The #Trauma of the Small Town First Responder…

By Safe Call Now Admin Staff

It is no secret that it is hard to be a first responder. What surprises me is the small town mindset that small town first responders shouldn’t have the same trauma as first responders in a large city. Hear me when I say “trauma is trauma.”

Just for the sake of those who don’t understand, let’s discuss small town trauma for a moment. We live in a seemingly safe small town. Our county has about 25,000 and the city is very much “everyone knows everyone.” We rarely make the news.

There is a common misconception that there is low crime here and most people “feel” safe here. The other day while at a church for an event, I heard someone say they raise their children here for the fact that it is so safe. That person went on to say that our last murder here was years ago, and that particular murder was over drugs. The implication was that they were safe because they don’t do drugs. I sat there for several moments in complete unbelief. I am well aware that there was not ONE, but TWO murders in the county two weeks before this person made that statement. How is the public so unaware? The answer is simple, it wasn’t on the “news.” People without a first responder connection simply do not know if it isn’t publicized. I wished in that instant I could go back to being “in the dark” about the behind the scenes horrors of this “safe” small town.

The advantage to people being completely unaware of the crime in their small town is that they feel safe. The disadvantage is that they do not understand why our first responders are suffering with an abundance of PTSD. To the general public, these first responder’s worst calls are car wrecks. They simply do not understand that someone took someone else’s life the night before over something so simple as a can of beer and they didn’t hear about it. Yet, it happens more than they would imagine. An entire life gone…..for what……a can of beer.

Small town first responders have another factor to deal with. As I said before, trauma is trauma. We are not saying small town first responders have it worse by any means….not even a little. Large city first responders have things they deal with that small town first responders simply do not deal with on the same scale. However, small town first responders have a disadvantage to knowing most, if not all, of their victims of rape, murder, child abuse, sexual assault, etc. Any first responder who investigates or answers the call of child sexual abuse is going to have some trauma from that. For us, in our small town, we usually know the victims, whether it is from being in our Sunday School class to being in our children’s classes at school. When people in church talk about what a safe town it is, and you sit there knowing you just interviewed two kids from the Sunday School class last month because their big brother or their uncle has been raping them for months, it is an indescribable gut punch. We no longer have that “safety net” of small town feel. Often, we still have to look at the perpetrators out in the community while the wheels of justice are slowly turning. We take our kids to the small town events seeing these people knowing the evil acts they committed. All the while, we hear what a safe town we live in.

When our first responders begin to break, we hear the snide comments and remarks that our first responders would never make it in “the big city” where they have the real crime. We hear the comments that we are weak because we can’t handle the car wrecks and simple traumas of our small town. Some days, I just want to lose it on them and burst their little bubble of safety. But I live with those demons….the demons of living with what I know in this small town, and sadly, I wouldn’t wish those images on anyone. When little Sally told her interviewer how she was raped anally repeatedly (that’s a sugar coated version of how she described it because little “Sally” doesn’t know the proper verbiage) and you see her on Sunday at church, you have to pretend you know nothing as you give out the goldfish crackers at snack time and smile to her parents at pick up. It is not only traumatizing at that interview and during the investigation, but you replay that interview every Sunday morning as she comes into class to learn about the love of the Lord. It haunts you.

Those car wrecks the community says we should be able to handle. When they hear about them, they hear someone died in a car wreck. When we arrive, we find our own friends and family in a car not knowing if they will make it. Some of them, we don’t even recognize at first because their cars and faces are so mangled. When we are able to get identification, we are horrified because we realize we just saw them the day before and shared stories at our kid’s baseball game. We realize we will never get the image of “Billy’s dad’s brains” out of our mind, and we will have flashbacks at every baseball game when we look at Billy up to bat. We will also feel guilty that little Billy doesn’t have his dad there. We feel guilty because it was our job to save him. We couldn’t do that. He will forever not have his dad there. We will be haunted by the last image of him cheering for Billy at the game before we saw his brain matter and couldn’t recognize him in the blood and horror of it all. The community was spared that image. We were not.

When we need help because we don’t know how to cope, we don’t dare say a word. How can we possibly ask for help for trauma in a community that is “safe” and doesn’t have “crime?” We know what will be said about us. We drink to hide the images we can’t unsee. We don’t dare ask for help for that either. We know we will be labeled the “cop who couldn’t handle the job.” We don’t want those people judging us who have no idea what we see. We don’t even want our peers to know. They seem like they handle it ok. There must be something wrong with me if they can handle it. What we don’t see is their home and family life falling apart because they are NOT handling it any better than we are. We hear they got a divorce. We don’t see it was because they were disconnecting from their family or their drinking and anger became too much for their spouse because they can’t cope with the trauma either. Instead, we look the other way. We don’t talk about it.

One thing I know now that I didn’t know before needing help for my trauma. It doesn’t matter if you are in a small town or a big city, trauma is trauma. When you sit in a room with first responders from all over the country, big cities and small towns, we all have the same trauma. We all have the same behaviors from our trauma. Not one of us judged each other on the “amount” of trauma we had or whose was worse. We all have the same issue……trauma.  We all struggle in the same ways. Our families are all suffering as a result. We connected to each other. There was no hiding our pain. There was no pretending it didn’t exist. There was understanding amongst us. There was real and raw pain from the things we have seen and heard. There was healing. If only we could be open and honest about this at our departments.

If there was anything I could change in this world, it would be less judgement and more understanding. Less judgement for those who deal with things that others who do not work in it will never understand. Less judgement amongst ourselves and more openness. Our suicide epidemic will not stop until we toss our pride. Until we can look at each other and say, “It’s ok to not be ok.” It is ok to hit the point where we need to go and sit in a room full of other struggling first responders and learn the coping skills we weren’t taught when we were hired. It’s ok to be human.

If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:

Safe Call Now:  24 Hour Confidential Hotline:  206-459-3020

For more information on the First Responders program:  Click here

Or call Shannon Clairemont at 661-466-6352 or Vanessa Stapleton at 304-651-3008