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Anyone who has ever experienced post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the aftermath of a terrifying event knows what it is like to wonder whether life will ever return to “normal.” The mental, emotional and physical symptoms can be so debilitating that coping with the ordinary tasks of daily life can seem impossible.
Just ask Jimmy Keefe, a retired firefighter and Resident Manager in FHE Health’s Shatterproof treatment program for first responders. Keefe spent 27 years fighting fires in his hometown of New Brunswick, New Jersey. During that time, he witnessed 40 deaths and made some harrowing rescues.
One of them was a five-year-old girl. By the time Keefe was able to pull her from the flames and carry her out of a burning building, she was unconscious, having endured third-degree burns that covered 72 percent of her body. At the time, Keefe was a young firefighter—just 22—and the traumatic memories of that night would haunt him years later. They would return in dreams, flashbacks and intense feelings of guilt and failure that he eventually tried to numb with drugs and alcohol.
Is Healing from Trauma Possible?
Still, if you asked Keefe today whether healing from trauma is possible, on the basis of his own journey and the experiences of other first responders in the groups that he leads? “Yes, absolutely,” he would say, with the caveat that “normal life” for one person might look very different from “normal life” for someone else.
“Everybody’s ‘normal’ is different,” Keefe said. To illustrate this point, he shared his experience of growing up in a dysfunctional home. His dad, also a firefighter, suffered from alcoholism and could be abusive, while his mother had schizophrenia.
“For me, I always knew there was something wrong with what was happening in my house,” Keefe said. He described how his “normal at home” was “completely different” from the norms that he saw in other people’s homes or that were later modeled by teachers, coaches or other external authorities.
Not surprisingly, growing up in an abusive home meant that Keefe “experienced a lot of childhood trauma.” As is the case with many people who experience trauma, Keefe’s response was to bury the memory: “Some things are too painful, so that we bury it in a rear part of our brain.”
Many years later, at the age of 46, Keefe was working with a breathwork therapist when one of those painful childhood memories suddenly resurfaced. “I went back to the age of seven,” Keefe recalled, “when I was hiding under the table to get away from my drunk father who was kicking me.”
Through breathwork, Keefe said that he “felt lighter and freed,” as if “a 100-pound weight on my shoulders had been lifted.” The memory itself was “actually resolved” in therapy, too, according to Keefe.
During one memorable session, the breathwork therapist encouraged Keefe to recall being back in his parents’ kitchen as an adult. She accompanied Keefe there. It was then that she invited Keefe to tell his father how he felt as an adult about what was happening in that moment. With that release, healing, acceptance and resolution happened.
How Trauma Responses Can Differ Between Individuals
It is important to understand that just as everyone’s “normal” can look different, trauma responses can vary. How one person responds to a trauma can look different from how another person may respond to the same event; and, the same person, depending on the extent of their trauma history, can have different trauma responses across their lifetime.
Take, for example, Keefe’s story. His response as a child to his father’s abusive behaviors was to bury the painful memories so deep that they could only be accessed subliminally many years later with the help of a breathwork therapist.
The trauma of rescuing a severely burned, little girl from a terrible fire, on the other hand? That triggered a different response in Keefe, who said the “next four years of life were horrible.” Keefe said he kept picturing the girl whom he rescued and the way she looked and was plagued by a sense of guilt that he was not a hero for rescuing her.
“I felt that by finding this girl in a fire and basically saving her, I had condemned her to a life of pain and horror. Instead of feeling like a hero, I felt like I caused the child harm.”
After that terrible event, Keefe was plagued by anger and vivid flashbacks and began to drink and use drugs to numb these painful feelings.
Reactions to Trauma and When to Seek Help
Because reactions to trauma can differ between people, it may be hard to know when to seek help. Keefe said the following signs may be cues that trauma is impairing your quality of life and daily function and could benefit from professional treatment:
- Physical and psychological pain and torment
- Hypervigilance and extreme overreaction to certain situations (for example, explosive anger)
- Sleep problems, especially insomnia and racing thoughts
- Flashbacks to the event
- Substance abuse to dull or numb the painful thoughts and emotions
Only a trained professional can assess whether you may have PTSD, but these symptoms may be signs of an underlying problem—especially if they are significantly impacting daily life.
Post-Traumatic Recovery and How to Recover from Trauma
Post-traumatic recovery may not happen overnight, but it happens all the time, according to Keefe. He said he has regularly seen how first responders who come into treatment for PTSD and other conditions go on to recover from trauma.
“When they come in, they are in pain and anguish,” Keefe said, “but when they leave treatment—it’s a huge difference and gives me a sense of purpose that what I’m doing here is making a difference.” Keefe added that “what happens with the community building and the support that they give each other is incredible.”
Keefe pointed to at least two factors in treatment (among others) that can be critical to recovery for first responders who are dealing with trauma issues:
- Processing traumatic experiences in peer support groups – Keefe, who helps lead these groups, said this of them: “We share all of our experiences with each other and help each other to understand that although we work in careers where we see a lot of extreme things, it’s not within our control or power to determine the outcomes.”
Sometimes it takes hearing the perspective of one’s peers to recognize that “we didn’t cause the problem … We get confused thinking we could have done something different to make the situation better.”
When they can process traumatic events with the help of supportive peers, many first responders are able to adopt a healthier perspective over their role in these situations and let go of a sense of being “at fault for the emergencies they deal with.”
- Recognizing transference – By “transference,” Keefe is referring to when “we [as in first responders] can personally attach their emotions to the victims we’re saving.” Keefe said this dynamic is more likely to occur in emergencies involving children. When, for example, he carried the five-year-old burn victim out of a burning building, “because I physically held and touched her, she went from being a stranger to being a child I was caring for.” Keefe said that “it almost felt like she was one of my kids.” Transference happens, yet “we can’t accept fault for these extreme situations.”
Keefe is an advocate for treatment and recovery not just because he sees it every day in the lives of other first responders. He, too, has personally experienced how treatment could help him resolve trauma and ultimately recover. In these ways, “normal life” is most definitely possible after trauma.
Don’t let unresolved trauma ruin another day of your life. Reach out to our caring counselors, who are available 24/7 to take your call. They can advise you about whether FHE’s specialized Shatterproof program or another of our treatment programs would be best for you.