A smile, a laugh, a hug and some jokes, you see me as I am and you think that you know. It’s the same old ground I’m always walking, with a head held high, false face, and fading reality.
You think you know.
This shadow of mine casts a dark reflection for which carries my soul. Walking side by side, flesh, muscle and stature tells you a tale, but my shadow harbors the truth. It’s darkness and rage, horror and fear, a shadowed jail that no one sees when peering at it’s presence upon the ground but me. Yeah I see it; you only see me.
I pray for cloudy days, for rain filled with pain, pressing so very hard upon my skin like needles tearing flesh from the bone. Helping, this searing sensation creates a neural overload strengthening my resolve whenever my shadow is gone. Building up future energy and tolerance for when the sun shines around me so I may survive it’s golden rays for just one more day. I have no place to hide.
You think you know.
You think you know me when we meet, my smile and kind looking eyes but it’s all an act. My laughter and tears are played for an audience, I have become a master actor at life. Doing what I can to appease my shadow, to help hold these demons within. But much like an actor I must retire into solitude, and darkness, to a place inside my head where I can safely practice my lines. It’s a moody uncomfortable place where people can and do get hurt. But regardless it must be.
What you don’t know or will never understand is the sheer context of my life. I feel like a broken glass. Shards chipped, broken, then broken again. Placed carefully inside another glass for all to see.
You think you know.
You mean well and want to help, but you have no way to reach inside this jar, pick a shard to begin putting me back together without hurting yourself, without bleeding and breaking just a little each time your try. Blood mixes with pain to become rain that falls back down on me. It hurts too much to try.
It's all there for you to see. I’m all there, confined within the very transparency of glass for you to see, not fix. Ultimately it is my gift to you. My way of helping you to never become broken, and for those already broken to understand it is ok to accept the truth and to be seen by those who care but don’t know.
So next time you see me, please don’t act like you know.
Because you can’t…..
They Call Me Betty
Its only ten days? It is only ten days a month? What a cushy job you must have; while everyone else is working you must be relaxing, doing what you want, leading a life of luxury with such a forgiving schedule. Ten whole days? Man I need a cushy gig like that!
It sounds simple enough, the life of a firefighter. I have been one since 1995. When you say it out loud 10 days a month really does come across as a dream job of employment, and to some degree it can be. Yet the reality is, 10 days a month can lead to 50 years (30 working + hopefully 20 retired) of despair.
Our schedule is a nifty one and it has changed a few times over the years. From days Mon-Fri 0800-1700, to the Kelly schedule which consists of one day on (24 hours) and one day off (24 hours) for three shifts then four days off (96 hours), to the current scheduling of 48 hours on and 96 hours off.
When I became a full time firefighter it felt as though the world had screeched to a halt. Previously my work schedule consisted of 6 days a week and anywhere from 12-14 hours a day. I was paid by percentage for materials moved so although I could have worked 5 days a week and 8 hours a day I was in fact a hustler. If you even hinted there was more money to be made I would hustle for it, it was who I was and I enjoyed it every time I opened my paycheck. It is a part of me the fire service completely stifled as I never found a direction within the wide array of specialties we provide that kept the hustler feeling alive.
That was me, and I fully understand it is the same schedule of many hardworking Americans today. But the reality is most means of employment consist of an 8-10 hour a day schedule or a 40+ hour work week. A person is paid for the hours put in on the job and provided overtime for anything over those 40 hours. Hopefully being paid accordingly for the effort.
So why does it bug me when someone gives me shit for supposedly only working 10 days a month?
Here is my beef anytime someone, anyone, gives me that smart-alecky you have it so lucky, you must work several jobs cause you have it so easy type attitude.
Yes I work ten days a month, 10/24 hour shifts which never by the way work out to those 10 days a month. You see we are always working extra, which I don’t mind, in fact one of the requirements for being a firefighter is you possess that type A personality which consists of always being a problem solver while continually taking the lead. On anything and everything. Example: We don’t just put the fire out, we stay behind no matter how long it takes to ensure the building is safe, you are safe, you have what you need, your neighbors are ok, hell we have even taken the family pets back to the firehouse and cared for them until arrangements are made! It is just is who we are! Helpers!! But let’s make sure we have our facts straight before running our mouths and tripping over our tongues shall we? Also let me clarify when I say working extra. Working extra comes from mandatory hold overs, shift trades, extended incidents, sick leave/vacation coverage, mandatory training, or recalls for large incidents. Plus we are constantly understaffed so you can see how quickly 10 days grows to 12, 14, or 16 days at the firehouse! That’s half a month away from your family. Half a month away from watching your children participate in life, half a month that you wife is really a single mom.
As I said ten days a month is our base, this equates to a 56 hour work week on average. Sometimes it is much more, other times it is a few hours less. So right out of the gate we are already above the 40 hour work week. Now let me say right here, no complaints on our part at all, it is what we signed up for and trust me when I say there is a LONG line of qualified individuals waiting to step into any vacated position!
But whenever someone whines to me about how cushy my job is with this luxurious 10 day a month work schedule it bears truth to remind them of the pleasantries a 40 hour work week affords them personally. That’s right pal you get up in the morning after sleeping alongside that super special someone very night and head to work. Then after putting in 8-10 hours, you can go home, or to the bar, or an adult league softball game, or bowling or to your kids school play or, or, or, or this could go on indefinite. Every night if you so choose its dinner with the family, spending time with the loved ones, working on that project in the garage, watching late night and then going to sleep next to that super special someone to do it all over again. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Here is my work week or 2.5 days that I work.
I get up in the morning, kiss my wife/kids goodbye and pray I see them in two days. I know this sounds overly dramatic but it is without a shadow of a doubt a truth you can only understand after dealing with the public and emergency responses over any period of time. There are so many things/close calls that have happened over the years I will never tell my wife because if I did, even though she knows the job and understands, she would never let me walk out the door again. EVER…
I arrive at work, get a cup of coffee and go over the morning shift exchange between ongoing and off going members. This is followed by a shift meeting covering our agenda or expectations for the next two days. PT time is observed and straight into morning chores which consist of station and equipment maintenance. The afternoon has training along with specialty projects and of course reports generated from emergency responses. Reports document the entire response for city, and county wide statistics, insurance and homeowner or patient investigations. This sometimes goes into the early hours of the night depending on call volume or deadlines needing to be met. We have dinner as a group and head off into our own directions. Some take a little personal time as in read, study for the next phase in their career, workout some more or as in my case write, while others head nose deep back into work projects. We head off to bed, hopefully sleep (I know right? How awesome I get to freaking sleep on the job!), wake up the next morning and do it all over again. Then we get to go home where the first day is usually kept for clearing our heads while catching up on lost sleep. The second thru fourth day is trying our hardest to spend time with the family and then back to work we go.
It all sounds easy right? Pretty darn cushy. Except for one thing. We handle emergency calls through it all. When the bell goes off we respond and we need to do so in under 2 minutes, no matter the time, day or night. That bell, that loud clanging bell knows no time limit or has a lick of sympathy because it is merely sounding an alarm to another’s tragedy. Tragedies also hold no time limit. They happen day or night, rain or shine, wind or calm. When it sounds we know no matter what kind of day we are having and regardless of how tired or worn we may be it is our duty to respond to someone else’s worst day of their lives! Not only respond but always, and I mean always be on our A game! Plus we get the distinct and amazing pleasure of retaining every single horrible thing we have ever seen or done while performing that job! We carry it around like a full suitcase of horror and that suitcase is always banging, shaking, live with action, gruesome action, reminding us constantly that we were there! Whats inside wants to come out so badly and there are days it does and those days are always at the wrong time, the wrong moment leaving you drained. Can you feel a bit of pressure there?
So let me break this down, yeah, break it on down now!
What that means is during my supposedly cushy ten days a month, I work, train, eat, run calls, fight the eternal, emotional nightmares, and oh if I’m lucky and it’s a good shift, I may get 5 full hours of sleep.
Yeah good times.
So let’s talk a little more about the mental aspect now that we have covered the basics of ten days a month.
When I started the chief told our graduating class: You are going to see some things out there, some really horrible things.
Yep that was it.
We all laughed because we were larger than life, we had in fact become firefighters which means we are invincible, indestructible and we fully bought into the bullshit associated with wearing a department shirt. Now I don’t mean that disrespectfully. That day I pulled my shirt over my head for the first time was one of the proudest moments of my life. I fully loved the career field I came from, but I always knew deep inside there was more, that I was supposed to do more, not for me, but for others. It gnawed at me day and night from the insides so when firefighting found me I knew it was what I needed to do.
It was difficult too. I had an established career, I owned a home and had a wife and child. To leave that all behind on the slimmest of chances that one day I may get hired was a tough pill for my family to swallow. All because I knew inside there was more. It’s why I get a little miffed when I see our shirts on non-fire personnel. You had to earn it.
We laughed, thought there was nothing we couldn’t handle and for a while it was surreal. Looking at your first dead person is overwhelming to say the least. Now throw in a side of body deformation, evulsion, amputation, violent drug overdose, murder, self-inflicted suicide by any means. Heck let’s play the old adage of children are the hardest. To me children are the hardest, but it’s not because they are dead. Nope death is an end, it sucks for someone so young, they never had a chance at life, but for me children suck and stay with you forever when they are the living.
Mom has overdose for the third or fourth time and said child walk in to witness us performing CPR to no avail. 5 year old in the back seat screaming for mom who is clearly a blood smear across the entire front seat, never coming back, never able to hold her child again. Son comes home from school to find dad slumped over the corner of the bed with half his head gone from self-inflicted shotgun blast. We arrive to an insane scene filled with screaming and hysterics. Yeah the living children always get me. It’s the father in me, I want so badly to take them home, help them anyway I can and it is always a very quiet engine ride back to the station.
But wait there is more…
There is no place in this damn town I can go without seeing a ghosts. Every place, even some of my absolute favorites have ghost standing around, looking at me, and asking me why?
Why couldn’t we do anything or how did this happen? They tower like billboards flashing a message that blinds me, leaves seeing only white as repeatedly I flash back to that moment, that second in time where we either tried like hell or made base contact and called it as we saw it. D.O.A.
The man overcome with fumes in a grain silo that no one could get too. Another stepped in front of a train and faced it with hardened resolve, we picked up pieces for what felt like hours. A car full of teenagers, flipping over in the night, their burned bodies found when the fog lifted in the morning. The smell of burned flesh, young, old, that smell, it doesn’t discriminate and it never goes away. We pulled those kids out for the coroner, one piece at a time, one badly burned smelling piece at a time. A teenager hung in the garage, with obvious signs he had changed his mind to no avail, he was a victim of love gone wrong. Another teenager who shot themselves because that person was tired of being bullied. A former law enforcement officer kills himself in front of us as we turn the corner because he couldn’t stand the pain any longer. The CPR attempts, oh lord the CPR attempts! So many, more than I can count, and to be honest there have been so many that I can’t even put a win to loss ratio on them anymore and yes we do take it quite personally when we lose!
These are merely a few, a tidbit, the smallest of snippets of the calls I have been associated with over the years. Many so very graphic and disturbing. We as firefighters get the distinct pleasure of bearing witness to the most horrendous acts one person can inflict upon another or themselves.
I think back to what the chief told us, what I stated above: You are going to see some things out there, some really horrible things.
He was right and in his defense it was a different time. We were expected to be tough, to hold it inside, you were laughed at if a call bugged or bothered you in anyway. We used and still do use dark humor to quell the inner beast. Firefighters don’t cry, they are supposed to be strong, and brave. We are the hero’s so we must act like it. We never claim to be heroes and I personally cannot stand anyone within the service who acts as though they are, for we are people. People who do a job for which we are well trained. We have a need an overwhelming need to help and combined with that education that is why we do what we do. But hero? No
The ghost are real. They are fucking real and they never go away. We keep them from our families and our children but they pay the price.
Some days I just want to be left alone, I don’t want to talk and I’m a prick no matter how hard I try to keep it together. I am lucky, as I stated earlier my wife understands, but that is because she was once a firefighter so she knows the schedule, knows the struggles we go through and understands when I need to be left to my own devices. But that doesn’t make it right.
My children can’t do anything without me seeing the dangers! I am constantly all over them for whatever they do like an insane safety cop trying my hardest to keep them out of harm’s way. When either of my boys pulls out of the driveway I am constantly on guard, worrying the call will come that one of them has been killed in an accident. At the station when I finally get to lay my head down for a bit I pray they are all safe at home, yet images of horrific accidents or fire rolls through my head and are instantly transposed upon my family. I close my eyes tightly and fight the mental demon knowing (irrationally) that one day the tones will roll and my address with be on the tip of the dispatchers tongue.
Speaking of addresses, there is no count to how many times the dispatched address is a person or family within my personal circle. Working in the town for which you reside and your children participate brings with it another responsibility, another personal struggle when things go south. When things go well, the pats on the back are extra special, but when they go south they are twice as painful. If you perish on my shift either before we arrive or in front of me, it is a tough to pill to swallow when I don’t know you. Your ghost lingers and wonders why. But if you are a member of my extended family, close friends, or even well-known acquaintances then it’s even harder. Looking into the eyes of your surviving family members is so hard, there are no words to say, your ghost is much harder to deal with and every time we (surviving family) cross paths the pain is all to real. You wear it like a badge of failure.
The fire service has determined PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) is a real thing. Thank goodness, because we are losing way too many members to the mental struggles that resides within us all. I have only touched on a small portion of what rolls around inside my head. There is so much more and one day I will talk about it all. One day I hope to purge all the ghosts, at the very least erase the faces. I know this inside this won’t come until I retire as every shift has a new face attached. They say time heals all wounds, but these wounds never heal. They are covered in scabs, scabs that we keep picking at because we just can’t or in some cases won’t let them heal.
The best we can do is recognize the problem, show it to the world and find help for those who need it desperately. They are out there, and they need compassion and understanding for the weight carried upon their backs.
I have 6 years left to go.
6 years of only 10 days a month.
Pretty cushy gig huh?
A Veteran Firefighter in California
THIN RED LINE Firehose Flag Honor, Respect, Tradition and Sacriﬁce. That is the heart beat of the Fire Service across our nation. In nearly every ﬁreﬁghter there lives a deep passion that drives them to selﬂessly give and to put their lives in danger for their fellow neighbors. My desire to honor those in the ﬁre service is what lead me to make the Thin Red Line ﬂag. My name is Chris Harder, I am a Captain with the San Ramon Valley Fire Protection District. My passion for the ﬁre service started in 1991 when I became a volunteer ﬁreﬁghter in a small town in Northern California. From the moment, I rode the Engine and experienced my ﬁrst call I knew I was made for this. Year after year of critical calls gave way to physical injury and what I learned later was mental injury.
I came to realize that I was not alone and many ﬁreﬁghters suffer from Critical Incident Stress as well. Our department developed a Critical Incident Stress Management Team and Peer Support Group after seeing ﬁrst hand the career ending effects of PTSD. I have been blessed to be a part of this great team and through the training provided by KLOVE’s Crisis Response Care we have been able to recognize signs and symptoms of critical incident stress and provide the necessary resources to walk alongside them on their journey through the healing process.
Captain Chris Harder
San Ramon Fire Protection District
I have used the word vulnerable repeatedly, and to be honest I don't know if I like it. I have discussed with firefighters and paramedics the need to be vulnerable and the need to share of themselves. But I don't think that it translates well.
Vulnerability in psychobabble land is to have your guard down, you can be fully yourself within and/or with others. It is a 'state of being' needed to do work and heal and kind of a requirement. Vulnerability though in any other part of the world, generally means something more sinister, something more weak or exposed. I think if someone I didn't know well told me to be vulnerable and my understanding was weakness I'd think, "kiss my ass" and then just check out from what they were saying for awhile.
How about trust? Is that a word we can use? Inherently, we all are always looking for this whether within ourselves or within our relationships. Internally asking "can I be or share these part of my self?" Trust is the thing that allows us to be the psychobabble version of vulnerable, without having to use a word that shuts people down or off. When one has been hurt, betrayed, cast aside, abandoned, injured, scared, sad, disappointed, etc. within a lifetime it can be hard to trust, to share of our self.
So you won't be shocked to learn that Firefighter/EMS personalities generally (or always) try to 'test' this theory out. Really though, this is a way of trying to 'control it.' A "you can't hurt me, I hurt myself" or my favorite line of "at least if I pinch myself I can control how much it hurts." An example would be they may feel better one day and go to 'test it out' by spending the next self sabotaging and then sit back on their haunches and declare, "see, I knew that was a fluke, I really am just f*cked up or I knew it wouldn't last long." They may test this in a relationship that has been worn down by years of sleepless nights, emotional disconnection and resentment, and after doing a grand gesture that is not received with the appreciation they had hoped for think, "I know we are done now, they don't care or why don't they see what I'm trying to do?" Problem is, these 'trust tests' are faulty.
If you want to test something, what do you do? Well in school you learn a bunch of info, study and then take a test; you have time to prepare. When you are running a diagnostic you start with a list of symptoms and begin ruling things in and out from years of education, experience and practice; you have time to prepare. So, why oh why would this be any different? Why would you 'test' the strength or fortitude of your inner trust on a day or a moment? Why would you 'test' your trust in a relationship based on a day or a moment?
When you are rebuilding trust or gaining trust in whatever area you are, it takes time, patience, practice and you need time to prepare. You need time to stumble, you need time to hurt, you need time for successes, you need time to take emotional risks and you need time to learn. All of these aspects go into the other 'tests' in life and 'testing trust' is no different.
Cody Todd Psy.D., L.C.P.C., N.C.C.
Red Tail Clinical Counseling