Lessons from the Road

This past week I was “back home” in Knox (and Licking) County training. Whole House provided first responders and social service professionals a training on do-it-yourself mental healthcare, as well as the foundation training of TRSI. (If the term TRSI is unfamiliar to you, take a look at our site here, we have a page dedicated to it.) It was an action packed week; 20 hours of training over 8 sessions in 4 days. Every person in the rooms learned, including me. Our feedback was great, and I appreciate the high levels of participation in the room as well as the curiosity that brought everyone to attend. There are so many highlights to share, including meeting some great guys from #FDNY and #NYPD, but for this blog, I want to share what we’ll call a “teaching moment” that occurred on our last day in our last training during our last break. I shared it with the class I was training when it happened and I did that because I think it’s important to recognize we all are human with the same body systems in many ways, and even being the trainer, I experience the things we talk about and work to overcome.
I actively work with the state union peer team to provide support and counseling to firefighters/medics who have reached out for support. My primary contact for both the state and my home department has been Lt. Jason Callihan since the very first day, literally, of my work with the fire service. Jason started out as a professional colleague and over the last 2 years, has become a close friend. His wife and I have become friends and he and his wife both know and have spent time with my husband. I’m grateful to have him in both my professional and my personal life. I’m the one who typically calls just to check in and see how he is doing. He often calls because we have a work-related issue to discuss. Until last Friday, when he mixed it up on me. So as we take our last break before the last stretch of training, I pick up my phone and see I had missed a call from him. In that moment, I realized I’m over 150 miles away, have about 5-10 minutes to talk, and become panicked that there may be a crisis of an unknown size and I’m likely in a powerless position to help. This, you can imagine, I don’t like. At all. So I grab my phone, exit the training room and immediately call to hear him answer with a casual, “Hey, what’s up!?” Only slightly picking up on the casual vibe, and just for good measure, I ask, “What’s wrong?” Or, “Is everything ok?” I honestly don’t remember. He says yes, that he left a voicemail message indicating he didn’t need anything, he was just checking in with me to see how I was doing, and feel free to give him a call back. This information was on my voicemail. Even easier, it was on my VISUAL voicemail so I could’ve simply read the transcription. He didn’t know I was out of town, and was just calling to check in with his friend.
As we talked, I took a look at how my fear response was triggered by a potential threat and I went right into a sympathetic nervous system response. I’d love to say I’ve done this work long enough that I’ve mastered my human-ness, but I know that isn’t true, isn’t perhaps possible, and I can be just as susceptible to a “fight or flight” response as anyone else when my amygdala perceives a threat; hyper-sensitive and over-reactive. That was literally what I had been teaching all week. And yet, when it was something scary to me, that one of my guys was hurt, my body and brain reacted in the way that I was teaching we can understand and with work, manage. When I returned to the classroom (aka church basement), I felt compelled to share what had just happened, similarly like I’m compelled to share here. I think it is important to make the material as real as possible and there’s nothing like an “in the moment” kind of example to really bring the material to life.
The lesson in this? The exercises I teach do work, but it takes practice. For all of us, even me. We are all built beautifully to survive. Our systems are designed to keep us as safe as possible. And while sometimes we may misread a situation, whether it be the difference between a real or perceived threat or an emotional or physical threat, in theory, our bodies and brains work to protect us. And sometimes, we get triggered with our personal fears and we react with more than the situation calls for. And yet, we still get to be gentle with ourselves, offer ourselves and others grace, and be patient with the process knowing that #wewerebuiltforthis AND we can always work to do better.
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