With that in mind, let me describe why it is so important that we, as Emergency Response professionals, manage our mental and physical health not only for our sake but for the sake of our families.
In the 40 years that I have been in my career field, the term family has morphed into something completely different than it was in the beginning. I am not trying to paint a gloomy picture of our profession. However, we need to understand the reality of what we do and how it impacts not only ourselves, but our loved ones as well.
We all experience the work family and the home family. At the start of our career in Public Service and emergency response, our immediate home family tends to be very in tuned with this new and exciting profession. The introduction of the work brothers and sisters and yes, even work aunts and uncles is intriguing leaving our spouses and children enamored with the excitement of the big trucks, lights and sirens and everything else in the amazing new world.
Initially the two families are blended into one big happy conglomerate and this honeymoon phase is great. The camaraderie, the laughter of social gatherings for the department/agency and everything glamorous and grand. Then it happens. Reality strikes and initiates the change that every one of us experiences. It may be that really bad call. It may be the pressure of feeling that you need to respond to every call and put the family activities on hold “Again.” Or it may be the pressure of feeling that you need to be the best every second of the day. Whichever the case, this marks the beginning of the end of your career or your relationship with your significant other or even more importantly with that person that you once were.
When talking about our jobs we understand that we are subjected to stress. That is just part of the job. We also must understand and accept that we are not the only ones that feel our stress. Derivative stress is a huge factor in our home family dynamic and is defined as the long lasting emotional reactions originating from trauma that happened to another person. Even though the family members have not experienced the traumatic event personally, they begin to manifest stress symptoms as they observe and react to the stress we bring home.
Let’s think about that for a minute. It is a fact that the incidents that we see and experience in the field and try to shelter our family from impacts their emotions even though we don’t tell them about the call. The misconception is that we can hide our emotions. That we are made of steel and can attempt to deny that we are still human. The fact is that we are indeed human and so are our families.
When a responder experiences a traumatic event, he/she generally has a partner that they can (if they choose to) debrief that call with. For the rest of that shift, they have a resource that they can access to discuss the good, the bad and the ugly about that particular event. Then the shift ends. They pack up their stuff and go home. That stuff doesn’t necessarily mean their lunch box, and personal equipment. It means the unresolved baggage of that call. When they get home, they now must make a decision, do they talk to their family about what they experienced? Would their family truly understand the magnitude of that event that you are experiencing or will they look at you with glazed eyes and tolerate your explanation only to proceed to go shopping or expect you to snap out of it and start the grill so you can make dinner.
Our world is so different than that of other professions that one cannot adequately describe all of the outside dynamics that impact our daily existence so others can understand. If one happens to have a life partner that is in the same profession and can relate to the lifestyle that we lead, generally one of two things will happen. You will either have a greater chance of them empathizing with you and being able to help you process the event or they will expect you to be able to handle the stress and put it away because it is weak to accept that pain as being real. Either way, by sharing your days’ events, you have now created an environment of stress at home too. This will now diminish your ability to escape that event. Even though this may not be ideal, it is exactly what needs to happen.
Talking about the call is paramount to your healing and exactly what you need to do even though you also know that it comes with a price. Realistically, most of us choose to leave the call at work or in the back recesses of our memory and shelter our families from the trouble. Here is the problem. That call will leak out of you in ways that you have no control over. Now masking the issue becomes an unconscious effort. This is where many begin to hide the problem with alcohol, drugs, sex or isolation as you try to compensate for having feelings that “We just can’t talk about.” The downward spiral has begun and the derivative stress felt by your loved ones is exacerbated by the behaviors that we choose as crutches.
Your relationships start to crumble. Tension between you and your life partner begin to deteriorate and the kids start to notice the number of arguments increasing. Your willingness to participate in what you used to enjoy no longer exists. You are irritated very quickly and everything starts to get out of hand. It’s a snowball that just doesn’t seem to want to stop. But remember, it is snowing for your partner as well.
They are feeling the frustration, confusion, detachment, solitude, overwhelming sense of responsibility and even the feeling of being alone to manage this new complex issue with no idea of where to turn for resources to help. This problem also impacts the most innocent. Many children manage the emotional outpourings or isolationism by internalizing. If there is conflict in the family, many times their reaction is to accept responsibility for what is going on in their world. “They” must have caused that argument or they must have caused daddy or mommy to be mean or to not want to be around them. This feeling or belief often manifests with many other behaviors that impact the family dynamic negatively. This in turn causes additional stress on an already volatile situation.
Depending on the age of the child they may start acting out with negative behavior to seek attention, they may begin wetting the bed again or their school performance may suffer. There are many other scenarios that could manifest from this family dynamic disruption. Which is all the more reason that we as responders, come to grips with the notion that we are important and need to use Universal Mental Health Precautions to manage the everyday stress that we encounter.
So I want to make this very clear. This situation is NOT your fault. You didn’t choose to be impacted by this trauma and to be left alone to deal with it. However, one would argue that it is your responsibility to make the decision to manage it. There are resources at your disposal that will offer the opportunity to learn how to manage this beast. Your career is one that you have worked long and hard for but so is your family. Keep in mind that you can find another career, but your family is one of a kind. Often times we get lost behind the badge and forget that we were a person before we became a public servant. Find that person.