We are not Cyborgs

by: Gea Leigh Haff

We are still doing it.  After all the critical incident stress debriefings, suicide prevention workshops, and unacceptably high number of firefighter suicides, (3 in one year on my dept.) we are still shutting people down who try to speak about calls and the sorrow they   bring.

In the past two weeks I have heard the phrases, “Do not get emotionally involved,” and “This is the job.  You’ve got to deal with it,” directed at people who had an emotional response to a call.  This sort of reaction closes the conversation down.  It implies that if you are feeling upset or disturbed about a call, then you are not cut out for this profession.  This is a misguided response from a male dominated culture based on misunderstanding and it doesn’t work.

Firefighting is traditionally a male endeavor and I suspect this tendency to repress one’s feelings comes from men’s long tradition with war.  In battle, emotions peak and if they are not contained, chaos will ensue.  Fear and sorrow must be suppressed or morale will erode and all might be lost.   This may work for the length of a battle, or possibly even a deployment, but a 25 year career? 

An old Battalion Chief once told me, “They are all there.  Every call you ever run is in your brain. It takes a toll.”  I sometimes feel like I have a rolodex of cards in my head and if I spin them, flashes of sorrow or death appear.  Most of the time those cards are still, but not always.  Sometimes they linger waiting for the perfect trigger:  the child that looks just like yours, the mother who is dying in the same way your own did.

Everyone will feel upset or disturbed about a call eventually.  If you haven’t yet, then you haven’t been doing this long enough.  I have responded to children shot by their father, a perfect baby thrown into a dumpster, a woman murdered and cut into pieces, a beautiful girl dead from drowning, and numerous other tragedies and deaths, as we all have or eventually will.  The list goes on and on.  To witness acute suffering and continual death and have no emotional response would mean that we are Cyborgs, a sort of Terminator, devoid of humanity. 

Perhaps we are confusing empathy with compassion.  Empathy means  to “share the feelings of another,” in other words, to feel another person’s pain.  Compassion means to have “concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others.”  To feel empathy while we work can be detrimental to productivity, but to have concern for the suffering of others motivates us to work harder and go the extra mile for someone in need.  Compassion gives us strength.  And when someone expresses sorrow or discomfort over a “bad” call, that is a sign of compassion and strength, not weakness.  Allowing the person to talk about it in a supportive way, gives them room to process their experience.

It is true that in the heat of battle we often need to compartmentalize the suffering we witness in order to get the job done.  But, we must deal with these experiences eventually.  When the dust has cleared and battle is over, we must process our emotions.  If not, they will continue to build upon themselves and post traumatic stress disorder can set in.  

Trauma resides not only in our brain, but in our muscles too.  Humans store memories in their bodies.  Often these memories surface as we lay down to sleep, right before we drift off.  Our conscious mind begins to relax and drop its guard.  Our body softens.  In this space, images from our subconscious may rise up like a tapped spring.  There is no burying our traumas.  They will always be there, slumbering, ready to awaken until we process them and lay them to rest. 

Humans are verbal, social animals and communicating with each other is a way we process our experiences. Messages have power and often we transmit them inadvertently.  Let us allow people to share their discomfort over the acute suffering they witness without subliminally implying they are weak for feeling something. They aren’t weak.  They are human.

Women have an advantage in that it is natural for us to talk about our feelings in order to process them.  We are allowed more emotional expression than men.  Even so, we too  have internalized this detachment theory from the culture in which we work, but it’s time for that culture to change.  It’s time for the men to learn something from the women.  It’s okay to talk about your feelings, and it doesn’t mean that you are weak.  It means that you are strong and brave enough to face them.

Firefighters have been compared to sheep dogs, but I sometimes feel we are more like wolves—not killers, but hunters, expert at sniffing out soft spots, probing for instability, and toughening one another up with a verbal arrow’s dead on aim.  We are a pack of Alphas.  But the alpha male and female not only hunt and fight for their pack, they protect them from outside and within.  The alpha is highly attuned to the emotional well being of the pack.  He leads and comforts.  He is fierce and tender.  This is true guardianship.

Navy Seal, Eric Greitens writes in The Heart and The Fist, “Without courage, compassion falters, and without compassion, courage has no direction.”  When compassion and courage are united, the heart with the fist, our strength grows.  Our job is long and arduous, but compassion gives us the resiliency to absorb our wounds without breaking.  Compassion for our patients, and perhaps more importantly for each other, is not something to fear.  It is something to embrace.

When a moment of vulnerability descends upon a brother or sister, let us dispense with tough love, and instead move in and listen with heightened awareness, ready to nurture and protect our pack from within.  Our threats are not only physical, they are emotional and spiritual.  Like a true warrior, we must guard each other’s spirits as fiercely as we guard each other’s lives.

We bear witness to great suffering, and that is not an easy path to walk.  Being emotionally detached can only be maintained for so long.  At some point, when a call hits home for whatever reason, that detachment will crack.  And then we will have a choice:  face our feelings or run.  A spiritual warrior is a person who faces the pain and doesn’t turn away.  A spiritual warrior feels the pain and assimilates it, then goes on as a stronger and wiser human being.  It isn’t easy, but they don’t call it warrior for nothing.

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