It’s not about what we see, but what we do.
The line is so clearly written at this point. We hear it reverberating from everyone in the field. We speak about “seeing” trauma. This is not fully true, is it? We don’t simply “see”, we “do”. How often do we simply show up and look at everything? Never. If we are truly to accept the impact that this role has on us, we should talk realistically about what it is that we are involved in.
We should stop suggesting that we “see” nasty things and remind prospective recruits that it’s what we do that matters. Being realistic about the work allows us to speak honestly about the major emotional impacts that come with this job. We should be prepared for the fact that the headliner calls are not always the ones that get us. We should be prepared for the typical medical calls that quickly go atypical once we arrive. And, we should be prepared to handle members of the person’s family as well as the pressure to perform and to fix the problem, which can feel crushing. The family members of those we serve watch. We do.
It is a fickle dance on the tightrope between life and death that we navigate on scene. And we work with our hands on the pottery. We make connections. Our hands land physically upon the chest of someone that we’re doing CPR on. We’re in their homes, in their bedrooms. We get a look into someone’s sanctuary. We listen to arguments out of frustration for someone not taking care of themselves, or out of worry and love because the family feels that their loved ones didn’t do exactly what they should have that day. This all has an effect on us. After all, are you comfortable with a bunch of strangers in your home, let alone in your bedroom?
I don’t believe that this is any small nuance. The language that we are using matters. And, I also don’t believe that this is the simple shuffling of words to help avoid using stigmatized terminologies. We need to fully appreciate the things we do, and simply regurgitating that we see things, is a misunderstanding of why it can be so traumatizing and harmful for those of us who serve.
It is also about what we are doing following these calls that matters. If we decided that after a tough call that we bury our feelings of frustration, anger, and disappointment under drugs and alcohol, we are putting ourselves at risk for further mental harm. There is limited research on this point, however, the research available does identify that firefighters tend to gravitate toward alcohol more than the public. But, if we spring into action and engage both our bodies and our minds we can recover from the effects of these events. The typical three areas of healthy living that maybe we tire of hearing (eating right, sleeping, and high-intensity exercise) are precisely what the body needs. We have a neck between our heads and our bodies; they are connected and not separate from each other. We need to start caring for ourselves with this fact in mind.
Connections are important. We are discussing human beings whose entire cognitive processing is a collection of events, people, places, and things. This means when we show up on scene, our brains automatically try to make sense of it. Our brains search for past experiences that this current scene may remind us of. Our cognitive engines conspire against us and the first things that can pop into our minds can be the faces of loved ones. Our clients look like them after all. Or, they can be the faces of our children, or of our spouses, fathers, mothers and the list continues. Those connections elicit an emotions response from us. We become “charged” when we see someone that looks like someone we know. We can then become hyper-focused and work on trying to right those wrongs as if we were working for our own family. Those emotions stick with us as we leave the scene as well. And, have the potentially to continue with us, especially if the outcome of the call was not positive.
Our inability to compartmentalize these different experiences is precisely the reason why these calls can affect us. But, understanding that our minds automatically gravitate to these connections is a powerful insight. We may have judgments of ourselves when we think these completely normal and common thoughts. Those feelings of uselessness, of hopelessness, of frustration, are all normal. When those connections are made, it is because our brain is seeking, desperately, to find something that makes sense. When we can’t, the world can start to look unreal or unnatural. This can lead to dissociations, in our brain’s attempt to protect us from the stressor at hand.
Connections are important for another reason as well. Because the connections we have to our families and to our peers, is vitally important at these moments. They can be the weight that keeps us grounded and mentally safe when we find ourselves struggling. The comradery that comes following a particularly difficult call becomes paramount to our recovery. This is why research on peer-support shows such promise. If we disconnect from our crew, our partners, and our families, we then risk becoming isolated. And this place is a lonely, harmful place to spend much time in. We need to reach and create connections, which is a difficult task for someone who is often reminded of how, “nasty, brutish, and short” the world can be.
As firefighters, we work in a world of pain, turmoil, and devastation. Each call, is someone’s worst day. But, by focusing solely on the hurt that is experienced we put ourselves at risk. That negativity can stunt our abilities to grow compassionately. We do immense good. The reasons that firefighters are so coveted is because we work within a world that most would not like to find themselves in. And, we do good work. We are resilient already. We simply need to make the necessary changes, so we can align these traits with healthy outcomes. This, however, requires a realistic look at the language we use, the connection we have, and our ability to recognize that we need a cultural change within the service.