Emergency worker crafts a healthy response to trauma
FOR most people, having a bad day at work involves being late for an important meeting, spilling coffee down the front of a white blouse or giving a lengthy explanation to the boss for handing that report in late.
But for emergency service workers who face devastating car crashes, fatalities, scenes of domestic violence and suicides regularly, a "bad day" has the potential to turn into a lifelong memory that they wish they could forget.
After a decade on the job, Sharon is all too familiar with these kinds of jobs, so much so that she thought she had seen the worst, but she never could have prepared herself for one particular job - a fatal crash that took the life of two very young children.
With details too heartbreaking to share publicly, Sharon who was a single mum-of-three at the time herself, said it remains to be one of the most challenging days she has ever experienced in her career.
"I just remember coming home from this horrible job and checking on my kids who were in bed and my daughter who was 14 at the time was asleep in my bed waiting for me," Sharon said.
"After giving them all a kiss, I hopped into the shower because I was just covered in sweat and dirt and I just couldn't stop crying - my daughter came in and said 'don't worry mum - I'll wash your hair for you.'
"We know when we join the emergency services that we will face traumatic situations, but it impacts everyone differently and you'll never know how it will affect you until it happens."
While witnessing something so horrific would be enough to make someone crumble, Sharon is much braver than what she lets on and she woke the next day feeling brighter, more determined than ever to focus on work and help others.
And that's exactly what she did until about three weeks later, she started experiencing flashbacks of the scene.
Smells, sounds and even closing her eyes was enough to make all the devastating memories come flooding back, causing many sleepless nights.
Making the situation all the harder, Sharon was still recovering both emotionally and physically after she was deliberately run over two years prior, while on the job.
"Back then mental health wasn't really something anyone spoke about - we had a human service officer (HSO) available to us but it was rare to see anyone initiate that themselves," Sharon said.
"I'm now a peer support officer myself and still to this day, no one comes up to me to admit they're struggling or ask for help, so there's definitely still a black cloud over mental health."
Over time a close colleague noticed a difference in Sharon, but she had to dig deep to discover it - bags under the eyes, being a little more quiet throughout the day … all the simple things that many people wouldn't have even picked up on.
Sharon's co-worker encouraged her to speak to the team's HSO (a trained psychologist), who was available to speak to about emergencies staff had attended.
"I remember eventually feeling safe around the particular HSO I spoke with and I kind of just blurted it all out - because I had been going to the gym every day, looking after my children and functioning relatively well, I was kind of in denial," Sharon said.
"She recommended I speak to a psychologist who specialises in emergency services personnel and trauma related matters, so I did and they asked me what I loved to do outside of work and I had always loved photography, so they told me to pick up my camera again, so I did."
It was a hobby that Sharon had always been interested in but one that she didn't have much time for in the midst of full-time work and being a single parent.
But she followed the psychologist's advice and started taking pictures of her smiling children in the garden.
"I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and started seeing a psychologist who specialised in emergency services, PTSD and trauma," Sharon said.
"I refused to go on medication and I didn't need it - every time I had that camera in my hands, I was fine again."
Placing all her energy into photography, teaching herself how to shoot professionally and starting her own business, Sharon has captured everything from weddings, formals and family portraits.
She met her now husband who also works in emergency services and has been very supportive, surprising her with a photography workshop when they travelled overseas.
Things were looking up for Sharon who was feeling brighter, sleeping better and had not had a flashback in months.
But when another fatal and traumatising crash occurred, she began to recognise all the symptoms again.
She told herself it would be OK and to just hold off until their upcoming holiday, but when COVID-19 hit, things took a turn for the worse and this time photography wasn't making it go away.
This time Sharon's psychologist recommended she pick up another hobby - something still creative that could serve as a distraction, so she picked up a paint brush and did just that.
Working in her little home studio, Sharon started painting, drawing, sewing and making her own clay earrings, handpainted clutch bags and canvas art works.
"Initially it was just a distraction for me and something to keep my mind busy on those sleepless nights, but then my friends started asking me to make more so they could buy some," Sharon said.
"I started Rae and Lilly (hobby business) on the side and created an Instagram page, but when I put these earrings or clutch bags online, it's not about selling them - it's to help me and encourage others to help themselves."
Sharon said while she paints and creates to help her get through a hard day, different strategies work for different people and it's about finding what works for the individual.
"There is still a stigma associated with mental health issues and I hate the words 'mental health' because I'm just a person who has been diagnosed with PTSD and sometimes struggles with leaving the house or going to jobs, but we all go through that," she said.
"Everyone copes differently - some days I am just happy to go for a walk or hang out with my friends … you have to look after yourself."
"I guess the message is I've been doing this a long time and I've personally seen people struggle, but I know the struggles you can have because your mind is clouded by what you've seen and if this can somehow help others, then I know it'll be worth it - do whatever brings you joy."
The emergency services officer said she now knows that help is available to anyone who is struggling and encourages anyone going through a challenging time to talk to someone, whether it be a professional, a family member or a friend.
For more information, visit Sharon's creative outlet page by clicking here.
If you or someone you know is struggling, contact Lifeline on 13 11 14 or Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36.