BY ROBERT SENN
Like you, I am a firefighter. We are no different except that I am a survivor of the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001. I have since been diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I am not the only one. Learn from me before your “moment” comes.
- It’s the middle of the night. I’m sitting alone someplace on West Street. My helmet is perched on the back of my head. I’m leaning forward, elbows on my knees, and my face is in my hands. A cigarette burned to the filter is between my fingers. It’s dark, and a misting rain is falling. The smell is pretty pungent. Smoke is slowly rising from the piles of steel that used to be the World Trade Center. Suddenly, I look up, and Tommy is standing there in front of me. He and Adam are both looking at me emotionless with stone faces. Then they turn and look back toward the wreckage. They slowly raise their arms and point to the middle of “The Pile.” They say nothing. They hold that pose for a few moments; then their faces turn back toward mine. Tommy’s eyes are very dark, and tears are about to fall onto his cheeks. Adam is standing behind him, about three feet to his left. He just stands there and continues to stare at me with an almost helpless look on his face. Slowly their arms drop back down to their sides …
I am not on West Street. I am sitting up in my bed. I am soaking wet in sweat, and I am panting. It’s as if I had just finished running five miles. Tommy and Adam are both dead—two of 343 brothers either missing or confirmed lost. “What is wrong with me?” I slide my feet out of the side of the bed. I am shaking. The sheets are wet, and my sweat is cold. I feel as if somebody just beat me with a cane. My mind is searching for something normal. I look over at the clock; it’s only 12:30 a.m. I’ve been asleep only for an hour. I continue to sit there for a few moments. Then the tears start falling. My wife Christine’s hand slowly comes up my back. “Are you okay? You were twitching and kicking.” I don’t know what to say to her. I tell her what just happened. She sits up, rubbing my back, and just leans against me. It’s past midnight; I am sitting in bed soaking wet, crying, wondering what is wrong with me and will it EVER stop.
I get out of the shower. I am in the bedroom getting dressed. It’s sunny outside, and there is a nice breeze coming through the window blowing the curtains around. I sit down on the edge of the bed. As I’m pulling up my socks, I’m thinking about “Leon.”
- Suddenly, I am no longer in my bedroom. I am standing in a housing project elevator with the guys from my firehouse and a company we respond with. Leon is standing next to me with a big smile on his face. We just finished laughing after I told him that he’s “possibly the ugliest fireman I’ve ever met.” The elevator door opens, and our smiles go back to the business at hand …
Instantly, I’m back, with my hands on my sock sliding up over my right foot. Leon is gone, too, along with his entire company. I am now sitting in my underwear on my bed, and I start crying—more like sobbing—to the point that I almost choke on the mucus and tears, the absolute purest form of grief coming out. Christine walks into the bedroom to ask me something, “Oh my God, are you okay?” I can’t even get a sentence out. I am pointing, mumbling, and sobbing. She is looking at me with a sense of helplessness, wondering what to do. All she could do was sit with me until this almost-seizure finished. What is wrong with me?
- I am in Las Vegas, Nevada. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. It’s a beautiful day. I get out of a golf cart and walk over to line up my shot. I start back toward the cart to pick out a club. I stop dead in my tracks—completely frozen. It is 100°F, and I am shaking as if it’s –30°F. In the distance, I hear the backup alarm from a front-end loader. My head turns. All I see is dust swirling and hard hats working. The dust blows our way, and my friend Bob looks over at me, wondering why I am just “standing there,” almost comatose, in the middle of the fairway. “Are you okay?” My eyes are closed, and my arms slowly rise as I point toward that noise. “Do you hear that? Do you see that? Do you smell that concrete dust? That’s it, Robert. That’s the Trade Center.” I just stand there. Bob gets out of the golf cart and walks over to me. I am shaking, I am pale, I am actually nauseated. I fight to get back in the golf cart, and I am staring off into space. What the heck is wrong with me?
These are only a few of the hundreds of episodes I have had and continue to experience stemming from the recovery effort following September 11, 2001. Why am I sharing my experiences with you? To bring greater awareness of how traumatic stress affects not only us but also those with whom we share our lives. It is rare, if ever, that we would consider sharing an article from this periodical with nonfirefighting personnel, simply because it has no application in their life. But, traumatic stress affects everyone to one degree or another. Victims of traumatic stress fall into different categories: Primary; Secondary; and, sadly, Forgotten. Therefore, I encourage everyone to share this with those with whom you share your life. Nobody is exempt from emotional pain. Just as we address “awareness” of hazmats, bloodborne pathogens, lightweight building construction, proper personal protective equipment, and scene safety, we must consider the emotional toll this business places on us, our coworkers, and our families.
“IGNORE THE EMOTIONAL”
From my experience, those in the fire business must remain 99.9 percent cognitive when it comes to “function” on the fireground. When I say “cognitive,” I mean that we are taught to leave our emotions at the door and “suck it up.” Treat victim injuries, stretch handlines, cut roofs, tie knots, take meter readings, and mitigate problems. We do whatever it takes to “get it done.” This is really the only way to get through the given tasks. Remove the “human” connection, and just get it done. Otherwise, if you connect with the victim’s emotional or physical pain, it would eat you alive and turn you into a babbling mess. Entwined in this idea is the notion that the tougher you are, the more respect you gain from your peers; the more smoke you can take, the dirtier you get, the more ceilings you can pull, the deeper you can get into the fire occupancy (and the one I’ve seen most frequently: ignoring personal physical injuries)—all leading to your being perceived as a better firefighter, thus earning you more respect. It seems twisted, yet it is true. Whether you wear yellow turnout gear or black, whether you wear leather or poly, whether your engine carries cotton jacketed hose or vinyl, you pretty much get this drilled into your head from Day 1.
You are slowly programmed to perform free of emotion, to be the toughest you can be regardless of the obstacles. When that chief walks over to your company after a job and asks the officer, “How are your guys?” the reply is always, “We’re good, Chief.” You could be standing there banged up pretty bad, and you are always “fine.” You could have just taken somebody off the subway tracks in pieces, and you are “fine.” You could have just finished body bagging a kid on Christmas morning, and you are “fine” because you are a firefighter, and firefighters do not feel; we just do. Then, we go home.
Some might say we get “jaded” to being confronted with bad things day in and day out. To some degree, we do. Some of the things we see become “normal.” To John Q. Public, the sight of fire blowing out of a fourth-floor window is absolute horror. To us, it means we don’t have to go looking for it, and the place already flashed over. We can make some easier assumptions on the hoseline stretch. We can enhance our size-up and be better informed as to how the fire attack will be addressed. Outside of wind-driven fires, in general we see it as a good thing for us.
We pass on tradition after tradition to keep us alive and efficient; we remain the ones to call when that bad moment arises for John Q. Public. September 11, 2001, took that concept to a whole new level. In the months after 9/11, we were portrayed as America’s superheroes. Posters of professional athletes that adorned the bedroom walls of kids across the nation were being replaced with photos of firefighters at the World Trade Center. America’s heroes were no longer guys with capes and masks; they were everyday men who swore to go to places that most people wouldn’t be able to go. We were indestructible anomalies that kids wanted to be. Most of the firefighters I have had the privilege of knowing will tell you where you can put the “superhero” thing. In the end, the light “we” were cast in only made it more difficult to function in life. Most of us just wanted to be left alone.
So, what is traumatic stress? According to Dr. Mark Lerner, clinical psychologist and president of the Institute for Traumatic Stress, “Traumatic stress refers to our emotional, cognitive, behavioral, physiological, and spiritual reactions when we are exposed to, or witness, events that overwhelm our coping and problem-solving abilities.” Well, if you are taking a test, that is a great definition to remember. In reality, what do we need to remember regarding traumatic stress? It is a normal reaction to an abnormal event that can and will kill us just as a flashover or a backdraft will. Traumatic stress and its effects will accumulate inside us and, like a sponge, eventually will become “supersaturated.” And with that, so does our ability to cope in daily life. PTSD is having these types of reactions and behaviors stick with us, interrupt daily life, and continue to affect our lives for long periods of time.
Reactions in General
One of the things I learned the hard way was that sadness and anger are directly linked. It’s almost as if you tied each end of a rope to them. These two emotions will cause those around us to react quite differently when we are experiencing them. If you are “the angry guy,” you may cause those in your life to return anger right back at you, thus exacerbating the condition—like pouring gas on a fire, if you will. Anger harms others as you emit the pain from inside. You may lash out at others physically or verbally. This may result in divorce, arrest, or unemployment.
On the other hand, if you are being “the sad guy,” you may be expressing grief, disconnecting from society, or slipping into a depressed state. These two very different forms of expression are coming from the same “mechanism of injury.” I found myself vacillating between these two states quite readily and without warning.
Regardless of the reactions, one lesson we must learn is that they are normal. We are not broken. We are not defective. We are human. Most of us are known as “The Firefighter” within our respective circles in life. We are expected to maintain a certain level of toughness and be indestructible. We do not cry. We do not feel. We do not express grief. I always wanted to be known for being that “tough guy” who knew his job and did it well.
Reactions: Mine and of Those Around Me
Following September 11, 2001, I was unable to remain “that guy.” I was very broken inside. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t communicating very well with people, and my ability to function became more and more difficult. With the exception of very few people, I had disconnected myself from society. I was smoking cigarettes like a chimney, and I was drinking about 20 cups of coffee a day. I was “self-medicating” with caffeine and nicotine to avoid sleep, because with sleep came the violent nightmares like those described above. Rarely did I sleep a solid night. The flashbacks and the constant film of September 11—what I witnessed and what I was subjected to—played like a loop tape in my head, and there was no “Stop” button. The last thing I wanted to do was sleep. The thought of “bedtime” evoked a very high level of anxiety. In my head, I was broken. The rest of my life was going to be completely destroyed, and the chances of my living any sort of long, “normal” life was impossible. I was watching every airplane that passed overhead. Every loud noise made me jump, and that darn tape kept playing in my head. I was on “high alert” at all times.
As for those in my personal life, some were very willing to embrace my pain and attempt to comfort me. However, others, including some of those with whom I worked, weren’t so willing. In fact they got downright nasty in their reactions to us who were struggling with our ability to cope emotionally. This only made a bad situation a whole lot worse and contributed to my eventual breaking point. I have since attributed most of their reactions and treatment of us who were suffering to their own inability to cope with the event. This, combined with the fraternal side of the fire service, which at times can be quite brutal, was a volatile combination. This should be recognized and avoided at all costs.
When emotional trauma is diagnosed or suspected, the accompanying stigma of being identified as one who has “gone nuts” and will wind up in a rubber room is just as damaging (if not worse) as the original trauma. Once I realized that I needed clinical help, I found myself embarrassed to tell anyone about it. I remember telling myself, “You have become that guy.” That guy is the troubled war veteran, the crazy cat lady, the guy at the supermarket talking to the cans in the soup aisle. This is all very humorous when you are healthy, yet crippling when you are unable to cope with day-to-day life any longer. “Who can I tell?” or, better phrased, “Who is it safe to tell?” I found myself making immediate decisions when I was asked, “Hey, how are you feeling?”
- Well, to be honest, Barry, I’ve gone nuts. I talk to myself. Loud noises make me dive between parked cars for cover. I see dead people. I’m smoking two packs of butts a day, and I’m wired on coffee. How are the wife and kids?
They’d back away as if I were contagious; or, even worse, they’d mock me. They were the people I did not open up to. I learned the hard way a few times that I had told the wrong person the truth. I would tell that category of people, “I’m fine. Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.” I really hate that statement. It falls into the same category as “suck it up,” “get over it,” “move on,” and so on. I used it to get me through the conversations and protect myself.
My “recovery” has deepened, and my ability to cope has strengthened. I can now tell everyone how and why my career came to a screeching halt. I can speak about how my life has changed without any reservation, regardless to whom I speak. I have learned that those in our lives who truly care about us—I mean truly, deeply care about us regardless of our status, the car we drive, the clothes we wear, or the school our kids attend—were those with whom I could speak of the nightmares and flashbacks freely. They were the persons who would sit with me while I cried and who would take my wife out to get coffee or get her nails done so she could decompress a bit. They were the people who would respond, “Okay, I’ll wait for them with you,” after you said, “My cheese slid off my cracker, and the guys with the straightjacket and big nets are coming for me.” There weren’t many I let into that circle of trust for quite some time. During this time, I was able to make distinctions among comrades, brothers, and friends and to identify those who were “brothers” in name only.
A PLACE FOR COGNITIVE VS. EMOTIONAL THINKING
Just as we said when we swore to uphold and protect, we are there to care for others in their moment of need. It took years of therapy and convincing to help me realize that “I am not a fireman only.” Firefighting is what I did. It is what I was passionate about. It was what fulfilled my desire to help others. I am a husband, an individual, a friend; above all, I am human. Regardless of the uniform or helmet I wear, I am human, and I will feel pain. It is okay to hurt, and it is okay to feel. Common sense tells us that there is a time and a place to “feel”—two-thirds of the way down that snotty hallway at 2 a.m.? Obviously not. In the midst of cutting the roof off an automobile trying to extricate an entrapped patient? Also, not.
I learned as I started to embrace my emotional recovery that we function both cognitively and emotionally, and I also learned the difference between the two. Being a firefighter—contrary to the public’s perception of the “chaotic insanity” that appears to go on at fires and emergencies—we must be fairly well-educated and able to perform outside the box in this vocation to be efficient and professional, not to mention to keep us alive. Within that cognitive mind function, we know that what we are witnessing may indeed be sad or horrific. So, we deflect the emotional response and “maintain” to complete the task at hand.
It works, and it has worked well from my experience. However, the problem is that at some point, you must look the emotional side of the incident in the face and accept that it may make you feel sad or angry or even physically ill. (Watching the nozzle firefighter dry heave on the Brooklyn Bridge while we washed what was left of a “jumper” who landed on the roadway over the edge was evidence of that.) Regardless, if you keep that emotional charge inside of you and go home from work with that lit fuse burning away …. I ask you: When will you finally “react?” Will you take it out on your kids? Will you take it out on your spouse? Will you take it out on a fellow commuter who just happens to cut you off on the roadway? Will you go home and drink the pain away?
Something I learned the hard way is that regardless of how tough you perceive yourself to be or that everyone else perceives you to be, you will have an emotional response. So, ask yourself, Which person are you—the closet crier, the angry neighbor, the drunk, or the numb stone-faced guy who doesn’t feel at all? Being in this business, odds are that you will see yourself in one of these categories. Does this make you a bad person? Absolutely not. You are human, and you just might need some help. I’m not a social worker or a clinician. I am just a fellow firefighter who has been to the bottom, and I continue to work on my recovery every day. Some days are brutal; some days are actually okay. Some days, I even smile more than once.
TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF IF YOU WANT TO HELP OTHERS
To take care of those who call on us for assistance, we must take care of ourselves so we can give that 110-percent effort. If we are bruised and beaten physically or emotionally, we endanger ourselves, our coworkers, and those we serve. Overcoming the emotional “tough-guy syndrome,” as I call it, and saying “I am injured” or “I am exhausted” is okay. Whom are we kidding by working sick or hurt or emotionally wiped out? We fool nobody. We only increase the chances for further, possibly permanent physical injury, or worse.
Surrendering.Contrary to how it sounds, surrendering does not mean giving up. It means having the strength to let go of our instinct to dig in our heels and instead begin the process of coping with what is slowly killing us. It is a term I learned when I began my recovery. I had to “surrender” to the fact that I was almost killed multiple times. I was buried up to my armpits in the rubble. I was one of the very few to escape. I witnessed countless people expire violently. I was incapable of just making it “stop.” I needed to surrender to my limitations on emotional intake and, for the first time ever, care for the caregiver. I needed to give myself permission to heal and to be in pain. It has taken a lot of work, and it is a continuous process.
Understand that this “injury” is not like a broken bone that gets a plaster cast and eight weeks later, with some physical therapy, you are back and 100-percent healed. I will work on this for the rest of my life. I will continue to “recover” until my final day on the planet. I must always be in contact with where I am emotionally. I must perform the “self check-in.” If I feel down and out, I acknowledge it and I embrace it. If I feel angry, I acknowledge it and I embrace it, and—the hardest thing to do when we are struggling—it’s okay for me to enjoy things. I felt as if I was never allowed to feel good again. This is the corner I was painted into, and it was a life sentence of pain and sadness.
Survivor guilt. I struggled with this emotion greatly. So many wonderful men and women did not get to home that morning. I did. Why? That question chewed at me day and night, and it still reaches up and taps me on the shoulder at times. In the fire business, we want to know the “why” with regard to all aspects of the vocation. Why do buildings collapse? Why do we lose pressure in handlines? Why do we need to wear all this personal protective equipment? I rarely ever took things I learned without asking some questions. It made me a better firefighter; however, it also made me ask a lot of questions about why I was still here when so many others had been lost. It will not stop. These questions will torture me for as long as I am alive.
“IT IS WHAT IT IS”
“It is what it is.” No truer words have ever been spoken to me. It means seeing things for what they are and understanding that we feel pain. It is self-acknowledgment that we see a lot of bad stuff. In our business, we never get called for an A+ on a report card. We don’t get called to celebrate the arrival of a new baby. We get called to the assault victim or the crib death. We get called to the 2 a.m. driving-while-intoxicated incident and the driver looks just like the captain’s daughter. This is the reality we live in. Ignoring the facts and the reality of our vocation is dangerous and eventually will bring us to a breaking point.
To explain it better, picture yourself as the sponge I mentioned earlier. Eventually, that sponge will take in so much water that it will become supersaturated. When that point comes, the sponge will leak from the bottom. Why wait until we are at that same point? Why sideline it or pretend to ignore it? I did and, trust me, it doesn’t go away. Just as we accept that transitioning from an offensive interior attack on a structure fire to a defensive master stream operation doesn’t mean that we failed or that we are poor firefighters, so, too, we reach a point where we have to make the proactive decision to avoid firefighter injury and death by “pulling them out” so that all the firefighters go home. What are we saving? Most structures today are disposable, especially with the advent of lightweight building construction. Although many believe so, we are not disposable. If you are feeling anger or sadness, embrace it, feel it, accept it. Find a home for it, and understand that we are there to help the helpless. It is what it is.
REACHING OUT FOR HELP
You have saved others as a firefighter—maybe directly, maybe indirectly. You are a rare breed being able to serve in the capacity you do, whether you are paid for it or do it out of your desire to serve your community. Regardless of the pay scale or your limitations, you must take care of you, for nobody else will. Finally saying, “I need help” was the hardest thing I have ever done. I was very scared and in a lot of pain. Thankfully, I did put out my hand and ask for help. It is okay to reach out and save the father, the husband, or the wife inside you. Give yourself the care that you deserve so you can continue giving to others. I was worth it. You are worth it.
COMMUNICATION AND THE TOUGHEST ONE I KNOW
Communication is paramount. Find that person you can “talk to.” If you don’t have someone to talk to, go to your physician, who should be able to help you find a clinical outlet. If you still can’t find anyone, find me. I will talk to you and help you find a clinical outlet. Outside of my therapy, I communicate with my wife. I don’t get into the gory details. I just tell her what is going on in my head and that going shopping for new curtains today is a bad idea: “I need to be home and just be with you.”
Granted, all marriages aren’t as healthy as mine, and you must use your head to make the right decisions at the right times—meaning avoiding conveying opinions like, “I really don’t like your mother, and I don’t want to go eat her excuse for cooking tonight.” We all know where that is going to end up. Like hitting yourself in the head with a 2 × 4, it feels good when you stop doing it.
If I let Christine know where my head was and what was coursing through it, I avoided numerous potential arguments because I kept her in the loop. I also didn’t restrict our communication to just “my” problems. I wanted to know how she was feeling; we both needed to agree that there were some things I needed to do, and she needed to know there were some things I was incapable of doing.
There is no winner or loser in this level of communication. Either you both win, or you both lose. Staying quiet, giving up, and shoving it all down inside will without a doubt make you lose—and lose on multiple levels. Remember what she goes through every time you walk back out that front door to go to the place that may potentially take you from her.
There is no tougher job than being the spouse of a firefighter. After I finally made it home on September 12, 2001, she had to see my injuries, she had to feel my sadness, she had to answer all the phone calls. (There were more than 50 messages on our answering machine within 24 hours.) She had to take me to the orthopedic doctor and the ophthalmologist. She had to take me to our family physician. Then she had to watch me pack my bag and go back there. My wife weighs 125 pounds soaking wet. But, she is the strongest woman I have ever met.
We must acknowledge those people in our lives who support our passion for the fire business. Kids look up to us. People are enamored by the flashing lights and the blaring sirens. Your spouse, my spouse, does not look at it the same. They know about the injuries. They know about the line-of-duty deaths. They know about the “almosts.” They smell the carbon coming out of our pores when lying in bed two days after a “good job.” And they watch us go right back to what almost took us from them time and time again. They will be left bringing up the kids. They will be left with the memorial services. They will be left with the pain.
Communicating with Christine—acknowledging and validating her fear and her pain, acknowledging that she was just as much a victim of this event as I was—is the only reason we are still married. Just like the fire floor and the fire business in general, it isn’t about you. It’s about the whole company and the whole department. When you walk through the front door of your home, it isn’t just about you. Communicate. It makes a difference.
STAYING IN THE DAY
Being in the present was a difficult concept to comprehend at first. “It is 4 p.m. Tuesday. I am not at the WTC. I am home, and I am safe.” It was self-affirmation that I was okay. Eventually, it was very grounding to do this. It brings me back from violent flashbacks to the reality of the present, which helps break the spasm-like episodes of the flashbacks I experienced. My counselor Gerry Moriarty, LCSW, taught me to literally speak to myself when these episodes started: “Bobby, STOP. You are home. You are safe. You are okay.” The more I stay “in the day,” the easier it is to focus on healing. I found myself adapting a 12-step recovery model, the same model used in alcohol recovery programs. There are a multitude of therapeutic routes to help you embrace your pain. This one works for me: one day at a time.
FEEDING INTO SOMETHING GOOD
As I stated, struggling through survivor guilt for a very long time, I didn’t feel that I was entitled to embrace anything good. I still find myself feeling this way at times, especially when mid-July hits. The clock that reminds me that 9/11 is right around the corner starts ticking louder and louder. It’s brutal, to be honest. I find myself hovering very close to home from July to the end of September. I’m working on it. I refused to celebrate Christmas in 2001, 2002, and 2003. I was “there,” but I could care less if activities involving the trees, lights, gifts, or anything “happy” were going on. I was disconnected from everything social. I thought I was doing what I was supposed to be doing. Honestly, I was running, running from my pain. If I thought about holiday gatherings and gifts, I felt guilty for still being here.
When I was at my lowest point, survivor guilt was like chewing on razor blades and even led me to feel that I did not want to be here anymore. Understand that I didn’t have a mechanism prepped and ready for me. It was just that I was in so much pain that it would have just been easier to “not be here anymore.” It is 2010, and only recently did I admit to this. It was the worst feeling I’ve ever had. The theme of life became, “You are alive, and you are being punished for surviving. Have a nice day.”
After a lot of therapy—and basically as if I were learning to walk again in terms of my emotions—I began permitting Bobby to enjoy himself. Sometimes it works, and I enjoy the event. Other times, I still go home beating myself up. This process is slow; day by day, I am finding it okay to stay and enjoy myself. I found it was again okay to go out to dinner with my wife and our friends. It was okay to laugh and start to try and enjoy the things that were fun on September 10, 2001. I have to convince myself that embracing the good things in life throughout my recovery are just as important as embracing the painful experiences. This is still a daily battle, but it’s getting easier.
OLD PAIN … NEW PAIN
When I first entered the office of the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Counseling Unit, it was with the intention of dealing with the events of September 11, 2001. I found that within the process of embracing that day and the recovery effort that followed, “old” pain would surface—sadness and pain from some fatal fires, LODDs, and other events in my life that happened prior to 9/11 showed their faces, and I had to embrace them as well. I never realized how much pain I had inside until I started to let it out bit by bit. It feels much better having a place for those emotions now. As I said earlier, “It doesn’t just go away.”
MY COMMITMENT … YOUR COMMITMENT
The three components of my ability to continue to heal and recover, and those I advocate for all who answer the call when the bells go off, are the following:
- 1 Self Check-In: How am I today? If I am not 100 percent, am I going to be able to do my job whatever it may be if I am called on to do so?
2 Self-Care Vow: I must take care of myself because nobody else will.
3 Be My Brother’s Keeper:“I committed to being a caregiver for those incapable of caring for themselves. I must care for my comrade if he or she is suffering as well. Don’t kick them while they are down. It hurts a lot.
NOW WHAT ARE YOU GOING TO DO?
I reached a point in my recovery while seeing both Gerry Moriarty and Dr. Mark Lerner that I started to ask, “Okay, now, what are you going to do?” I had retired from the FDNY, I was writing a lot as a therapeutic outlet. I wrote about September 11 and was encouraged by Dr. Mark to publish an article regarding my experience in a medical journal on mental health so that the mental health community could get a better understanding from the “victim’s” view. It was very fulfilling. I found a sense of purpose again. I found myself wanting to help other firefighters who were hurting, to let them know they weren’t alone as I had felt for so long. I wanted them to know that this pain is not a life sentence and that they are not painted into a corner for an eternity. Within the struggle of survivor guilt was also this overwhelming feeling that I have to “earn it every day.” I have to earn the right to see Christine. I have to earn the right to see my family and friends. I have to make a difference. No free rides.
Currently, I am speaking to fire departments, educators, law enforcement agencies, government officials, and “regular folks” about traumatic stress and how it affects us, our families, our coworkers, and our friends. I tell my story of September 11, 2001, when I was buried in the rubble of two collapsing buildings and of the nine months that followed recovering the dead. I explain how an invisible injury took over my life and that Hell had followed me home. I speak of how I wandered helplessly for 18 months and then finally sought help. I recount being diagnosed with PTSD, a condition I thought there was no way to combat and from which there was no way out. We cry together; we even laugh together a little bit. Most importantly, we learn together, and maybe just one of them will remember the importance of his wellness and that it’s okay to feel and it’s okay to heal.
I truly believed that I was going to die a slow, painful, emotional, lonely death. I implore you to learn from my experience: You must be aware of emotional trauma, and we all need to embrace our pain regardless of the mechanism that has injured us.
My greatest concern is that there are other firefighters and their families out there who are crumbling inside, drinking their pain away, losing their loved ones to divorce, and losing their jobs and their passion for the fire service and more so for life—all as a result of their emotional exposure to trauma. As I said, I’m not a doctor or a social worker. I’m just a regular guy who has been there and who continues to try and figure this life out as each sun rises and sets. Find peace. Take care of yourself, and take care of your families. In the end, it’s all we have.
ROBERT SENN is a 20-year fire service veteran and a retired Fire Department of New York firefighter. He is an FDIC classroom instructor and lectures to uniformed personnel and corporate entities across North America. He has a bachelor’s degree from the New York Institute of Technology and is the author of “Beyond Surviving.”
Fire Engineering Archives