have in that moment. We have wrapped our organisation in awareness. Wellness is a fundamental strand of our DNA. I am so proud of this. I have worked closely with my Fire and Rescue Service employer, highlighting development opportunities in process and procedures for individuals returning to work, post mental health support, and supporting others individually. It really is OK not to be OK. It’s not OK to not then back that up. Sadly something I do still see too much of.
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