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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.

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