Christy Warren had been a firefighter for 25 years when one call changed everything.
“For the first time in my life, I became completely overwhelmed,” she writes in her new memoir Flash Point. “I knew I had a problem, but I had no idea of its magnitude.”
By then, she’d already become a captain with the Berkeley Fire Department. But that all quickly changed.
First, came the anxiety. Then, the loss of sleep. Then, in place of sleep, a supercut of horrid memories that played on repeat in her mind. Soon, the memories began to feel more real than day-to-day life.
Truthfully, it had all begun much earlier. Throughout the early sections of Flash Point (out this Tuesday via She Writes Press), Warren describes how she shoved years’ worth of horrific calls and sense memories into a hatch in the back of her mind, piling them upon the previous years’ worth until, one day, the hinges broke and it all popped out, no longer able to be ignored.
Post-traumatic stress, she says, is “24 hours a day. It’s with you all night. The nightmares I had were just unreal. I’d wake up usually at like 3 or 4 in the morning soaking wet from a nightmare and wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep.”
June is PTSD Awareness Month, an appropriate time for the release of this eye-opening book. After years of celebrating first responders and essential workers, Warren’s unsparing view into the realities of their work is vital. Even in 2023, the stigma around mental health and PTSD prevents many from getting the help they need. Paradoxically, those who work the most emotionally demanding jobs can feel this stigma the strongest.
“You can’t see it,” Warren says. “You break your leg and people go, ‘oh god, that must be horrible.’ But nobody can see the stuff that goes on inside your brain and your nervous system.”
For women, whose any show of emotion will be chalked up to weakness by male colleagues, the stigma can be even stronger. Sadly, the reality is that figures show firefighters are more likely to die by suicide than by running into burning buildings.
Warren’s path to recovery took much soul-searching (and some self-medicating). She documents her descent into some very painful lows (earning the book its subtitle: A Firefighter’s Journey Through PTSD) and also documents the loving care of her wife, and the support group she eventually found through therapy. Even then, it took years of work to get where she is today.
“I feel amazing today,” Warren happily shares. “It’s definitely post-trauma growth. It really made me deal with a lot of my stuff, some stuff that happened to me in my childhood, defense mechanisms I carried around.”
Though she spent the bulk of her first responder career in the East Bay, Warren grew up on the Peninsula. The first page of Flash Point details her move to Berkeley from Menlo Park, how it set her on a course that would define the rest of her life.
Warren describes how becoming a firefighter felt almost like destiny.
“They say, ‘we don’t pick that job, it picks us,’” she says. “We grew up in chaos. Things that we learn in our childhood to survive make us really good first responders. But there’s all that stuff underneath there and it will kind of fester in there until you deal with it.”
One of the book’s most striking elements is Warren’s insight into the physicality of running toward danger for a living. In such moments, she says, a person is possessed by a “ribbon” inside them.
“It just kind of winds through your whole body,” she says. “If you have that innate quality to handle it, it goes into a part of your brain and shuts everything else off except for exactly what you’re doing in that moment. Nothing else exists except for what you’re doing.”
Now retired, that part of life is gone. These days, the thing that excites her most is helping others on their path to recovery.
“That’s my goal in all of this, I just want people to know that they’re not alone. You can get better from this.”
She Writes Press