It’s a hard life we live as first responders, and hard people are required to live it. We convince ourselves that it is perfectly acceptable to cover our wounds with false bravado, and drink ourselves to stupidity every night, because that is what tough people do. We don’t burden others with our problems; we internalize them and make them go away, along with our hopes, dreams, and humanity.
Who besides us knows what it takes to survive this life with our dignity, optimism, and sanity intact? We have every right to seek escape from the harsh reality we experience. We see things that most people cannot imagine, and we are expected to perform day after day, week after week, and year after year. It’s no wonder so many of us seek solace through alcohol, pain meds, and illegal drugs.
“Whatever works” is our battle cry as we meander through our lives with a chip on our shoulder, waiting for some poor soul to question our sanity.
Nobody expects us to carry the weight of the world on our shoulders. The duty we’ve imposed on ourselves silently kills far too many first responders. Carrying the responsibility for everybody else is too heavy a burden, and nobody does anybody any good with that kind of baggage. We cannot live up to our own expectations. We will fail, somewhere, somehow, and will have to face our own shortcomings as firefighters, EMTs, police officers, and human beings.
But it is not in our nature to let the people we love down. Those people depend on us to be there, to take charge, and to lead the way. We have set the bar so high that success is unattainable. Our moments of clarity—when everything goes the way we planned—are few. Most days we simply do our job with little fanfare and no drama. What we have forgotten is that we are only human, with the same faults, weaknesses, and fears as everyone else. We break, but nobody but us sees the signs of wear. We suffer, but do so in silence. We drink, because we do not know how else to cope with our frailty.
There are people who know how we feel, and they understand how we got to that level of frustration.
Everybody responds to life in their own way. But what I have learned is that we all need support.
When cracks developed in my foundation, I closed the doors to my mind, built walls around my emotions, and erected an elaborate defense system to keep everybody out. The walls stayed strong, but the person behind them grew weaker. He became angry, bitter, and resentful. Resentment is a terrible way to deal with the world; it’s like drinking poison in an effort to hurt everybody else.
My walls were built with a steady supply of my drug of choice: alcohol. Beer was good, whiskey was better, and vodka was the best. My threshold for hiding the pain was at about a dozen stiff drinks or 15 or so cold ones.
Thinking about the sentiment that was nearly my undoing makes me almost as crazy as I was when I used alcohol to get through my self-imposed life. I kept the pain out, but by doing so kept the joy out, too. I blocked sadness, and in doing so ruined my chances of finding happiness. I numbed any feelings of despair or loneliness and yet managed to be alone and despondent.
I needed an intervention, but nobody knew that at the time.
Nobody needs to act the way I did when things grow difficult. There are tried-and-tested ways to do our work without resorting to drastic measures to stay sane. There are people who know how we feel, and they understand how we got to that level of frustration. And better yet, they know how to bring us back to the people we are meant to be, both in and out of uniform.
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