A lot has been going on since I last posted: a pandemic, social unrest, real estate transactions (selling, buying, and relocation to another state, packing and unpacking on both ends) – all in a short period of time. During this, the month of June flew by without my contribution to National Post-traumatic Stress Awareness Month. Here it is the end of July and I would be remiss if I did not share my thoughts about mental health. This post is written from the perspective of being a first responder, but the concepts can be applied to all walks of life.
In 2019, when I retired after 25 years with the Alsip Fire Department, I posted a letter to my fellow first responders where I shared my two most important takeaways from this time-honored profession. Number 2 (Never leave behind those that lift us up) is what I will elaborate on today.
At that time, I urged my colleagues to educate their inner circle on the day-to-day life of what it is like to be a first responder (jargon, station life, etc. – the nuts and bolts of the job, if you will). I stressed that this early sharing lays the foundation for when times get tough and this job becomes challenging to the mind, body, and spirit. It is the mental health aspect where all too often our inner circle gets left behind.
On our journey through this lifetime each of us carries a library of experiences (many of which have been unprocessed traumas), that follow us into a highly stressful and dynamic profession where no two days will be alike. When we swore an oath to serve and protect, we knew we were going to see bad things, but not realized the degree to which they could traumatize us further. If left unchecked, these microtraumas will pile up until we finally hit our breaking point. It is here where the unforgotten mental health warrior is often left behind.
From my own personal experience, I became like a raging bull in a china shop where even the smallest home improvement project that did not go perfectly would send me spiraling (I was great at taking it out on inanimate objects). During all these incidents never once did I give a thought to how this could traumatize my wife (she endured many years of this). Early on in my career I hit a breaking point and yet kept driving forward through life. So why share this now?
I had 16 years of ups and downs before I went through therapy to help me process a lifetime of micro-traumas. All the while my wife had to experience Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride- a train that left the station without her way too many times. It is a very courageous act to stand up and admit (“I don’t have this today, and I need help.”), but it is uber important to the health of the inner circle. Here are some thoughts on how you can arrive safely there without leaving a wake of damage in your path:
- Besides education on the nuts and bolts of your respective profession, please share your feelings about a call that was traumatizing. You do not have to give the gory details, but let your significant other know you might be in a bad way. Consistent bottling up of feelings will add to your traumas and can often lead to self-medicating behaviors (addiction to drugs, alcohol, sex, gambling and even anger) to numb the pain. Conversing with your inner circle in an authentic and vulnerable way can be healthy for your psyche.
- Early on in your career, set up a mental health support system not only for yourself, but your significant other as well. At the conclusion of this post I will list resources who designed programs specifically for the family/spouse/significant other unit. Confidentiality is the foundation for these resources- what is said there stays there unless they receive a (call/text/post) by someone who is at high risk for self-harm.
- Working in a profession that is asked to bring order to chaotic scenes can become engrained to the point where all aspects of the one’s persona must be under control to maintain (a perceived) balance – this can put a strain on any relationship. If you hit an impasse, consider working with a mental health profession (individually and together) who can assist in navigating through the rough waters.
The road to healing will always be a work in progress and can be wrought with frustration along the way. When things get tough do not shut out/shut down from your inner circle because the mental strain you experience can be transferred to them too. When you take an oath and pin on the badge they do as well. At the end of every day and shift you are in it together.
In health and wellness,
Illinois Firefighter Peer Support (Significant Other and Families Program)
Wellth Management School of Resiliency (Family and Friends course – free content)
First Eyes Proactive Family Mental Health Program
HOLD THE LINE for First Responders and Spouses (Facebook Group)
Firefighter Wife (resources for individual, couples, and families)
Blue H.E.L.P. (family support resources)