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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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-