by Captain Mike Romo
Albuquerque, New Mexico Fire Department
“There is no weakness in asking for help”
End of shift, the best part of work sometimes. Many of us work 10, 12, 24, even 48 hour shifts, so when it’s time to go home, we are usually quite eager to do so. A late call can really be aggravating, or a relief coming from another station that makes us late getting home. After all, we are familial creatures; we have friends, wives, husbands, kids, siblings, etc. Many can’t come to visit us at work regularly, so we have to be away from them and them away from us for long periods.Spouses have to learn significant independence and time away can be very stressful. Many of us can’t wait to get back home to see our wives and kids after a work cycle. It’s that time of our lives when we have to switch gears and go from firefighter or paramedic to father, brother, wife, or friend. We have to come back to our home reality and leave our work reality at home.
This transition can be stressful in and of itself. A common reference to our need to transition is that we need time to decompress. We need time to let the waves of work structure fade and let us turn back into the real us—no longer being the rescuer or officer in charge. Not being the engine Captain or the lead medic, or the rescue driver but going back to the honey-do list or the little league mom or whatever our role is at home can be difficult.
At work, there is solace in the gym, or with a training evolution, or a bit of downtime after taking a call. Sometimes we can get a break to get a meal or watch a bit of TV. We can retreat to our office or a solitary place in the station. Maybe catch a nap in a bunk or do some studying for a promotional test. Some guys might play video games or work on their EMS refresher or something else that doesn’t involve responding or returning.
As one who struggled with PTSD, that changeover from work to home became very difficult and sometimes almost impossible. It took me longer and longer to come back to normal, and it was more and more difficult. So much so, that after a while I adopted a “new normal”. My “new normal” was simply never transitioning back to my role as husband and father—it was simply less stressful to go from being the company officer at the station to being the company officer at my home. All the responsibilities of supervising a crew, maintaining a station and apparatus, reporting deficiencies, conducting training, and working tirelessly to keep my crew and my station in perpetual readiness—except it was my house, my kids, my wife, my home life, I was running it like a rank-based organization. I was the boss and everyone else fell in the chain of command at various levels. Even the dogs, which were at the bottom, were part of the crew.
As it turns out, this was a very unhealthy practice, although I had no idea that it was damaging myself and my family and certainly didn’t understand the level of damage that was occurring. I had placed myself in the middle of a self-destructive cycle of never being able to stop being in charge. I was not able to relinquish my responsibility for all things and simply live my life. I had to make sure everything got finished and it was my way or the highway. In essence, I had become the guy that no one wants to work for because nothing was ever good enough for me—not at work and certainly not at home. I mean, how could home life be okay, this crew doesn’t have any discipline or pride and I am always having to babysit them. Looking back, I really did have to babysit them—they were my children and my pets—my charges in life, not career. My wife didn’t need babysitting, she was the one who was really taking care of business, and I was just too caught up in being the leader and not being a proper husband and father.
We’ve all seen the cowboy and war movies where the heroic character is wounded and realizes that escape is impossible. The gravely wounded comrade takes a gun or two and sets themselves up in such a way as to delay the pursuing bad guys. The rest of the group makes some gesture to get them to safety and their wounded teammate tells them “go on without me” or “I’ll slow ‘em down”. As rescuers, we can identify with these characters. We know that sacrifice is part of our job, especially as firefighters and police officers. We know that we may have to give up our lives to save that of another. It is part of our training and our operant conditioning. It is why we are here—to die so another does not have to.
By the time we have come to the point where we no longer turn off the professional rescuer and are hell-bent on running our house like we run our station or our ambulance, it is often difficult for others to be near us. We are known for angry outbursts, fits of rage, having a short fuse, going off for no reason, becoming melancholy or detached at a moment’s notice. We are often frustrated by nearly everything in our lives and we react with intensity beyond what is “normal”. We have come to the point where our family does not want to be around us. They haven’t stopped loving us, necessarily, but they are somewhere between worried about what will happen next and being afraid of us.
These relationship dynamics are not necessarily lost on us, but we certainly don’t have a good grasp of where we fit in and what we should do. We know that we miss them terribly when we are at work and want nothing more but to be home with them. We also tend to realize that our responses to many situations are over the top and we find ourselves apologizing more and more often. We love them and we want to have fun, but we are often unable to maintain our composure.
How many of us who serve in the emergency response arena feel like this when our families, friends, spouses, kids, etc. want to go out and do something fun? I can recall being home after a shift and feeling reasonably refreshed and the family wanting to go to the park or a museum, but I did not want to do anything but sit and watch TV, or tinker in the garage, or just sit quietly and not talk to anyone. We no longer want to be at work, but when we are home, we want to be alone.
Estrangement is one of the direct symptoms of someone struggling with PTSD. We can define estrangement as: to turn away in feeling or affection; make unfriendly or hostile; alienate the affections of. (Dictionary.com) The word comes from any of the romance languages and translates as “to treat as a stranger.”
When one of us has difficulty coping with our emotions and our reactions that result from PTSD, we often try to shield our closest friends, especially our families, from our own negativity and troubling thoughts. We want so badly to keep our loved ones safe from the horrors we see and feel that we separate ourselves from them as though we are some sort of carrier for the disease we fear they will contract.
Enter estrangement. We take the emotional turmoil within ourselves and we internalize it even more. We use our own psyche to create a wall around our PTSD to keep it from coming into contact with those who are closest to us. Unfortunately, we are human beings and not impervious to the erosive nature of PTSD. Just as a strong acid solution will eventually eat through a solid steel container, our PTSD will eventually corrode us from the inside and it will escape—sometimes slowly and insidiously as we stop talking and sometimes violently and with terrible ferocity during one of our notorious outbursts of anger.
Becoming estranged from our spouses, girlfriends, children, friends, etc. is a natural reaction to the negativity we bring. We do our best to shield them from anything harmful and when we realize that WE are the ones causing the harm, we must separate ourselves from them. We must put up a barrier so that our toxicity does not poison their lives. Distance is the most intuitive barrier. We can create distance by any means, not the least of which is making it easy for them to not want to be near us and then to oblige that by telling them to “go on without me”.
We start to skip events. We find an excuse to miss a birthday party or BBQ. An opportunity for overtime when we are supposed to go to the park is easily justified by our bank balance which never seems to be high enough. An invitation to a friend’s house can be easily dismissed if we have some work to do on the car or the house—go on without me. Skipping a parent-teacher conference is easily accomplished by scheduling it during a workday. It becomes commonplace for us to simply not be there with our family or friends. It creates a side effect of our new normal by creating THEIR new normal, a normal without us. A normal where they have left us behind—first because we told them to and eventually because they know it is better for them.
About the Author: After being diagnosed with PTSD and working very diligently to recover and become healthy again, I realized that I had to share my experiences and knowledge with others in my career field. I have since became deeply involved in learning more and teaching fellow rescuers about the stress and mental health problems so often encountered by firefighters and EMS personnel. I have seen so many lose their marriages, families, and even careers as a result of the nature of the job. I nearly lost my own. I want other rescuers to know that “There is no weakness in asking for help.”
I am a seasoned instructor and currently work as a company and station officer in a mid-sized metropolitan fire department. I have always believed that students learn more when their instructors are engaged and motivated. I bring much of my own experiences to my teaching and I can appreciate the need for empathy when reaching out to others who are in the dark places.
I am not a mental health professional. I do not provide counseling services, nor do I claim to know all there is to know about these complex topics. I have been to the dark places and I have returned a better man.
I am a career firefighter, paramedic, instructor, husband, father, officer, mentor, student, and supporter of those who share our career fields and our burdens. I work to share with others what I have learned and I am always prepared to learn more. I have over 17 years experience working in various fire and EMS agencies as well as teaching for several community colleges over the past ten years. My specialties include: creating the concept of the rescuer as a Shepherd based upon Lieutenant Colonel (United States Army, Retired) Dave Grossman’s idea of Sheepdog as protector and his work with law enforcement and military personnel.
The Sheepdog runs to the sound of the guns and destroys the wolf. The Shepherd guards his flock, seeks the missing one, and provides aid and comfort to all–including the wolf.
Dave Grossman has my eternal thanks as an inspiration to my work and for his support as Shepherd Resource Group reaches out to other Shepherds. You can contact Mike through Facebook and his Shepherd Resource Group company.