Let me set the scene…..
Enjoying a really good, friendly conversation with co-workers of my wife at happy hour recently. Just a very low key social gathering – much more talking than drinking. I have known most of the people for a few years, at least, but eventually it was down to just me, my wife, one guy I have known for two or three years and a lady I just met for the first time. During the course of the evening my “past life” came up very briefly in passing, so even the new person at the table knew about my previous career.
Somehow the conversation turned to a news story about a large group of local vets who are supporting an upcoming ballot initiative to fully legalize marijuana in our state. I pointed out that the reason these vets are so aggressively supporting this measure is because PTSD is not on the list of recognized conditions to be treated with medical marijuana, which is already legal, even though there is quite a bit of evidence showing it to be helpful.
Up until this point, I was having a great time. I was totally relaxed and enjoying myself even though I was in a somewhat crowded and noisy bar. Often this setting makes me, at the very least, tense and uncomfortable.
My wife’s friends immediately vocalized their support for the vets. This is when things started getting rough for me……
The two friends talked for several minutes about the horrible things combat veterans must experience. Eventually their observations included paramedics, firefighters, and police officers. They talked about how difficult it must be to see people with massive injuries or even killed on a regular basis. The guy I have known for a few years even told us that he had “a little bit” of PTSD after a major car accident he was in, but that his experience was nothing compared to what a paramedic must deal with day after day.
By this point, I was no longer relaxed and comfortable. My shoulders felt like they were pulled up to my ears as the tension spread across my neck and back. My vision narrowed. Legs were tapping out Morse Code under the table at a ferocious pace. I was picking at my finger nails and beginning to sweat.
All of this is pretty typical when something triggers. But what made this one worse?
This was a perfect opportunity to say something. For me to jump into the conversation and share with these friends how difficult it can be. I’m not talking about sharing the gory details of what I saw and did. But an opportunity to open up. To teach some really good people who want to understand and support.
But I couldn’t…..
I just sat there. Twitching. Sweating. Stewing in my own darkness.
I have been working to overcome and move beyond this heavy, dark shadow for sometime now. I have come to grips with and accepted the fact that this is part of who I am.
So why couldn’t I say anything? Why was I so petrified? Did I think they would look at me differently? Consider me weak? I don’t consciously believe they would have, but maybe that was part of it.
Or was I afraid that opening up would lead to a more in-depth conversation about it? Would they have started asking questions about PTSD? About my specific situation? Or about my experiences? This was likely my biggest concern.
I feel like this was a good opportunity for me to take a big step forward. And I blew it. I didn’t have the courage and the strength to face the situation. Eventually I want, maybe even need, to be able to talk about these things. I want to be able to educate the general public about what first responders sometimes go through; to talk to and help other first responders who find them selves in a similar situation at the end of a long career.
For now though, I guess I will just keep going to the mental gym – working on my strength……
Today of all days, I am most proud of the almost 15 years I spent in fire & EMS.
Today of all days, I am most disappointed that I needed to leave that career.
Today is September 11th.
At the time I left, I do not think I fully understood the job I had done for so many years. It took the events of September 11, 2001 to reveal the true depths of the commitment. No, I am not talking about the commitment to run into a building when everyone else is running out. I am talking about the commitment to each other. The Brothers. The Sisters.
The commitment the Brothers and Sisters working “the pile” had to finding their own in the days after the attacks was astonishing. I had been out of the business for more than a year but desperately wanted to help. I wanted to be a part of the scene. And at the same time I was very happy I was not….
Sure, we all wanted to find every last victim. But there was something different every time another first responder was found. Even from 2,000 miles away I could feel the emotion. The anguish. The relief. The sense of a commitment fulfilled. I wanted to be a part of it. And at the same time, I wanted to run from the images.
Today, it is still there. I did not expect to have the flood of emotions. After all, it’s been 11 years. But they came. They came pretty hard.
I can’t help but wonder – am I emotional because of what happened?
Or because I wasn’t a part of it?
Or because I know I can never be a part of it again?
While I am still treated like a Brother, I know it is not the same. I am no longer in the thick of it. And I feel bad. Weak. Tired. I gave up too easy. I didn’t fulfill my commitment….
I will continue to fight my inner battle. That is my commitment. It is the only commitment I can make.
But today, of all days….I thank my Brothers and Sisters for their commitment. To each other. To the public. To me…..