This past summer, I headed to Southeast Ohio to train a small, rural fire department on Trauma Related Stress Injuries, or TRSI©. Being from a small, rural farm town where I had lived across the street most of my childhood from the flashing light alerting drivers to the fire truck dispatch, I had some idea of what I was walking into. It was also very helpful when the Chief shared over the phone while scheduling with me that he was himself, a skeptic of this whole “mental health thing.” I appreciated the honesty, AND I love a challenge. My vision for my work isn’t just about getting those who need it individual counseling, it’s about changing departmental culture so everyone can feel safe to have their personal reactions to traumatic events be validated and there be no shame in saying a run impacted them.
My scheduled start time was Monday morning, but my unexpected impromptu invitation to dinner on Sunday night at the station with the guys sped up my arrival. From the time I walked into the door to the time I left, I felt welcome. Wherever they were on the mental health spectrum, they were all so cordial, polite and welcoming. I was told I had a “placemat” at the dinner table. Low and behold, it was a cut up box of Cinnamon Toast Crunch cereal. I knew then that no matter what I had to say about trauma or traumatic stress, we were all going to be OK. I take great pride in my training style. Everything tends to go smoother after the first *shocking* thing comes out of my mouth. But realistically, spending time in a fire house I know that I can’t really pussyfoot around the reality of what is happening. Shit gets real and if I stay in some stuffy suited box, nothing will land and my information will get dismissed and we may not be any better than when I arrived, and possibly worse off. This is life or death stuff. But they deal with life or death daily, so understanding that dark humor is important.
Three days later when I left, they knew more. They acknowledged that post traumatic stress was relevant to them, some even acknowledged they likely had it. Some asked for services. That Chief became a “believer.” Top down, bottom up, that’s how we have to address culture change. Having resources not only available, but also known, and accessible is next. Which is why I offer teletherapy across Ohio.
Monday morning when I arrived, my “placemat” had become the sign in the above picture. When I left Wednesday afternoon, I took it with me. It’s in my office now. I’ll keep it as a reminder of how lucky I am to be working with a bunch of jokesters who are open to hearing what I have to say in an effort to save lives.
I will likely never change professions, so I will never truly “get it.” And this experience reminds me daily of what obstacles there are to overcome. Bad runs, fatalities, politics, pay, all of it. And it comes back to how it all stays in the body. The day I was given the opportunity to play fire fighter solidified my commitment to this work.