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When It Comes to Self-Care, the Little Things Do Matter

In 1972, Jackson Browne collaborated with Glenn Frey to write the song Take It Easy.  This iconic song was released on May 1st of that same year as The Eagles first single.  I have probably listened to it hundreds of times, always getting lost in the Glenn Frey vocals and lead guitar of Bernie Leadon.  However, the other day I heard something that I never took note of before: the banjo.  It may seem odd that I want to start a blog post discussing an Eagles song, but it is the fine details that fascinate me. Now that I know this instrument is present- it provides greater depth and awareness to the little things.  This got me thinking about self-care.

In June of 2016, I penned a post titled We Are Not Teflon.  In that post, I raised the question about whether all we are exposed to as a 1st responder and/or peer supporter will stick to us (more specifically, our psyche).  Unlike the coated Teflon pan, what we bear witness to, can or may “stick” with us- depending upon our level of resiliency and grounding as an individual.  In that discussion, I made this call to action:

“It has always been my understanding that professional counselors and psychiatrists . . . need someone to talk and debrief with to cleanse and avoid trauma to their psyche.  If they do it, why not us? . . .”

“I think it would be prudent to reach out and debrief with someone, even if it is just to say, “I am doing okay”.

I now want to take it one step further (or backwards) and talk about the little things that lead us to this check in.

 

 

In the 1st responder world, a common safety practice (that is ingrained early on during the academy) is to maintain a high degree of situational awareness at all emergency scenes, or “knowing what is going on around you” “Taking in the big picture”.  This entails focusing on critical elements, using our senses, which allows us to hone in on mission-oriented success.  If we do this at every emergency, then why not an examination of our own health and wellbeing?

For instance, maybe you had previously engaged the services of a behavioral health specialist and came to a successful “termination” of this professional relationship- and could readily engage with the demands of personal and occupational living. You began to move along as a 1st responder/peer support person when out of nowhere, you became weighed down.  Things began to “stick” to your psyche once again.  What did this feel like?  Intellectually, you told yourself- “I got this, no problem”.  Emotionally, it’s altogether a different story.  Emotions: the little things that can make or break us.  To maintain balance, we must get down to the heart of the matter by: recognizing the signals, identify the effect on the psyche, and create a game plan to support a lapse.

The following are potential signals that all may not be well:

  • Extended period(s) of sadness
  • Loss of sleep due to ruminating thoughts
  • Overwhelming anxiety/fixation on future events
  • Absorbing the negativity of local, national, or world events
  • Feeling like a hamster on a wheel with no end in sight.

This is just a very short list to say the least, but never the less it provides a way to check in with yourself occasionally.

The next step is an examination of said emotions/feelings once they have been identified.  Ask yourself “What do they feel like?”  “What are they really doing to my overall wellbeing and psyche?”  Keep in mind, it may be a spouse, family member, friend, or significant other that recognizes the changes before you do.  It is all the better if you can recognize it in yourself.

The final step/question to ask yourself “What do I want to do with these emotions?”  “Is this a lapse or relapse?”  “Am I in the same or worse position than when I first began my healing journey?”  We need to have a strategy in place to support us in the event we must cross this bridge.  Here are a few ideas:

  • Utilize the peer support system
  • Contact a qualified behavioral health specialist
  • Talk to a spiritual advisor

 

 

Speaking of strategies, this past February, while in Toronto, I met retired Ontario Provincial Police Officer Dan Bowers who created the First Eyes Proactive Mental Health Program.  Dan offers a 6-hour workshop to 1st responders, their families, spouse, significant others, and friends.  By the end of the day, all attendees will have a plan in place should they recognize changes in their public servant.  It is called “First Eyes” because it is the stakeholders that live or interact with us every day, who will recognize the changes first.  Currently, the program is available to residents of Canada.

I encouraged Dan to apply as a presenter at next month’s Rosecrance Symposium to bring his program to the States for consideration.  Dan was accepted and will be speaking about the First Eyes (https://firsteyes.ca/) program on September 21st, 2017.  Also speaking on that same day will be our own team members Matt Olson and Jada Hudson (Creating a Firefighter Peer Support Team), Leah Siwinski (There’s Life in Her Yet), and Colleen Murphy (Spouses and Families of First Responders).

 

I highly encourage anyone from the team who has not heard these speakers to do so. Go with the intention of picking up at least one take home (including CE) that will offer you guidance on your own healing journey.  There is no shame or stigma attached to a lapse or relapse when it comes to your own wellbeing.  Remember, we are not Teflon, and it is the little things that truly do matter.  Until next time-

Be well,

Tim

Here is Take It Easy- see if you can pick out the banjo.

 

My Homeless Experience for the Night

The following post was submitted by Andy Perry of the Peoria Fire Department:

On Friday, January 13, 2017, I volunteered to be a part of about 70 local community members in spending the night outside the Peoria Civic Center in cardboard refrigerator boxes, from 6:00 pm in the evening until 6:00 am the next morning.    A not-for-profit group hosted the event to raise awareness of the challenges faced by those in the Peoria, Illinois community without homes and to give citizens an opportunity to help in the fight to end homelessness in Central Illinois.  Each of us was sked to raise $1,000 for the “privilege” of participating.  The event raised approximately $64,000 to support the group’s continuing efforts to provide permanent supportive housing and end homelessness in our community.   The event also included a series of educational presentations focused on homelessness and its impact on our community.

 

 

The idea was first mentioned at a monthly union meeting, and three Peoria Firefighter Local 50 members attended along with our Assistant Fire Chief.  We met up in the lobby of the Peoria Civic Center and signed in a few minutes before the event kicked off and we began our twelve hours of homelessness.

 

I must admit the 28 degree temperatures felt pretty cushy as I was bundled up in long johns, sweat pants, snow pants, t-shirt, sweatshirt, down-feather coat, ski gloves, and snow cap.  I felt my first pang of guilt.  The next step was to choose my house.  I picked a 27-cubic foot refrigerator box and positioned it next to my fellow firefighters’ homes, but not before spreading a yoga mat down beneath it for an additional barrier between me and the cold concrete – my second pang of guilt.  Next came the industrial grade waterproof, gooseneck feather filled, arctic rated sleeping bag.  At this point, ten minutes in to the night, I felt like I was cheating until I looked around at similarly dressed and prepared participants that looked ready for a trip to the North Pole.

 

An awkward feeling-out period began next as people began to mingle and chat and discuss the night ahead.  A man with a bullhorn informed us there would be pizza delivered in a few hours, there were warming stations just inside the foyer door, and armed security guards staffed the entrance and exit locations to keep out the local riff-raff – many of whom I suppose were homeless.  This time the guilty pang hit me with a bit more sense of irony and hypocrisy.  Nevertheless, a few hours passed and I decided to hit the rack.

 

 

 

I laid down and snuggled into the sleeping bag and found a nice hole in the box near my head.  Although it allowed the 18 degree temperatures and 10mph wind from the ENE to infiltrate my bedroom, it served nicely as a hanger for my eye glasses.  The festive mood outside slowly died down and I naturally couldn’t sleep.  This was a blessing.  It allowed me time to think about the experience on many different levels.

 

I originally signed up to gain a simple understanding of what it would be like to be homeless.  I had envisioned meeting at a predetermined location, hopping in the back of a van and being dropped off on a random street corner left to survive the elements and surroundings of the real “Street life.”  The guilty pleasures of having warm clothing, a safe environment, and warm food, put a damper on those notions.  All was not lost, however.  It was still humbling as I lay there without my CPAP machine or my dogs at the foot of the bed.  My wife wasn’t there and my kids weren’t in the rooms next door.  This was enough to help me empathize with the true sick and suffering persons ailing with homelessness every day and night. I thought of the uniformed police officers working overtime to ensure my safety.  I had never seen similar security details in my 23+ years of being a Peoria Firefighter.  At the time this was written, Peoria had ten shootings in the previous week.  I thought of the times when, as a first responder, I muttered under my breath, feelings of being ‘put out’ by such emergency responses.  I reflected a little deeper into the underlying reasons for some of the homeless individuals to begin with: under-education, addiction, PTSD, assorted mental disorders, feelings of unrecoverable despair, and other contributing factors of life’s unbalanced equity for all.  I eventually fell in and out of sleep for the remainder of the night and I left for home feeling exhausted.  My next-door neighbor, a brother firefighter of mine, undoubtedly left tired as well, as he continually pounded on my exterior wall a few dozen times throughout the night at my snoring.

 

 

By no means did this experience give me a 100% insight on what it truly means to be homeless, but in addition to the experience itself, I was enlightened and left speechless by two of the donors that helped me raise my monetary goal.  One indicated to me that he was happy to give because he had been there in real life.  I had no idea.  Another was my niece, an elementary school teacher in a deprived Peoria neighborhood, who told me, “I’m so proud of you uncle Andy. This will directly help many of my students!”  We probably must walk a mile in another man’s shoes to know the real story, but there is some benefit to walking a half-mile – especially if it gets us out of our comfort zone.  I look forward to next January.

 

Andy Perry

Illinois Firefighter Peer Support

andrewperry100@yahoo.com

@andrewperry100 on Twitter

Never Leave Behind Those That Lift Us Up

In 1994, as a newly commissioned firefighter, I thought I was going to save the world and immediately immersed myself into this new career.  Around that same time, I became engaged to (my now wife) Judy who in her own right started a career as a 3rd grade teacher.  She was supportive in all I did (and I, her) to educate myself in all things firefighting.  I took as many classes as I could and was going Mach II (no pun intended) with my hair on fire.  We married in October of 1996.

 

Fast forward to that period, and I now recall an early anecdotal story from our marriage.  Our first “home” was a 2-bedroom apartment in Alsip where Judy had just prepared this wonderful dinner that was about to be set on the table- suddenly, the phone rang.  I picked it up and the conversation went something like this: “Hello.  Okay, I will be right there” (now Judy was busy in the kitchen and did not hear the I’ll be right there part of my conversation).  When I hung up, I told her that the firehouse called for a standby, and I proceeded to put my shoes on.  She asked me “Where are you going?”, and I said- “the firehouse”.  Judy was under the impression that a standby meant I would do this from home.  I grabbed my coat and headed out the door.  I vividly remember the disappointment in her face as I left- only to return 4 hours later.

What I realized in that moment was that during the first 2 years of my career, I had educated myself in firefighting, but failed to teach Judy the jargon/lingo.  She knew what a general alarm signified each time the pager and community sirens activated, but not the standby.  Ugh!  She is the one who lifts me up, and I left her behind.  As the years passed, Judy became a crafty veteran firefighter’s wife.

However, there was one thing neither of us had anticipated- what this job would do to my psyche. Every 1st responder knows that he/she is going to see bad things when they raise their right hand and pledge to serve and protect- it is something that comes with the weight of this oath.  Everyone will respond differently to the cumulative traumas to which they are exposed, as some are more grounded than others.  Me- I suffered for over 16+ years with undiagnosed PTSD after bearing witness to the suicide of a colleague.  Judy had to deal with the ups and downs of mood swings, road rage, family feuds, etc.  I am forever grateful that she is still with me, because a less resilient person may have walked away.  I know in my heart there had to be times she wished for someone to talk to that could relate (be her peer support).  During that time in our lives such support did not exist.  Judy is my best friend in the whole, wide, world- and it is because of her selfless love that I am still in the fire service today.

 

My point here is that not only do we commit to a 20-30-year career when we swear an oath, but also our spouses, children, significant others, and even pets.  They know that by the very nature of our chosen vocation, we are going to miss many a milestone event (along with holidays, barbeques, soccer games, etc.) because we cannot always switch days to attend these outings.  This comes with the territory, and the families gain acceptance to that fact.  It doesn’t make it any easier, but it does happen.  Unfortunately, there are many relationships that will not survive this lifestyle commitment.  If we work a 24/48-hour schedule, we will spend just less than 1/3 of our lives apart, and this doesn’t include overtime, training, pub ed opportunities . . .  Now add the stress of behavioral health issues that insert themselves into the relationship.  So, what can we do to ensure that those we love are not left behind?  Education.

Here at ILFFPS, we have the spousal/significant other program that is headed by Colleen Murphy.  Colleen is a firefighter’s wife who offers that perspective, along with Matt Olson who contributes to the firefighter side of this presentation.  I encourage departments (who haven’t already done so) to offer this program to their newly engaged, newly married, and even veteran couples of their membership- as all attendees will take some nugget of wisdom home with them.

Colleen Murphy

The one statement that Colleen made that I will always remember went something like this: “You have to be very careful how you deal/speak with one another (as colleagues/couples), because each person brings a history with them to the fire service.  It is this history that will determine how an individual may react on a call for service.”   Here is an example:  A firefighter grew up in an abusive, alcoholic home.  He/she reacts inappropriately at this scene because it was an all too familiar childhood scenario.  In years past, we would give that person “their space” or even gossip about this behavior.  Today, we must make a commitment to having an honest conversation by asking questions not only of the first responder, but also those that lift them up.

Back to Judy’s disappointment about the standby.  I now realize that it was my duty to immerse her in the culture/jargon of the fire service way before she was left to eat this awesome meal that she created out of love- all by herself.  Communication is the key to ensure a healthy 1st responder relationship, marriage, etc.  It is especially important to talk about the tough issues such as behavioral health.  The firehouse gets us for 2-3 days a week, the rest is spent with those who are closely invested in our welfare.  If you don’t feel right- share that with your best friend(s).

The Zac Brown Band penned a song titled Last But Not Least which tells the story about someone who re-commits to a relationship after realizing he/she left a significant other behind.  Listen and follow along with the lyrics I provided.  If this resonates with you-  challenge yourself to take a step back and reflect on what is most important in this world to you.  If you need further assistance, don’t hesitate to contact Colleen.  Most assuredly she can give you a nudge in the right direction.  Until next time-

Be well,

Tim

 

 

 

“Last But Not Least”

There ain’t enough of me to go around Got all kinds of reasons To be all over town Spread thin and broken down Everybody wants a piece Oh darlin I’m afraid You’ve been last but not least Everyone I love the most Has to take what’s left of me I put it all together But I left out one big piece I put you last But you’re not least Nothing ever takes the place of you Sometimes things that may not matter Jump in front of things that do And your fine to stand in line While history repeats But oh darlin not this time Last but not least Everyone I love the most They deserve the best from me I put it all together When I found that missing piece You were the last But you’re not least I go left when I should go right I chase the dark when I see light I trip and fall down every time I try To walk that line

The sun comes up I look for rain I search for joy and I find the pain I swear I will not forget again Last but not least Last but not least Everyone I love the most Is gonna see the best of me I put it all together When I found the missing piece You were the last You were the last But you’re not least

 

Finding Balance

The following post was submitted by Craig Krsek that reflects on Tom Howard’s “The Art of Listening”

ILFFPS’s Faith Coordinator, Tom Howard wrote a Power Point presentation available on the ILFFPS website called, “The Art of Listening.” It highlights skills that are an integral part of peer support, but those that are not easily mastered or regularly employed in our task-oriented work environment. This article is meant to take a closer look at how this “Art” is needed to facilitate the balance between being a Firefighter and an effective Peer Supporter.

 

By nature, Firefighters are problem solvers. Functioning effectively in the role of Firefighter requires one to quickly assess the situation at hand, form a plan of action, and implement the steps needed to mitigate whatever situation we are faced with, all in a matter of seconds. From the most mundane to the most dynamic call, this is a repeated process that almost becomes automatic in our work. Working within an assigned company, Firefighters often complete this cumulative task with very little conversation, as each member of the company has a pre-assigned role.

 

Reminding oneself to slow down and take a deep breath, affords the mind an opportunity to process the information it is taking in, and in some cases, that act can prove to be lifesaving.

 

To be an effective Firefighter, one must be an efficient problem solver, who safely negotiates the delicate balance between the desire to act and the inherent safety risks we face. In our role as peer supporters, the ability to listen and allow ourselves to be present is a key component of the peer support interaction. If that effort is absent, the end result may be counterintuitive and potentially harmful to the process and individuals involved.

 

Instead of developing a plan of action, we as peer supporters need to be mindful that our role is to be available by listening and affording our brother or sister the opportunity to talk through the issue that brought about our interaction through peer support. As Tom Howard presented, using non-verbal gestures such as head-nodding and direct eye contact, in addition to positive, responsive body language, we as peer supporters can convey that we are engaged in the discussion. Re-framing what is said and asking open-ended and clarifying questions, as appropriate, will also support the development of a positive rapport during the healing conversation. To be an effective Peer Supporter, one must be able to listen and allow oneself to be in the conversation without controlling it, being mindful of our role as a facilitator within the peer support process and not necessarily just a problem solver.

Physical Wellness: Managing Stress

The following post was submitted by ILFFPS team member Kyle Matousek

It is no surprise that the job of a firefighter/paramedic is a stressful profession. The daily grind while on shift brings about absolutely no predictions of what you will do during that time. This is why managing stress and being mindful of stress causing circumstances is important to a firefighter. The ILFFPS is an organization that helps fire and EMS service individuals talk about things that may be bothering them. For example, a tough call, family issues, or just about anything they can not get off their mind. The ILFFPS is there when tough times are upon us, which is great and well needed today. In conjunction with that, there are ways to exercise our mind and body to become as prepared as possible for the stresses firefighters face everyday essentially learning to become proactive in the emotional wellness of firefighters.

 

As I attended the training to become a peer supporter we learn to listen, relate, and validate when talking with individuals on issues they may be dealing with. I realized this is something that does not need to just happen during rough times but also good times. The idea of “making it safe” and establishing an environment that people are willing to talk about anything whether good or bad is essential to managing stress. Simply knowing that there is always a shoulder to lean on is important for any human being. That is one way to help manage stress, develop that atmosphere for everyone to feel comfortable and great things can come. There is also learning to take care of yourself and your own mind and body.

 

Exercise is one of those things that I really enjoy talking about. I see many benefits to a program the helps people improve their physical well being. One major thing to note though, is that any physical fitness also has a major impact on the mind.

As we know, stress can lead to many chronic illness’s like depression, anxiety, IBS, and even lead to cardiac events. Becoming physically active can help eliminate those threats that stress can cause.

 

One thing I see very often is the grind that many face day in and day out. The twenty-four hour shift followed by part time work or family. I all too often see many firefighters forget or not have time to take care of themselves. An exercise program is perfect for many in that scenario. Here an hour a day can be established to really take that time to care for you and only you. We all know that a healthy you makes for a great firefighter, a great spouse and mother or father. It also allows for time in the day to forget about that daily grind, forget about the stress at home or anything else. It is a time to relax, take care of yourself and become healthier. In the end taking this one hour a day can have a major impact on your emotional wellness just as much as your physical wellness.

 

We will never be able to eliminate the stresses we face in the fire service, it is our job to face them and work through them. What we can do is work to learn what those stresses are and how to deal with them. There are simply things we just can not prepare for and that is when help is needed. However, there is a lot we can prepare for and learning to manage the stress we face on a daily basis is very important. A physical activity program is a great way to become proactive in your mental and physical wellness. Any physical activity is great, from walking for thirty minutes, yoga, weightlifting, and biking just to name a few. Get out there, get active and take care of yourself because it will help you to deal with the stresses we face. Together, we can become proactive in taking care of the most valuable asset on any department……YOU.

 

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