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'I thought I'd either die or retire': For first responders with PTSD, there's no easy fix
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A Forsyth County firefighter climbs a ladder during a structure fire. - photo by Ben Hendren

The life of former Forsyth County Firefighter Matthew Jones is almost unrecognizable from what it was just 10 years ago.

Until the summer of 2012, a long career as a firefighter was all Jones could imagine. But all that was dashed after Jones’ crew responded to the scene of a drowning 6-year-old boy and ultimately failed to save him. 

“It’s very different, losing my life, or what I thought was my life,” Jones said, leaning back in his chair and studying the ceiling. “I thought I was always going to be a fireman. I thought I’d either die or retire.” 

THE WEIGHT OF RESPONDING

This multi-part series examines how post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, affects local first responders, to tell their stories and see how they cope with a problem that’s just now being truly uncovered.

The FCN followed former Forsyth County Firefighter Matthew Jones through his career and downfall, examining the different pieces that makeup PTSD at the local level.

This week concludes Jones’ story and examines what Georgia experts say about getting help for post-traumatic stress.

Part 1 — https://www.forsythnews.com/local/he-just-never-came-back-first-responders-commit-serve-their-community-job-can-take-psychological-toll

Part 2 — https://www.forsythnews.com/local/hoped-it-would-go-away-procedures-still-evolving-to-help-first-responders-process-traumatic-events-on-the-job/

Part 3 — https://www.forsythnews.com/local/it-didnt-make-any-difference-first-responders-with-ptsd-navigate-a-complicated-path-to-get-help/

GETTING HELP

If you or a loved one is in crisis and don’t know where to go, authorities suggest the 24/7 Georgia Crisis and Access Line which is available 365 days a year for Mental Health, intellectual/developmental disability and/or substance use crisis.

Georgia Crisis and Access Line — 1-800-715-4225 — www.georgiacollaborative.com/providers/georgia-crisis-and-access-line-gcal.

Once a valuable and decorated firefighter, in the months after the drowning, Jones slipped farther and farther into the depths of his yet undiagnosed PTSD, or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and alcoholism. But in November of 2012 after months of struggling, drinking and confusion, Jones received a diagnosis of PTSD from his doctor and never returned to service.

“Everything she read to me ... it was just like, ‘Jesus, what else can it be,’” he said. “The emotions, the reliving ... the crying for no reason, the insomnia, the nightmares, my blood pressure was through the roof all the time. It just fit.” 

‘I was still hiding’

At the urging of his mom, Sharon Jones, Matthew immediately started seeing doctors for his problems, aggressively attacking his problems trying to get back to a normal place. But according to Jones, simply going to see a doctor didn’t solve his problems; in fact, it was just the beginning of a long battle.

“The psychologists helped more than anything,” he said. “But I still had to have the ability to talk, and at the beginning, I didn’t. I was still hiding, I was lying to them.”

Jones said that even when he didn’t hide what was truly happening from the doctors, it didn’t make a difference. They just wrote him a new prescription and sent him on his way.

“I was almost catatonic all the time,” he said. “I had no emotions, I didn’t smile, didn’t cry. It was just a flatline.”

He added: “If it was a side effect listed on the jar, I got it.”

Sharon Jones said that on top of her son’s drinking, many of the medications would make him do strange things, like fall unconscious randomly and unpredictably. 

“He was walking across the backyard and fell flat on his face,” Sharon Jones said. “And his daughter said, ‘I guess dad’s taking a nap in the yard.’ We couldn't get him up.”

Eventually, Jones made a personal decision that he was done with pills and that was that.

The harsh reality is there is no cure for PTSD.

Experts agree that it’s not something that can be solved or fixed, rather it is a reality that can be managed, coped with, given the right support system through a combination of therapy, medicine and professional help.

According to Dr. Nancy Wesselink, founder of One Source Counseling and Employee Assistance Services, a 25-year veteran in the field of public safety critical incident stress management, there is no one right way to get treatment for PTSD.

Instead, Wesselink said there are a number of different treatment methods that are known to mitigate symptoms more successfully.

But before any treatment can start, she said those suffering must know they need it.

“It’s mainly just knowing that you need to address it and finding the best way to do that,” she said. “But people do get better. They get better and are usually able to resume their full duties in as good of shape as possible.”

Wesselink also said catching post-traumatic stress in its early stages makes a huge difference on the personnel that she has seen. She tries as hard as possible to sell jurisdictions on having a modern Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) protocol in place before they need it.

“Unfortunately, it’s more likely you are going to need it than not,” she said.

For law enforcement and public safety jurisdictions, Wesselink and her company will tailor a CISM protocol specifically for their needs, whether it be some sort of telemedicine, available to first responders via phone or video chat, or a full-court press of staff training, consultations and direct help in the face of critical incidents.

Wesselink said that one resource that anyone in crisis can use, seven days a week and 365 days a year, is the Georgia Crisis and Access Line (GCAL). Which provides telephonic crisis intervention and a number of different crisis services for developmental disabilities, mental health, drugs or alcohol problems.

‘Don’t let this happen again’

For the first couple of years after leaving the fire department, Jones said that he went through dozens of local doctors trying to find some combination of medication, therapy and price point that could address his problems and was realistic for his budget.

“It's a matter of money,” he said. “I mean, if you’ve got nothing, nobody’s going to talk to you for free.”

When he could afford to go to doctors, Jones had to force himself from lying to his doctors, telling them that things were OK when they weren’t and hiding what was actually happening to him.

“It was definitely not OK,” he said.

Jones said that one unintended consequence of getting out of Forsyth County after his PTSD diagnosis was that he didn’t have to see all the places and roads where he and his teammates worked such horrible wrecks and fires.

Like several other former Forsyth County firefighters who spoke to the FCN, Jones said that there is a part of him that is glad he’s no longer on call anymore and blissfully ignorant of the terrible things.

But beyond that small comfort, Jones said that every time he sees a fire engine, a small inescapable part of his childish wonder and excitement is sparked.

Today, Jones says he has stopped hiding. Doctors, parents, friends and strangers on the street, Jones is completely honest with everyone about his problems. 

And according to both Jones and his mom, things are looking up. Jones has a job at a home inspection company and a goal of getting into the world of insurance adjusting.

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From left, Matthew, Sharon and Floyd Jones post for a picture at their home. Matthew Jones, a former Forsyth County firefighter, was diagnosed with PTSD in 2012 and has spent the intervening years rebuilding his life. (Photo courtesy Matthew Jones)

He said that he just had to come to terms with the fact that his life is different now.

There are good days and bad days for Jones’ PTSD, and he sees someone for them when he needs an appointment. But overall, Jones said that he has been able to weather the storms in his own way when they come, retreating into nature and solitude, and never hesitating when talking about his problems. 

“I go right for it,” he said with a laugh. “And for me, that’s been the best thing.”

He said that even when it’s embarrassing to talk about his problems with dates or friends, it’s better than hiding because this is who he is. 

But after all these years, both Jones and his mom have held onto the idea that they were wronged in the series of events that resulted in Jones leaving the Forsyth County Fire Department.

Both believe that Jones was misled by the county on several occasions on what the procedure was concerning mental disorders, stating that the hoops that he allegedly had to leap through to receive treatment were more complex than a person with a mental disorder could realistically handle on their own.

Sharon Jones said that as a reminder of what her son went through, she regularly emails Forsyth County human resource officials articles about PTSD and how they affect first responders, particularly in regards to suicide.

Through Forsyth County Attorney Ken Jarrard, Forsyth County declined to comment on the minutia of county and fire department policy in regards to PTSD.

Instead, a county spokesperson stated that employees have access to a comprehensive benefits package that includes an Employee Assistance Program which provides “confidential professional assistance for any type of personal or work-related problem including emotional or family distress, alcoholism, drug abuse, financial difficulties or legal problems.”

To Jones this answer is just an avoidance of the problem at the heart of the issue; you can’t get help from a program you don’t know how to navigate. He said that even if the county took the smallest part of the responsibility for what happened it would make things better in their eyes.

“If they put their hands up in the air and said, ‘I [messed] up ... I’m sorry things worked out the way they did ... We will make changes to make sure that this doesn’t happen anymore.’ Then such an amount of ease would wash over me,” he said.

Jones said that if he could address the county administration directly, the only thing he would tell them is, “Don’t let this happen again.”