People are in awe of what we do. They tell us so. “Wow, that must be hard work. It's got to be emotionally draining.” I doubt very many of us reply with, "Yes, it's really, really tough. At times, I get off shift and feel like I've been beat up. I have a hard time figuring out what to do with the excess ‘fight or flight’ energy. I'm exhausted not only physically from the shift work but also from trying to cope with the feelings that my work creates. Most of the time I feel like either breaking down into hysterical sobs, stopping my car in the middle of traffic and just shutting down or punching my hand through a wall." Instead, we minimize the impact our work has on us.
To be healthy, first responders need to open the door of the compartment, sort through what's there frequently and let it go. This house cleaning will keep us sane and human. If we don’t we remain filled with unresolved grief, fear, anger, sadness, as well as, vulnerability and helplessness. Locking the compartment creates a hollow and empty inside. We stop being able to feel in a normal fashion. Shutting down keeps us from having healthy relationships. Our relationships can be insincere and hollow. Eventually, our bodies and our minds stop being able to differentiate between times we need to compartmentalize for work and other times.
Opening the Compartment
As professionals and first responders, we cannot react on emotion in the moment at work. We need to be able to compartmentalize. So, what do we do afterwards?
Debrief: Use those we feel professionally safe with to talk through situations. Be honest about how the event affected you emotionally. Talk about how you related to the incident in detail. By utilizing a safe person, a colleague or a supervisor who understands the work and that having emotions is not a weakness or a job liability, you can express your thoughts and feelings completely without worrying about being too graphic or transferring the horrors of our work to innocents, such as our spouse or friends. This doesn’t mean that some of us do not have friends or family who can be understanding and handle this sort of debriefing. Basically, talking through the feelings will help us deal with them in the open.
Journal: Writing thoughts and feelings down can help get them out of the compartment as well. Free write without judging yourself. Having words on paper allows us to look at feelings objectively and work through them.
Professional Help: If you feel your work is negatively impacting you and you’re having a hard time opening the compartment, seek out someone who can help you professionally. When we need help with our physical wellbeing, we seek out support from fitness professionals. Why not do the same for our mental wellbeing? Being, getting or staying healthy by working through the emotional job hazards of emergency communications is not a weakness. It’s an investment in ourselves and our careers.
As long as we’re working 9-1-1 lines, we will hear traumatic events unfold. We will be required to disassociate from normal human emotion to do our jobs well. What is important is for us to recognize is this as part of what we do and then deal with it after the crisis has passed. Opening up the compartment we stuff our feelings into is imperative for us to live happy and healthy lives. If we don’t, eventually those emotions start to seep out from underneath the door and the walls bulge and threaten to burst.
About The Author:
Michelle Perin has been a freelance writer since 2000. Her credits include Law Enforcement Technology, Police, Law and Order, Police Times, Beyond the Badge, Michigan State Trooper, Michigan Snowmobiler Magazine and Chief of Police. She writes two columns a month for Officer.com. Michelle worked for the Phoenix (AZ) Police Department for almost eight years. In December 2010, she earned her Master’s degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice from Indiana State University. Currently, Michelle works as the Administrative Coordinator at Jasper Mountain a residential psychiatric facility for children. In her spare time, she enjoys being the fundraising coordinator for the Lane Area Ferret Shelter & Rescue, playing her bass, working on her young adult novel Desert Ice and raising her two sons in a small town in Oregon.