by Ross Beckley
TRIGGER WARNING – some readers may find this disturbing
You don’t know me. Yet I stood by you through one of the most horrific times of your life. I stood in the freezing cold all night surrounded by a public screen to ensure no-one else had to see the carnage. I heard the screams of a mother as she arrived and was told she would never see her child alive again. Screams of unimaginable grief and disbelief that continue to echo in my dreams. I spent 8 hours making small talk while my crew and I patiently waited for investigations to take place. I kept everyone calm, organized crews, shared information with other first responders, helped the guy who came to pick up the bodies and the towie who removed the cars.
You don’t know me. You are my friend, my cousin, my aunt.
You know I was an emergency service worker for 20 years, responding to incidents involving strangers in their time of need. You know I was on call in excess of 100 hours a week as a retained firefighter, always on alert in case the call for help came through. You know I placed my job before my family, before my social times and before my business. As the years went on, I became more and more concerned about being the reliable one, the one to put his hand up to help. After all, crews were always short. Someone had to put their hand up. But you don’t know what toll this commitment was taking on my relationship, my business and my sanity.
You don’t know me.
Yet I photographed you at times that were special for you. You are most likely a musician. You praised me on my work, said I captured the moment perfectly, were amazed at my ability to connect with my subjects. There were times I didn’t see you performing through the lens. What I saw was a flow of images from the incidents I’d attended in graphic detail. I’d have to put the camera down, walk away and hope my partner could catch what I missed. I started being late for appointments. The fear of visions in the lens started to make my camera an enemy. The business was booming, we were in demand and had even organized a successful acoustic music competition. One evening I just couldn’t put on the mask of humour and strength. My partner handled it by herself, consistently texting me, trying to inspire reason. But reason had left. All that was left was hopelessness. My business, the one I had worked so hard to build with my partner, the one that had given me so much joy – had been infiltrated in the same way my nights had been robbed of sleep.
You don’t know me. Yet you view my posts on Facebook every day.
I’ve dug skull fragments from a telegraph pole, I’ve seen bodies incinerated, I’ve opened doors to premises with the stench of death from a suicide victim, I’ve seen my workmates stand in disbelief with tears rolling down their faces. I’ve washed roadways of blood and witnessed horrors that most of you would only see in movies. Imagine those movies replaying the most horrific scenes at night when you’re trying to rest. Imagine not being able to find the “stop” button to cease the endless imagery of carnage, injury, death. Fifty incidents intertwined into one long endless film set on loop.
You don’t know me. Yet you worked beside me at many incidents.
My home has scars on the walls from misdirected anger outbursts. My partner and my children saw me switch from rage to inconsolable tears. They tried in vain to understand, to support, to find help. Many nights I woke up in my partner’s arms sobbing after nightmares invaded my sleep. I would leave my partner for days and weeks at a time, triggered by a news story, another incident or politics at the station. You never saw any of this frustration, heartache and confusion.
My partner spoke to a few of you about the changes in my behaviour. I had such a good mask, you dismissed her concerns as relationship issues and felt you should avoid being involved. Even when you found me sleeping in my car at the station, one of you reported me to management. I’ll never know if that was a kind gesture or a bureaucratic one. Management responded by telling me to move elsewhere. No offer of help. No questioning around the reasons I was living in my car.
I was convinced no one cared. Life was no longer worth living. In my mind, I had left my family in ruins, destroyed my business and would spend the rest of my life with unpredictable gruesome images invading my mind, switching my moods and losing my focus. Yet all you could see was someone who was their usual jovial, competent self, performing his duties professionally as always. If you had observed a little more, you would have noticed I was often frustrated and short fused. I was at the station all the time. I was no longer focussing on my business. The clues were there.
Two of you asked me if I was okay. Two of you offered me a place to stay. Two people out of the 18 I regularly worked with. I didn’t divulge everything that was going on because I was embarrassed. I’d been diagnosed with PTSD but no-one seemed to know what that meant. Best to avoid talking about it.
You DO know me. You saw the worst side of me. Yet you believed I could heal.
How do I explain to you and my children that I never meant to put you through such torment? I tested our relationship in every way conceivable. Yet you found the love and strength to hold on to the belief that I would eventually find the right help, even when I had given up all hope.
How do I thank you as my doctor and psychologist for giving me light at the end of the tunnel, instead of a deep black hole? For including my partner in the recovery process, giving her the support she never had and ensuring our whole family heals.
I didn’t know me.
It took me a long time to realize that talking about my issues is a sign of strength. Nowadays I refuse to subscribe to the “toughen up” mentality and one of my passions is to encourage others to talk openly about their feelings.
My life will never be the same. My lifestyle, and that of my family had to change if I was to heal. I learnt that my brain could only take so much. “How much” depends on each individual.
I’ve lost a lot yet I consider myself one of the lucky ones – my family is still intact and I am slowly rebuilding a life that has meaning and hope. Many have lost significant relationships with loved ones, some will never cope with normal day-to-day life, some have taken their own lives.
I still have nightmares and flashbacks. But I’ve learnt techniques to deal with them. I’ve recognized my triggers and I have to watch my stress levels on a daily basis. I can no longer read newspapers or watch movies with graphic scenes of death or destruction. I’m mindful of any stories on the internet involving serious incidents or injuries to others. My photography business is gone, but the photos I took before all this started live on. I’m starting to pick up the camera again, on the odd occasion when there’s no pressure involved. I will never regain my business, but I hope to at least regain some of the pleasures I used to experience with my camera. I’ve left the brigade, knowing that to continue on the front line would mean further damage to my mental health. Financial stress is a burden, but hopefully one day as my recovery journey continues, that will change.
You don’t know me. But maybe you’ll understand.
Life is not, and never will be “easy” again. If only I had heeded the warning signs in the early stages. If only I had listened to my partner in the early stages. If only I’d been able to connect with other first responders going through the same problems. If only the avenues of support had been made clearer to me. If only I’d dropped the “toughen up” mask. If only I had met the right doctor and the right psychologist three years prior to the time I finally did. If only someone had listened to my partner when she expressed her concerns. If only the public understood that the person in the uniform, the person that appears to handle all the mayhem so well is not a robot.
Today, I know me – and I will tell you who I am.
No more mask. So that one day, someone reading this may gather the courage to turn to a friend and say” I’m NOT OK”. And others reading this will understand.
We’re all human.
About the Author: Ross Beckley was a firefighter with Fire and Rescue NSW (New South Wales, Australia) for 21 years, where he served as a Deputy Captain for 17 years and an Instructor for 16 years.
Ross was awarded two Meritorious Service Commendations for incidents he attended. He has attended in excess of 50 fatalities and was diagnosed with PTSD in 2009. He battled to stay on the job until September of 2014, when he was medically retired due to an on-duty injury being PTSD.
In 2013, Ross started a program called BEHIND THE SEEN in Australia to teach crews about the signs and symptoms of incident stress, etc. To date most organizations run reactive programs in Australia, but there are very few proactive programs, which is what he does.