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PTSD: Ray of light in dark times
For years, Ray Carman had a hellish showreel running through his head featuring the graphic lowlights of his life as a Horsham Fire Brigade member and tow truck driver. The images of death and destruction were often on high rotation in the early hours of the morning as he lay awake.
At 18 years of age, Ray was the youngest person ever to be issued with a tow truck licence in Victoria and he’d attend accidents on his ‘P’ plates. It was the natural move for someone who’d grown up with wrecked cars in the driveway at home. This was also the year he joined the fire brigade.
His first call out with the tow truck was for three fatalities in the days before SES when tow trucks drivers turned up to an accident with a crow bar and an axe.
The second particular horror was the death of his parents’ next-door-neighbour in a house fire. Ray’s mother called in the emergency and the incident had her address listed.
“You have no idea what you’re turning up to,” said Ray. “It’s the randomness of it. Sometimes people survive incredible crashes and other times you wonder how someone died in such a slight accident.”
Ray married Debbie and, when the phone rang in the middle of the night “she often didn’t even know I’d gone. When I went to a fatal, though, I’d find her waiting in the kitchen. We’d have a coffee and a talk then go back to bed. She had a sixth sense whenever it was a fatality. She can’t explain it but it really increased our bond.
“There was no peer support then and we used to make light of a lot of incidents on the scene. It was part of the comradeship between all the emergency services. A dark sense of humour was a method of coping.”
In 2001, one of Ray’s tow trucks was involved in a head-on with a car that had drifted across the median strip and two people were killed.
“Our driver called me,” said Ray. “The hardest thing I’ve ever had to put up with was listening to my son say, ‘Why is Dad crying’.”
But here is where one of Ray’s strengths asserted itself: he asked for help. Ray called District 17 and, by that evening, a peer was talking to Ray, his two tow truck drivers and the three wives.
And so Ray’s story is also the charting of the expansion of CFA’s peer support program and its brilliant effectiveness. He’s seen the huge distance we’ve come in caring for our members and can declare that “peer support is the best member, family and associates support system in the emergency services.”
By 2010, the road toll was taking a heavy toll on Ray’s wellbeing. He was living out the effects of mental illness, going for drives in the middle of the night thinking that life wasn’t worth living, but he was having none of that sort of “nonsense talk.
“I really believed there was no such thing as mental illness,” he confessed. “It was just a weak person seeking attention.”
Even collapsing on the kitchen floor one Christmas Day and being admitted to hospital didn’t change that rigid view on mental distress. There was a chink of light in that grim time, however, as another one of Ray’s strengths asserted itself: he can talk.
Debbie rang CFA and peer Max Maher, a member or Lubeck Fire Brigade and recipient of the AFSM, visited Ray in hospital.
“The talking started on the first day,” said Max. “It took two or three hours but we then had subsequent contact.”
But Ray was yet to reach rock bottom. In 2014, a tiff over a litter of puppies pushed Ray beyond his ability to cope. He went for one of his drives in the early hours and hung up on phone calls from his wife, son, daughter and Max
The family took the matter to the police and an officer phoned Ray and pleaded, “Don’t hang up!”
“She had a memory of my dogs and me helping her children into the fire truck at our fire station,” recalled Ray, still amazed that someone with a meaningful memory of him could establish a rapport with him at crisis point.
“I’m Poppy Ray to all the kids at the fire station and she took me back to children and my dogs.”
The police being called leads to an automatic admission to hospital, but Ray voluntarily checked himself in.
“Luckily they gave me [anti-depressant] medication and the very first lot worked,” continued Ray. “I was in hospital for five days and at the end of that I was a different person. Max was there every day and his support was invaluable. We’d talk about my issues then about lucerne hay and my dogs then back to me.
“He and Ops Officer Peter Bell were the rocks of my family. It was their level-headedness and commitment.”
As Max supported Ray, a counsellor was assigned to each member of Ray’s immediate family.
“As a peer, you learn to ask open questions,” explained Max. “We’re not there to solve people’s problems but to help them solve their own problems. The basis is to get people to talk. Ray has been in the depths of despair, but we’ve always been able to talk and we’ve built a deep rapport.
“It’s not always enjoyable as a peer but there’s a job satisfaction. I don’t turnout on the truck anymore but I feel useful. The most important qualities a peer can have are people skills, be non-judgemental and communicate clearly while maintaining confidentiality.
“The question to him in 2010 was, ‘What’s the best thing for you’ and he said that he needed to get out of tow trucks. ‘What will you do then?’ and he said he might show dogs.
“Ray’s problems come from all the trauma he’s seen. He went to too many horrendous accidents."
Now semi-retired, Ray and Debbie hitch the caravan and travel to dog shows as far afield as Queensland and have won best-in-breed with their dalmations.
This year, Ray plans to hand the family windscreen repair business over to their son. The tow-truck business is gone. The boy who grew up with wrecked cars in the driveway has now collected seven fire trucks and is hatching a plan to open a fire museum. (This is after all, the CFA-member-version of retirement when people become busier than they’ve ever been.)
“I made my wife a commitment,” said Ray. “I’ll never go back to where I was.”
His days of thinking that mental illness was just attention seeking are over.
“Mental illness isn’t put on,” he said emphatically. “I’ve lived it. I’m one of the lucky ones. To this day, if I don’t take my medication I can feel myself go downhill. With medication, I’m good as gold.
“Never be afraid to ask for help.
“The fire brigade and its support mechanisms are the glue that keeps the community together. For [34 years] we’ve had the privilege of peer support and I’ve appreciated all those visits from Max and his regular phone calls just to check in.”
CFA support services
If you are in an emergency situation or at immediate risk of harm, contact emergency services on Triple Zero (000).
If you or someone you know needs help, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Headspace on 1800 650 890.
CFA Welfare Support Services
Member Assistance Program: 1300 795 711 (24 hours)
Peer Support Program: contact your local peer coordinator
Chaplaincy Program: 1800 337 068 (24 hours)
HeadsUP online resources: cfa.vic.gov.au/headsup