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Playing with Fire: Trauma and Addiction After Being on the Job

It’s the third time this week you’ve been called to deal with an overdose. The last two pulled through, but it looks like this one won’t even make it into the ambulance.

You don’t understand why anyone would ever start using heroin. You’ve seen too many families devastated as you wheel their loved ones away—unsure if they’ll ever see them alive again. How would your spouse, father or mother react if they found you lying there unresponsive?

Your partner seems numb to all this. He’s been at it for years. Maybe you get used to it?

He could be self-medicating—popping a painkiller at the end of the shift to dull the pain and heartache of all the trauma that’s piled up over the years on the job. The situation is all too common among first responders.

Unfortunately, that relief is only temporary. Drugs and alcohol can’t keep the repressed trauma at bay forever. In fact, he could be entering a self-destructive cycle where that trauma and addiction fuel one another until he’s the one taking a ride in the ambulance…or worse.

It Could Never Happen to Me

When you encounter people struggling with addiction on a near-daily basis, it can become easy to overlook your own trouble areas. After all, you’re not shooting up after a long day on the job. You’re just having a few drinks to relax with the squad.

It’s important to remember that addiction is not a choice someone makes. It’s a complicated disease with a variety of contributing elements, including environmental factors like traumatic experiences.

First responders experience a number of risk factors for addiction more often and more harshly than other people, including:

  • Peer pressure. Your colleagues may make you feel pressured to drink and have a good time after work. A few drinks can quickly turn into a binge with serious consequences, and can become a regular activity needed to help you feel normal.
  • Ease of access. Such easy access to drugs removes an obstacle that’s often present for the general population. Painkillers originally prescribed for injuries on the job can develop into addiction, and EMTs might be tempted to abuse their access to various medications.
  • Social norms. While we’re beginning to see a culture shift in how people talk about addiction and mental health, there are still social norms that might prevent you from discussing troubling emotions or situations—things you encounter often on the job. Fears of looking weak or like you can’t cut it might cause you to bottle up your challenges.

Trauma, PTSD and Addiction Are a Potent Cocktail

When you don’t deal with the stress and trauma of the job in a healthy manner, negative coping mechanisms may develop. That temporary rush of dopamine and adrenaline can make you forget about the things you’ve witnessed in the field for a moment, but it doesn’t last.

As the drugs leave your system, your body struggles to find balance, and you feel even worse than before. This can lead to an escalating pattern of substance abuse and emotional and even physical pain.

You’re Not Alone

You might feel too embarrassed to seek help. You don’t want your team to think you’re weak, so you hide the problem. However, chances are, someone close to you is probably going through similar struggles.

  • Nearly a third of firefighters are estimated to have dependence issues with alcohol.
  • Police officers show increased risk of alcoholism the longer they’re on the force, and a quarter of them report issues with a co-worker’s substance abuse.
  • More than a fifth of EMTs struggle with PTSD, and nearly half abuse alcohol or other drugs.

Do You Need Rescuing from Trauma and Addiction?

When someone is suffering with a combination of conditions like stress, anxiety or PTSD along with addiction, it’s commonly referred to as a co-occurring disorder. Treating only one often leaves you vulnerable to the other, which increases your risk of relapse.

At Cycles of Change, we provide customized treatment plans that help first responders heal from both conditions at the same time. This dual diagnosis approach can lead to better outcomes and lower rates of relapse.

Our compassionate staff has years of experience dealing with the unique needs of EMTs, police officers, firefighters and other first responders. You don’t have to face this battle alone. Contact us today for a confidential conversation about how we can help.



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