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  • Marc Aloan

Mental Exhaustion

Updated: Apr 5, 2018


(Photo: FireChief.com)

Exhaustion is defined as “a state of extreme physical or mental fatigue” and “the action or state of using something up or being used up completely.” While many perceive exhaustion as negative, there are many cases in our profession where being exhausted is directly tied to the effort, accomplishments, and situations you experienced during a tour. There is something to be said for how you feel after putting in a good day’s work, regardless of how taxing it was on you. However, that is a far cry from the ugly side of exhaustion which passionate individuals seem to be prone too, especially on a cumulative basis. Mental exhaustion is the silent killer of passion and drive. When we become so overwhelmed and frustrated that our minds drain us of our energy, we are victims of this often ignored, non-macho Achilles heel of the fire service.


(Photo: EastPDXNews)

There are certain issues, events, and situations we face that have no solution, otherwise we wouldn’t be experiencing them in the first place. Even worse, there frequently is a viable “solution”, yet for often trivial reasons it does not seem to work for us or our agencies. It is these times where we simply need to vent our feelings and frustrations, as bottling them up magnifies the issues and takes its toll on us. However, that venting process can be much easier said than done.


Normally I pride myself in presenting a solution for every problem I write about or discuss; this will not be one of those ventures. This commentary is going to be more personal than general as writing seems to be how I ventilate the infernos which rage in my mind. I try to avoid such undertakings because they make me feel weak and selfish. I would much rather talk about “we” or “them” any day of the week. And while I focus on talking about “we” more than “me”, this is going to be one of those rare times where the writing focuses on me in attempt to free you from the demons which haunt and attack your passion.


(Photo: Fire Engineering)

You could definitely say I have things pretty good in life. I am certainly rich in many ways including family, friends, career, and possessions. I have people that care for me, a job I am infatuated with, and much more than I need or deserve. I even seem to have a little bit of a voice these days thanks to my social media endeavors. However, like many “successful” people, I am tormented by my desire to keep pushing the envelope, chasing perfection I know I will never achieve. Even though I am extremely appreciative for what I have been given and accomplished, I often find myself wondering who I am, what I am doing, and if my passion for the fire service is really worth it. I struggle to maintain an identity as my theories and beliefs are attacked on a daily basis. I also wonder how much longer my mind can shoulder the burden of the plentiful opposition which seeks to destroy me. In an occupation that has identified the stresses induced by what we see and do on calls, we certainly continue to ignore the unnecessary stress we put on each other!


(Photo:TJHamiltonVisuals)

While I agree that we should always be thankful for the things we have, especially when we have it better than most, I do not believe that is an excuse to accept less than you are capable of or stop trying to improve. Some may call that greed, I however call it motivation. I specifically apply this concept to the fire service as our quests to acquire and achieve more are frequently shot down with justifications that involve comparisons to what other departments do or do not have. I refuse to buy into this line of thinking as we are responsible to our citizens, our families, and our brothers at all costs. That means we should always strive to give the best possible service which is completely unrelated to whether or not we have it better than most. Such ideology threatens the very core of our craft which is the ability to protect life and property. However, with the ever-growing pool of lazy, content, complacent, and mediocre bodies confined to the walls of our firehouses, too many have forgotten that we are tasked with serving the public, not ourselves!


(Photo: FireChief.com)

My main flaw, and that of most passionate people for that matter, is I lack the ability to give in to things I disagree with, ESPECIALLY when it comes to our craft. I am not talking about being stuck in my ways, unwilling to compromise, or unable to adapt. I am talking about being dismissed, ignored, and flat out put down for pushing things that I KNOW are right. I don’t know they are right because I came up with them, rather I know they are right because they are the consensus of the instructors, leaders, peers, and departments I admire, follow, and interact with. However, when you are trying to affect change on people or in organizations which don’t see any shortfalls or deficiencies because they are content, you will often find out what being an “army of one” is all about! The more you push, the harder they will push back. The more you are attacked, the more emotion you tie to your fight. Before you know it, you are backed into a dark corner of your mind where you feel trapped and helpless. You are unable to shake the feelings of failure, inferiority, and disappointment. The fallout of such interactions is stress, doubt, tension, disgust, hatred, confusion, hesitation, and exhaustion which invade everything you do creating a quick sand effect which will rapidly sink your efforts.


(Photo: Shuttershock)

Although we can sit here and pretend and discuss that importance of pressing on, we regularly experience “bumps” in the road, which would be better described as glaciers or mountains in most cases. These unwelcome formations make you feel like they are easy to chip away at while doing so will get you nowhere, further draining you of your drive and resolve. We will push, push, and push some more until one day we wake up and for the moment we are DEFEATED! We can lose sleep, become restless, stop eating, avoid others, or even have trouble focusing on things. I have noticed that I begin to feel worn out all the time. Even after a slow tour or a couple days off my body just doesn’t want to go. Exercise, interaction, chores, projects, or any other diversion seem to compound the issue. I find myself sitting around staring, spacing out, and watching the world pass by. It is hard to get motivated at work, let alone accomplish anything that resembles passion or progress. Sure, there are little bursts of hope mixed in, but they are short lived to say the least. These are what I attribute to the downfalls of not being able to shut your mind off to reboot!


I strive to keep my page, my writing, and my opinions realistic. That means I aim to talk about what is real, rather than what is idealistic. There are just far too many people and places pushing out a rhetoric that is not achievable or possible for the environments most of us work in. Some might argue the same about The Fire Inside, yet I think I do a pretty good job of keeping things down to earth. I am very open and honest about the fact that much of what I discuss is not possible at every department, or my own for that matter. However, the values and strategies I talk about are most certainly realistic if people would get away from putting themselves before the organization. In an era of dumbed down, over-simplified garbage I like to think that even if you cannot enact the types of things I discuss, you are at least able to work them into your strategic plans should you be given the opportunity to be put into a position that you can make change from!


(Photo: About Firefighter Jobs)

You will meet lots of people who say I am negative. There may be some truth to that, however I believe if your people are being perceived as negative, perhaps you should consider whether or not you are providing them with an environment to be positive about. Most in the fire service don’t need shiny new rigs, the latest and greatest gadgets, or a wall full of citations to feel good about what they do. What they need, and WANT, is supportive leadership that is open and accountable across the board. Most of us just have a desire to feel like we matter, just a little bit, in this calling that is far bigger than any one of us individually. We want to be needed, appreciated, and listened to now and then. The fire service does a wonderful job of painting a fictional world of fire service leadership where there are the coveted “open door policies”, pots full of change which “boil from the bottom”, and “servant leaders” who put their crews first, yet where exactly is all this happening on a larger scale?! I know they are out there but I think for the most part people feel good about repeating these strategies rather than implementing them! Call me negative, but I interact with quite a few people on a daily basis that are asking the same question, so if you ask me that makes such ideas more fantasy than reality. I read, hear, and see the complete OPPOSITE of such fantasies playing out across the country every day. For everyone department that actually tries to apply these leadership approaches, there are 100 more who are demanding compliance through fear and intimidation! So, if you don’t want our opinions or trust us enough to identify what we need to accomplish the mission, stop requiring us to take classes which teach us that our input is wanted and needed by those above us! So much of what I perceive to be the problems of the fire service right now are teaching one thing and then expecting another, or worse something COMPLETELY DIFFERENT! The issue here is not with the troops, it is with those who are setting or conveying unrealistic expectations as a poor control mechanism to lead by confusion, humiliation, and shaming.


(Photo: Pintrest)

I receive a ton of feedback on the page which is positive in a negative way… by that I mean most people love the page because it speaks to them about the same struggles I see and deal with in their own department. They talk about how I must be reading their mind, bugging their firehouse, or spying on their department because what I speak about is so accurate. The page has become of refuge of sorts for people who are just pounding their heads against the wall day after day yet have so much passion and vigor for doing right by their brothers and communities that they will not quit! I get everything from offers to write articles for the page, memes, quotes, articles from other places on similar topics, requests for help to start their own ventures, thanks, and everything in between. I try to honor every single one of them in any way I can because I know the personal price of choosing the life of passion for our craft. I know the mental breakdown people will impose on you when you challenge their tranquil garden of mediocrity. I all too well know the emotions, stresses, anxieties, and doubts associated with being the only voice in the room who calls out the bullshit. I KNOW! And for that reason, I will do ANYTHING I can to help vent your roof so you don’t have to live with the conditions I do all too often.


This blog is not a call for help by any means. While I am sure you could read this and assume I have some serious screws loose (which isn’t necessarily out of the question), I know where I stand. I have zero doubts about my values and ideas for the fire service but more so in my abilities to convey them in a way which makes them part of my reality. Perhaps I am depressed, need to see a shrink, or simply need a change of scenery. Perhaps I am just like everyone else only they are unwilling, or unable, to let it out like I am. If there is one thing I have learned thus far in my venture to cultivate passion, it is that seeds of passion are everywhere. However, just like growing a crop, some soils are conducive to production, some will need some fertilizer and care, and others are just barren and will not support growth no matter how many seeds you try to plant.


(Photo: UPI.com)

Regardless of your situation, FIND A WAY TO EMPTY YOUR BOX!!! Write, talk, find a hobby, start a project, get a part time job, or even in the most drastic of situations seek a new place to spread your gifts. The goal of this blog was to let each and every one of you who follow The Fire Inside know that I write, share, and interact with you as a means to help you (and myself) vent. If you are like me, there will come a time when those around you will get sick of your frustrations, complaints, and opinions. It isn’t personal they just don’t care to go as far down the road of passion as you. Unfortunately, this is often where many friendships and alliances are broken, as well as how many of us end up being labeled as whiners and assholes. Believe me, there is some serious comfort and refuge in the ears and minds of strangers.


I know it is hard. I know it sucks. I know it takes a toll on even the strongest people to get beat down by adversity on daily basis and still have the drive to get up and try again. I wrote this blog about me to prove YOU ARE NOT ALONE! While many of you are like me and know that even if 100 people tell you it is going to be okay you will probably still feel down about things, at least take some minor sliver of peace in knowing that all the great ones who have been successful at shaping our craft were there more than you know. While that certainly won’t take away the mental exhaustion, it may very well be that small scrap of motivation the prevents you from throwing in the towel!

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