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Courage to Move Beyond the Shadows

During a recent conversation, I was asked what it was like to share my story for the first time with my colleagues. How was it accepted? Was I viewed as weak because I openly shared my mental health struggles? The easiest way for me to answer the above questions is to rewind the video in my life and start at that moment in time.


In April of 2014, I was part of the inaugural Illinois Firefighter Peer Support graduating class (it is hard to believe that 4 years have flown by so quickly). Our first assignment, as you know well is to provide educational outreach to our respective departments. My first experience was to present to my fellow officers at the monthly staff meeting which was held in June of that same year. Prior to my seeking treatment for post-traumatic stress injuries, I wreaked havoc during several said meetings with a bull-in-the-china shop mentality. When my buttons were pushed, I quickly pounced back at whomever challenged me. My chief commented one time that even he felt uncomfortable. “Uh, Oh! I thought. It was time to cool my jets.” ILFFPS changed all of that for me.

I remember vividly standing before my colleagues sharing not only the concept of ILFFPS, but also my personal struggles. I apologized for my past behaviors and stressed that my PTSD was not an excuse, but an explanation for my actions. My story was well received by my peers, and I was thanked for being honest and humble about the past. I decided to start my journey here, as it was my very first share post-class. Next up, was presenting to the rest of the department. I covered all shifts and had one of our fellow peer supporters assist me with this endeavor in November of 2014. A small group of officers was one thing, but the entire department was another. On the surface, the outreach was well-received.

I can never really say if I am viewed as weak because I openly acknowledged that I sought out psychotherapy for my issues- for most would never tell me that directly. I was recently made aware by one of the younger firefighters that some person(s) voiced an opinion that the peer work I do is complete BS. “Why should we sit and listen to someone else’s story”, one was heard to say. It is not for me to judge the merits of this statement, as I am going to work tirelessly regardless of what is said because peer support does work as evidenced by those I have listened to and referred when necessary.

It is going to take our brothers and sisters time to become comfortable with our work, as change takes time. In life, we will face an opposing viewpoint. The key is to have the courage to move beyond the shadows (of stigma), and let your voice be heard- as it is one of the most kind and healing gifts that you can give to your mind, body, and spirit. Equally as important, this voice may resonate with at least one person whose life will be changed forever for the better.


Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Our lives begin to end, the day we remain silent about things that matter.”

Have courage and matter- our peers will respond in-kind. I highly encourage you to actively participate in our team blog. You can send any submissions (in a Word document) to me at Please include a title for your work. Submissions can be about personal stories, self-care, or anything you feel will benefit our readers at-large. Until next time-

Be well,

To Resonate – Be Vulnerable

On September 21st, I had the honor and privilege of attending day one of the 2nd Annual Rosecrance Florian Symposium along with 200 others from 20 States. It was awesome to catch up with fellow team members as well as make new contacts with others who have a personal stake in behavioral health issues concerning 1st responders. After listening to several speakers throughout the day, the common theme boiled down to just one word – vulnerability.

2nd Annual Rosecrance Florian Symposium

The day began with Florian Program Director Dan DeGryse recounting his years with the Chicago Fire Department as a rank and file blue shirt to battalion Chief (current rank) to the head of their EAP program for over 15 years. Dan related that there were many times after a shift he came home and just did not want to talk to anybody (due in part to his role as both a firefighter and EAP director), something he acknowledged had affected his family dynamic. He also expressed his frustration and anger over the increasing suicides within the department, something that eventually lead to his association with Rosecrance and the development of the Florian Program. Dan’s opening remarks were authentic and filled with emotion.

The first keynote speaker was Kent Williams, a retired Police Chief who spoke about the arena of crisis within which 1st responders operate, and how we can overcome the stressors (curse) that comes with the blessing of serving others in need. Kent spoke about his “wake up” when his wife had to tell him that his children were afraid of him. It was at that moment in the presentation that I sensed his regret over this issue in his life. However, this incident inspired him to create his business Breach Point Consulting. He defined the breach point as “A sudden change in personal/professional perspective, allowing for tremendous personal growth”. He shares lessons learned (that spanned a 32-year career) with others so they will not have to face the same trials and tribulations. An honest, open, and dynamic conversation to say the least.

The next session I attended was presented by (a friend of mine from Canada) Dan Bowers who is a retired Ontario Provincial Police Officer. Dan recounted his struggles with PTSD, depression, and drinking that led to two failed marriages and estrangement from his children. After much reflection, Dan realized that the most important circle around us (family, friends, or significant others) are all too often left behind with no idea about how to help the first responder should they experience a crisis. This led Dan to complete ardent research concerning this issue which inspired him to create the First Eyes Mental Health Program. Currently this program is only available in Canada, and consists of a 6-hour workshop that includes all stakeholders in the 1st responder’s circle. By the end of the day, this circle will complete 8 modules of instruction and leave with a solid game plan and resources to use in the event of a mental/emotional crisis. Two memorable take-away quotes from this presentation: “Mental health recovery is not linear, it bounces back and forth but you can get through it, and have a rebirth”. “We can’t rely on others to do our homework”. Another real, raw, and honest conversation about lessons learned.


Illinois Peer Support Team Logo
The next session I attended was led by our own Colleen Murphy who is the Spouse Coordinator for Illinois Firefighter Peer Support. Colleen shared her personal story as the wife of a firefighter and the nuggets of wisdom garnered from this life experience. The greatest take away for any first responder is that it is very hard to separate the effects of the job from home life. A way to ease this burden is to have an open line of communication between partners and their children. Colleen said it is paramount to bring kids to the workplace to relieve any separation anxiety and/or fears they may experience. Colleen is a great asset to spouses and significant others and connects easily with those she helps just by being honest and open.

The final speakers of the day were Mike Dugan and John Walters of the FDNY who shared each of their own personal stories about years on the job and the toll it took on their psyche. These speakers did not define the effects of mental health injuries (like PTSD) as would a textbook- they did not have to. They spoke of self-medicating through alcohol, having a spouse significant other give them an “eye-opener” through honest conversation, and losing friends through suicide. Each man took the courageous step and had the emotional intelligence to realize that they would not get any better without seeking the services of a professional counselor and peer support personnel. Mike did state it is most beneficial to seek out a counselor who has a strong baseline knowledge of our profession for the most meaningful recovery. An hour and 15 minutes of two men telling very poignant stories. Nothing more and nothing less.

The Courage to be Vulnerable

The theme for this year’s Symposium was “We all Need Help Sometimes”. To me, the theme for the day was vulnerability. Each speaker connected with his/her audience simply by providing an open, honest, and meaningful conversation. As peer support team members, we are engaged in public speaking (educational) events to spread the good word, as well as provide one-on-one services to a brother or sister in need. In the long run- to resonate, be vulnerable.

In health and wellness,


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.


Self-Care is an act of Self-Love


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



First Eyes Proactive Mental Health Program

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 ( 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).


2nd Annual Rosecrance Florian Symposium

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,


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.


Homeless man holding a sign


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.



Homelss sign


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.


Walk a mile in my shoes saying


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 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.

Newly Weds on the Beach at sunset


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.


Firefighter helping family across the street

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 Head Shot

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,





“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