Battalion Chief: PTSD Trauma Retreat ‘Helped Give Me My Life Back’

After 26 years in the fire service, including nine as a battalion chief, Shawna reached a tipping point. The trauma of callouts, the long hours during California’s fierce fire season and the bureaucracy that comes with work in public safety combined to alter her outlook.  

“It just started weighing on me to the point that I couldn't even get out of my car when we went to an incident,” she said. “I would sit in my truck, and I just couldn't physically get myself to get out. I didn't have the energy to have another person come up to me and say they need help.” 

Shawna was experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the symptoms had spread far beyond work. She described being angry and agitated—“adrenalized” is the word she uses—making her emotionally unavailable and straining relations with her two teenage children. She was not sleeping. She began drinking more. The physical stress on her body was so intense that Shawna thought she had arthritis.

“I felt like I was driving and it was raining so hard that the wipers could barely get the rain off the window,” she said. “So you can’t see the road ahead of you.”

Helping Those With PTSD—and Getting Help Herself

Help came in an unusual way. Over her years as a chief, Shawna sent dozens of colleagues to seek treatment for PTSD. In that role, she was encouraged to tour the programs used by her department. That’s how she came to visit The 11th Hour Trauma Retreat, a nonprofit that offers intensive therapy to first responders and military personnel suffering from PTSD and other trauma.

Do you know a friend, family member or co-worker struggling with job-related trauma?

Shawna signed on to visit a PTSD retreat designed specifically to address PTSD experienced by firefighters, police, dispatchers and other first responders. Clients are taken care of from the time they arrive, allowing them to focus on the hard work of recovery. Food, accommodations and transportation are handled. Every participant receives a custom therapy plan and is paired with a licensed counselor.

The experience was so influential that Shawna actually returned for a second retreat months later, this time with a mission to work solely on her own issues with PTSD.

“Going to 11th Hour was a big part of helping me put the puzzle pieces together and connecting the dots so that I could understand what's going on,” Shawna said. “A lot of times, when you get to that point, you just don't even know where the root of the fire is.”

The Value of EMDR

Rachael Starr, founder of The 11th Hour, says that trauma is often cumulative for veteran first responders like Shawna. It’s a common sight at 11th Hour, which has helped more than 1,500 first responders recover in seven years of operation.

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“First responders deal with trauma on multiple levels,” Starr said. “There is trauma associated with the calls each day. There’s trauma in the long hours and unpredictable schedule. There’s also trauma inherent in working for a large public agency. Those doing it for years often get a compounding effect that can be difficult to understand without professional help.”   

Shawna participated in a week of intensive therapy with a licensed professional. She also received Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy, or EMDR, a well-established technique that helps people better process and then transcend traumatic events.

Shawna explained that EMDR helped her recall and work through traumatic events without having a physical reaction. “EMDR is very effective,” she said. “It's just a memory after you've done with EMDR. Before that, it's a memory tied to a physical response. EMDR clears that up.”

Today, Shawna says her life is far different. She left the fire service for a job that has stable hours and fewer crises. She is well aware of triggers and practices coping mechanisms. Her relationship with her children has improved, and she has reconnected with longtime friends who had disappeared from her life. “They joke that it was like I died and then came back,” she says, laughing.

“What 11th Hour did was it helped give me my life back—I got me back,” Shawna said. “I'm very, very happy with where I'm at emotionally and mentally. 

Shawna credits Starr and the team at 11th Hour for giving her the tools. “When you leave there, you have that clarity,” she said. “You can see that journey down the road. It's no longer raining.”

The 11th Hour Trauma Retreat serves first responders and military personnel on a referral basis, working with therapists, doctors, police departments, fire departments and other public agencies to provide people with the care they need. To learn more about our program, or to refer someone, call (772) 837-5988 or email rstarrmsw@gmail.com. Let’s talk.


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