Friday, April 25, 2008

Keeping Your Balance

The day after we had pulled the baby from the house fire (see Smoking Baby post) and before I learned the outcome, I was at a party with friends. The television was on and the local news was running footage of the fire. I stood there watching myself with the emotions still fresh from the day before. There I was with Donny working fractically on the baby. In the background the house still burned furiously. It was such a startling perspective.  I was now looking over my own shoulder. Firefighters were pulling hose lines and police officers were trying to hold back neighbors. It seemed even more dramatic now that it was on TV.  

My friends began to kid me that about being a media star. They said I needed an agent. I tried to join in the kidding but I could not take my eyes off the screen. There I was in bunker gear kneeling over the child working with Donny. I did not remember the news crew being there. 
 It was as if someone had plucked the whole scene out of my memories and thrown it on the screen. It brought the reality back in a rush of emotions. I felt the pressure of getting everything done right as quickly as possible, all the while fighting back the emotions of working on a baby. My friends tried a few more jokes then realized I did not know any jokes about this one. 
It was one of the first times I realized just how different the world I worked in was from theirs. When they went to work nobody died. They did not have to risk their health or their lives when they were at their jobs. It was one of the first time I began to feel distance between myself and those who did not do the job. The job was beginning to separate me from people who did not experience what I did each day. That separation would grow over the years until I was leading two separate and parallel existences. One filled with poverty, dying, illness and violence and the other filled with family and friends. My friends and family were not in the business. So there was no bridge between the two worlds, no one on the family side to talk to about the job and to help keep the balance. That proved to be a problem with no bridge there was no balance. There were times when the scales were weighted much more one way than the other. The intensity of the job would tip the balance of the scale. The job would color everything in my life.  
The job would weigh me down at home with left over images or fatigue and no easy way to get rid of them. This was long before today's understanding of what that type of stress can do to relationships.  It was one of my biggest mistakes over the years, never to have found a way to balance the job and home. It lead to some difficult years in my marriage. We hung on somehow but I have colleagues with three and four marriages to their credit. I have a friend who dropped dead one day off duty in his forties. I had another friend who after 19 1/2 years on the job called up and said he could not do it anymore and  he quit. The department was able to get him a medical retirement so he did not lose his retirement but the street claimed another victim. He was one of the strongest and most respected of us. We had a saying that we would follow him into hell with a booster line if he asked because we believed and trusted his courage and judgement.  
Out of the twenty something members of my paramedic class 2 of us lasted as paramedics until retirement. Some quit the department abruptly, a number simply gave up being paramedics and went back to firefighting, and a couple were pensioned out with medically. In the early days there was no safety net. The hidden dangers of the job were not understood either by the department or those of us out on the trucks.  The job can demand a high price.  If you understand that and are prepared to fight for the balance you need, then you stand a good chance of surviving it's pitfalls. If you ignore them you do so at your own peril. 

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