By Michael Morse
I thought my high blood pressure was hereditary. I used to take a reading whenever I had a chance, and for 23 years it was in the 140/90 range – high enough to make me worry but not high enough to REALLY worry about. Now that I’ve had some time away from the tones I’ve been at a steady 120/80, give or take. I guess it was hereditary; I inherited it every time I showed up for work!
Ask firefighters why they do what they do and, once given a moment to think about it and get past all the “helping people” stuff, without fail those with a family will tell you that they do it “for my family.” We don’t mind the long hours away from home, the wear and tear on the body, or the stressors of the mind. We consider ourselves fortunate to be able to withstand the rigors of a long career on the domestic front lines and take pride in our accomplishments. Taking care of our family is what makes us tick and the reason we get out of bed in the morning.
Only those of us who have put the gear away know what it took from us. We knew that at the start of every shift the walls went up. We knew that at the end of the shift, most of that wall came down. We also knew that over time those small walls grew, and without our being aware a giant, impenetrable wall grew around us. While in the fight we didn’t notice the small changes. We were too busy “taking care of the family” to see how we changed. But, make no mistake, the family we were taking care of knew something was changing, but they could not define those changes until we let our guard down.
People with normal jobs don’t experience flashbacks, don’t have that gnawing feeling in their gut when they drive, and are not burdened with the weight of thousands of tragedies. Knights used to wear chain mail under their suits of armor, and we are not much different. Our chain mail is invisible and grows heavier as the years progress. We wear it under our turnout gear, and it is supposed to keep us safe from the things that keep us up at night. But instead of keeping the wolves at bay, our protective suit doesn’t protect us, it weighs us down.
I had no idea how high-strung I was until I retired. Even then, it took a long time for me to breathe normally, to be able to focus on a conversation, or watch a TV show without breaking out in a cold sweat whenever some actor did a good job of portraying a dead body. To thrive in the difficult environment that I called my home away from home, I needed to have some thick skin. I wouldn’t have admitted to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in a million years, or at least until I retired and began to see the world as a nice place.
What I did for my family made their lives more difficult than it needed to be. I didn’t have to keep my growing anxiety to myself. I didn’t have to suffer in silence. There was a better way to get through my career than what I knew, what most of us knew. We are the kings and queens of the white knuckle brigade. Admitting that things got to us was okay, kind of, but only for a little while. It was and is much more desirable to “white knuckle it” and deal with whatever is troubling us by ourselves. The problems go away, we figure, and we’ll be back to our old selves real soon. Unfortunately, our old selves are taken away every day and replaced with a more somber, cynical, and tired version.
Trends have begun to shift; people are not as tight lipped about their struggles with depression and addiction as they once were. PTSD is a hot topic on most firefighting/EMS forums. People are coming out and telling their stories. All of this “feel good, love yourself, embrace the madness, and get better” stuff is helping lots of people. Unfortunately, there are lots of us who have no idea that they are operating at levels of stress that they simply cannot maintain. We secretly look at those of us who have the courage to admit their fallibility with thinly disguised disdain. “Too bad for them,” we think as we read about the latest medic or firefighter who crashed. We just cannot see the cracks forming in our own lives. Our walls are formidable, and without allowing ourselves a little humility, those cracks will only continue to grow.
So, what to do?
You owe it to the family that you are doing it for to do it right. One good way to do that is to stay as emotionally healthy as possible. If you can’t do it for yourself, and most of us can’t or won’t, do it for them.
Simply being conscious of your own well being is a good start. An honest and thorough self-evaluation every year or two can help keep your life in perspective. Doing such a thing in your own head is nearly impossible. Good, qualified, and caring assistance is available. You don’t have to be nuts to make an appointment with a therapist. Paying someone to listen to you is remarkably liberating. Most of us politely listen to whoever it is we are talking with, while formulating a response in our own mind, thus never truly hearing what the other person is saying. A good therapist listens to everything you say and, believe it or not, there is more up there than you ever imagined.
Michael Morse is a former captain with the Providence (RI) Fire Department (PFD), an author, and a popular columnist. He served on PFD’s Engine Co. 2., Engine Co. 9, and Ladder Co. 4 for 10 years prior to becoming an EMT-C on Rescue Co 1 and Captain of Rescue Co. 5.