Brothers and Sisters – I am giving up my words with this post to those who know how to write them – and write them well. Sarah Gura, Chief Kenny, and Lt. Olson have agreed to co-conspire with this post regarding our mentality of invincibility. Please read…
THE AMAZING FIREMAN
This is a longer blog. Please be patient, and read it when you have time. I believe that you will relate to it; and that you will connect with what is said on a deep and profound level. I am co-authoring with some of the most impactful firefighters I know: Paul Combs, Pat Kenny, and Matt Olson. In fact, Fire Chief Patrick J. Kenny is why we are blogging this today –as it is his family’s personal story that inspired me to ask Paul to capture something Chief Kenny speaks about all of the time (which is what you see reflected in this cartoon).
My hope is that our contribution here allows you to feel a bond as you read and shake your heads yes, because you know that what we documented is real and something meaningful to talk about. On that note, I hope you do talk about this. I hope you even find it worth being dinner conversation –because that, in my opinion can be the best version of firefighter peer support. I am a firefighter psychological support therapist, but what I love the most is when I see firefighters taking good care of themselves and each other. That is the best way to practice firefighter behavioral health care. I believe these two essays written below, are examples of firefighters talking to each other. Their honesty is therapeutic, and they set the standard. Enjoy.
Sarah A. Gura, M.A., L.C.P.C.
By Fire Chief Patrick J. Kenny
The alarm rings. A child not breathing. A house on fire. People trapped in a vehicle accident. It’s into a nearby phone booth and off comes the Class B uniform shirt or sweatshirt, and on comes the cape. We literally believe it is “go time” and we fly to the rescue to do what others are not capable of doing by wading into danger to save the day. That heroic persona is right on and something to be so proud of.
The problem with that scenario is we only spend about 1% of our life in that cape. The other 99% is filled with day-to-day challenges as fathers and mothers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters. In those arenas we sometimes suffer failures that don’t match the “super façade.” It’s okay and even healthy when you realize you can’t always save the day. If you can reconcile that you don’t have the power to save dying loved ones, resolve a marriage in trouble, cure ill parents, and etcetera, it will keep you sound both mentally and physically. This also actually empowers the cape. Otherwise, getting caught between that phone booth and the cape can strangle the life out of you. You need to take care of you too so you can truly help others.
My name is Pat Kenny and I have been in the Fire Service since 1982. Through the years I have been fortunate enough to be promoted up through the ranks. I became the Fire Chief for two great fire departments; and this is my position currently. My wife, Eileen and I experience this cartoon very personally. Our son Sean suffered from serious mental health challenges diagnosed at age 5 that led to his suicide at the age of 20. Since then I’ve been dedicated to talking about the struggles and misunderstandings that come with mental health challenges, especially in the fire service where being a hero actually exasperates the problem.
This cartoon accurately portrays the self-image we, as firefighters have. If you look real close, perhaps at your own life, the cape might be tight around the neck. So much so that when you feel helpless, as mental health challenges can make you feel, it’s as if the cape is strangling you. I hope this cartoon highlights that we do all have a hero in us –but the real person in this cartoon, with all its human frailties, also is someone to be very proud of. If you, a co-worker, or a loved one is in trouble we all need to recognize that seeking help is nothing to be ashamed of. That action does not tarnish but enhances the cape. –Pat Kenny
It’s Sarah again. After hearing Fire Chief Pat Kenny speak, I could not help but carry on his message. I present on firefighter behavioral health to firefighters very often. I started to talk about this:
Firefighters need to promote themselves to human status. I say promotion because a human being is superior to any superhero. Why? Because being human is real; and superheroes are fantasy. There comes a time when we have to manage being human with some kind of grace and style. We have to stop being so proud in public while engaging in all of the private negative self-talk, “What will they think of me? I’m embarrassed. I don’t want to admit it… I can’t talk about it… I don’t know how talking will help… I should be able to handle this myself… I don’t care anymore…”. I believe that we have to stop saying, “I’m fine” as we question ourselves or as we actually know that we are not fine. Below is another essay that addresses this point.
My Career Has Taught Me We Aren’t Superhuman, Just Human …and Human is Good Enough
By Lieutenant Matt Olson
When I became a fireman I learned quickly just how far out and ahead of my skis I could get. The harsh reality of this career initially told me to become the superman in this cartoon. This cartoon reminds me of so many incidents I have experienced: a man who lost an entire arm while building a movie theater; and a man who fell while working on power lines and became permanently paralyzed from the neck down –I remember talking to his kids on the way to the hospital. I am thinking of an adult son crying as we told him his mother died in the fire. We have so many of these stories –these memories.
These memories are easy enough for superman! They had to be, I thought, because they never stopped happening. There was no official training about how to see such extreme things, deal with them, and then face my own life. Towards the beginning of my career, I looked around and thought, “Well, I’ve only been here a short time compared to them and they’ve probably seen so much more. They don’t seem worried about this.” When I became an officer I thought, “I’m their officer. I have seen this before and I made it through. I need to show these kids that if you’re tough like me, everything will be fine.”
I don’t regret that I did this. The truth is, it was all I knew; and I sincerely thought that I was teaching something that would make them better. I believed that I was keeping them from hurting because of the things they saw and did. I realize now, a different truth: the “superman” advice is not good.
In both my personal and professional life, I have talked with professional therapists and with my peers. Now I see how damaging our career experiences can be –especially when we take the superman approach. Also, thinking that this career is the only good thing in your life is a mistake. The superman complex makes it all too easy to think, “Hey, it’s the rest of my life that is a problem.” I hear fire fighters saying, “If my wife would just get off my back… If my kids would simply understand that I’m the parent…” or, “Let’s have this conversation at the bar, and we’ll catch the game while we’re there…”.
There are firefighters who will sacrifice a marriage, lose a relationship with a child, develop a drinking problem or worse, take their own life over this superman complex. Many of us have remained unwilling to look inward; and many of us have refused to recognize that this career is not about being superman! It’s about being a fire fighter, and still, a person who has to cope with everything we will see and experience. Often times, while on the job, I see that there are things that do hurt us. Yet, it is a place where we still feel functional. We still feel capable. We still feel like we can do something great. But if I can teach something different than the superman approach, it would be this: Don’t let it be so hard to understand just how beneficial a good conversation can be. Talking these experiences out with someone is so helpful.
Therefore, I think there are two ways to look at this cartoon. On one hand, the superman drawing represents where and who I was. It represents one of the most salient reasons why my life became troubled. I wasn’t thinking realistically when I thought “the superman” would handle everything. Maybe contrary to what fire fighters want to believe, that is not where you want to be in this career.
Thankfully, I was willing to ask for help and to admit my humanity. Who I am now is a different person, both personally and professionally because I was able to learn some difficult lessons. What I’ve learned is that I will see and experience terrible things as a fireman –but they needn’t impact me in a terrible way.
So, here is another way of looking at this cartoon: the reflection still is who we really are. We need to look at that reflection and pay attention –because we are really brave, capable, strong, and willing! This cartoon can be a “before and after” photo too; because after everything we do and will go through, it would be impossible for any of us to NOT be changed in some way. Perhaps this cartoon hints that it can be for the better!
As fire fighters, I think we have to help each other understand our experiences –and help each other go through the inevitable changes these experiences will force us to face. These changes that happen to us can be for the better. First step? Let’s all take a second and help each other understand how necessary, how beneficial, and how right it is to be able to talk with each other about all of these things. We need to stop acting like “I’m fine, superman’s got this!” and just talk with each other about how these experiences as fire fighters change us –and how it doesn’t have to be for the worst! It can be for the better; it can be good too. It is for me! –Matt Olson.
It’s Sarah again. In the past, you have been offered CISDs, EAPs, Chaplains, and a beer (or two…). You have also been a part of a brotherhood; and maybe you have had a shoulder to cry on that you are so thankful for. Whatever the method, whoever the person –there really are successful stories with good endings. The fire service is filled with the amazing powers of selflessness, caring for others, and helping those in need.
However, I do wish that you did that for each other more often –actually, all of the time! For those of you who are silent about those terrible calls you have responded to –I’m going to encourage you to NOT use the superman approach. For those of you who have emotional debts racked up in your personal life –I’m going to encourage you again, to NOT use the superman approach. As Pat Kenny explained –it can strangle the life of out you! As Matt Olson described –it’s not fine! And yes, both professional and personal issues are firefighter behavioral health issues. Why? Because firefighters are firefighters –in or out of uniform.
I want to encourage firefighters to be empathetic and compassionate with themselves and with each other. I want firefighters to provide psychological first aid for one another, or to process their experiences, thoughts, and feelings more effectively. I want firefighters to listen and refer a firefighter to a helpful person if the situation is too complex. I want to eliminate the costs of not caring well enough for firefighters. Whether that cost is a chronic bad attitude or as severe as a firefighter committing suicide, we are all responsible for doing better with firefighters.
How do we do better? Stop isolating firefighters into the Superhero trap. If a firefighter steps forward and wants to talk to you, don’t shut him down. Ignoring a firefighter, making a joke out of it, or simply avoiding the topic never helped anyone adapt and overcome. Firefighters have to tackle personal and professional problems just like they would a brutal fire or major vehicle accident. I would love to see that same vim and vigor used out there on the job to be put towards listening to firefighters, and taking care of firefighters.
There is no argument that you are heroes –you know it, I know it, and your community knows it. You get to keep the hero in that reflection. However, do not forget that your human self is your most authentic, real self. It’s going to need you to respond to your own calls –and to each other’s calls. If you’re not sure what to do, ask for help. Then, accept the help. Your personal growth, development, and happiness count on it!
Sarah A. Gura, M.A., L.C.P.C.
Do you have questions or need more information?
Sarah is a Firefighter Psychological Support Therapist in Illinois. firstname.lastname@example.org
Matt is the Program Director of Illinois Fire Fighter Peer Support. email@example.com