by Bobby Bush
Writer’s Note: In this article I touch on certain things where my perception was based on fear and paranoia, leading to expectations of what was to come. Specifically, my mentioning of domestic strife and the possibility of losing my home is centered on this. My refusal to discuss feelings was universal, making understanding impossible for family, and those around me. As I disconnected myself from family, I was convinced they would leave; my perception differed from reality. As finances disappeared, and bills were often late or unpaid, I again kept it away from my family while fearing what would soon happen. ~ Bobby Bush
Masculinity has never been something I thought about. I have never felt the need to prove my toughness to the world. I am, however, a perfectionist who will go through exhaustive lengths to exceed those around me at any task at hand. Occasionally, I would joke about someone else’s masculinity or my own in a sarcastic manner, butthat’s it. As a society, we have such ridged expectations in regards to gender. Females are bombarded with advertisement campaigns that push forward product to promise to make them look younger, prettier, and ultimately become more desirable to the opposite sex. These campaigns shout You are not good enough, but we can fix you! Women are supposed to be petite, soft spoken, and emotionalized. Men are supposed to be tough, strong, independent, mechanical, and the financial supporter of the family. All this responsibility is enough to depress anyone, but I try to ignore it.
I try to ignore lots of things.
On the morning of my cousin’s funeral, I was overwhelmed by dread. I did not want to be around all those crying people, talking about him being the greatest person who ever lived. Just like at every other funeral in the world. But I was a pallbearer. I could not feign an illness even if I wanted to; and I wanted to. I took my place in the front row beside two of my uncles. Both are two of the most masculine guys I have ever known and less emotional than me. As the service began, one after the other, they began to cry. At first he tried to hold back the tears, but made no attempt to hide once the tears began to fall. It was not the sobbing and wailing I despised so much – just tears and the accompanying sniffles. That nearly made me lose it. But I refused.
I saw no weakness in their emotion. They were still the tough guys they had always been. They were just mourning the death of someone close. For me, however, betraying such emotions would be showing weakness. I do not show weakness.
After the holidays, I returned to light duty at the firehouse. I would try to hide my depression and anxiety when around others, and avoided too much interaction. I had no real tasks on a daily basis: answer phones, show visitors around, and give safety talks to students on field trips. I actually enjoyed talking to outsiders. I did not feel I was being judged for something beyond my control.
In the beginning of the recession, the city council froze positions whenever someone left the department. Each shift was at minimum staffing, meaning part-time employees would have to volunteer to work in order for anyone to get a day off. My absence left my shift being covered by part-timers, making vacations even harder to assign. I felt blamed for others’ lack of vacation time, and felt animosity from everyone, whether real or imagined, I do not know. I felt out of place, and wanted to hide when I was there. I was without a schedule as long as I put in forty hours each week. The administrators worked from eight until five, but I wanted to avoid them too. I began coming in earlier and earlier each day – first at seven, then at six, and eventually I began to clock in as early as four in the morning so I could be alone, and minimize the time I would have to interact with anyone. I always felt as if I was being watched. There were only a few people I would talk with, and usually they came into my office hideaway to chat.
My doctor visits continued to end in referrals. My recovery plan changed each week. Each time I returned from appointments, I had to explain again what was going on with my body. This was made even more strenuous as I myself was unsure of what was happening. I began commenting about being exhausted with “this,” resulting in nods and generic acknowledgements. “This” did not apply strictly to my injury. I did not really want comfort or sympathy. Instead, I hoped for understanding, but knew it would not be found.
The medication given to help me with my depression had no effect. After a few weeks, I stopped taking my medication. There seemed to be no point. I did not return to that doctor.
One afternoon, a friend came in my office and commented he overheard someone commenting on how I was faking my injury in order to get out of work. My quiet and reserved personality disappeared. I exploded, “Please tell me what the fuck am I gaining?! I now commute two hours a day, five days a week instead of two days! I have drained my bank account paying for childcare five days a week instead of two! For the first time in a decade I am not allowed physical activity! Explain to me what I am gaining.” He stood stunned for a minute. He finally answered, “Oh, you’re right.” Of course I am right I thought.
My open hostility was not limited to this incident. I was increasingly stressed and resentful, but tried my best to hide my feelings. I would try to joke around and smile, but I knew my lighthearted behavior was a lie. The normal complaints and attitudes from those I had worked with every shift were now intolerable. When officers from my former station called with questions about the reasons certain engines would respond to a call rather than another or why someone made a decision that had nothing to do with me, I would go into a rant about how it is not my job to figure out what others are thinking. “I am just a firefighter!” I would say. “I am not running calls. It is not in my role to question officers when I was not even on the calls!”
Recognizing my behavioral shift, I reached out for help. I began going to a counselor in order to talk about my depression. I wanted to tell her I was having thoughts about suicide over the past few weeks. I wanted to, but I couldn’t get the words out. Finally, she asked me if I was experiencing suicidal thoughts. I told her yes, but quickly lied and told her I was no longer feeling that way. I guess I was just hoping to get some inner peace. I guess I just wanted understanding.
It was the night before my surgery for a laparoscopic inguinal hernia repair and I prayed. It had been a while, but as many people do in their times of need or want, I figured I would too. But, instead of begging the divine for an extension, I prayed to die. It would be better to die there on the hospital bed surrounded by the mechanical emotions of my surgeons and a weeping family in the waiting room than to end up killing myself. Death as a surgery casualty would be painful for my family, but the suffering would not be the same – for either of us.
I survived the surgery.
Followups resumed, as did my pre-surgery solitude. With each appointment, I was asked how I felt. The level of pain was the same. I would mumble that I was very depressed, hoping to receive some sort of wisdom from my caretakers. Smiling, my pain management doctor said, “We’ll fix you up, and you will feel much better.” It must have been out of his scope. What a dick, I thought.
Weeks after the surgery, I was sent back to light duty, even though I had been told I was not to return – doctor’s orders. Apparently my workers comp nurse, whom I initially requested to speed up the bureaucratic process, met with one of the doctors and had me return to the office. I could not tolerate returning to the grind – the stares, the whispers, the lies. I tried to avoid it.
At first, the department offered to let me continue using my personal leave instead of returning before I was back on shift. However, after three days this ended and I was ordered back to my long isolated days. I franticly made calls to the doctor’s office requesting to be released to full duty. It appeared my problem was now nerve damage causing the pain. What would be the difference in office work and physical work? Either way, I would be in pain. Yet, if there was no danger of further injury at this time, why not?
My requests were denied. I returned to the office I despised so much, but now under more stringent rules. I could no longer come in early, and all other rules were set back to that of the on shift guys. This was completely different than before my surgery and recovery. The three days’ advance notice for a day off required for shift firefighters in order to find adequate time for coverage, was now my requirement despite the fact that no coverage was needed. It had been a verbal notice when I was leaving the day before. I received complaints when I sent the assistant chief emails about missing work, and was told I had to call the shift commander an hour prior, like on shift. Again, I did not understand why this rule was being applied to my administrative role. No one was being held over from the off-coming shift. More than anything, I did not want to discuss my issues with anyone else.
My first day back was met with a meeting from human resources and both chiefs. During the entire meeting, the chief faced away from everyone else, acting as if he was not in the room. He sat and fiddled on his computer, saying nothing. Not much was new.
Over the next few weeks, the exact same routine: doctor’s appointments, sitting in my office, being depressed. I called another meeting with the chief, but again, unknown to me, he refused to meet alone. So I sat there with the two chiefs and told them how I was tired of feeling like the one causing guys to lose vacation, cancel plans, and be held over all the time. I told them I knew all of the city’s policies for workers comp and injuries, and how much time off is allowed. Despite having exceeded the policies’ limits, I pointed out that I was still protected by federal regulations.
I received surprised looks. The chiefs did not know the policies. They could have terminated me if they had. I tried to tell how I really felt, but I could not articulate my feelings. I would reply to many of their questions with, “I don’t know.”
In my pocket, I had a copy of a typewritten explanation of how I felt I was affecting the department, concluding with my resignation and signature. I felt disconnected from them as we sat there. It was not these assholes who made me love my job. I rarely even saw them. I knew they were going to fire me as soon as my FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) expired. That was why I wrote the statements.
I walked out of the chief’s office knowing I had again been lied to about my job being secure. My letter left with me.
My last day at the firehouse was a Friday. I told the chief I was not feeling well and was leaving a little early. I strongly suspected the termination, but none of my colleagues dared to suggest the possibility. I made it a point to ask what would happen after my FMLA benefits expired. The chief responded, “Oh, you will just have to use personal vacation for any sick days, that’s all.” I was amused. I had been using personal leave for weeks, even with doctor’s orders. I had hoped for honesty, but received what I expected.
I wanted to believe his words, but I knew his true aims would never be explained directly to me of his own accord. How would he explain firing someone after getting an injury at work? What would others think? There was no way he wanted to be talked about like that among his peers, especially when he was already well-known for his explosive temper over minor issues. His displays of rage frequently resulted in the verbal abuse of his employees, whether in his office screaming at disgruntled firefighters unhappy about promotions, or on the side of the road arguing about which towing service can haul the broken ladder truck. It did not matter.
So why not confront me?
I nodded my head and exited the building, unbeknownst to me, for the final time as an employee. I was feeling bad all weekend, and the following week I felt like I was falling apart. I had enough FMLA benefits to make it through Thursday, but enough personal leave to last a few weeks. Thursday I received a voicemail from him.
In the eight months since I was injured, I had never received a call from him. The message sounded hostile, instructing me to call back. I returned the call, to which I was immediately placed on speakerphone with the chief and the assistant chief. “I don’t think you are being honest about your injury, and you need to explain to me why I shouldn’t fire you,” the chief barked as an opening remark.
I inquired as to his meaning and what I was exactly expected to explain. The chief said, “I have evidence proving you are not as injured as you claim.” I asked what that meant and was told he wasn’t ready to reveal that yet. I immediately became overwhelmed with rage. How could such a claim be made? How can he make such a bold statement yet refuse to present it? Why was this issue being treated over the phone rather than in person?
I erupted. “You think this has been some great fucking time for me?! That I somehow have something to gain?! That for some reason I would have undergone a surgery for something nonexistent, and have a much more in-depth one in the coming weeks? My whole life has gone to shit since this began!” I yelled. “The financial strains have emptied my bank account! I’m about to lose my house because I can no longer make my payments! I receive no overtime! I work only part-time! I need extra fuel and require increased daycare expenses. “The stress has caused my wife and I to nearly separate!” I continued. “I have been so goddamn depressed for months and have cycled through three different antidepressants with nothing helping, and you want to claim this stupid bullshit?!” Finally, I paused and said. “Do whatever you think you have to do, because I don’t fucking care anymore.”
The following morning at 9am, as requested, I called the chief. After denying numerous requests for my resignation, he courageously took action. I was no longer a firefighter in the department. What angered me most was his choice to do everything on the phone rather than in person. I saw this as cowardly, and far from masculine. Hiding my anger and anxiety, I moved on with my emotionless outer shell, as always.
Two hours after my termination I was still shaking and on edge. After sending a text message to a couple of firefighters who were close friends of mine, I made a simple post to my Facebook account: “Ich bin frei.” I am free.
I was not.
To be continued….
About the Author: Bobby Bush is a 2011 graduate of the University of Virginia, and graduate student of American history at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Virginia where he currently resides. After five years in the US Navy, he spent five years as a career firefighter, holding various positions in IAFF Local 3468 including that of president. He is currently in recovery for severe depression. He welcomes feedback. You may contact Bobby by EMAIL.