REWIRING HIS EMOTIONAL SELF REWRITING THE STIGMA OF PTSD
September 15, 2016
Bernie Van Tighem has his good days and bad days.
Good days usually involve being outside, or putting in a hard day’s work. Hunting season in Elkford, B.C., where Van Tighem is the fire chief, is just around the corner, so he’ll look forward to getting his tags and breathing the crisp fall air.
Bad days, on the other hand, involve a lot of anger, sadness and general feelings of hopelessness. Like many in the emergency services industry, Van Tighem (younger brother of Jasper’s own fire chief, Greg Van Tighem) suffers from PTSD. Unlike many of his brothers and sisters in the field, however, Van Tighem’s post traumatic stress disorder has not only been diagnosed, but the 54-year-old is actively trying to work through it. He’s done with suppressing his feelings.
“You have to allow yourself to feel,” he says. “You’re going to see horrible things, it’s OK to feel like crap.”
Thirty years ago, Van Tighem wouldn’t allow himself that release. The emotions that boiled up after witnessing horrific accidents and tragedies were promptly stuffed back down. He didn’t think about the incidents he saw, let alone talk about them. Instead, when things became too overwhelming, he’d pack up and leave. Van Tighem went from fire department to fire department, uprooting from Manitoba, to Northwest Territories, to Alberta to B.C. At the time it was under the guise of moving forward in his career. Now he chalks it up to running away.
“I was an escape artist,” he said.
He doesn’t want to hide any longer. Unfortunately, just as he’s making progress with his illness, the B.C. government is doing their own hiding—hiding from what Van Tighem sees as their responsibility to help first responders deal with their sickness. He’s currently embroiled in a legal battle to cover his long-term disability, an exhausting saga which only compounds his mental health challenges.
But Van Tighem is a fighter. He always has been. When he first got into firefighting in his twenties, he knew he’d found his path. He was good at it. It was rewarding. What he didn’t know was that three decades on, the hard-as-nails, send-me-in mentality would take a severe toll. The feelings he pushed away surfaced in unexpected, troubling ways. His family life, his career and his health suffered.
Now he’s trying to enact a cultural shift in the way first responders deal with their emotions. He’s trying to raise awareness that although police officers, firefighters, paramedics and military personnel may be strong, they’re also some of our most vulnerable community members. Last month, Van Tighem was in Jasper to attend the funeral service of Jasper firefighter Ruben Doyle, who lost his battle with mental illness.
“People don’t think it’s acceptable to ask for help,” he said. “They think ‘I can handle this.’”
That’s certainly how Van Tighem was programmed. Now he’s trying to rewire himself. As part of his therapy, Van Tighem is reliving the emotions he suppressed so long ago. That has meant exposing himself to scenes of burnt bodies and suicide attempts (his YouTube search history isn’t for the faint of heart). That has meant revisiting past burials of fallen brothers and sisters. That has meant helping others who are suffering.
In February he wrote a raw and passionate article on the subject of PTSD for FireFighting Canada Magazine. Talking about the positive feedback he received from the piece inevitably chokes him up.