For many first responders, firefighters included, the idea of mental health is for the other guy. It’s a tough job and you’ve got to “man up” and be tough. However, at the same time, the things that first responders see, hear, do, and not do, are unforgettable. They’re confronted with the worst that humanity has to offer. It’s the most suffering, the most cruelty. It’s also times of greatest compassion. Fighting Fires: How Emotional Trauma Sparks an Inferno is David Lewis’ journey through trauma that he experienced outside of the job, inside the job, and through life. No question he experienced trauma through his work as a firefighter, but that wasn’t the only trauma he experienced in his life.
Fire and Smoke
Lewis describes mental health as the pillar upon which life is built. It’s a sound argument, since the life we experience is the one that we create. Incognito shows us just how much of our lives and what we think is reality is made up. Life is really what we make of it – and it can be filled with fire and smoke, or it can be fresh air.
Lewis uses the analogy that fire is the traumatic events that you see, hear, do, or experience. Smoke is the problems as a result of that fire. He properly places the focus on the fire portion, recognizing that smoke is a result of fire.
Early on in Lewis’ attempts to get better, he describes running across an “internet guru” that claimed to have the elixir that Lewis needed to be “fixed.” All it would take is a credit card. The free materials seemed good, so Lewis parted with hard-earned money only to realize that the content behind the pay wall wasn’t really worth it.
The real problem is it’s easy to make things look like they’re good when it’s shallow; it’s hard to make sense of it when it’s deep and it matters. I cannot count the number of burnout books that I’ve read where the authors had no breadth or depth in what they’re saying. They saw the opportunity to make a buck selling some books and consulting, and they dropped right in. (Even Maslach’s latest book, The Burnout Challenge, is woefully under-researched.)
Even professional mental health providers rarely read research or use evidence-based techniques. Too frequently, they just do what they think works, leading to Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology and The Cult of Personality Testing. Even in an area where the public is supposed to be protected through licensure, we’re confronted with the need to carefully screen people, as Lewis points out later in the book.
Coloring in unicorns may be fine for an eight year old, but it’s not appropriate for a professional firefighter – or most other adults, for that matter.
Buffalos and Cows
For the most part, cows and buffalo seem like similar animals. They’re both mammals. The buffalo burger is leaner but is similar in taste to a hamburger. (Why “hamburgers” come from cows not pigs is a mystery.) However, they have some different behaviors. One is how they cope with the stress of a storm. They react like people react. Buffalo charge into the storm, while cows walk away from it – even when they’re in the midst of the storm.
The subtle change of moving into or away from the storm has a profound effect on how long the animal is in the storm. The buffalo will spend much less time in the storm than the cow, because the storm passes over quicker.
As humans, we often turn away from our challenges expecting that we can escape them – but rarely is that effective. Sometimes, the right answer is to face the storm and walk into it.
When the mental anguish becomes so strong that you’re fighting intrusive thoughts, there are many strategies that one may employ in an attempt to retain balance. Unconsciously, there may develop a tendency towards obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), including ritualized approaches to common activities. We can deceive ourselves into believing that these activities protect ourselves and our families, when in reality they deprive us of the resources that we need to heal.
A more common and more socially acceptable approach is to become a workaholic. (See The Globalization of Addiction for more.) After all, being a workaholic means that you’re providing for your family. However, the dark side is that work becomes all-encompassing, leaving little of the person for themselves or their families. It’s common to believe that if you just work harder, you can block out the feelings and memories. However, doing so deprives you of the very resources you need to live – and to recover from the pain and trauma.
As Compelled to Control clearly points out, we all love the illusion of control. The illusion protects us in a random and ultimately unpredictable world. It calms our consciousness as we confront the challenges of the world. If we’re in control, then we don’t need to fear the world. We can feel safe.
Some would say that we can control ourselves but not others. However, in some ways, we’re so influenced by our environment, and we respond so instinctively at times, that it’s hard to convincingly say we’re even in complete control of our own reactions. (See Thinking, Fast and Slow for more about how we lie to ourselves.)
Defined by Our Responses
It’s not the tragedies and struggles we’ve faced that define us. What defines us is how we respond to them. Problems, struggles, and challenges are the substance of life. We can’t escape life without problems. In fact, sometimes when we believe we’re helping animals, we’re dooming them, because they need the struggle. (See Beyond the Wisdom of Walt for more.)
There’s no shame in being injured – if we can heal. If we need help to be able to heal, then we should ask for it.
Worst Case Scenario
Sometimes, we’re so afraid of playing the worst-case scenario game that we won’t play it at all. Other times, we won’t play the game fairly. In a bit from a comedian friend, he speaks how his mother moves from how he isn’t overly responsible through owning dogs to having a child that dies of neglect. This wholly illogical chain of thinking is the way that too many people think about worst-case scenario.
Instead of looking to the things that can happen and reasonably evaluating their probability and impact, we focus on the case where the Earth is impacted by an asteroid – something that’s both always a possibility and something that we have no ability to prevent or mitigate.
By avoiding the game, we trap ourselves into a set of beliefs about a threat or stressor that aren’t realistic. Like a large shadow from a small person or animal, we magnify the size of the problem, because we refuse to look at it directly.
The Balance of Life
In a state of suicidal crisis, it’s possible to lose all sense of scale. Lewis explains how buying a toy for his son and dying by suicide seemed to be of the same magnitude. Somehow, he thought that the scales of justice would be even. Reflecting on it, Lewis can see how “jacked up” his thinking was – but in the moment, the evaluation of the balance of life was such that it had no special meaning.
The research and reflections seem to validate Lewis’ experience that life and the possibility of hope aren’t given their due significance.
Trauma, whether acute or chronic, is a tragedy. It’s something that each of us must learn to process, to come to terms with. We can’t run from our challenges, and we can’t pretend they don’t exist. Eventually, they’ll add up to a point where they compel us to address them – and by that time, they’ve grown fearsome. If we get the choice, we should want to pick smaller fires when we’re Fighting Fires.