Jess Grimwood: “I thought I was broken goods. But I’m stoked to do the things I enjoy again.”

This article mentions suicide.

Fortem Australia’s newest Ambassador, Jess Grimwood, is no stranger to achieving great things.

The ex-firefighter and former pro surfer started surfing in her childhood, before moving up to the World Surf League, representing Australia twice.

It was during her pro surfing career that Jess joined Fire and Rescue NSW, in 2011, and spent her first responder career in Sydney as a Firefighter and Rescue Operator.

Joining the fire service was a chance, Jess believed, to have a great work/life balance.

“My dad has been a Firefighter for more than 25 years, and my uncle has been in for about 30 years, and lots of family friends do the job too. I always noticed that they were the ones who were in the surf in the middle of the day! And I also wanted to be in a service role. Individual sport is very selfish – it’s all about your own performance 24/7 – so the idea of giving back drove me to apply for the job.”

Jess worked as a Firefighter for about six years, a time that she is really proud of now. “But if you’d asked me four years ago, I wouldn’t even be able to talk about it,” she says.

The journey to medical discharge with PTSD

“I went into the job in my early 20s and I hadn’t developed any coping mechanisms yet,” Jess says. “And I don’t remember ever hearing about mental health in the training. I was continuously being exposed to horrific jobs, and I didn’t know how to deal with it.”

Within a few years, Jess says, “The only option I could think of was to end it for myself. I didn’t know what else to do.”

It was on a surfing trip that Jess attempted suicide. “My mate had missed his flight, and came back to our hotel and … I don’t remember it, but I think he stopped me and the next thing I knew I was in the hospital.”

It was during her stay in a mental health unit that Jess realised going back to work wouldn’t be good for her. “I started thinking that maybe I shouldn’t be doing this job if it was getting me to a place where I had to be supervised for my own safety,” she says.

Jess Grimwood during her surfing career (image credit @waterviewpix)

Recovery: a work in progress that’s helped with connection

Jess has done a lot of work to get through PTSD, including seeing psychologists and developing a range of strategies that work for her. She says this work is ongoing. “I go through periodic cycles of suffering a lot, and then getting on top of it again,” she says. “It’s like eczema or something: you have a breakout and then get back on top of it.”

Jess believes that being open about the challenges of the job, and sharing information and experiences, is the way forward – and that’s what drew her to become an Ambassador for Fortem.

“Just before I got to crisis point I was Googling everything, trying to find a group or some information that fit with what I was experiencing,” she explains. “All I could find were a couple of pamphlets about PTSD that were really general. It made me feel so isolated. Having a connection with people who have had a similar experience is really important.”

Jess says that Fortem’s Beyond Duty summit, where experts as well as first responders and family members spoke openly about mental health, was an eye opener for her. “I can’t believe people are talking about this now, and that these are people who actually get it. Fortem is not airy-fairy – they are real and straightforward and very credible.”

It’s clear that Jess is continuing to achieve great things in her life. Speaking so openly about her experiences is one way she’s helping others. She’s also in the next stage of her working life, as an apprentice plumber and a surfing commentator. It’s a combination that lights her up.

“After being medically discharged, I thought I’d never work again,” Jess says. “I thought I was broken goods. But being so young, I really wanted to reskill and start a with a clean slate.

“Now that I get to do something I enjoy, and do my hobbies again – I’m stoked.”