Hello all. This year’s StachetoberFest recipient regime is going to be different than years past. In the past we have supported one great cause. This year the needs are many and therefore we will support several important projects. I will release a series of writings, each highlighting the story of one of the recipients. There is much suffering out there folks. Like in a family, I feel we are all positioned in proximity to the people we were intended to love and serve. I hope you will allow yourself to experience the compassion available through these stories.
Our first recipient is a cause. Brad (my partner in crime) and I have both felt a great depth of importance toward the awareness of depression and suicide in the fire service. We will be allotting $1000 toward this cause but more importantly using it as a platform for awareness. This cause is also behind the t-shirt design we chose this year. It’s a pretty interesting connection…especially if you’re Asian (intrigued?).
Lets’ start with this year’s StachetoberFest t-shirt design. We chose an “Oni-like gargoyle” …which is a contradiction. First off, as discussed in years past, a gargoyle is not a demon but a protector against demons. That is why you will often find them on the spires of old cathedrals and castles. An “Oni,” on the other hand, is a demon. In Chinese and Buddhist traditions, an Oni is a truly wicked human, who once dead, was condemned to serve the great lord Enma, the ruler of hell. Their job is to torture souls in the most horrific of fashions. They possess extreme strength, are bringers of disasters, spreaders of disease and make up the armies of the underworld. (http://yokai.com/oni/ ) These devil images are utilized to scare others, to tell others to stay away, and used to keep oneself away from getting too close to others (http://tattooswin.com/oni-mask/). Oni are also known in Japanese cultures but are believed to be of Chinese influence (different names and origins, but all hell-bound). This artwork is pertinent to the article following and will be further explained throughout.
There is a by-product to this great vocation that is under-addressed, and I hope to shed a little light on it based on my own personal experience, observations, and conversations. In particular: the loss of self, the inability to perceive correctly, and the optimism that comes with the ignorance that is no longer ours. This job alters your perspective on reality. It prepares you to perform well in the worst situations but takes away your ability to perform in the rest. This truth has been highlighted in the huge jump in fire personnel suicides and depression in the last 18 years. Let me disclose that other than the statistics I will reference, none of this is gospel, merely perspective.
Studies have shown (in fire, police and military) that prolonged exposure to trauma has adverse effects. There is an internal shift, new beliefs and agreements that alter one’s perception to their reality. We’ve all seen the movies. Manifestations include depression, changes in personality, addiction and suicide. Just recently (last 18 years), we have seen a huge spike in fire service suicides. 955 since 2000…829 of them in the last 7 years-yikes! What’s different?
The fire service has changed. I remember when I was hired in 2004, all the old guys described this place as “The best job in the world!” “I can’t believe I get paid to do this!” I heard a fellow firefighter recently lament in sadness that his son was considering his vocation. Why would he not want his son to have “the best job in the world?”
Firefighters used to be firefighters. You fought fires! That is the best job in the world (for firefighting types). I love it! Nothing better! Sure there was exposure to trauma, but less frequently. With the introduction of Fire department medical transports and the evolution of abuses within (911 abuse), the exposure is different. Not only is there an increase of trauma exposure (fire trauma + medical trauma) but there is an exposure to the ugly side of life. My friend’s mom used to say, “If you hang out with truckers, you’re gonna cuss like one” (no offense truckers). If you work with the ugly side of the world, you’re gonna believe it’s ugly! Your perspective changes. You anticipate bad drivers, you believe all homeless are dirt bags, you’re hyper vigilant, hyper aware, you trust less and often find yourself most comfortable away from people. It’s a slow fade.
Now, if this job was all we did, we’d be awesome. But we’re husbands, wives, fathers, mothers, friends, sons, daughters, etc. Our behavior here is constantly reinforced, encouraged. But at home, it’s often misunderstood.
When I was young and knew very little about cars, I was driving the family’s Mighty Max as my daily vehicle. Think 1986, 5 speed manual, no power steering and a 1,600 lb payload. There was a peculiar knocking noise that was progressing and I feared the worst. My buddy Erik Sampson and I had blown up a go-cart our sophomore year, it made a similar noise just prior. My dad told me to take it to Terry’s in Vista, our family mechanic. First thing he did was pull the dip stick…no oil. He looked at me, his eyes said, “Hey dummy! When’s the last time you checked your oil?” He added nearly 4 quarts to the 5-quart capacity and the knocking went away. Now, I’d been changing oil since I was 10, but I had never been told or understood the concept that older cars burn oil. I also was unaware of the symptoms that any car in that predicament would present. And by the time I did recognize that something was wrong, the ol’ Mighty Max was almost dead, prematurely. This story runs parallel.
Look around at the new guys: always smiling, excited to be here, and great attitudes. I am often moved by the level of compassion that some of these folks have on calls, in ways I didn’t even consider. I used to. I remember when I first started noticing the change early in my career. I was feeling less. It was actually a huge help in emergencies but a handicap everywhere else. My wife, my kids, my friends and family all suffered. I would smile less, laugh less, and feel less. My daughter received the citizenship award at her school (1 kid per grade-it’s a big deal), I remember thinking, “produce an excited response.” Or my kids would hug me and look at me and I would have to intentionally engage in the moment. “This is important to them, pause and engage.” It was like I still knew what I should feel but didn’t naturally feel it. Maybe I’m the only one…hopefully, but I doubt it.
The evidence speaks for itself. Of the total number of statistical firefighter suicides, 77% were active duty. California has the fifth highest amount. Most deaths were gun shot or hangings. The top five reasons are:
1. Marital/family relationship problems (general population as well)
3. Medical/Physical issues
The answer? I don’t know. But I know that no one goes to AA unless they believe they’re an alcoholic. Personally, I’ve started pushing back against my tendencies. *This equals more self-care including intentional quiet time, prayer, and meditation. Not performing/moving is hard, unnatural for us-types. But if we can’t be present with ourselves, you can bet we can’t be present with others. *I have seen a counselor and learned various ways to feel more and guard against beliefs that may not be true. *I find my marriage is optimal when my wife and I date once every 2 weeks. *I take my days off, especially consecutive. I find that the longer I am off the more my perspective balances. *Buying new toys is fun, but is the overtime it takes worth bleeding the relationships you are purchasing them for? *I often follow my “should-do” voice even though everything inside me doesn’t want to…or more so tries to convince me of the more important things I think I should do. My attitude follows pretty quick. That initial hump is the doozy. I say yes more to my kids. “Hey dad, wanna have a funeral with me for the chicken Bruiser (my dog), just killed? You can sing the funeral song.” “Sure Adeline.” Nothing gets you over yourself quicker than making a tombstone for a chicken and listening to a 5-year old’s eulogy: “He’s dead…He’s gone…He’s never coming back to life…amen.” 5 years ago, “Not now, I’m busy!” We seem good at fighting for so much but we yield so easily to attitudes reinforced by bad beliefs.
A firefighter recently hung himself in his home. He had just finished several days with little sleep. He even saw a counselor prior to going home, but the result remains the same. Another firefighter pulled his vehicle over on the side of a bridge. A friend recognized him, stopped and inquired whether everything was ok. He said he was fine and implied he was just having car trouble. The friend left and the firefighter jumped to his death. These 2 examples illuminate the need for recognizing broken beliefs. Firefighters are some of the most confident, type A folks I know. They make life giving decisions in some of the most stressful situations out there. We are trained to make decisions. But what happens when our intel processing (perception) and beliefs are wrong?
Belief is powerful! If you believe that you will drown when you fall into a body of water, you will! Your body is no different than all the swimmers around you, but your beliefs are. It is time, brothers and sisters, to question what we believe. When I was struggling with liking people a while backJ, a firefighter said to me, “I just remind myself that 99% of who I deal with in this district is 5% of the population.” Choosing to believe that is important. Does it feel true? Hell no! But is it possible that my line of work has skewed my reality? 955 dead firefighters think so.
Is all firefighter suicide due to this job? Absolutely not! Many of us were a hot mess before we got here. The effects of prolonged trauma exposure in military and public safety has been in the spotlight for the last few years. It’s helping! There have been around 47 FF suicides this year (so far), as compared to 109 in 2017 and 141 in ’16. That’s a victory.
Let me end with a story of one of the most famous Oni legends. One night during a festival, Shuten Dōji got really drunk and decided to play pranks. He put on an oni mask and snuck around the festival, jumping out of the darkness and scaring festival-goers. After the festival, he was unable to take the oni mask off. It had fused to his face, becoming a part of his body. When he sought help from the abbot, he was scolded for his wickedness. He was mocked and teased by the other monks for his ugliness. His heart became like an oni too – wicked, and full of anger. Shuten dōji left the monastery and fled into the mountains to live as a hermit. (http://folklorethursday.com/legends/three-evil-yokai-japan/#sthash.3TeJr3u1.dpbs )
We are not much different. The root of the name Oni means “hidden” or “concealed.” This slow fade within the fire service is hidden, barely noticeable at first and completely accepted by all those fading alongside. We place the mask on at work in order to objectify and perform some of the most difficult situations imaginable. In time, it doesn’t come off. We are the Gargoyle AND the Oni, but our true identity rests in our choices. Which one will you choose?
Note: If you would like to donate to this particular cause or any of the ones to follow you can do so at: http://stachetoberfest.net/product/donations Thank you for your generosity. It is needed and appreciated. If giving money away isn’t your style, buy a shirt/sweatshirt, a dinner, or a ticket. Thanks.
If you’re on the edge or unhappy with who you’re becoming, take a look under the hood. If you just need basic maintenance (physical/emotional outlets, dating your spouse, time with your kids, feeding desire, etc), add some fluids. If it’s time for a tune-up or a rebuild, take it to the shop. Below are a list of resources:
Your local EAP (free through most departments. Personal, marriage counseling, etc).
Peer Support (available everywhere): ESC Fire- Myself, Mellon and Tebbe
Fire Fighter Behavioral Health Alliance www.FFBHA.org
National Suicide Prevention lifeline 1-800-273-8255 (talk) or https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/