By Steven Smith – Retired Assistant Chief
As first responders, we are often too tough for our own good. Refusing to admit that we have weak points and that we are frail and weak at times. Having to be strong in public becomes so ingrained in us that it becomes a way of life. It finds its way into every aspect of our life, from how we deal with the public, how we deal with our families, and how we deal with ourselves.
For me while I was strong for everyone, or at least I thought so, in my private moments with no one around I wasn’t. I couldn’t be strong, no matter how hard I tried. I was so disappointed in myself, I felt like a fraud. How could I be so strong to survive 19 broken bones, being shot point blank in the chest with a sawed off 12 gauge with 00 buck and walk to the ambulance, I could keep going but you get the point, but not strong enough to fight off the monsters in my head. Something I thought should pale in comparison to all my injuries and traumas, I couldn’t fight off on my own. How could I do all these things that seemed damn near super human or according to all my Doctors what should be impossible, but I can’t beat something I can’t see? How could I be so weak?
My worst fear had come true. Deep down I had become what I feared most in my life, I had become weak. Realizing this was actually my first step in finding my strength. I just didn’t know it yet. Realizing that I didn’t have the strength to fight this on my own had put me on a path that I would have never found on my own. Make no mistake, if I had known beforehand where this path would have lead me, I would not have taken it. However knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Realizing that I had become weak was painful and uncomfortable. Rarely does personal growth come from being comfortable. I was out of my comfort zone. Every time I thought about it I would have a flood of emotions, angry, scared, confused and the big one weak.
In the midst of one of my low points, I was walking on in the woods on our property. I saw this huge boulder that was broken into. An oak tree was growing through the crack. All around that rock were small oak saplings. I was drawn to it, I have no idea why other than something inside me was saying you really should look at this. Here was this massive, strong granite rock. That it was split by something that started off as an acorn seed. Something that weighed tons was broken by something that weighted less than a gram. I understood why I was drawn to it. As first responders, we are the rock. Being strong for everyone and weathering every storm and every impact, until something really bad hits or stress over time makes a small crack. Then there is seed that gets in that crack. It grows and slowly keeps apply increasing pressure unless it is removed or dealt with. Eventually that pressure becomes so great, that once mighty granite boulder has broken.
As first responders we wear that facade of being unbreakable, of being that rock for everyone that we forget to take care of ourselves. We don’t deal with the cracks or the seeds that find their way in. As the slowly pressure inside builds we either become accustomed to it or chose not to see it. Usually, it isn’t until it’s too late that we see it and break. Just like that boulder, we break because a small crack and seed was not dealt with.
So I stand there, still in awe at this massive boulder broken; lost in my own head, which happens a lot. My focus shifted to the oak tree that split, this unbreakable rock, the saplings that surrounded it, and even the monster oaks in the immediate area. Here lays this boulder broken, but this absolutely beautiful tree growing from something broken and spawning more trees just like it. I literally felt like something hit me in the face with a cinder block. How could I be so blind to what was going on my life? That beautiful tree and all of its saplings would eventually grow from this broken thing into tall strong oaks. Yes I had broken, it was tragic, demoralizing, and painful and every terrible emotion that you could think of, but it didn’t have to stay that way. There can be growth and beauty from the breaking. You just have decide like I did, that yes I may be broken, but I can make something out of this. That I will be more than just a broken rock, for my family, for my loved ones, and for myself. This is something that first responders usually forget for ourselves.
I’m still on that path. Some days are better than others and that is OK. We have to allow ourselves to be human, to be uncomfortable, and ultimately be weak. Once I came to terms with this, as much as dislike it, my path became clear, not easy but clear. Understand that there will be mountains, valleys, and difficult terrain on this path, but nothing ever worth anything is easy. Stay the course, no matter how hard it is, the benefits are well worth journey.
So will you fix the crack and deal with the seed that is applying pressure? If you have already broken will you stay that way? Sitting alone broken with feeling as if you have no purpose? Or will you do something? Will you say enough? Now is the time to say I deserve better, my loved ones deserve better. Don t wait and waste time like I did.
Be the difference, be the exception, and be the example. Make the call.
If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:
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Or call Shannon Clairemont at 661-466-6352 or Vanessa Stapleton at 304-651-3008