My life took a sharp turn early last year. I am a very private person. You will not find me sharing my personal life on social media. That said, these last 18 months have changed me profoundly, and I feel like I need to write these feelings down. This post’s threshold of success is helping one other person navigate difficult times.
Burning out is something I had little experience with. A mental image of what it looks like when you burn out was all I had. My only context coming from watching online influencers post articles/videos about how bad it can be. I never really learned what it looks like before you burn out, how you get to there, what the signs are. After three and a half years of being a volunteer firefighter, I burned out. It did not catch me by surprise; I had been struggling mentally for some time. Every day, telling myself that it would be different, that it would change. That feeling went away eventually, leaving me with too much to handle.
What Being a Volunteer Firefighter Means
Depends on where the question is being asked. Volunteer, or sometimes paid-on-call firefighters make up more than 70% of registered fire departments. Minnesota sits at more than 85% volunteer fire departments, according to the National Fire Department Registry. Our setting is Bloomington, Minnesota in the US.
Here are some quick facts on being a volunteer/paid-on-call firefighter for the fourth-largest city (by population) in Minnesota a few of years before:
- Bloomington has 6 fire stations spread somewhat evenly over the city.
- To be eligible, you need to live within 4 minutes of your nearest fire station.
- You carry a pager around, when specific tones play, you are being asked to respond. This meant stopping anything you were doing, driving to the station, and responding to the incident in a fire vehicle.
- Depending on incident time, one, two, three, or all six stations can be paged together to respond. For example, medicals calls involve 1 station responding with 1 truck, while residential fire calls start a 3 station response immediately.
- You need to respond to at least 30% of the calls that were assigned to your station. These meant emergency calls during your work hours, weekends, holidays count against you.
Learning What Being Homesick Was All About
During the pandemic, the emergency medical calls went through the roof. The Police Department was unable to keep up with the large number of incidents, so the city came to rely on the approximate 100 volunteer Fire Department to pick up the slack. This meant those working normal 8 to 5 jobs had a harder time keeping up with their 30% minimum. Without going into details, it was difficult.
At the time, I was not in a good place mentally. Lots of things were lingering in the back of my mind. Everything has been made worse since I became woefully aware that I was homesick. I had planned to go visit for winter in 2020, but that option was quickly taken off the table. For context, I moved to the United States in Summer 2015, and to this day, due to one reason or another, I have yet to return.
The later half of 2021 overwhelmed me. Several things accumulated over time, some went under the radar and were never addressed until it was too late, and others were willfully ignored. Struggling to maintain my sanity and mental health, I decided to take a 90-day leave of absence from the fire department. My plans were to spend the extra time looking after my mental health. Unfortunately, nothing improved.
When the time came to rejoin, I opted to extend my leave as much as I could. I opted for another 90-day leave of absence, the maximum time allowed before needing to rejoin or separate. Again, nothing improved. I was just not in a good place mentally. A few days before needing to rejoin after 6 months of leave, I broke a bone in my hand.
How Did This Happen
Distracted, I went to move a glass/ceramic base from my desk to the kitchen. It made it a good foot before I accidentally dropped it on a dog bowl on the floor. (we fed the dogs in weird places back them) It slipped from my hands and fell on the bowl and shattered. This was not the first time this had happened. I… struggle to describe what my feelings at the time were. My brain approved the decision to punch something. When tasked with finding something to punch, once again, my regretful train of thought took me outside, to the patio where I proceeded to turn around and punch the side of the house. The factors considered at the time were overwritten by rage.
Being Stubborn is Not the Same as Being Naive
So it happened. I punched the side of the house. Pain. Broke a bone in my hand, unbeknownst to me, of course. I managed to convince myself that it was a minor injury and I didn’t need to be seen by a doctor. The hand hurt, but I chose to ignore it because my pride was in danger! (it wasn’t) I went about my business for three days before the pain overtook my pride. After the initial triage, and x-rays were completed, the doctor returned to the room with x-rays of my hand and informed me that I had a boxer’s fracture in my right hand. My brain could no longer hold the spell it had me under. I wasn’t being naive, I was being stubborn.
Unfortunately, having used all the time permitted for a leave of absence, and lacking the ability to rejoin due to my right hand being broken, I quit the fire department.
Accepting Help is the Hardest Part
It does get tough sometimes, life can weight a lot more than what you can handle. What we often forget is to look around, to look for the people that are willing and lovingly ready to help. My biggest mistake was thinking I had no support, when it really was the complete opposite. I am in a much better place now. I have others to thank for that. The road back is long, but I have friends and family right beside me. It has been a long time, but I finally feel like I am moving forward.