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How Did I Get Here?

The following post was submitted by Rosecrance Florian Program Coordinator Paul Gardner, Jr.

On September 7th last year, at the rank of Deputy Chief with the Berwyn Fire Department, I retired after thirty-four and a half years in the fire service.  Just before I retired, I participated in a training centered on psychological support for firefighters. Little did I know, this training would cover so much more than just psychological support, including firehouse behavior, how incidents can/do affect us, family issues, and personal issues.  As the presentation progressed, I looked around. More and more of the group was becoming attentive, including me.

We sat enthralled at the ways people are affected, and what might cause attitudes when things don’t go according to how we want.  I thought, “Yep that is that guy over there,” or, “Oh and that’s him over there.” Then, I was hit with my “Oh, my” moment.  The presenter asked, “How many of you have heard, ‘When is dad going to work?’” This one hit home. My wife, Maureen, has told me a number of times the kids would ask this. I thought it was no big deal, that they were just looking to do things by themselves, but I began to realize that this phrase was linked to them feeling disconnected from me. Until this point, I hadn’t been able to see that some of what I was doing was messing up my family. I was guilty of trying the run home like the firehouse, being short with my family, and, most importantly, not being attentive to my wife. Why was this happening?

I would leave work, but I never left work at the firehouse. Over the last eight years I was on call 24/7, answering emails, doing reports, trying to fix things that went awry at the firehouse because I felt it needed attention right then.

I made some changes, and the tension began to ease.  I remember my wife telling me, “Quit trying to fix everything!” I didn’t realize she wanted  me to listen and not try to figure it out for her.  I think a lot of this “trying to fix everything” comes from our line of work.  People call us, needing something done or fixed right away. A vast majority of the time we go on incidents, we are there to take care of the situation where something has gone wrong.  So, I guess it is second nature to try to fix things, but home needed to be treated differently than work.

As I began to reflect on who I was as a firefighter and what that meant for me on and off the job, I began to see that my firehouse needed more honesty. My family life suffered for over six years, but I never told my co-workers. One of our immediate family members had an addiction along with mental health issues. This put a lot of stress on the household. And, how I handled this in the beginning was not the way I should have. I have learned a lot since then, and continue to. But, I didn’t let my co-workers know because, in my mind, I thought, “How could they accept me if I couldn’t run my own home?”

I had heard individuals come back from calls saying, “Yeah, it was another drug addict, another one with mental issues. Man this is ridiculous! If they want to die, then die.” But, probably due to my situation, I felt compassion for that person: “Do you know what’s going on in their lives and why this is happening?” Sometimes I’d hear, “No, I don’t care about them,” or, “It’s just another call, and I’m tired of these.” I never said it out loud, but these comments always made me wonder: “How could anyone in the firehouse that was having a problem come out and seek help when this type of talk was going on?

Thankfully, these comments were not the majority, but I would venture each department has some of this, and sadly it can damage the safety needed for peer support. On the other end of the spectrum, were firefighters on the ambulance and apparatus that showed compassion when handling patients and people needing us. It should be the norm that we put ourselves in the other person’s shoes when we are helping them. What a difference that makes in your perspective!

The more I thought about these negative reactions, the more I wondered if this attitude was due to having to go on an average of ten calls a day? Add to that shopping, cooking, and training, and I wonder if burnout, stress reaction, or injury is far away from any of us. How do we avoid burnout, then? I really feel that peer support is the absolutely necessary when it feels that there is no relief in sight. The life of a firefighter can be absolutely exhausting, if day in and day out we are running calls over and over, some of which are very bad.

So, with the encouragement of Matt Olson, Chief Pat Kenny, and my wife, I decided to attend the peer support class.

If you have seen the peer support video, Andy Perry stated he thought he had ultimate story, and so did I. But, when the introductions were to be made at the class, I saw that I was just another person in the class with incidents or occurrences that have happened in each of our lives.  I realized as the introductions were be done that others had way more instances of grief, bad incidents, personal situations that made mine not look as big.

At the end of the class Matt said to us, “Well, you all are now Peer Supporters, and we know you are ready to help those who need it.” I was like, “What? What can I do to help?”  Looking back a number of times at the training we were given and how that helped me, I realized that, yes, I can offer to help others.

The three main realizations I took away from the class were: First, that I could be open with my co-workers; second, that I should listen and not fix everything at home; and third, that I could be there for my peers when they need someone to talk to.

In September, I assumed to role of scheduling visits to Rosecrance.  This was very important for me, since I had previously had my family member at Rosecrance. I knew how important it was for people to feel accepted in the midst of their struggle, for people to have a place to open up, and for families to come visit their loved ones. Seeing this and being personally involved showed me I could be involved in helping our peers and how much this could mean to them.

Immediately after I started scheduling visits to Rosecrance, I discovered so many peer supporters that wanted to come visit multiple days throughout the month. Wow! Everyone was so flexible and willing to share their stories, and more and more peers that had not gone before, signed up. I know that Dan DeGryse and Rosecrance greatly appreciate us being able to visit with our peers that are there.  If you have not yet gone to Rosecrance you will see that we are greatly appreciated there!

In my quest to become a stronger Peer Supporter, I enrolled in the November Peer Support class in Downers Grove. It was one of the best things I have done lately!

It was terrific to see Chief Kenny there, get to talk to him, and know that he is involved in Peer Support.  Along with see Chief Kenny, I learned more about myself and got to meet some more great people within our group.  I have always felt you never stop learning and this was true at this class.

Tom Howard’s presentation “The Art of Listening” was fabulous, and showed me more ways to be able to interact with people and to listen better.  I recommend this Power Point for peer supporters to review as it will help you within the fire service, peer support, and life in general.  Take time to go through the Power Point and you will gain additional knowledge of how to listen, ask questions, and interact.  I feel too that this would be a great presentation/class for officers and chiefs to take.

Having overcome so many of my family’s tough situations, I love watching and helping other people overcome theirs. Listening, asking questions, and interacting with our peers can be invaluable in helping them remain strong men/women, who are ready to serve Illinois. Together, if we keep the faith, we can overcome even the worst things that come to us.

A Weekend with TEMA

Last weekend, I had the honor of sharing the ILFFPS mission as well as the collaborative partnership opportunity we have with the Rosecrance Florian program at the Tema Conter Memorial Trust Common Threads educational conference that was held on February 10th in Vaughan, Ontario, Canada.  Taken from their website, the history of the memorial trust is as follows:

“In 1988, former paramedic Vince Savoia attended to the homicide of Ms. Tema Conter.  This event not only changed his life, but it also changed the lives of the Conter family.

Dealing with feelings of guilt, anger, and frustration, Savoia began his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  Flashbacks, nightmares, isolation, and hyper-vigilance were some of the symptoms that he needed to deal with.

In 2000, Savoia requested permission from the Conter family to establish a Trust that would end the silence and ease the suffering of others like him who were dealing with PTSD.  The Trust would also serve to honour the memory of the Conter family’s beloved Tema.

The Tema Conter Memorial Trust began in 2001 as a modest charity offering scholarships to paramedic students.  Today, it has grown to become a hub for research, education and training, as well as a peer and psychological support resource for the men and women serving in Canada’s public safety organizations.

In 2011, the Trust welcomed Canadian actor, Enrico Colantoni as its national spokesperson.  With Enrico’s help, and the simple yet powerful slogan, “Heroes Are Human”, this charity has been able to spread awareness across the country and beyond. In the summer of 2014, volunteers of the Trust and various speakers and celebrities embarked on a cross-Canada PTSD-awareness tour that reached thousands of people in 47 towns and cities from    Newfoundland to British Columbia.’’ (Tema.ca, 2017).

The Annual Common Threads educational conference took place on Friday and had over 300 attendees.  I was a little nervous prior to my session, but once I started to share our story – I quickly hit my groove.  Through feedback, I was told that my presentation was well received.  I had several attendees sign a sheet requesting more information about what we do.  I also had conversations with several of our brothers and sisters from Canada, and learned that there are no borders between countries concerning first responders with respect to physical and emotional wellbeing.  The rest of that day I attended several other breakout sessions with topics that included mindfulness, spousal/significant others “First Eyes” program, and “Essential Characteristics of First Responder Therapists”.

That evening, I attended the awards ceremony dinner honoring TEMA volunteers.  Additionally, several educational scholarships were given to students who are entering the public service and military professions.  These individuals are required to submit and essay covering any of the following topics: PTSD, critical incident stress, signs and symptoms of stress, etc.  They must relate this to present day emergency services, and include their own thoughts on researching the topics (TEMA, 2017).

On Saturday evening, I attended the Heroes Tribute Gala along with 500+ other first responders, families, supporters, and Members of Parliament.  This annual gala serves as one of several fundraisers that the Tema Trust holds throughout the year (they are a charitable organization).  This event included both silent and open auctions, a preview of their new public service announcement, keynote speeches, and a night of fun and networking.

A major highlight for me was to meet people whom I have followed on Twitter for over a year and vice versa.  It truly shows how small this world really is when we came together for the “common thread” of advancing wellness for first responders.  Yesterday, I wrote Vince and his team a letter of thanks (I share with you now) of what this weekend really meant to me:

Dear Vince and TEMA Team,

     Time has flown by so quickly since I had the honor of sharing my story and what we do here with Illinois Firefighter Peer Support.  This past week has been one of great reflection upon all that I had experienced over four days spent in Canada.  Everywhere I went, I was greeted by the most kind, heartfelt, and authentic people who welcomed me with open arms.  However, last weekend was about a whole lot more.

     Since my diagnosis of PTSD in 2014, I have looked for ways to expand my posttraumatic growth- always in a positive way.  Often this is accomplished by public presentations of my story and how peer support became a big part of my continuing recovery on this awesome healing journey.  Other times it simply happens through observation of human interaction.

     I had the privilege of watching a dedicated group of individuals (led by you Vince), each of whom share their unique individual talents with the sole purpose of advancing the awareness of behavioral health issues that affect first responders.  I also find it most wonderful that you provide scholarships to future first responders, and have even inspired the Tema student group who will ensure that the next generation (s) live a more balanced life both during and after their time in public service.  So, how did this affect me?

     As I write this letter, I realize that after the sharing of stories, tears, and hugs with people whom I just became acquainted with- my posttraumatic growth expanded 1000-fold.  This humbling, human experience will be something that I remember for as long as I live and breathe on this planet. 

With abiding respect and gratitude,

Tim Grutzius

Illinois Firefighter Peer Support Team

     There were many more experiences and stories to share, but I can only put so much on paper.  If you want to know more, reach out to me so we can chat.  It truly was a life-changing experience.  For more information about TEMA visit their website at tema.ca/home   I leave you with a song written by Canadian paramedic and country singer Kevin Davison that sums up our lives as public servants.  Until next time-

Be well and stay safe,

Tim

 

Helping the Next One in Line

While pondering what to write for my next post, I heard a Tim McGraw song titled Humble and Kind (written by Lori McKenna) that offered very sage advice.  The last stanza of the piece goes like this:

“Don’t take for granted the love this life gives you
When you get where you’re going don’t forget turn back around
And help the next one in line
Always stay humble and kind “

And help the next one in line– very profound, but how does this apply to us as first responders, peer supporters, or human beings in general?  After much deliberation, here is my best explanation.

As we become seasoned veterans, it is easy to forget that we were once timid and anxious just like our younger counterparts.  However, we survived the storm and are now comfortable in our own shoes. Teach them well and have honest conversations to ensure that our service will be left in capable hands long after we are gone. Being an exceptional mentor to the probationary firefighter, paramedic or EMT student is a great way to pay it forward as well as honor those who were integral to our success.  Quite simply, always be humble and kind.

Those of us that have joined the Illinois Firefighter Peer Support team, did so mainly to offer our brothers and sisters in need of a safe and non-judgmental space to share their trials and tribulations (on an emotional level) of life as a first responder.  They seek our counsel because we have already walked that green mile ahead of them and can listen, relate, and validate to what they are saying (thanks for that one Matt).  It is one of the best shared healing gifts that one human being can give to another.  The Rosecrance Florian experience offers the opportunity to do this in a group setting as well.

Lastly, take every opportunity you can to provide the needed educational outreach to our brothers and sisters in Illinois, the United States, and other countries should the opportunity arise.  This week,  I will have the greatest honor and privilege (with the blessing of Matt and the Executive Board) to speak at the Tema Conter Memorial Trust educational workshop in Vaughan, Ontario.  The two main goals I want to accomplish while there are to (1) share the mission of ILFFPS, and (2) bring back ideas to share with you all on how our friends to the north turn back around and help the next one in line. I leave you with the song Humble and Kind to add clarity to this post.  Until next time-

 

Be well and stay safe,

Tim

Increasing Our Happiness

Jada Hudson Head shotThis entry is shared by one of our clinical consultants- Jada Hudson

I was first introduced to positive psychology at a conference featuring Helene Moore, PsyD, MAPP from Northwestern University. She explained that in the past, psychologists have approached negative conditions like anxiety, depression, and neurosis from a disease model with a concentration on what is going wrong and needs to be fixed. Positive psychology studies happy people and their behaviors so we can uncover what to do to achieve that state of contentment.

Positive psychology arose from an intentional, scientific study of people from all over the world, including different cultures and socioeconomic levels. They found happy people everywhere, in tribal communities, slum conditions and unfortunate circumstances. By studying this “happiness” and measuring it quantitatively, positive psychologists have identified many important ways we humans can increase our happiness, such as:

·        Daily Exercise, which releases the chemical in our brain called dopamine that makes us feel happy. It is stimulated through aerobic exercise, especially when combined with a new experience or a “playful” twist, such as doing a “zombie run”.

·        Express Gratitude. People who intentionally “count their blessings” daily are generally more happy.

·        Achieving Flow. FLOW is a concept coined by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Ph.D. to describe the happiness we feel when we are so mentally satisfied and focused on our activity that we lose track of time. We can achieve this during exercise, hobbies or even work.

Positive psychologists say that 40 percent of our happiness is determined by our intentional actions.

After the Plan- Don’t Forget Everything Else

Last week, I had the honor and privilege of attending the Mental Health First Aid for Firefighters on the first day of the Rosecrance Florian Symposium.  Firefighters from Los Angeles County, Florida, Alaska, Oregon, Illinois, Toronto and others- participated in an informative discussion about topics that are prevalent within our profession.  The curriculum included issues such as: anxiety, depression, suicide, psychosis, and substance abuse and was well received by all attendees.

The recurring theme for each behavioral health issue was the following Mental Health First Aid Action Plan:

Action A: Assess for risk of suicide or harm

Action L: Listen nonjudgmentally

Action G: Give reassurance and information

Action E: Encourage appropriate professional help

Action E: Encourage self-help and other support strategies

Each module included a description of an issue followed by a discussion on how to implement a plan of action using case scenarios.  During the course of the day, the subject of department policy was examined as to how it fit into the intervention strategies as described above.  There was no definitive answer to this question as each department/city/state has its own guidelines with which to follow.  It was recommended that any policy set regarding behavioral health should be followed, especially if the assessment of risk for suicide or harm is high.

Towards the end of the day a most enlightening monologue was given by Lieutenant Graham of the Rockford Fire Department.   He stated that once the department guidelines are followed for the protection of the individual as well as the crew/shift- “Don’t forget everything else.”  What the good LT was referring to was the human side of the equation.  Yes, we must take the immediate step to mitigate the situation (standard SOG response), but then we must have the honest conversation to attempt and uncover the underlying cause.

LT Graham used the example of a career firefighter who starts showing up to work under the influence of alcohol- something that is out of character for this individual.  First, we must not cover this person’s tracks as this will only compound the problem.  Implement Action A and follow department policy.  After that, LT. Graham said an after-care conversation should be initiated.  For example, this discussion can begin something like “I have noticed that you are acting out of character lately and it’s not like you . . . what’s going on?

LT Graham further related that by “making it safe” (as Matt always says) we may just find out that this person is having financial and/or marital issues or a health crisis involving an immediate family member- which has led to said drinking.  This is what peer support is all about my friends- reaching out, caring, and sharing the human experience with our brothers and sisters.  Should we be so fortunate to have the peer divulge sensitive information, this will help provide a solid foundation for after-care activities.

As peer supporters, it is not our job to diagnose or treat behavioral health emergencies.  Our mission is to provide an environment that a peer feels safe to discuss issues well before they spiral into the Action A Zone.  Always remember to “not forget everything else.”  My sincerest thanks goes to LT. Graham for sharing his wisdom.  Until next time-

Be well and stay safe,

Tim