By: Brendhan T. Sears, RPL, CMCP
If you've ever flown, mixed in the pre-flight safety spiel delivered by the occasional overly-enthusiastic flight attendant, you'll hear "should the cabin suddenly lose pressure, oxygen masks will drop from overhead. Please place your mask on first before assisting others." The science behind this teaches us that when your brain begins to lose oxygen, you're unable to think clearly or complete simple tasks. So, by the time you've finished helping those around you, you won't know how to help yourself.
Ummm, okay... so what?
Well, the concept of "putting your mask on first" translates very well (and very importantly) into our lives - especially as First Responders. Being a telecommunicator has never been easy. Even for the most seasoned of us adrenaline junkies who are "one" with the chaos under the headset, there is always something: workplace politics, CAD, interpersonal relationships, culture, COVID, and critical staffing shortages. Then, after leaving a shift we were likely forced to work, we go home to our personal stressors: debt, much-needed home repairs, relationship issues, COVID again, and personal and family health concerns.
Lather, rinse, repeat. Forever.
More than ever, it seems that stress is a TC's baseline: our factory default setting. Even when we think we have everything under control, symptoms of unmanaged stress begin to emerge, oftentimes before we even recognize it. Those symptoms can present physically, psychologically, and behaviorally.
Physical symptoms include:
Irritable or angry
Sad or depressed
No motivation, unfocused
Unhealthy eating habits
Drug & alcohol abuse
Decrease in physical activity
One of the biggest effects that stress has on us professionally is found in a little thing called Compassion Fatigue, more commonly referred to as burn out - which presents its own unique subset of symptoms. You can read more on Compassion Fatigue from one of our previous blogs here.
Basically, we begin to lack empathy - the foundation of being a successful dispatcher. I have always maintained that our interaction with a caller can and does influence how they are going to interact with responding officers, firefighters and EMT's. Did our decision to not treat even the most difficult of callers empathically place our officers at unnecessary risk? Were we the catalyst for a use of force?
The future of 9-1-1 Telecommunicators being recognized as First Responders begins with accountability, and I would not be surprised to see stricter policies and harsher disciplinary action being put into place for what can be considered as intentional negligence. Not to mention the potential liability from a simple FOIA request.
Let's get personal...
Something I haven't talked about freely on HTH is my personal life. It was right around the time of my mother's kidney transplant last January that I finally faced the bitter reality that my marriage had failed. It actually fell apart a few months before that, but I refused to believe it and did everything I could to repair something I didn't even know was damaged. See, our failure was in communication. Six months after we had married and 11 months after we moved into what I thought was going to be our forever home, our marriage was over.
An entire year has passed, and we are both still in the same house together (sleeping separately, of course). While we are both on the same page as to what the next steps should be, we aren't quite in sync with how to execute them and it's become a great source of frustration. It's funny, though, through the years I've heard coworkers talk about how work is their "escape," and I never really understood that until now.
Being at home now is so... heavy. I'm not at peace here. My living space is surrounded by half-packed boxes, piles of divided assets, the rotting stench of regret, and the looming fear of "what am I gonna do now?" Some days, it's so overwhelming that I've exhausted all of my energy just getting out of bed. And then I have to go to work after also experiencing a professional setback. Like, fuck. I can say that here, right? This is a safe space, isn't it? I haven't even gotten into some of the other things I've gone through this past year. And I know a lot of you are experiencing similar issues - this runaway train of stress, gaining momentum as it barrels downhill with no end in sight. This is where I stopped and told myself that I need a break. From work. From home. From life.
"You can't pour from an empty glass."
Sounds incredibly cliché, right? Absolutely, until your glass is empty - and mine was bone dry. I didn't want to be bothered by anyone, I didn't want to be in my house, and I was tired of putting on a face everyday just to make it through a shift. After I was approved for a day-off rotation change and was merging from the old rotation to the new, I discovered I only had to work two of the next eight days. I checked the schedule, saw those days were available to take off, and immediately took them off. And thus began my six-day self-care journey.
Now, before I go further, I can already hear some of you saying "we're short staffed, and if I take days off it'll screw my partners." This is going to sound incredibly crass, but so what? Kudos to you for caring so deeply about your coworkers that you don't want to make it more difficult on them, but read this next line very closely:
Staffing is not your problem.
Read that as many times as you need to and leave that issue with those who get paid to deal with it. Plus, how many of your coworkers are thinking about you when they need/want time off? And even if they are, it all works itself out in the end. TAKE. TIME. OFF. Don't always put yourself second to take care of others first. Place your mask on first before assisting others.
So, now that I have this time off, what am I going to do with it? Road trip! Okay, but where? I take to the interwebs and search for driving-distance getaways. I'm thinking five/six hours tops. I love a good road trip: good snacks (Pepperoni Combos to be exact), some water, caffeine, and a carefully curated playlist that will inevitably lead to me giving the performance of a lifetime through my empty Diet Dr. Pepper bottle microphone to an eagerly anticipating and anxiously awaiting audience of none, and recorded live by my dashcam. Holy tangent. My bad.
Anyway, my search led me to, literally, Getaway. I clicked on the website, and I'm greeted with:
Where Free Time is Second Nature. Unplug from work, wifi, and routines, and reconnect to who and what matters most.
Featured on their site are these amazing tiny-house-meets-cabin rentals at various locations throughout the country. Cabins come nicely appointed with heat/air, a queen bed, bathroom, and a kitchenette with everything you need to cook a nice meal. There is no microwave, no TV and, as mentioned, no wi-fi. Cell reception is not a priority, so each cabin also has a landline. Download some music to your phone, grab your portable speaker, and maybe download a couple episodes of the latest season of Ozark to your tablet for something to watch while you eat. Outside, you'll find a fire pit, grill, picnic table and a couple Adirondack chairs. No frills. All nature.
The pièce de résistance? A MASSIVE window overlooking an untouched, scenic landscape. It must be at least seven feet squared. It is perfect, and I immediately book six days. Let's pause again, because now I hear some of you saying "I can't afford that on a dispatcher's salary." Self-care is not intended to be some grand gesture, but we'll come back to that.
Y'all, this place was EVERYTHING. I walk in, and right outside my window is this stunning gargantuan of a tree. It is gorgeous and giving me vibes of wisdom, strength, resilience, and peace. A gentle giant. I already feel my cup starting to refill. My time here was spent relaxing, reading, meditating, and honestly spending hours just looking outside in quiet reflection and bonding with this tree. A tree! I wondered what kind it was, how long it had been there, how many years it had left and, mostly, what it's seen and survived. All the vibes this tree was giving me were things I needed restored in my own life.
Wisdom. Strength. Resilience. Peace.
This trip was not a coincidence. Even my new journal has a big tree branded into its leather cover. By the time I left, not only was my cup full, but it was practically overflowing. I was rested and restored. I found some peace and brought it home with me. Were my problems gone when I got back? No, but I felt better equipped to handle them, and realized the light at the end of the tunnel that welcomes the next chapter of my life is a little bit brighter and brings with it the promise of something better. I can't wait to visit the Getaway Houses again.
I really wanted to share with you this trip because it had such an incredible impact on my life. Yes, it was a big thing to do last minute. No, it wasn't the cheapest form of self-care, but sometimes it's okay to whip out that credit card and "treat yoself." And if that's not an option, that's okay, too! Again, self-care is not some grand gesture that requires you to stress yourself out planning and organizing and working obscene amounts of overtime to be able to afford it. It's not "go big or go home."
Self-care can be as simple as taking 20 minutes out of your day to read. To meditate. Exercise. Sit quietly. Listen to music. Write in your journal. It's taking time out to do something you need to do for yourself. If you think you don't have time for that, for one week I want you to take an inventory of non-essential things you do everyday. How many hours a week are you watching TV? Watching YouTube videos? Scrolling through social media feeds? You're probably thinking, "but can't these be forms of self-care?" Yes, but not when you're still operating at a deficit, or if it's taking the place of something you need. Your soul is not benefiting from binge watching the entire latest season of Ozark when you have some unresolved trauma that you should perhaps be talking to a therapist about. Or when your late night YouTube wormhole prevents you from getting adequate sleep. Or hours of Call of Duty. You can't compete with those 15-year-old brats online anyway, so stop trying. Or is that just me? Also, consider getting creative. Can't stop watching Love Is Blind? Watch it on the treadmill and limit yourself to an episode a day. I promise you these shows aren't going anywhere.
Tally up the amount of time you've spent and be honest about it or there's no point. How much of that time could be put to better use doing the things you WANT and NEED that you maybe complain about not having enough time for? You can either make time for wellness or make time for illness - and as cliché as that also may sound, it is the absolute truth. Our industry demands that we take care of ourselves, because for a lot of us, it is not taking care of you.
Set boundaries - personal and professional - so that you're not taking too much on or being taken advantage of. This can also lead to burnout. Setting boundaries isn't about being mean, it's about knowing what your limit is and respecting yourself enough to say "no" when that limit is reached. It communicates that you're willing to put in the work to keep your relationship strong and healthy. You can read more about that here.
These days, I'm spending a lot less time on social media unless it has to do with HTH. I'm committed to reading more, working more on my music, and journaling. It's not easy. Running HTH is hard work. I'm not complaining one bit about that, I'm just stating a fact: it's time consuming. But I love doing it. I also have a house I need to get on the market, find a new place to live, and a divorce to endure. I still take a few minutes out of my day to focus on at least one of those things that make me feel good and productive. If I can do it, you can do it. I challenge you to find ways to incorporate self-care in your daily routine. You won't regret it.
Are you already regularly practicing self-care? Let us know in the comments below - let's all inspire others to put their mask on first, too!
P.S. If you're interested in a Getaway House trip, first responders (yes, that includes you 9-1-1 Dispatchers!) get a 15% discount through ID.me. Sign up with them today for incredible deals on products and services. I had no trouble signing up with them as a dispatcher, so please contact them directly if you have an issue.
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