Presented by Movember, listen to Steve’s experiences working as a fire fighter for 30 years and how it shaped and evolved his own mental wellbeing
May 14th, 2019, the day I decided to take a knee and go through the First Responder Resiliency Program. I had come to a point in my life where I needed to unpack over 27 years in the fire service. This included all of the traumatic calls I had attended over my career, life before the fire service and to also deal with a current mental health and life challenge that was making my emotional backpack too heavy to carry. What I did not expect was that this would be a life-changing experience over the next three and a half days, and some of the hardest work I have ever done.
I will not go into great detail on the process and program, but will tell you that it is nothing short of amazing. The courage of the men and women that participated with me in those three and a half days, the raw emotion, the difficult work. Artfully facilitated by two of my favourite doctors, who walked a group of eight firefighters through some pretty amazing, but also dark places. It was a truly profound and humbling experience. Life-saving and life-changing! I felt heart bursting, mind blowing pride as this is something that we created together, built for us by us, in partnership with the non-profit Blueprint and the British Columbia Professional Fire Fighters’ Association.
The courage, the strength and the vulnerability of the participants was inspiring. This was a safe place to share our stories. Writing out the trauma, group work and individual reflection. All of these experiences created an extremely cohesive group. Sprinkle in some psycho-education, grounding techniques, non-judgement, lots of hugs and many tears. An unbreakable and sacred bond was formed. A closeness between men that is rarely shared. I was left raw and exhausted, yet full of hope. I felt heard, I felt seen. This program helped unlock things that I had packed deeply away, to protect myself, to quiet the pain so I could carry on. What I realized, and what I am so grateful for, was the opportunity to lay down my overflowing backpack, to take a knee. To unload, to process, to understand why I am who I am today.
Tragedy, grief, and loss of life seen by first responders
Like most first responders, we are exposed to an enormous amount of trauma during our careers. The tragedy, the grief, the loss of life, the darkest side of humanity and society. We were never prepared for what we would see or experience. The sights, the smells, the sounds, the screams. No education, no awareness to prepare for what was to come.
Over the years I have lost count of the dead. Our body counts are high in these professions. This has changed me as a human being. Changed my perspective. Heightened my sense of mortality and the fragility of life. Here one moment and gone the next. Blink of an eye, snap of a finger, lights out. I have embraced this change in me. I have accepted the price of admission into this first responder world.
I have seemingly been able to file away each call, each traumatic emergency incident neatly into the internal Rolodex of my mind. So many stories filed away. Some are easily accessed once I begin a trip down memory lane, ignited by stories of other first responders, other similar incidents, other smells and sounds. Some are locked deeper in my unconsciousness, hidden from view behind steel walls, because the pain is too great, the memory too raw, unprocessed, unresolved.
As the years have gone by, my Rolodex has become quite full, my backpack too heavy. The burden had begun to weaken my soul, my hope, my strength. I wondered at times if the trauma I have seen, the suffering I have witnessed, the unprocessed emotional baggage I have has cost me relationships. I fear losing my daughter the most. Not being able to be there for her, be strong for her. I am grateful for the opportunity to be taking steps now to heal, to grow, to offload and unburden myself of past grief and loss. Loss of innocence, loss of faith.
I know for a fact that how a traumatic emergency incident affected me at the beginning of my life as a first responder is far different than how it affects me today. 26 years of shift work, 31 years as a firefighter. Life. Work. Love. Loss.
Don’t wait to find help
So, I say to all of you first responders out there and anyone that is hurting: Don’t wait, there is help out there. This program put me back on a healthy trajectory, one that took me from surviving to thriving in the years that are now leading up to my retirement. I am forever thankful for that experience. To the doctors, to Blueprint, to Movember, to all those that have already participated and are now champions in our first responder world who are helping to change the culture and promoting positive mental health! I will leave you with these thoughts: Share it, don’t wear it and self-care is not selfish!
Sincerely, Steve Farina