Decisions, Disappointments, Doubts, and Demons
Life is a funny thing sometimes. We seem to find out all the lessons we needed early on a little too late. As you may have noticed, the path of the page has slightly shifted over these past few months. Much of that shift has come from some serious soul searching on my end that I can only attribute to age, experience, and the initial onset of what I like to think is wisdom. Well, as much wisdom as a 34-year-old could have anyways. The world has changed greatly since the first time I took in the sights, smells, and sounds of an engine bay nearly 17 years ago. The fire service is a different place as well. Things seemed much simpler back then as we hadn’t fully felt the negative impact that the eases of technology would bestow upon us. Our lives were still able to be unplugged from time to time, cell phones and the internet were still in their infancy, reality TV had yet to dig its mindless claws into our brains, the world was in a relative lull as far as drama and conflict, and then it happened… 9/11…
While this is not going to be a story or homage to the events that took place that day, that single event is the point that defines two very distinct worlds for my generation. Maybe it is because I was 17 years old at the time, perhaps it is because it was the first major world event that I vividly remember, or quite possibly it was because I shared the transition of childhood to adulthood with an attack that literally changed the way we lived our lives as well. Regardless of the reasons, it seems like everything sped up from that point on. People were always on edge, hatred spilled through our minds, and while we initially came together in the face of adversity, it didn’t take long for us to fall apart and divide ourselves based on things like religion, ethics, morals, and values. The more technology became prevalent, the more accessible our vices became. In many ways I see quite a correlation to the way our fire service career goes. And as I enter what could fairly be described as the middle-aged portion of my career, I find myself wanting to warn the next generation of the mistakes I have made along the way now that I realize I won’t get a chance to do it all again as I once somehow believed.
I think we can certainly all agree that the theatrical accuracy of the movie Backdraft is something to be desired, but lately there is a line from that movie that has become very real to me. “When I was a kid, it was simple. Somebody called the fire department and we came. We just, showed up.” Nothing could be a more accurate description of most of our mindsets after some time on the job. What once was a larger than life experience of adrenaline, pride, lights, sirens, jobs, firsts, and achievements somehow becomes watered down into decisions, disappointments, doubts, and demons. Life and runs that seemed to be moving at a snail’s pace somehow became tainted into a train that that flew by and left us on the platform trying to figure out how to catch up.
Now if you are one of the rare saints that dons a badge each and every day and somehow is immune to the temptation of poor coping mechanisms, stop reading here because what I am about to get into will not apply to you. However, if you are one of the many public safety personnel that does a great job at solving everyone’s problems but your own, you are in the right place. If you are like me and thought for some reason all the good you did on the job would eventually justify the hell you raised off duty, please read on. If you are new to our craft and brotherhood, what I am about to write about is something I really wish I could have read and understood long before I ever got the itch to get on a rig, so please take notes. Most importantly, if you were a victim of what has been a whirlwind of questionable choices, greed, anger, or hostility at times in my life, I offer the following realizations as consolation to any problems I may have caused.
We have all had a good chuckle about the firefighter T-shirts that say corny things like, “I dance where the devil walks” or “I fight what you fear”, but the sad reality is that many of us are doing just that, only we are doing it while off duty. In a society that is filled with temptation after temptation with little means to guide us from it, many of us struggle to walk the line that comes with the higher standard our profession created for itself in a much simpler time in life. Alcohol, drugs, sex, violence, addiction, greed, betrayal and even simple things like food, video games, or binge-watching TV are all vices we can succumb to. All of these things are everywhere these days, accessible at the click of a button at any time of day. Ethics and morals are something that look good on paper and sound good when it is time for judgement, but don’t seem to translate to our activities until it is too late. As society tries to accommodate everyone more, we seem to actually tolerate less. Please don’t confuse what I am saying, we should be and are held to a higher standard, I just think in today’s era of 24/7 access, phones, cameras, and internet, we are quite ignorant to believe that we will be exempt from the vices that plague our civilian counterparts. The end result is many of us living with things that are slowly killing us and we are either to naive or too scared to let them out.
We don’t always realize the full impact of our decisions until much, much later. Sometimes we reap the benefits of our labor years down the road, but just as often we experience the fallout of our oversights for years to come. I wish someone would have told me early on that all the stupid, childish, brash, selfish, thoughtless decisions I made would come back to haunt me the way they do. I wish someone would have sat me down in the corner, pointed a stern finger at me, and told me to stop focusing on being so rebellious, nonconformist, and angry. I wish someone would have beat it into my head that reputations are easy to make but nearly impossible to rebuild. I wish someone would have made me realize that all the things I thought I could avoid, run from, outgrow, or ignore would actually fester at every attempt to suppress them. I wish someone would have clarified that not only will people remember how you treated them, but also that someone you don’t need today may be your only ally tomorrow! I wish someone would have reminded me that there are no redo’s or restarts at life, just moments where we pick up the pieces and forge ahead a little bit wiser, a little more beat up, and with baggage that gets a little heavier each time. Most importantly, I wish somebody would have told me to love myself, before I tried to make everyone else love me.
Disappointment is what builds in our brains after we make enough poor decisions. We find ourselves drifting from the person, place, or position we thought we would be in until we did X, Y, and Z. We see the reactions of those who believed and trusted in us until we took that faith for granted. We become disappointed in ourselves as our lives and careers stop resembling what we always planned they would be and instead turn into some twisted version of our former selves going through the motions of a life we always said we would never live. With every disappointment our decisions become a little more tarnished. We cut a corner here, screw someone over there, put our satisfaction first a few too many times, and ultimately start to make people doubt us which in turn makes us doubt ourselves. This is often the point of no return for many as once we begin to doubt ourselves we try to compensate by finding unhealthy things which bring temporary relief and confidence, but leave us worse off than we began.
While some doubt will always come with the change that accompanies new assignments, promotions, or big life changes, the majority of our doubt can be tied back to our decisions and disappointments. From the good decisions that didn’t pan out to the biggest regrets of our lives, the more the cards stack up the more we can end up doubting ourselves. While it is easy to put on a happy face, stay the course, say the right things, talk to the right people, and make the right goals, the crumbling of loyalty, morality, ethics, and common sense is not only contagious, but also make it extremely challenging to DO THE RIGHT THING. The world of instant gratification has become so ingrained in our decision-making processes that consequences and long-term effects are not even a consideration anymore. We see this everywhere from poor lifestyle choices to the way many departments are being run. The 5-year plan has turned into seeking out our "15 minutes" and building legacies has turned into living in luxury. Allegiance and commitment are relics in both personal and professional relations. We are chewing each other up and spitting each other out just as fast once we have TAKEN everything we can from each other. We are subliminally teaching ourselves to use and abuse each other, even encouraging it at times. Even worse, we have become a bunch of cowards that will soak up the hero image but are too scared to tell people when they are fucking up. Sadly, at the same time many can’t wait to tell everyone else just how horrible and rotten we are being. Ironically, we continue to wonder why people do stupid shit and our brotherhood is turning into more of a mirage than a support system.
It is at this point where we really come off the rails and find our demons. I classify demons as all the less than stellar moments we rack up that won’t seem to leave us. They are the things that keep us up at night, make it difficult to look in the mirror, eat away at our self-esteem and confidence, and ultimately can be the demise of our careers if we are unable to cope with them. These are our secrets, our skeletons, and our worst hours. They are the very toxins that force us into the dark corner of our self-made prisons. These are also generally the ammunition used by those gunning for us when we try to climb out of the slums of our existence and turn things around. They are the keepers of the vicious cycle that bring us to our knees as we try to crawl out of the consequences of actions. They tend to be a combination of failed attempts, wrong decisions, picking the wrong battles, peer pressure, cultural conflicts, or calls that went bad. The scariest thing about demons is they tend to stack up like dominoes and once the first once is knocked over, we create more and more trying to justify or fix the first!
The words above may make you think I come from a poor upbringing or I am putting out a cry for help, but in reality, it is neither. What it is however is a challenge, a reminder, and a reckoning to myself and all of you to more aggressively be that role model that most of us had, but many decided not to listen to. It is the realization that we tend to blame other things and people for the poor decisions and subsequent disappointment they have brought to our life, when in reality it is ourselves we are disappointed in. It needs to be a loud warning to the next generation coming on the job to be mindful of every moment, because they will all come back to us one way or another, especially for the first generation to have their entire life followed, liked, and broadcast over the internet. With cameras everywhere these days, I can only imagine the emotional toll their mistakes and missteps will take on them as they will never be able to escape their imperfections! We can no longer just say don’t do this or don’t do that, instead we must actually put in a little effort, be the brothers we said we would be, and intervene at the right times. Sitting back and saying I told you so only perpetuates the cycle, we have to watch them, hold them, and groom them to be better than us.
I am not a psychologist nor do I have any formal training or real-world knowledge about psychology, mental health, depression, or PTSD. However, what I can tell you is that if we really sit back and look at those on the rigs with us, we will see the broken eyes of those who are haunted by their demons. I can tell you I have been the victim of my own demons, the victim of other people’s demons, and created demons in others. At the end of the day, NONE OF US ARE PERFECT. The sooner we acknowledge that fact and stop pretending we should be, the easier it will be on all of us to overcome our flaws and defects. We have a bad habit of justifying our own bullshit while judging others. We think that our measure of morality is the benchmark to be judge and jury of how others live their lives. We need to stop trying to analyze and categorize the shortfalls of our brothers and sisters and instead remember to outreach our hand for the brother next to us who is drowning in their own demons. Addiction is ravaging the fire service, demons are ruining good careers, suicides are up, and WE ARE ALL PRETENDING IT ISN’T FUCKING HAPPENING!
You are no better than the man next you, in fact you are only as strong as he or she. Such is true in life as it is in a firefighting. So, the next time you decide to run a brother through the mud, write someone off because they made a few bad choices, or use someone’s worst moments to advantage yourself, think back to the time when all that mattered was getting on the rig and taking in a run. Take the time to really guide our younger members so they don’t stumble down the same bumpy roads. Contrary to popular opinion, real friends don’t get locked up with you, they keep you from getting locked up. We must break the cycle of decisions, disappointments, doubts, and demons if there is any hope of the fire service brotherhood surviving the 21st century. I will be the first to tell you I am no saint. I am haunted every day by things I cannot undo. I am penalized every day by individuals who think my mistakes define me. For every step I take forward, somehow, I always seem to take two steps back. And ultimately, I struggle every day to shake the demons that constantly poison my mind with evil. I am sure I am not the only one, so hopefully this finds others who are battling the same struggle every day. While I don’t have all, or really any of the answers, I can tell you with great certainty you are not alone!