First Responders.

“Compartmentalization is an unconscious psychological defense mechanism used to avoid cognitive dissonance, or the mental discomfort and anxiety caused by a person’s having conflicting values, cognitions, emotions, beliefs, etc. within themselves.”


— Mark Leary, Handbook of Self and Identity


by Scott Campbell (Co-founder of RHM)

So, I get it.  I couldn’t talk about it.  I didn’t really want to talk about it but I could not quit thinking about it.  In twenty years as a full-time firefighter, I had witnessed overwhelming tragedy and death that would show no prejudice to age, social class or race.   This time was different though, now tragedy chose me.  It was my turn to be the one on the other end of a 911 call.

I could do nothing about my situation, completely helpless, waiting for the responding units to arrive. I still can hear the siren as It began to wind up, louder and louder.  The sound was getting closer but it felt as though help was far away.  I would close my eyes and smell the liquids pouring from the engine compartment .  I can remember the dryness in the back of my throat from the air bag residue.

The responding station was only one mile from me.  I knew each of the responders personally.  Many of them I had known my whole career.  They worked feverishly to extricate me from the mangled piece of metal that used to be a Jeep.  My profession trained me well, I was injured and knew how bad.  One lesson I learned that day was “knowing” is not always a good thing.  The classes and books never explained this part of it.  In one second I Iost my identity, health and the ability to suppress all I had witnessed in my career.  It was almost like a disease attacking my thoughts.  It felt like a brick wall with each brick representing all the tragedy I had witnessed as a first responder.  I was the tough (or so I thought) guy and things like this only affect the weak.   I was used to coming up with a few jokes,  laughing a little and things would seem all better while waiting on the next alarm.   I did not realize how it had affected me until I had my “own” tragedy.

Something happens to a first responder with each tragedy (or brick)  that only time can reveal.  Compartmentalization only leads to one immutable outcome.  Manifestation.   It  can destroys marriages, lead to drug or alcohol abuse, cause depression and ambivalence with your feelings.  It can cause unexplained or explosive anger,  insomnia and lack of motivation.  It can even cause questions such as “how can there be a God that allows such things?”.   It seems like the only time you are comfortable is when you are on duty.  It is an unspoken understanding.     Who can you talk to about this?  This would look “weak” and though you are not cut out for the job.   After all your spouse would not understand if you tried to explain to them.  Yep, I get it.  I’ve been there.    It is extremely hard to find someone who truly knows what it is like to respond to someone`s “worst nightmare” and the psychological affects it has on you. I have found most first responders have what is called a “Type A” personality. This is a highly motivated and competitive person that usually will not back down from a challenge.

Stop compartmentalizing!  Recognize what is happening.  

Start by taking down the wall.  Brick by brick.    Do not allow your career to destroy your home or mental well being anymore. 

Maybe you decided to skip to the end of this article thinking that this does not apply to you and only for the weak.    If so… know this, someone does care.