On the fire scene, a parapet wall often hides (masks) unforeseen dangers and can pose MANY threats to firefighters. At the very least, they present several challenges and can / do affect how we go about our daily business (they change how we operate).
They are sneaky, deceiving and potentially deadly.
I've been thinking a lot about "emotional parapets" lately and the "walls" we in Emergency Services often build to mask or hide our true feelings. I think about these walls because I KNOW about them ….. I've built several.
Those of you who have followed me and this site for any length of time know the struggles I've been dealing with over the past year. It's been a very emotional journey and I'm still working my way through it.
Although I've made significant progress over the last few months, I've also known that the Holiday season was fast approaching and that there was nothing I could do to stop it.
I haven't been looking forward to it for several (obvious) reasons. This November was the first Thanksgiving I've spent without my brother Jack. Christmas is yet to come, the anniversary of his death and then his and my birthdays are both in January. I wish I could just skip it all but I can't. It wouldn't be fair to my friends or family.
I'm not sure how to handle both of the struggles I'm facing (remembering Jackson yet not ruining / saddening the Holidays for my family by having to see me upset / sad). My therapist, who I still see twice a week; has been a tremendous help. Her advice for the Holidays has been to focus on the good times. To share and tell the funny stories and all the good things we shared. I'm not sure I can.
I know the stories and hold the memories dear but they also remind me that he's not here. Remembering the good times reminds me that he's gone (as if I need a reminder). It's a very thin line that I'm not sure I can walk.
This site has been a great outlet for me to voice / share my feelings but I'm still learning to do it face to face. I'm still learning how to "talk" about my feelings. I'm still hesitant to show my true feelings or share my pain with those closest to me. On one hand I think "how can I hurt the ones I love?" (by exposing them to my pain) while on the other hand, I know they already see how much I'm hurting and that my unwillingness or inability to open up and share with them is hurtful in its own way.
Rhett and I have been speaking on the subject lately and already have several sessions scheduled for 2014. We call it "Professional Wellness" and it includes both physical and mental health. In those talks, I speak about a mental "file cabinet" where we as first responders often "store" or "file away" the thoughts / memories of the calls (incidents) that we want to forget ….or at least don't want to talk about.
As first responders, we have many "coping" mechanisms (some good …some bad). That mental filing cabinet is just one. Dark humor is another one very often used (although we all know there was noting "funny" or humorous about what it is/was we were trying to avoid).
We also build those "walls" I was talking about …the facades or parapets. We put up an emotional wall of "I'm ok" or "I'm doing better" when asked or in front of others when, in fact; we aren't.
I bring this up so you as peers, Company Officers and even Chief Officers can better understand.
Personally, I have made progress and I really have been doing / feeling better. I've been learning to live and cope with the ups and downs. I've come to understand that when I'm feeling down, it doesn't have to last for a day, week or month any more.
I've learned this for myself but it's still difficult to share openly. You see, people are starting to treat me "normal" again. Believe me … I want to be "normal" again but know that I never will be. I've written about it several times and fully understand that I will emerge from this a different person. Click HERE to read "Searching for a New Normal" .
Again I'll say that I'm one of the lucky ones. I have this outlet as well as an Army of support. A lot of our Brothers and Sisters out there are not as fortunate to have the resources I do. There are Brothers and Sisters working beside you right now… today… who are hurting …. who are suffering with STRESS, GRIEF, DEPRESSION and/or PTSD.
On the outside, they are good at hiding it. Their walls are solid and they're not going to let you in or over that wall. I've said it multiple times over the past year here on Ironfiremen.com …. these are the walls that need torn down!
It's time (HELL … it's way PAST time) that we start teaching our members that it's ok to have these feelings. We need to start imprinting our recruits with the knowledge that it's ok to speak up and ask for help when something bothers them. It's the same problem we faced years ago related to calling a "MAYDAY". Back then, it was taboo to make that call for help. It was a sign you were weak or a sub-par firefighter. By the time members back then actually called the MAYDAY (if they did at all) it was likely already too late. We're worked hard to overcome that stigma and break down those walls but now we have to do the same for "emotional MAYDAYs".
Please take the time to listen in on a Pod Cast from Firefighter Tool Box.com (link) featuring Chief Pat Kenny in the link below …
So far, in 2013 we have suffered 95+ Line Of Duty Deaths. The number of Firefighters (active and retired) who have committed suicide is believed to be in the hundreds! (suicide is not considered a LODD and we in the Fire Service have done a poor job at reporting and tracking suicide within our own ranks). Click HERE to visit the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance for more .
It's also past the time for us to start educating ourselves on how to recognize the signs and symptoms of Stress, Depression and PTSD as well as how and where to send these members for the help they need.
I was again lucky in that Rhett and I (for whatever reason) were given 8 months to figure out how to get me help. My own Department didn't (and still doesn't) know how to handle / treat me and we are a fairly large Department for our area (plus we're Internationally Accredited).
If a Department of our size and status has trouble dealing with Mental Health and Wellness issues, how are some of the smaller, more rural and / or under-funded Departments dealing with it?
If we can not help ourselves…. our own members… the Brothers and Sisters riding beside us … how can we be expected to help those we are sworn to serve and protect? Think about that for a minute.
What I wanted to tell ya tonight is to look out for those facades…. for the parapet walls. If you know something is bothering a Brother or Sister … if they haven't been acting right and / or just haven't been themselves, don't let them build that wall between you. Don't let them try to hold it inside or file it away in that emotional filing cabinet. Let them know it's ok and that you want to help. Make sure they have the access to the help they need and don't leave them alone until you know they're getting it. Holiday season or not … you may only get one chance. Here are the links I've found most helpful ….
On a side note, you can also use the link below to listen to a recent Pod Cast from Fire Engineering Radio where I was a guest speaker on F.O.O.L.S Radio (it's a long show but worth the listen … plenty of callers etc towards the end). The topic was Firefighter Suicide and Mental Health.
Stay SAFE and in House!