I was lucky growing up in a rural town in Pennsylvania to have a large backyard for my friends to come and play both day and night. After the nighttime game of hide-and-seek ended, we would borrow some of my mother’s canning jars and go catch the fireflies that lit up the backyard. Some people know these small flying beetles that emit light from their tail section as lightning bugs.
We would capture these fireflies in the glass jar just to watch them light up, or sometimes we’d hold a competition to see who could catch the most. Then at the end of the night, we would release them all for the ability to catch them another evening.
That was almost 50 years ago, but I recently found myself staring out of my bedroom window and watching the fireflies twinkling around in the backyard skies for hours. You see, after 30 plus years in the fire service I am now suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. With a recent tragic event replaying continually in my mind, staring out of the bedroom window into the darkness watching those fireflies seemed better than just staring at my bedroom ceiling.
Many first responders struggle with the sights, sounds, and smells from the traumatic and violent calls that we respond too, each being a snapshot in time that we relive in our minds over and over again, much worse than that Groundhog Day movie. Some of those traumatic sights, sounds, or smells go away after a few weeks, but some linger on for many months. When your mind continually replays the same traumatic event(s) for a period of more than a month, then please recognize this as a sign that it is time to reach out and get the help of a professional.
Officers in our fire, police, and ambulance agencies need to be true leaders and have the ability to recognize the signs when one of their own is struggling with behavioral health issues. They must also clearly provide avenues and programs for their first responders to follow when they find themselves struggling with these traumatic and violent events.
It is important that we prioritize taking care of our own members and ensure their mental wellness and emotional health. If left unattended, our brothers and sisters will continue to suffer from cumulative stress overload that will lead to depression, anxiety, substance abuse, and all too often, suicide.
My wife is a kindergarten teacher, so she has many children’s books that are easy for a fire chief like me to read (yeah, I said it ). There is a children’s book titled Fireflies by Julie Brinckloe. In this book a young boy catches fireflies in a jar and brings them inside to his bedroom, but over time those fireflies dimmed their lights because of being trapped inside that glass jar. Once the boy realizes that keeping the fireflies trapped inside that glass jar is not healthy for them, he releases them out his bedroom window, back into the darkness.
For first responders struggling with depression and anxiety, reliving those traumatic and violent calls in their minds, it can feel like we’re trapped inside a glass jar.
It is important as first responders that we recognize when we truly need help. The treatment can only start with you standing up and saying that you need the help and that you want your life back. It is then that you will feel the lid loosen, and with the right help you can finally be free from that jar. I speak from experience.
The National Volunteer Fire Council has the Share the Load program and partners with American Addiction Centers to provide the Fire/EMS Helpline at 1-888-731-FIRE (3473). You don’t have to tell them your name or your department, and your conversation is always confidential.
It is important that we prioritize taking care of ourselves and also our brother and sister members to ensure their mental wellness and emotional health.
Stand up for yourself… life is too short.
First published at NVFC.org — May 15, 2018
Jared Meeker is a 30+ year fire service veteran currently serving as a fire chief for the Lake Shore Fire Department, a combination fire department in upstate New York. His passion for the fire service includes teaching incident command skills to aspiring fire officers and career survival skills to all first responders. Jared’s original NVFC article When The Stress Bucket Overflows: A Firefighter’s Story of Pain and Healing was released March 6, 2018. He currently offers a training program on firefighter behavioral health; learn more here: https://seeingincoloragain.wordpress.com/sizing-up-your-behavioral-health/