You can never forget you!

Today I went fishing.

There are three things in this world that I love participating in more than anything else.

  1. Riding/working horses
  2. Fishing
  3. Riding a motorcycle (any motorcycle)

Peaceful water cracking against the hull, birds of every variety flying overhead, some even landing near our boat. Seals breaking the surface to say hello and cattle off in the distance grazing quietly. Sitting silently with two lines in the water my eyes dart back and forth between the fish finder as I monitor the water temperature and the picturesque surroundings on what had to be one of the most perfect mild temperature, no wind kind of days. The only thing that would have made it even better? A bigger boat so I could duck inside and take a nap! Ha!!! Old guy perfection right there baby!!!

So why is this so important and why would you the reader care?

The other day while speaking to someone the topic arose as it usually does in regards to personal, family oriented, doctor/cancer related struggles that life had become unmanageable. We all have struggles in our lives, some more serious than others and even that severity can be tempered through one’s own personal perception.

We commiserated over many of the same issues in regards to holding things together when all seems lost or hopelessness abounds and as I switched from a willing partner in the gripe arena to sound listener I could not help but forward some very sage advice after asking if any advice offered would be received. (I mean I DO have a little experience in this arena) Thankfully the answer was yes.

I reminded this person that as life is crashing around and people are no longer meeting your expectations you may need a break. As the hill gets harder to climb and you find yourself crying more than laughing your brain is saying enough. When the only thing you care about is the immediate and everything else can just go to hell it is time for an intervention. So what must this person do to quench the fires as it were? You must remember exactly who you are, don’t ever forget WHO YOU ARE! It is time for you to do something for you!

Take time to find that one thing (or three) that reminds you that you are you! I guarantee that stress combined with an overachiever mentality and over time you will forget who you are! Overwhelmed by the many tasks that lay before you on a daily basis you eventually end up putting little old tired you in the closet while hiding behind this public persona superhero cape! It really beats you up no matter what, but if you’re the type that’s not a quitter in any way, shape or form the weight upon you is enormous! So do what you have to do, but find that thing that makes you, you!

You were somebody before you got married! You were hopefully somebody you even liked and enjoyed hanging out with before life came crashing down! I know in the beginning you are going to feel guilty, but tough shit!!! In time that guilt fades, you begin to balance back out and when the world is spinning out of control you have the fortitude to handle it!

For me it was an accidental stop at a local eatery in town for breakfast on one of those “spinning out of control” days. I felt guilty walking through the door, I felt guilty spending money on myself for breakfast, I felt guilty because I needed to leave for Stanford, and after I sat down, alone, I felt guilty that my wife wasn’t with me, and that I was eating out without her!

But you know what else happened?

I felt better after the first cup of coffee that I didn’t have to make. The waitress was kind and could see I needed to be alone. I turned off my phone and watched the news in the bar next to my booth. I ordered what I wanted (yeah cholesterol be damned) and ate it slowly, with a smile. It was 40 minutes out of what turned into a nightmarishly insane day and it was worth all 2,400 seconds. I walked out, sat in my car and realized I had forgotten who I was.

After that day I made a point to remember to ride a horse, go fishing with or without kids, and ride a motorcycle.

You see without knowing who I was, how on earth could I be anything to anyone else? I could try, but instead of success I was merely adding more to an overflowing plate. If I spend time at any one of those three things, from a few hours to a day or two, there is nothing I cannot handle when I come back. I know who I am, my feet are firmly on the ground and I have said; its ok to give myself a timeout now let’s tackle the world.

So today a fishing trip turned into a recollection which turned into a blog post which turned into me being able to put my head down tonight, get a good night’s sleep so that tomorrow I can wake up, smile, put my feet on the floor and tell the world it’s ok, you can throw what you want at me again.

I’m ready.

On a side note, you don’t have to be struggling mentally, physically or living through some personal hell to remember to take care of yourself. Life is hard, and for some reason we make it harder for ourselves by forgetting the only person who can help us navigate our very short time on this earth.

That person is you! Make the change, then when the hard times do come you are miles ahead of where I was in November of 2013 when our world came crashing down.

~Betty~

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An Incredible Journey

I am on an incredible journey and I don’t know why.

Why was I chosen to walk this path filled with so many unexpected surprises? Why do I struggle with the same challenges day after day, feeling as if there is no reprieve? Why I am even allowed a new morning when others for who I look up to, revere or admire are facing their last days or have simply vanished, passing from their earthly constraints.

Every day I awaken, place my feet firmly upon the floor and stand up. I then make a conscious decision. Do I carry on, or give up? Do I meet the day’s challenges or pull the sheets over my head and cry foul? Do I continue to regress emotionally or do I say fuck this, square up my shoulders then throw a middle finger towards an overwhelming temptation to just quit?

Lately it has definitely been the latter. I’ve been putting on a good face while struggling to get out of bed then smiling the smile, telling the same old jokes, letting the actions or words of some bring me down and basically feeling as though I should be giving up. I am not happy, not happy in one little bit.

The darkness has crept in and I haven’t seen any light for quite some time. Between the duties of caregiver to my wife, caregiver to the public and struggling to remain a vigilant father while my children struggle with their own feelings for which they have no knowledge or control over in regards to our current situation. I have slowly faded away. Not all at once, but little bits at a time.

It feels like constant darkness in my head, every moment of every day and there has been nothing I can do about it.

So you begin to ask; if there is so much darkness why do you proclaim this an incredible journey?

Because like it or not, hate it or love it, detest its existence or clamor for more, it is an incredible journey!

As human beings it is our job to grow and share. It is not a right, you are not rightfully given another day on this earth. You have no right to prosperity and wealth, you have no right to a job, a house, a marriage, a life of any kind. You have to earn it!! Then grow and share through the process!

That’s right, I know this may come as a shocker to some, but your life is earned. What you have accomplished by the time your final day comes (and it comes for us all) is 100% purely up to you!

My grandmother came to me in a dream last night. (Don’t get all; holy shit he’s gone off the deep end) Although I know dreams are a conglomeration of memories, subconscious thoughts, neural transmissions and blah, blah, blah. It was exactly what I needed at just the right time.

My grandmother on my mother’s side was a very interesting woman. She graduated from Stanford during a time when women were considered less than men. She dated a few notable individuals of the time. She made her own way through life when in her forties her husband, my grandfather died of a heart attack. She had a very successful career in finance when women were considered nothing more than secretaries and used her skills to set an example. She traveled the world going where she wanted when she wanted with nothing holding her back!

As a child I vaguely remember her stories about life, travel and the many lessons she put before me. Whenever we visited she used buttons to teach us about money, plants in her greenhouse to teach us about life, books to teach us about literature and conversation to teach us about the human equation. I woke up this morning wishing I was 8 again so I could hug her and listen more intently.

She wrote a book about her life. I have it on a shelf. I have read twice and when I awoke this morning it dawned on me that I may need to read it again. I need that emotional connection, to relearn what it means to be me, throwing caution to the wind, standing up for and protecting my ethics, beliefs and way of life no matter what anyone else says because my life is mine. To help stay on track, for in my heart I still believe that we all learn from one another’s triumphs and mistakes. During this crazy time where our socializations seems to only focus on a small device that spews nothing more than negativity an hate tearing the very fabric of this country. Maybe one small voice, writing about his struggles in an obscure seldom read blog could remind us there is a positive, no matter the circumstances and that choice would mine to make. No one could take it away.

My current situation has a myriad of balls all up in the air, a juggler’s nightmare as gravity brings them towards me at a dizzying pace! It constantly comes up in conversation when people say; I don’t know how you do it, in regards to the struggle associated with raising four children, working as a firefighter while caring for my wife with stage four Graf vs Host disease. Watching as she withers away, gets strong then withers away again. Is frustrated with the fact she is going blind yet bravely and with great fortitude works her way through daily activities for which she refuses to give up on. She is strong, brave and amazing.

It (the how do you do it comment) is a simple enough statement, it is never meant with any disingenuous undertone, and my response is usually almost always; it is what it is. I say that as to not offend anyone or hurt their feelings. But my real thought is; how could I not! This is my life, my family, my wife, what the hell else am I supposed to do?

I realize we live in a decaying society where it is easier to point a finger, post it on Facebook, complain publicly, give up and run away than it is to stay behind and fight for the ones you love! Fight for the life and family you have created! To me that is a sad moniker of what our lives in this country have boiled down too. If the going gets tough-make a spectacle then QUIT!

There are those that wonder why I write so openly about my personal life and if it affects anyone close to me.

Yes it does affect those close to me, but I have always felt deep inside it was my obligation to share everything. Why? Because I have yet to see one writing that adequately covers or assists the multitude of struggles and emotions I am feeling. Everything ever written in regards to being the spouse of a Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant survivor is generic! Nothing even remotely touches the many facets of life this horrible disease along with recovery post-transplant throws in your face. It is all glossed over as to not scare you. Well guess fucking what? Life is a scary thing, now throw in all the new challenges associated with a wife whose body is trying to kill her and well you better sack up and learn from someone who has walked the path! Stay firmly away from those who wallow in a dream world where after treatment life just carries on as if nothing ever happened!!! Which is where I think I come in, for those who want the truth and seek it through my writings.

So then I wonder do people think my attitude comes naturally. My ability to cope? To understand and carry on?

Because it takes work, patience and the ability to listen, not pass judgement when you can and keep an open mind. It takes and incredible amount of faith and that faith is tested, over and over and over again! This journey I am on reinforces all those things on a daily basis!

So then my mind digs deeper into that simple question of “how do I do it” and I wonder some more. Do people believe that being a firefighter comes naturally? That we are all born with some obscure kryptonite type gene that predisposes us to the atrocities of the human condition? You see, firefighting, that is the easy part! It always has been and always will be. You still need to understand basic chemistry and have a few years’ experience using those skills to know exactly when and where placing the right amount of water at the right time will put out the fire while saving lives and property. This professions education is real, the long hours studying and keeping those skills are mind numbing. As a firefighter you need to become proficient at a little bit of everything. Building construction, demolition expert, code compliance, hazardous materials, chemist, investigator, auto mechanic, auto technician, computer genius, locksmith, heating and air technician, heavy equipment operator, financial advisor, ER doctor, supervisor, pastor, councilor and truck driver. If you added up the salaries of all those things each member would be worth over a million a year and we can go into the private section with our degrees and make three times what we struggle to earn in our jobs, but that’s not why we do it. It is an overwhelming need to help people. But as if that load of constant learning wasn’t enough, and as I said, fighting fires using all that education is in fact the easy part, you know what the real struggle is? The thing that keeps us up at night, the thing that not one mother fucker prepares you for that haunts your very soul when you lay your head down on that pillow?

It is the endless onslaught of death that we must deal with on a regular basis. Dancing in our heads like ghosts from Christmas past. Dealing with them any way we can, through counseling, good friends and time away from the big green fire engines. It is also coming back the station and reading in the local paper that our city council doesn’t support us in the least. Or we are attacked by the public because we go as an engine company to the store to purchase our supplies which we pay for from our own pockets or that our retirement is some magical golden egg that is draining the state’s coffers when we pay an ungodly amount of money per month out of our own pockets to fund it. Its understanding and coming to terms with the fact we are not funded in social security therefore we only receive from social security what we put in prior to joining the fire department. But hey none of that matters as we lay our heads down at night, trying to erase all those horrible images while also knowing we are unsupported you know why? Because most of us won’t live past 60! It is a statistical fact we will all contract some form of cancer from all the chemicals and carcinogens we have absorbed or inhaled throughout the years! But no worries we’ll just keep pushing it all down deep inside so it doesn’t show when we get home! That way our families and spouses won’t see or feel our pain, so they can have that great husband or father home for few days all happy and cheery like normal families!! Right? Right?

Why do we do it? Why do we keep coming back for more? Because we wish nothing more than to make that one save, that one moment in life where a positive impact on another human beings life has been made. So despite being treated like shit by our public officials, living with our deepest emotions, we can rest easy knowing another is alive, enjoying their family because of the sacrifices we willingly made. Fulfilling our own prophecy through hard work and dedication. Bringing life full circle.

This journey has allowed me to witness my wife fight for her life while I hold her hand, struggle as she struggles and rejoice as she rejoices. We don’t always agree on the topic of rejoicing but through this journey I have learned the importance of shutting my mouth while allowing my spouse to find the joy she needs over little accomplishments. I have learned to keep my mouth shut as she sheds tears, relinquishing my need to fix things. For there is nothing I can fix and only a shoulder to cry upon or an ear to yell into is needed at that moment in time. I have found understanding I never knew I had as unwarranted venom flows from her mouth one minute and angel’s wings sprout lifting her high over her pain another. I hug her when she needs to be hugged and leave her be when she wants nothing more than her headphones and a television show she has seen 100 times so she can listen to it as her eyes will no longer allow her to watch.

This journey has taken a toll on my life and although as of late I have been angry over its direction, angry at the life we now lead, angry at myself for being so very fucking angry inside!! ALL THE DAMN TIME!! It is still my journey, I am writing (quite literally) my own story. It is up to me how it ends.

At the end of the day, when my time has come, I want my children to look back and not remember the struggle. But remember their father handled it all, with strength, grace, positivity, faith and a plan. Ok let’s face it a few good old fashioned Irish/Italian hot headed fuck you fest temper tantrums as well. Then I want them to be able to go to a bookshelf, pull out a well written book, open the pages and read the story of my life, their lives, and the lives of those who loved them unconditionally. I want them to ride along in this journey page by page and remember the way I remember my grandmother.

Does labeling this shit storm we live in a fantastic journey mean I will become more positive? No, it means I know who I am and what I need to do.

Will my mood cease to be down and at times dark? No, I am human and with that naturally comes forms of negativity. It is life.

The blog has been dark as of late because I have been struggling with so many emotions tearing me up inside. I am sorry I haven’t been able to share for those who reach out to me on a regular basis. Time to light it up again, hit that keyboards and continue along with this fantastic journey.

God help me…

 

 

 

 

Wins and losses = PTSD

fire 6

 

It is by the numbers they say, we live our lives in columns of wins and losses. Every day we, the human beings walking this gigantic greenhouse we call earth walk out the door and in the blink of an eye easily break down our existence to nothing more than wins and losses.

From the time we can understand the gibberish coming from our parent’s lips we are told to pick our battles, get along with others, speak only when spoken too, judge not lest ye be judged, and we can be anything we choose to become yet be prepared for the struggle that may lay ahead.

Every one of those tidbits of wisdom revolve around wins and losses.

It further convolutes our mental wellbeing as we grow older. For we no longer look to our parents for sage advice. These challenges be it work, relationships, sports, after hours activities, projects and dreams of our own that must be chased can all be boiled down to wins and losses! We take them on; lumps to the head, body and mind be dammed! We are adults now and can handle our own business.

We hear it all the time! WINNNING!!! Or man you are such a loser. An assumption made upon a moment, movement or emotional situation resulting in an action, deed or punishment.

Therefore our societal needs dictate we win! Nothing brings fame, fortune, happiness or simple satisfaction more than winning! When we are younger and we win at a team sport, that moment of exhilaration is breath taking, amazing, a real high produced by natural endorphins leaving us exhausted upon its retreat from our system.

But when we lose if we are truly driven individuals we strive harder for success, fighting, clawing, learning, adapting, becoming one who grows and develops into that winner or winning individual again. Why? Because we crave that sensation, we lust for that endorphin rush, we yearn to be someone or something special, not just in our own eyes or the eyes of the ones we love but in everyone’s eyes!

So no matter what we chose to do in life, thanks to the imprinting our parents and society have placed upon us (and this not a bad thing mind you, just stay with me) we are left with wins and losses, our whole life can be simplified into easily accessible columns of wins and losses.

It is what makes us as human beings strive for the very best. It is what I believe keeps us getting up every day and moving forward, no matter how difficult life can and does become.

I read a story the other day about a fire captain in southern California who took it upon himself while out driving to stop his vehicle upon a highway overpass, place the vehicle in park, walk to the security fence, scale that fence and jump to the freeway below. He met his untimely end at the front of a semi-truck. It should never have happened.

Last year according to the National Fire Protection Agency or NFPA 132 firefighters took their own lives in this great nation. One Hundred and Thirty Two firefighters woke up one morning and could no longer bear the thought of waking up another day.

We as a firefighting family are not doing a good enough job.

Those 132 human beings who sacrificed their lives for their community on a daily basis were let down by us their firefighting family. 132 lives taken, more than by injury or illness last year. Gone forever.

WE ARE LOSING

Firefighters take the wins and losses columns we are engrained with from childhood and we amplify them, placing them under a magnifying glass within our heads. Those win and loss columns mean more to us than our sports rec league basketball team, or our children’s baseball team. Winning at a football fantasy league or winning by finishing the build on your deck. Everything in life fits into these columns of success or failure and when it comes to our chosen profession they mean so much more because lives are attached within each column.

The way I see it we are failing to recognize that although we will never feel as though it is ok to lose, we do lose and we need to talk about it. We need to talk about those losses and how they affect us emotionally when we pull off the uniform. We need to quit treating these losses as if they are the elephant in the room everyone sees but no one wishes to speak about.

Imagine everyday going to work, trying hard and though you have minor wins here and there the losses over time begin to pile up. In the beginning of your career its ok, you rebound well and pretend to not keep track. But after several years those losses begin to wear you down and after a while you can no longer pretend they don’t exist. You stop waking up each morning thinking like a winner! You begin to dread that first cup of coffee where before you would grab it on the way out the door thinking today is the day for another win!

The wins are there, don’t get me wrong, but soon stopping the spread of fire through a structure quickly or rescuing a family from an overturned vehicle doesn’t equate to the loss of life you have been party too. You feel remorse for not having done the job better, or quicker because in the end people are still injured and some things just can’t be unseen! The feeling of success slowly becomes fewer and father between.

Someone once told me that each incident truly bothering me is like a rock, and I am coping by placing those rocks in an emotional back pack. The problem is no one has taught me how to unload the back pack, so I walk around with more weight than I can bear on a daily basis and someday it will be so heavy the thought of just giving up, no longer wishing to carry this backpack will enter my mind.

We wear the wins on the outside, we carry the losses in our backpack. We are no longer well balanced and what we carry around is just our work, let alone what we load onto ourselves from our personal home life. Like a rat in an unwinnable maze we become emotionally trapped.

The faces from our past begins haunting us, showing up at incidents, during our family time, holidays and worst of all in our sleep, our dreams. We transfer guilt and blame, death and loss onto those we love and we hate ourselves for every minute our psyche allows participation in this pointless mental interaction.

This Christmas when you are with family and friends look around, is there a firefighter, police officer or emergency medical worker with you? Talk with them, show them love, let them know how very grateful you are to have them in your life. They may not be reeling from stagnation within the wins and losses column, their back pack may not be full, but if they have been doing any of these glorious jobs for any amount of time they might not yet recognize its ramifications. They only need an ear, an ability to tell a story, and be allowed to feel everything is ok.

If one of these people you know shows any signs of depression, withdrawal or strange behavior, don’t be afraid to lend a hand. Don’t be afraid to tell them you love them and find the assistance they need. Be that pillar of strength they are looking for.

I don’t have all the answers, but I know this; on this Christmas Eve 2016 it is all I can think about. That somewhere out there a person such as myself is wondering if another is ok. If they need help, and is there anything that can be done to help them. We can’t keep losing, we can’t keep feeling as though we are losing and we can no longer turn a blind eye to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the emergency services field.

1 firefighter lost is one to many, 132 is simply unacceptable! I don’t have the numbers for Police or Emergency Services (ER rooms, Ambulances) but we are one large family. Let’s work hard to make 2017 the breakout year for PTSD acceptance. Build programs so our own can reach out to help our own who are struggling.

No firefighter should feel as though the only option they have is to scale a fence and jump. Leaving behind everything they ever loved, everything that fell into the win column on a daily basis.

Be thankful for what you have, for who you love and for who loves you in return. Merry Christmas and a very happy New Year..

Betty….

If you sense someone is in trouble:

Call 911

The National Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-8255

Contact the 10-33 foundation for more information

www.1033foundation.org

Betty’s AKA:

Fire Engineer James Franceschi

22 years of service to the citizens of Dixon California

 

 

 

It’s time for all of us to start talking about P.T.S.D. (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)

What is written below was born from a single sentence spoken to me one day after what was essentially a rough call. A group of us gathered with a well-known, well liked chaplain within our department to ensure no one either needed or didn’t need to discuss the day’s traumatic events. All was fine, we all spoke a little, shared our feelings the way we always do with a little sadness submerged inside of humor and yet; this one sentence has lingered in my head for months now, and like an aching back that needs to be stretched or an itch that you just can’t reach, I finally felt the overwhelming need to move or scratch, leading to this chaotic rant.

Driving to work at times is more difficult than you may think. I get up in the morning like everyone else does, make coffee and breakfast for my wife so she can take her medications. (My wife is suffering from GvHD or Graft vs Host Disease after a Bone Marrow Transplant) Without missing a beat my tired achy body rousts the rest of our clan from a good nights slumber. One heads out to feed animals, the other two work on breakfast, lunches and packing up homework. After a cup of coffee for myself, getting dressed and brushing teeth, I find myself making sure the entire snack drawer hasn’t been loaded into only one backpack while ensuring the teenage boy has gathered up his crap as well. I meet with the wife one last time, making sure she has taken her medications, she has enough food and supplies to last her until our oldest gets home from work and that she has a charged phone to call me in case of an emergency. Then we all hit the road, them to school and I am off to work.

We live out in the country and it is a ten mile drive to town. Some would say it’s far, I think it is just far enough. Some mornings I may point out the beauty in a sunrise, or a unique cloud formation during a storm coming over the mountain. Other mornings depending on the time of year it may be the Almond trees in blossom, Geese overhead (we live just west of the flyway) or the simple, still, eerie way fog lays upon the ground. But the reality is every turn, every stretch of roadway we travel, it is there; like a kick in the teeth or a punch to the stomach. It is always there reminding me of my life, the hidden lie we all live in regards to life and the fact that everything comes to an end in death.

I became a full-fledged probationary firefighter on June 7th, 1995. When we started we were young, brash and full of ourselves. We heard all the stories from the old timers and we couldn’t wait to step onto an engine. Through diligent hard work we successfully graduated our academy. We didn’t drop out when it got hard, we didn’t cringe or flounder through basic medical training, we thought we knew full well what we were getting into and we were damn proud to be doing it! Much like the majority of our academy class, all I ever wanted to do was help people. I have always known there was something more for me, and I still feel that way today.

When we started in station I followed the senior guys around. Dumb, ignorant with no experience what so ever, I made every effort to learn as much as I could! To listen and emulate those who paved this glorious road before me. I also went straight back to school, obtaining an E.M.T. or Emergency Medical Technician’s certification and started working on learning about the fire engineers job so I better understood what was happening at the other end of my hose line during a fire. I spent hundreds of hours soaking up firefighter skills and responsibilities, hoping to be good enough so one day the senior guys would trust me to carry out important tasks on any emergency scene. It was (the job) and still is, everything I hoped becoming a firefighter would be.

They (the old guys) really do try preparing you for every conceivable situation be it fire, vehicle accident, medical aid, haz-mat, flood, rescue etc… but there is one thing you can never be prepared for, one thing no one really wants to talk about, and that is the constant never ending death. It is not the fires, or the car accidents or even the medicals that wear down your body over time, it is the constant death that wears down your mind and even at times your resolve.

In their defense these seasoned veterans only knew from what had been passed down to them. They try, oh yes they try in their own weird humor filled way. A way we adopted as we got older, supposedly wiser with more runs under our belts. Our chief at the time warned us during our graduation ceremony with one sentence that went something like this; You can never prepare yourself for the things you will see.

How true he was, but as young kids we just laughed! You know that nervous, I am a tough bad ass laugh you usually hear right before the laughing idiot gets their teeth kicked in? Yeah that laugh. We were naïve, dumb and blinded to the realities of our world. Hell! We’d proclaim; we’ve seen death! We have watched enough horror films we knew exactly what death is, (insert chest thumping here) and yet we knew so very little. So shamefully little about death and our both personal and professional responsibility in regards to handling death.

Fast forward 21 years, back to that morning taking kids to school. Every turn on the roadway while talking to my kids a memory reminds me of an accident here, or a death over there. The father of three, ejected and if that wasn’t insult to injury enough the car rolled back over on top of him. The grandfather whose tractor flipped over on him out in that field over there and no one knew until later in the morning because well, grandpa is supposed to be out tractoring. The car that ran the stop sign at this intersection, running off the roadway and striking the culvert thus bursting into flames. Once we cross over the freeway into town, we pass a house where I held a child screaming and crying because no matter what we did, or how hard we tried his mommy died, right there in front of him.  I wonder where that now grown young man is today. That white house over there, we did compressions on a 24 year old drug overdose or two blocks over when the roommate came home to find his best friend had hung himself in the hallway. Drop the kids off at school and I drive by a house where we had the pleasure of searching and dragging the families’ dogs from a house fire. Those dogs were this couple’s world and although some would say they are just dogs, to some people those dogs may as well have been their children. We couldn’t save them, they sobbed on the front lawn as we carried out fire operations. Hey right here at the intersection where I sit at every morning is the site where we did CPR on an elderly man as his wife gently whimpered up against the wall. I can still see him lying there, I can still feel her grief. Those are just a few of the road signs as I call them that I look at every morning on the way into town. There are hundreds more, they are just not on this particular route. Oh well back to meeting with our well respected chaplain.

After every borderline call, or semi disturbing sounding response this one lone sentence, made in jest with no malice inferred what so ever kept nagging away at my inner self. This sentence came from a warm heart, a place of love and respect. And it’s because of this one lone sentence for which I have done nothing about that I feel I must honor its intent and finally respond.

The sentence you ask?

Our chaplain; “Don’t worry about Betty, if something is bothering him he will just write about it and we will read it the next day”

Simple, precise and so true. It is my way, my coping mechanism and beyond those who know me personally and those who follow my blog, a statement of fact. I have so many stories written, never to see the light of day. Locked away on my personal drive for only my eyes to re-read, re-live and suffer through quietly.

So with that being said; this one is for you Jim Wilson. Thank you for always being there for not only our department but our neighboring fire department as well. It is people such as you and your partners that make letting go of the evil demons we hold inside, the ones pulling back our tears, screaming in our heads to keep swallowing the pain just a little easier to handle.

I never realized how badly our job had begun to affect me. I become fairly used to the road signs around town and yes they were beginning to wear me down but it wasn’t until I realized I was terrified of my children going out to play, or my sons learning to drive that I knew I may have a problem. It wasn’t until I began having nightmares, losing sleep, or superimposing my children’s faces on those faces of death swirling around my head that I knew I may have a problem.It wasn’t until I noticed I had a migraine every day for two years and my body hurt all the time that I may have a problem. It wasn’t until I realized I was drinking every single night and even though my wife pointed this fact out to me, I brushed it off as; it’s just beer, it’s hot, we all drink beer, lots of beer, that I began to see I may have a real problem. It wasn’t until I found myself crying at stupid movies, commercials or spacing out, reliving some tragedy in my life be it personal or from the job that I knew I might have a problem. The rain, a wind, a smell, a moment in time surfacing from the unknown can bring about not happiness but disturbing morbid thoughts; yeah thats when I knew I may have a problem. It also wasn’t until my wife was diagnosed with Leukemia and the normally stoic, stiff upper lipped man I had become cried like a baby, uncontrollably, without any knowledge of the severity or options available that I knew I may have a problem.

So I started writing.

And I started talking, to anyone who would listen. I began by reaching out to friends in the business, and a few of my close personal friends. We (the fire service) have spent so many years suppressing these emotions, telling our young firefighters through actions or lack  thereof and not words that it’s NOT ok to feel. We seemingly must be strong all the time for if we fall apart we may become less then what we are and what we are is not heroic, or super hero like, which is what many would have you believe. No what we are is human. Death hurts, losing people hurts, seeing the worst in humanity hurts. Yes we are lucky enough to have those moments that are filled with elation. For four years in a row myself and three others were lucky enough to win the save a life award. The moments are there! But the gruesomeness of what one human can do to another or the after effects of sheer tragedy will always outweigh the good, because you can’t just erase those memories.

I like to tell stories (duh?)

When you see me I am more than happy to tell stories about our job. There is good, and there is just the plain old funny ass, you would never believe it if you hadn’t have lived it stories that go with our job! What good is having a long career if there wasn’t some wonderful memories mixed with humor? But no matter where I go, and as much as I love to share our experiences with anyone who is genuinely interested, there is one question you should never ask any of us. Ever. It is not fair, we know you don’t know why it isn’t fair. But it is not fair to us or the demons we hide deep down inside. So please be understanding and hear me out.

Please don’t ever ask this one question.

WHAT WAS MY WORST CALL EVER?

It happens all the time. We get off work and go home, we take time to assimilate back to a normal existence. Maybe that evening we get dressed up and take our spouses, significant others, boyfriends, girlfriends, friends of friends out for an evening of fun. We have a few drinks, the laughs are rolling, jokes are being told around the table through the sounds of others laughing and having a good time. And then it happens. Usually asked by a newcomer to the group or outsider as one of your inner circle would never cross such dreaded lines.

HEY MAN WHATS THE WORST CALL YOU HAVE EVER BEEN ON?

Or

HEY BRO SERIOUSLY WHAT’S THE MOST GRUESOME THING YOU HAVE EVER SEEN?

Followed by; C’mon tell me I can handle it!!

But here is the thing.

You can’t handle it, nor do I want you to handle it! I cannot even begin to tell you the worst things I have seen, or put into adequate words the most gruesome of images. They are forever trapped inside my head, seared into my brain and in what realm of reality do you even for a minute think you can handle what my hands have touched, the scenes my eyes have witnessed, the sounds that no matter the day or time inexplicably reverberate through my head like a sole hiker yelling across the Grand Canyon just to hear themselves over and over again. No these stories are not for you and pray, I mean get down on your knees and pray that you never, ever witness even a fraction of what I have witnessed in 21 years.

Oh I know, I have heard it all and it usually goes something like this; Hey man its cool I have seen the most gruesome movies of all, I watched SAW like ten times! Or my personal favorite; I have seen Faces of Death so it’s all right you can tell me. But see that’s where the problem really mucks it up, for it isn’t even whether or not you could handle hearing stories about the most gruesome thing I witnessed in my career, it’s about the fact that you want to know because in reality the way I see it, that one question you threw out with that little condescending smirk has in my eyes instantaneously become a dick measuring competition!

That’s right I said it’s a damn dick measuring competition! You don’t give a shit about what I have seen or the emotions that went along with that particular call! You don’t give two shits about the fact those calls haunt me and have changed my life forever, changed my family’s lives forever and changed the lives of those involved forever! You don’t give three shits’ about the nightmares, or night sweats, the fact I have held more dead and disfigured human beings in my career to date than any one person should ever need too!! And you know what? There are hundreds of thousands of firefighters out there in larger metropolitan areas and military personnel who have witnessed so many more than I! No what you give a shit about finding is your bravado, filling your ego by sitting there listening to some watered down version because I damn sure am not going to tell you the truth! You know why? BECAUSE YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!!!

No sir this is all about you secretly fulfilling some need to walk away afterwards with shrugging eyebrows and rolling eyes like it was no big deal, followed with under the breath monotone grumblings like; shit that ain’t nothing, man what the hell, that didn’t sound bad at all or Heck I could do that stupid job, I don’t why they make a big deal about firefighters anyways!

Don’t think for one minute I don’t know! Don’t think for one minute I haven’t heard you as you walk away, or seen that smug ass look on your face which makes me want to grab you by the throat hoping you can visualize some of what you just heard simply by looking into my eyes, but in the end you can have that look, you can walk away thinking you can do our job better and someday hopefully you come to your senses finding the need to thank someone like me, or a police officer, highway patrol officer, game warden or every single person who has ever served in the military for ensuring every morning you get to wake up with a clear conscience. That right Mr. Dick never have you struggled through a sleepless night while subconsciously transferring all the absolutely disturbing things that can be done to a human onto the faces of your children! You may care for those around you and if you have kids may even be a great dad. But your kids don’t suffer from all of father’s freakish paranoia. Worrying endlessly every moment of the day, seeing nothing but disaster around every corner and not that Chicago Fire television bullshit either! Real disturbing, disgusting and disheartening disaster. Faces of those who haunt you.

You will never walk down a street and smell burning flesh not food as you pass by a BBQ joint, remembering the guy who intentionally wrecked his car into an overpass beam where it caught on fire and he burned to death. You’ve never had to pull a guy like that out with your crew, grimacing as he came apart one piece at a time like overdone chicken. Or cringe when you see the reflection of a burning fireplace in a window wondering if anyone is home because it looks like a room and contents fire just starting. You can drive through your town oblivious to a memory of a kid run over at one intersection or the family of four that died on the edge of a freeway off ramp! Cruising the very same freeway you don’t see the fuel truck that burned or the semi-truck that crossed four lanes killing two and permanently injuring several others. You most likely also don’t see the road sign that cut a car in half taking the life of the driver and you damn sure don’t pass over the spot in lane number two on a daily basis where I picked up a boy’s face, not his head, nor his skull because those were crushed and lying in the number three lane but his fucking face! Discarded like an old Halloween mask on the first of November!

But hey this is a cool game right? Questions are fun!!!

Never, please ever, ask any of us that one simple, self serving question.

Now in defense of these most dreaded of questions for which I am venting I will say this; I love my job, I have been privileged to participate in caring for the people of this special town. It has been my honor to hold a scared mothers hand, to speak gently to a dying grandfather, to hold and care for a woman beaten by the man who supposedly loves her most, to look into the eyes of a sick veteran and tell him not to worry it’s our turn to take care of him . My life has been blessed with assisting new life brought into this world, extricating people from cars that looked as though a bomb went off inside and then staying by a patient’s side until the ambulance takes them away. Working my way through a structure on fire while it gets hotter and hotter, not knowing for sure if we are going to be pulling someone out or finding the fire first then extinguishing it, because sometimes our job requires we do many things at once. My job has so many plusses that expose a person’s true love for another human being, any human being and even when that person is combative or dislikes us for whatever reason the very same love and compassion comes forth.

It all unfortunately comes at a cost. I have learned over time this career has taken away my ability to see life with a rainbows and unicorns attitude and that really sucks because I really like both RAINBOWS AND UNICORNS!!! The innocence of life long gone from our or my ability to cope.

To those who say; well you knew what you were getting into when you joined.

I say this; you are right, to an extent. Words are one thing, a preconceived notion is another but nothing can prepare you for the reality because no matter how prepared you think you are nothing and I mean nothing can prepare you for what you will actually see, touch, taste and hear. And we (the fire service) are just a small segment of those in public service suffering, struggling to make sense of it all. 

When I see an officer, I thank him, when I see a person in uniform no matter the military branch, I thank them. They are hurting, we are all hurting and we do so in silence. It is killing us. Quite literally and that is something to be so, so very ashamed of. We need to be better, not just for ourselves but for those who love us.

For years there was no one to talk too. If you sought help you are labeled weak, if you brood about it, the answer has always been; let’s have some drinks, you’ll feel better. Joking about it is standard fare and humor is a great thing, it really does help. But humor is a mask for the ugliness hidden beneath. At some point in time you must take the mask off. Are you ready for that? To be revealed?

Thanks to the recognition of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) in not only our beloved military but our public servants as well, we have very skilled and wonderful people at our disposal, just waiting to help. These people are trained well but most of all they have been there, right where we are now. Unable to process, lacking the skill necessary to cope with both severe stressors and simple everyday life. We need to open the dialogue, to speak up and begin to heal our insides. For if our insides are dying our outsides are already gone.

From a simple sentence, came all of this, Thank you Jim.

If you know someone who needs help, please, say something, do something, they need you and just don’t know how to tell you, to share, to release their inner pain. We hold it all inside so you don’t have to see it. It is time to stop that trend. We can all share some of the burden through talking, love and understanding.

If you feel as though you have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder) please reach out.

  1. Or Call: 911
  2. The National Suicide prevention line 1-800-273-8255
  3. Go to the nearest Emergency room
  4. Contact your local church
  5. Check with your employer for assistance

It is time we moved out of the shadows and into the light.