Around this time last year I was in the beginning stages of healing from the wounds of post-traumatic stress that had haunted me for over 16 years. My cry for help finally came during the second day of the inaugural Illinois Firefighter Peer Support training held in Bolingbrook in April of 2014. On that day I made a phone call to initiate counseling with one of the best FPS therapists I know, and the rest is a living history. Through a combination of psychotherapy, acupuncture, chiropractic, yoga, nutrition response testing, massage therapy, and reiki (Cody and I will touch on these topics as part of the ILFFPS Holistic Wellness Initiative) I have become a more centered and peaceful human being. Along the way I discovered that talking can be some of the best medicine.
When I first began to tell me story in that training class, I could not even get two words out before I broke down crying. I was in the state of utter confusion as to why something that I buried (or thought I did) in the deepest recess of my subconsciousness had suddenly surfaced as a volcanic eruption the size of Mount St. Helens. One month into my healing journey, I stood before my FD peers in a staff meeting and presented the ILFFPS post-training PowerPoint. I remember having sweaty palms as I related my story along with the struggles of the last 16 years. I also apologized to anyone in the room that I either fought with or offended by my short fuse of a personality. I was not trying to excuse my behavior, but rather offer an explanation.
I walked away from that meeting with such great relief knowing that I spoke with poise, did not crack my voice, or shed one tear. Since that day, I have shared this story several times with peers, in follow up trainings, at Rosecrance, and most recently the Illinois Fire Chief’s Annual Symposium. Each of these experiences has been different for me, but all have had the same healing effect which contributes to my more balanced existence in this world. Given this, I am now going to share with you my story as I experienced it almost 17 ½ years ago:
Sixteen years ago on a cold, damp, February night, my outlook on life changed forever. The alarm sounded at 1940 hours (7:40 p.m.) for a vehicle that had exploded. My assignment for the day was to drive the fire engine to the scene and make sure that water was put on the fire. My heart began to race as I thought, “This is going to be a bad one.” Upon arrival, the Lieutenant, I, and another firefighter could see a column of heavy black smoke rising (as black as the sky) from the rear of an apartment building parking lot. The Lieutenant and other firefighter (nicknamed Ski) pulled the hose line off of the engine and disappeared behind the building into the night. Suddenly, I heard my Lieutenant shout in a booming voice, “Get us water quick!!!”
Within a few minutes the fire was extinguished and the job complete, or so I thought. The next thing I knew, an ambulance that also responded, pulled out from behind the building. I peered through the window and saw three medics treating a charred, lifeless body that was pulled from a pickup truck that had exploded. My Lieutenant, who was driving the ambulance, never looked my way as he sped off to the hospital. I thought this to be odd behavior as the “Lou” always gave us additional instructions.
While I was picking up equipment, Ski emerged from behind the building and said in a soft voice, “It was Little Dicky.” Tears began to stream down my face as I collapsed to the ground, sobbing uncontrollably. You see, Little Dicky, a fellow firefighter I worked with for the last three years, just committed suicide. It was determined that he poured gasoline over himself and ignited it with a lighter. One month prior, Little Dicky made an attempt to end his life, only this time he was successful. After that night, I realized that we are put on this Earth for a very short time and it should be our life’s mission to leave the world a little better off than we found it. Therefore, I developed a personal mantra that I try to live by each day which is: “Every morning I wake up and realize that there are many people in this world who want to be somebody. I, on the other hand, want to be somebody who makes a difference.”
A big lesson that I have learned on this healing journey is that it still takes a lot of hard work to maintain balance (I continue to practice/receive my alternative healing methods), considering I still work in the environment that contributed to the erupting volcano in my mind. In one of my many discussions with Matt Olson, he told me that in this job the hits are going to keep on coming as long as we wear the badge. However, the greatest healing gift bestowed on me during these last 15 months is being a peer supporter. Not only do we (as supporters) offer others hope through our lessons learned, we also heal at the same time. After all, the more you tell your story . . . the easier it becomes.
The Peer Reporter is an open forum for learning from each other as well as those on the World Wide Web who visit these pages. We are all members of this fantastic team drawn here because of the experience(s) that have profoundly affected us in different ways. I highly encourage any peer supporter or therapist to share your story as well as how being part of the ILFFPS has contributed to your healing journey. Send all submissions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Until next time-
Be well and stay safe,