Family of a Peacekeeper
Sean DeVarennes, CSCS*D, Sports Performance Coach
“Sean has been a strength and conditioning specialist for many sports, mainly hockey. He works full time with Amherst Ramblers and Acadie Bathurst Titan. Apart from this, Sean has a strong passion to write blogs on the Emotional Fitness Academy site that can potentially help those who have been in his shoes and first responders through his experiences and knowledge in exercise science and medicine.”
My name is Sean DeVarennes, I am the son of the recent author of Invisible Wounds, Normand Devarennes. Some of you that have been following the emotional Fitness Academy Podcasts may have seen one of the latest ones dealing with family members of first responders that included my mother and I. If you have been listening to the podcasts consistently, you will know that my father has suffered through some of the worst PTSD, especially in his years in Richibucto, New Brunswick. During this part of his career is what essentially were my years as a child and adolescent.
I remember a question that Rick Vaillancourt had asked during our interview that made me really ponder about my experiences growing up in a household with a first responder fighting with PTSD. Rick had asked “Sean, was there anyone you could talk to that was in a similar setting that you were in?” (He mainly referred to a friend that was closely related to my age that had a family member as a first responder). To my surprise, I did not. My only connection I can firmly remember as of now is my fiancé’s sister who works as a crime analyst in the Frederick County Police department (Maryland, USA) who also had her father serve in the US military. This connection was made in my early twenties, and I am only 27 today.
After discussing this topic with my father and Darren, I realized that this blog can serve as an open opportunity to connect and relate with anyone either currently or have previously gone through a similar situation that I went through. I emphasize similar because at the end of
the day, the interactions we may have with our first responder family member will always be unique due to the type of stressors, job environment, experiences in their career etc. that the first responder is experiencing. I hope that by the end of reading this blog I can help the reader make better decisions in how to respond in certain situations when PTSD is taking effect, or simply provide a connection to talk about anything regarding the situation.
I want to provide the reader with 3 simple rules of thumb that I implemented as a kid to help me register certain things I did not understand about my father. As I refer to myself as the kid, please know that these rules ALSO pertain to spouses. Age and role in the family should not
be a factor in understanding the effects of what PTSD has on a person.
Rule #1 Do not play the blame game. Let’s face it, during the teen years and especially childhood years there is a lot we are trying to figure out for ourselves. It is absolutely no easy task to try and grasp why one of our family members may start behaving in different manners that we are used to seeing, whether in public or in a family setting at home. PTSD can alter the rational behavior of a first responder. The worst thing you can do as a kid, teen or spouse is play the blame game – either on yourself asking questions such as, “ is there something wrong with me? Does my dad/mom not love me anymore?” or on the first responder themselves. “How could you act this way? Why did you lash out at me this way?”.
It is easy to throw around the negative emotions we encounter when things are not going well. Take a breath, step back, and realize what the root of the situation is. Easier said than done, yes, but understand that by playing this game you are not going to get anywhere in resolving the issue.. If you have been reading up on what the Emotional Fitness Academy is doing, you know that first responders experience some of the world’s worst traumatic events. Compared to the average citizen, there are some things we can not fully comprehend or even begin to process, like the emotional scars one gets while experiencing events such as seeing a dead body, killing by self-defense, walking in to inspect a suicide when the person that died is still hanging from a rope or worse… the head blown off. Telling a worrying mother that her child has died today from a tragic car accident. These are just to name a few, but you get the point. I am not saying an average person may not experience any of these, however it is a rarity among us non-first responders.
In an article published in 2015 from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, they performed a study establishing a questionnaire for police officers in describing types of traumatic events that may or may not have direct correlations with symptoms of PTSD among men and women. This article has many implications (I will reference the article at the bottom of this blog) but a certain criteria described that at least half of U.S. citizens are exposed to one traumatic event in their lifetime. A U.S. police officer on average may experience 3.5 traumatic events in a span of 6 months (3.5 was the standard deviation/average of the pool of participants). To put a number on this, 710 police officers volunteered in this cross-sectional study in which only about 60% completed the full clinical examination (approximately 431).
While police officers were the main subjects of this article, we can appreciate that many first responders will suffer higher volumes of events. These events are constantly dealing with life or death. Again, when things are not going well or you may not understand what your family
member is going through… keep in mind, their level of stress is high, and may be very, very inconsistent.
Rule #2 Learn to Listen. This may sound simple, but the impact is of paramount significance. Those who experience PTSD do not typically open up to family members about their direct issues or events experienced. Most of the time, you may see them either isolate themselves from their family socially or getting together with other co-workers and expressing ‘dark humor’ or stories on the job they can relate to. This is very, very hard to swallow as a family member because the one thing you want to do is be able to relate to them as much as you can in order to support them. But we must accept that we cannot do this. I always compare this lightly to what we experience when we are on a sports team. I grew up with hockey, and many events that occurred with my teammates (practices, training, games, social events). We tend to relate mainly amongst ourselves and not so much with people outside our group. It’s not that we do not want to include others among us (most of the time we can really) but it is easier to talk about it amongst colleagues. This is especially true with first responders. The difference is, again, they deal with extremely high stress and traumatic events.
When a first responder opens up to you, listen. Do not interject, and especially do not try your best to relate to them. I know it sounds a bit harsh to say this, but by doing this we are simply creating a bigger void in the relationship. If they express something to you that is a deep issue, that is a massive sign of the process of healing for them. You must lend them your ear and support them this way. I could not count how many times I wanted to relate to my dad because I cared deeply in helping him get better mentally. The times I tried to interject or create a relation with my father’s stories or venting, he immediately shuts down. In their minds, they will continue to confirm that we do not possess the capacity to understand what they go through and isolate. That’s the last thing we want to do. As a young kid, it’s hard to just listen especially if you’re in your teens and have ‘opinions on everything’. Create the habit, and create the skill. You will be amazed about how much more open your family member expresses their feelings and thoughts with you afterwards.
Rule #3 Be open minded and Research. By this I simply mean, go out and learn more about what is happening at the very root of why PTSD causes a negative impact on mental, emotional and physical well-being of the first responder. This goes beyond just knowing what PTSD can affect, but simply the job they have to do.
Today I am now a Sports Performance Specialist for mainly hockey players. We apply much science into the work we do with athletes – we monitor, collect data, interpret it to performance results, coaching and training them. One aspect of the job I review constantly is the recovery of my athletes. There is a term in our industry when we witness decrements in performance, behavior, and motivation. This can be called overreaching, or overtraining. Overreaching is just starting to notice the red flags of performance decrements – the athlete may not be completing lifts with the intensity he/she is expected to produce, or making more mistakes than usual on the field/ice. Overtraining refers to essentially the ‘burn out’ phase in which the athlete seems unmotivated, fatigued, frustrated or easily irritated, can not focus, can not sleep or recover properly. When this happens ,which can happen in a span of a season/year if we are not careful about their training program, practice schedules etc, we see a transition in the body where it can no longer switch on and off between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system. The parasympathetic nervous symptom allows our body to enter a more calm and composed state, and aids in recovery. The sympathetic is our ‘fight or flight’ mode that increases adrenaline and stress responses to situations. When the latter happens, athletes will have problems sleeping. This is huge, as sleep is the main recovery driver ,along with nutrition and hydration, to help with recovery of the body and mind. If the athlete or coach does not take this seriously in time, it can lead to the athlete quitting the sport, induce anxiety problems and even depression.
Now the reason behind why I bring this up is to show an enhanced comparison in what happens to first responders in their careers. If we take police officers for example, with changes in day shifts to night shifts, we are already creating a deficiency in their pattern of sleep. In further relating to traumatic events, these events will no doubt stimulate the body to enter a sympathetic mode. If you have ever experienced anything that made you shake or feel nauseous after the event, take this and quantify it by 3.5 times every 6 months. Fast forward this to 20 years in the service without ever improving on sleep patterns and recovery. Although I realize not every first responder goes through this because it is very situational depending on many factors, like years of service, but this should bring awareness that not only do they deal with immense PTSD symptoms, but they can not simply ‘shut it off’ at any moment’s notice. That would be like telling a deer to shut off their defense mechanism of running away when a pack of wolves approach it. Sleep deprivation and depression are a few among many things to be aware of when we want to learn more about the impact of first responder’s jobs. Whether we are a teenager or adult/spouse in the family, we need to explore what the research and studies tell us. Psychology, physiology, and biology can give us the tools to help communicate and accurately assess what people who suffer PTSD go through beyond traumatic events, so I highly implore you to do your part.
I stuck with these three rules throughout my lifetime and they have helped me not only retain a healthy and happy relationship with my father, but especially the retention of my mental health. As much as PTSD can burden our peacekeeping members of the family, it can also affect us if we do not care to understand what facilitates the changes in their behavior and emotions.
I hope this can provide some value to any who read this. This is only one blog, and I do not expect to solve all the problems but hopefully it creates a baseline for you. If you ever want to ask questions to dive deeper into the context of PTSD, how to be a supporter, or simply want
to talk to me about anything about your situation my door will always be open.
Hartley, T. A., Violanti, J. M., Sarkisian, K., Andrew, M. E., & Burchfiel, C. M. (2013). PTSD symptoms among police officers: associations with frequency, recency, and types of traumatic events. International journal of emergency mental health, 1 5( 4), 241–253.