The Ghosts In Our Society
During my career as a journalist, I interviewed dozens of firefighters and cops.
I went to the scene of fires that were still burning and talked to deputy captains after the fires were extinguished. I wrote about fatal accidents. I got information and quotes for my stories. I always thought about the victims. Their stories haunted me, and it’s one of the reasons I had to distance myself from the profession.
But up until recently, I never thought about first responders and what they went through. I was trained to get the Who, What, Where, When and Why of an incident. I was trained to ask first responders what happened. I was not trained to ask them how they felt.
I saw them as professionals in a uniform, not people who had to go home at night and live with what they’d seen that day. In a sense, they were invisible to me, as they probably are to many others in society who only meet them on their worst day, if they meet them at all.
We see the uniform and the sirens, see the wrecks and the gutted homes, see the tragedy and danger, but not the people who rush toward it when we turn away.
Trauma is an inherent part of their job, but their trauma is largely invisible to us. They fight death and destruction, but what toll does the fight take on them? Most of us never know.
On the five-year anniversary of 9/11, I had to interview a couple that had lost their adult daughter in the attacks. It was the most difficult interview I’ve ever had to do, and to this day I can still remember the feeling of overwhelming grief I had in their home. I had to excuse myself a number of times during our conversation to go to the bathroom and fight back tears.
Towards the end of our talk, they showed me a childhood drawing their daughter had made in crayon on the wall under her bed. It was the one spot in the room that they’d decided not to wallpaper over.
After I left, I drove straight to a church parking lot and sobbed for I don’t know how long. I couldn’t get the crayon drawing out of my head, those sloppy, jagged lines.
I’m a pretty intuitive and perceptive person, and I can often pick up on what people around me are thinking and feeling. The pain and sadness I felt emanating from that couple was palpable, almost unbearable. And suddenly, their pain became mine.
We all absorb the pain around us to a degree. When we are exposed to tragedy in some form, it changes us. We would not be human if it didn’t. I didn’t battle a fire that day or save someone’s life or witness a mangled body, but I did experience the heaviness of death.
I know that not every call a first responder gets involves death and destruction. Sometimes the calls are stupid, trivial. But many times they are not. And that much sustained exposure to death can’t help but change the nature of your life.
Merely interviewing parents who had lost their child in a terrorist attack gave me a deep sense of loss that I still remember vividly almost a decade later. How would I feel if I had been there at the scene of the attack? If I had tried to rescue people? If I had watched their daughter die?
Sure, there are clichés about heroes, and I think on some level we all respect these men and women who put their lives on the line to save others. But do we really care about what they’re experiencing? Do we understand the nature of their pain, the personal sacrifice they make for the job they’ve chosen? Or do we just rely on them when we’re in trouble and forget about them once the trouble has passed?
Working for Uniform Stories has given me a window into a world I never knew existed. It’s as if I passed by the window every day as a journalist but never looked through it. And now I often find myself thinking about these men and women in uniform long after I’ve left the office, wondering if they are getting the help they need. They care for us in our worst moments, but who cares for them in theirs?
Yes, there are dumb calls and yes, there is down time. There are enough jokes about firefighters sleeping and cops hanging out at donut shops to know that not every day is a nightmare. But some days are. What happens when you can’t wake up?