In this blog I write about issues that I think have an impact on our Fire and EMS profession. I make an attempt to write in a way that helps you understand my point of view and, with any luck, conveys my emotions and my feelings about the subject I have chosen. I do not write to gain friends or with hopes that people will love me for what I write. I do not write with future sponsors or advertisers in mind. I write from my heart. I try to shine a light into the dark corners of our profession and I make an effort to challenge taboo subjects. This post will be no different in that regard. It will however, be a bit more personal and will give you a deeper look inside my brain and soul to a place that I keep hidden from most of the people around me. By the end of this post, I hope that all of you will understand that you to can be effected deeply by the work that we do and that you will most likely be a very different person at the end of your career.
“So what’s up” you say? I can feel some of you getting uncomfortable and shifting in your seats. Well, as I have gotten older, I have obviously had more time to reflect on the past and what has transpired in my life and career up to the present day. Looking back is not something I usually don’t do because my life path isn’t going that direction. It is undeniable however, that the force and gravity of a few experiences help them race forward to the present moment. When I take a look back, I can remember a lot of calls that were difficult and some that were rewarding. The landscape of the past has plenty of hills and valleys; wins and losses. I have worked in various types of services, all of which have had their own challenges and accomplishments. I don’t think any of us could claim that the past has no influence on the present.
So the person I am, my current world view (to some degree), the way I handle relationships, the way I talk to people, the way I talk to myself and the way I spend my off time have all been shaped by my choice of careers. I admire those who have a job that means nothing to them at the end of the day. They can disconnect from the last 8, 10 or 12 hours and relax. That seems so foreign to me. I am jealous of them and feel sorry for them at the same time. Jealous that they can disconnect and sorry that they are doing something that they are not passionate about. I have read countless publications about the long lasting effects of our work on the people that do it and I can fully wrap my brain around why the suicide rate in our line of work is much higher than the national average. I get it.
I will never claim that I haven’t thought about what my end would be. I have pondered how I would leave this life. I think, if you are honest with yourself, some of you have sat in the dark, after a week of shitty calls, and thought maybe I should stop all of this. Maybe that would be the only way I could stop the tornado of horrible shit that is wrecking acre after acre of my brain. Maybe it would be the only way to get my knees, my back, my head and my soul to stop hurting. After all, it would be on my terms. We have all been to a call where the person lying dead on the road was just driving to the store, minding their own business when the drunk asshole wandered over the line and turned off an innocent life. None of us want to be dead on the cold asphalt because of the mistake of someone else. We see a weird and tragic nobility in picking our own way out.
I have sat in many a dark room or on a bench outside in the middle of the night trying to get the swirling leaves of time, plastic grocery bags of images and trash memories in my head to stop. I have also looked down the road of my own life and wondered what I could possibly do for a living that would compare to this job. I get nauseated at the thought of working 9-5, five days a week, all the while hoping for the two day weekend. I have laid out half baked plans about how I would stop my existence and finally have some peace. The sliver of difference between me and someone who has actually taken their own life is three fold. 1) I love myself just enough not to do it. I’m my own biggest fan and have a very inflated ego about me when I talk to me about me. 2) I don’t want my job to beat me. The horrible shit in my head won’t win. 3) I won’t have any idea what the world will think of what I have done because I won’t be there to hear about it, so why do it. It sounds a bit foolish but it is true. Nobody knows, after they are dead, what anyone else thinks about them. You will not be there. You will not see it. It impacts those around you but not you, except for the being dead part. It’s a burden you put on them. There is the possibility that your death will be a relief for some. Also, the fact that you are gone might bring some people pleasure. I don’t like either of those ideas. Don’t think that everyone at you funeral is there to morn your loss. That’s simply not true. And those that are there to morn you can’t tell you how badly they hate you for leaving them alone. Dying is a dirty trick you play on other people. I respect my tight circle of peeps to much to do that to them.
As I said earlier, I totally get why people do it. Comedian Louis CK said once “life is shit wall to wall, you just need to learn how to exist in it”. No one knows the validity of that statement more than us. We have seen behind societies curtain. We know how humanitarianism and inhumanity really work. We see the worst in people and the worst outcomes. We also see the best in people but you and I both know that the high from the positive call will be beaten and bloodied by the next horrible call and that the crap call hangs with you way longer than the wonderful one. It is the way things go and you can’t stop it.
We are in an era of self awareness right now. It seems like every day there is a new report about cancer risks, mental effects of the job, heart disease and whatever else. We have meetings and make S.O.P.’s to fight the hidden dangers of the job and feel good about the progress we are making. We practically knock each other over patting each other on the back. We have made slow and steady progress but we still call people pussies or weak when they ask for help.
But at the end of the day, I circle back to the same thing; this job is pretty much intended to kill you, or at the very least, change you into a completely different person by the end. That’s what you signed on for whether you knew it or not. You didn’t read that in the community college brochure, in the poster at the local firehouse or on the Labor Department website but it is the reality of the job. All of the steps we take are not going to change the possibility that you will not be you when the job is done. The only way to not be a different you is to not do this job at all. That’s it. But we can’t do that because we love it to much. I read a quote once that said “find something you love and let it kill you”. Most of us are doing that. It may be a while after you quit or retire before the shepherd comes and guides you to the great beyond but I would put money on the fact that you will remember at least one call you were on while lying on your death bed.
We may be able to put firefighters in a bubble. We are trying to do that with the PPE we wear but we can’t put on special glasses to turn the horrible car crash into a room full of puppies that whisper positive affirmations into your ear while feeding you endless ice cream and bourbon. It can’t be done. Granted, firefighting robots may be the answer but cyborgs scare me and I am overly suspicious of SkyNet.
My point is this, lets stop leaving out the part of the narrative that paints a false picture of our profession. Lets save the chest bumping brotherhood bullshit for later. Lets tell our recruits, from the beginning, that they will be changed forever in good and bad ways by this job. Lets also tell them that we have things in place to help them cope. It needs to be said right along with the “you will find this so rewarding” and “chicks dig fireman” (or dudes dig firewomen; I see you ladies….Heyyyyyyy). We need to say that the you at the end of your career will not be the same you that started your career. We need to give them the tools to manage their feelings in the beginning and not after a tragedy.
We are reactionary. We are thick headed. We are stupid. We wait until there is a grieving widow or family before we decide that we need to educate. We sit around the kitchen table and chalk up the latest first responder suicide to weak character or the idea that they couldn’t “handle it”. We think it’s a bit unfair that the brother, wife, father or mother of our fallen comrade is mad at the profession for what happened when we know in our hearts that we failed them. Our culture failed them. Our attitude failed them. WE FAILED THEM. That’s it and that’s all. We sit and fan ourselves like a southern debutante and say “oh my word, I do declare, that young man or woman just couldn’t hack it, it’s such a shame”. We put the blame on the person that isn’t even here to defend themselves. Much like the NFL didn’t want to admit that some of their players suffered from CTE, some of us are reluctant to admit we have problems. We should be punching each other in the face for being so stupid. (You won’t hear that in the big room at FDIC or at the EMS Universe conference will you?)
There is hope. Some people among us have called it what it is. They have shined the light on what we are doing wrong or doing right and are getting the message out about what we can do to cope. They are trying to lead the way for a better tomorrow for us and a better profession for those who will come after us. Of course they meet resistance. We are in our own way again as usual. Progress is slow but it is happening. It will continue to happen.
We have always looked at “prevention” as sort of a dirty word. We bitch that our fire prevention efforts keep us from “slaying the dragon” as much as we used to. Some laugh at prevention programs that keep the elderly safe. Some scoff at the idea of possibly preventing work related suicide. Some think that fire inspections shouldn’t be part of our job. Some are even thick headed enough to believe that our current Heroin crisis is not a direct result, in part, of our parents, grandparents and us systematically destroying the mental health system in the United States. The level of ignorance is astounding.
So what if the demons come for you? I hope that you decide to give them a wide birth and let them pass by. It is okay to think about how horrible things are and to admit that your demons exist. It is okay to admit that you are scared. That is what makes you human. If the demons seem to be to strong, please find some help. You are not alone by any stretch of the imagination. You need to save what’s left of you. There is no shame in deciding that you want to find another line of work either. It will be okay. You will miss it but it will be okay. This job is what you do and should only be a portion of who you are. It is not the whole YOU. There is a life after the fire service.
Be aware and be vigilant. Be humble and be accepting. Be happy and be loving. Be you and be you first. Make each and every day from now on the best day of your life! And of course, be safe out there!!!