How Do Emergency Responders Cope with Addiction?


by Peggy Sweeney

No one intentionally chooses a path of self-destruction; an unhealthy behavior or addiction. These damaging tendencies usually develop over a period of time and are often the result of trying to cope with a physical and/or emotional trauma or multiple traumas: sexual abuse, depression, post-traumatic stress, job loss, debilitating injury, death of a loved one, to name a few. In this article, we will explore some of the reasons adults make the choices that they do as well as some of the struggles they must cope with during their recovery.

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Several years ago, I served as a consultant for a local hospital. During that time, I provided help for adult and adolescent/teen in-patients recovering from chemical dependency and emotional trauma by way of one-on-one conversations and group support meetings. The patients shared their personal stories of grief, abuse, and other misfortunes that had influenced their need to find a way to cope with these events. Flashbacks from childhood of sexual, physical, or emotional abuse were common themes as well as feelings of abandonment by a parent due to death, divorce, incarceration, or the unwillingness to care for their offspring. Some adults remembered the shame they felt as children or teenagers when classmates and neighborhood bullies belittled them because of their appearance, physical abnormalities, or social status.

Traumatic events that happened during childhood are not the only reason for choosing a path that leads to addictive behaviors. Sometimes, a career choice can cause similar challenges that eventually lead to emotional chaos and nightmares. Take for example the response to life-threatening situations police officers often encounter. Or the day-to-day occurrences of human tragedy and suffering witnessed by firefighters and emergency service personnel. Although they thrive on the adrenaline rush and the good feelings when an emergency call has a positive outcome, the opposite effect can result when the call is distressing. Multiple fatalities, the death of a child, or a line of duty death(s) can be unforgettable.

Some emergency responders are able to cope with these experiences. Many, unfortunately, cannot. As each new dangerous or traumatic event occurs, it becomes more difficult to cope with the anxiety, stress, nightmares, or the visions that play over and over again in their mind. They cannot sleep. They have difficulty communicating with others. They become fearful and anxious every time the tones go off announcing another potential stressor to add to their already overloaded mind and spirit.

You would think that turning to a family member, someone from their department, or a mental health professional would be the obvious answer to solving their problems. But… asking for help to cope with their anxiety and stress may not be an option. Why?

  • fear of losing their job
  • fear of being labeled as “unfit” to perform their duties
  • embarrassment – he or she may be viewed as weak
  • self-doubt – they view themselves as less of a professional; unable to “handle” their job
  • they have asked for help before and have been met with opposition or ridicule

To be able to cope with life in general, continue doing their job fairly well, and shut out the demons in the mind, they seek solace in what they believe will be a remedy or an answer to their prayers. Their choice of coping mechanism may include alcohol, addictive drugs, self-mutilation, promiscuous sexual behavior, gambling, or violence against others.

Addiction does not happen overnight but rather over time. For instance, what may begin as a few beers to numb feelings and temporarily block out the horrific scenes that play over and over again in their mind eventually become many beers in the same time period and slowly build into an addiction. They have a strong need to suppress what is painful to remember. They want to erase from their memory all the unpleasantness in their life. Unhealthy habits or addictions become the outlet for overcoming the emotional, mental, and/or physical suffering they have endured or witnessed.

Before too long, they have added another element of struggle to their life. Now they must not only cope with the post-trauma issues, they must also cope with one more demon: the addiction or harmful behavior. This demon has the power to destroy their life and the lives of those they love. Their unhealthy remedy to heal their emotional wounds may become a financial burden in addition to a detriment to their health. In some cases, addiction can result in job loss, long-term disability, incarceration, or even death.

Once someone has acknowledged his or her addiction problem, recovery must follow. Recovery is not easy. It is not a sugar-coated cure for emotional trauma, but rather a lifelong commitment to coping with life – and profession – without the aid of alcohol, chemicals, or other addictive activities. Nonetheless, the benefits from recovery far outweigh the consequences of addiction.

As I stated previously, recovery from an addiction or unhealthy habit is never trouble-free. Case in point: Someone has acknowledged that they have an addiction to alcohol. They have begun their rehabilitation within the safe confines of a treatment facility. During this time, they have undergone the physical withdrawal from alcohol, and are participating in daily one-on-one and group meetings with counselors and other inpatients as well as learning to rebuild relationships with family and friends once their time in treatment ends.

For now, the source of the addiction has been removed from their life. They are living in a “safe” environment. The patient is given advice and resources to help them address and come to terms with the stressors or events in their life that played a major role in the addiction process. As difficult and painful as it may be to talk about their memories and feelings, I believe this is a key factor to recovery. At the conclusion of their in-patient stay, they must return to everyday life and deal with situations that challenge their abstinence.

Remember that his or her addiction is due to an unhealthy choice of coping with emotional trauma which developed over months or years. Staying addiction free is not a simple task. It will be their responsibility to make choices that will help them avoid a relapse. For instance, they realize that certain places of entertainment that they once enjoyed must now be avoided at all costs for their sake. In some cases, it may mean a career change.

A major challenge facing people in recovery within the emergency response community is the recurring stressors and traumatic events that may have contributed to their addiction. It will be very important for them to receive encouragement and support from family members, co-workers, and friends as they re-invest in their new life. I recognize and accept that their choice for an addiction-free life is their responsibility, but no one can do it alone. If someone you love or care about is in need of your help, do not judge him or her by their addiction but rather by the gifts and talents they possess. With your help, their addiction can become a life-altering event of recovery and inner peace.

Copyright Peggy Sweeney. All rights reserved.

PeggyCVFD200X200About the Author: Peggy Sweeney is the founder and president of The Sweeney Alliance, a retired mortician, and a bereavement educator. She has developed and taught countless workshops for coping with grief and trauma including the Grieving Behind the Badge program for emergency response professionals and is the editor of the Grieving Behind the Badge newsletter. She is certified in Bereavement Trauma and Emergency Crisis Response from the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Peggy is a former member of the Comfort (TX) Volunteer Fire Department and a former EMT-B. She is the recipient of the 2014 Firefighter of the Year award by her department. You may contact Peggy at peggy@sweeneyalliance.org