I find it difficult to imagine a time in the future where this comfort that I have with my city, my coworkers, my patients, my fellow responders is old. Where it makes for a burnt out Angela, and not a confident, happy medic.
There is a road in my city, it spans from the beautiful suburbs to the east all the way down town to the worst that this area has to offer. Its more than one road really, but its straight, and it’s the first road you learn to travel when working in this system. It literally takes you everywhere. This morning I happened to come up to this road, patient loaded, at one of its main intersections just as the sun was clearing the trees. A historic building, long since converted to apartments, which have long since been considered a desirable place to live, was lit up with the most perfect streak of sun. It was beautiful, it was a moment that made me remember that there is a side of this city, a side of this job that some people choose to overlook.
I’ve said it before, but it needs to be restated, it is an honor and a privilege to do this job. This is an important classification of coworkers for me; people that treat what we do as a stepping stone, as a means to an end and people that love this. People that are here for the same reason as I am, and people that are not. I prefer to work with the people that are here for my reasons, but I can tolerate the people that are not; the folks who grace us with their presence on their 5 off from fire, just to pay for a new bike, or an addition to the family home in the suburbs, that call this job ‘slumming it.’ I detest their idea about this kind of work, but there are valuable lessons to be learned from them, and they can learn from me as well. But the people that I love to spend my work hours with are the people that feel this work the same way I do. The people that don’t just come here to get a little thrill working in the big city and then retreat back to their comfy day rooms for 3 squares and a bunk at night, happily forgetting that they started here before they grabbed that golden fire ring.
My people are the folks that are happy to be bleary and battered, happy to do that last call before end, happy to be posted downtown at 2 am on a Saturday night, happy to pick up the regular who calls for the same exact thing, three times a day. We’re a dying breed however, so when I find these people, I hang tight. What makes us a dying breed? In my area, the ’big city’ is covered by private services. I am often curious about what fire or third service employees would say about their job satisfaction in other city settings. What are those employees moving on to? And if the answer is nothing, what is it that brings the fire mentality, the fire happiness to the private service call volume? Is it the pension? Do they really make that much more? Is it the lack of mobile posting? Does a station matter when you never get back to it? Or is it something about working for a city and not a conglomerate? I’m hard pressed to believe that those people that just like to complain poison municipal EMS as much as they do here in the private service. Maybe its something else still. Maybe it’s the smaller number of part time transient workers. The people that call my job ‘slumming’ don’t work at those publicly funded EMS organizations. That strength report is filled with full timers.
The real point about all this is the simple fact that publicly funded anything is becoming a thing of the past; everything is going private. There’s a reason for that; our infrastructures are crumbling. Schools are falling down, roads are coming apart, public health care is bankrupt. Your child is just as likely to graduate from JFK High as he is The Pepsi-Cola High School for Future Diabetics. The private sector will pump a lot of money into a system where they can reap rewards, and they have that money to spend. I’m not making a judgment about what we gain or lose when the public sector loses control in favor of increased ad space by these companies. What I am saying is that no one has ever talked about me being laid off. I have a job as long as I have a pulse and medical control. I don’t have a pension, my retirement plan is my own making, but I’ll never have to worry about how many people are below me on the seniority list. I have job security in a sector that will never-in my lifetime-become obsolete. I’m not worried about becoming a call employee, I’m not concerned about 7 people working opposite me being laid off because my job has been funding their positions for a decade. I’m really not worried about my working conditions changing at all. We get new trucks that look like space ships, we go through trials and tribulations finding cost effective EPCR equipment, we’re last in line for the newest cardiac monitors, and we answer to a different hierarchy, but the private sector is the wave of the future. Why is it that we are less selective in hiring? Why do the bottom of the barrel employees still pull us all down on a daily basis?
I’ll admit, I sound anti-fire. And I suppose that’s not inaccurate. To be more accurate, one would say that I am anti-fire based EMS-and of course we all know I‘m anti-the risk that goes along with fire suppression. More importantly than that, I am anti-working with assholes that hate this job and think that full time employees of private companies are second class citizens, especially when they themselves are full time employees working in private EMS. I can only surmise that these misers, these Debbie Downers have long ago reached their personal call volume and never found a way to jump ship, never had a back up plan. I think about that possibility often. Will I hate my job when I’ve been doing it for 15 years? What career options will be available to me then? What back up plan do I have? Well, none. But I think there’s an intrinsic difference between my humble beginnings as a medic in the big city and those that are senior to me and begrudgingly putting one foot in front of the other every time they pull the cot behind them. That difference may have something to do with being able to see the beauty in the sun rise over the projects.
Here it is, the first week of my new life, and here I sit, bored, unsure of myself with restless hands and blaring music. Here, where my son isn’t, where my husband doesn’t exist, in a cozy little world that I have made. People say, “Write. Put it out there.” and I mean to, but I can’t somehow. I don’t have it in me. I look at an empty page and I see flashes of light, places where good, meaningful things aren’t.
Am I reparable?
I’ve been spending a lot of time with Ramona lately. In fact, we just signed on to be full time partners. it’s a good move for me; the possibility of working with some people on the road makes me cringe, and I’m avoiding confronting other people, so full time with my bestie works, its ideal in fact.
Ramona is a natural at EMS. Its amazing to be in the presence of a natural, I’ve been in EMS for five times as long as she has, and I am in awe of her every day. I base my medicine almost exclusively on my ability to see an emergency from the doorway, and also my knack for putting people at ease. I have never conquered the book smart side of anything. I’m quick witted and a bit of a firecracker, but, as I’ve said before, I carry the protocol book around for a reason. I’ve also encountered very few people that get both sides of this amazing job. Most folks are people wise or bookish. Some people have years of experience that leads them to expertise, but few are truly answering a calling, and not just answering dispatch.
We learn from these naturals. I have watched Ramona hear important things, absorb them, and use them appropriately. One morning as she was teching an 80 yo f that we talked out of thinking she was having a stroke-and rightly so, because she wasn’t-I heard her ask the patient, “how do you feel now compared to when I walked in the door?’ I was blown away by her ability to boil the situation down to the root of the problem and find a way to verbally assess her patient in clear, easy to respond to fashion. Its not always about recognizing a rhythm from a 6 second strip, it about seeing what’s in front of you, about responding to your patients’ needs. I’ve learned how to recognize ability and skill in fellow providers from Ramona. I’ve learned that not all new basics are created equal, and I’ve appreciate the way influencing her encourages me to take advantage of teaching moments that I have typically let pass with my little brothers and sisters in EMS.
But that’s not all this kid has given me. I’m now a ‘Beth’ to someone, I’m someone’s big sister in EMS, its an awesome responsibility and it makes me consciously think every day how I can be better at my job, how I can be better for my patients, and how I can make my workplace somewhere that I can imagine myself retiring from.
And she keeps me grounded…about these personal things (read: failures) that have been going on in my life. I say X (where X=stupid statement about above stated personal situations) and she immediately comes back with Y (where Y= ‘stop talking like that you moron.”). This Ramona and me work thing, this night time thing, it’s the one reason I’ve been able to keep going throughout all of this. Missing my son, wondering if I’m making the right choices, being in the grip of crippling heartbreak, it’s all held together by the fact that I am proud of the difficulties that I’m enduring to do what I think is right for myself-and ultimately right for my little guy. Its so easy sometimes to make decisions in an emergency, its so easy to find the lowest common denominator of things that make sense and can be handled, just airway, or just circulation, and if you never get past the ABCs, you’re still alright because that’s the heart of it. In life though, there is no lowest common denominator, or if there is, its vague and without clear cut rules that govern it. Be Happy. There’s the goal, make it happen, you have a lifetime. But really, a lifetime isn’t that long. The controlled, but frantic rush of a sick patient passes in an instant, and so does the time we have on this planet to be happy, to love each other, to leave a legacy. I have trouble being told to wait, to be patient, but no guarantees applied. I get anxious thinking about waiting to be happy, when the wait is assured and the happiness hasn’t been tried on for size. I feel that controlled, but frantic rush with life. I’m paddling my ass off under the surface, I’m trying to get there, to be happy, but its all relaxed duck above the water. The waiting game. It certainly wasn’t made for this humble blogger. I’m in a rush, in a rush to find out what my life is going to be, in a rush to put the past behind me, in a rush to get to the next call and let Ramona amaze me, in a rush to see my son, in a rush to have a guarantee. That’s just the thing though isn’t it? There are no guarantees. If there were guarantees, nothing would ever take my breath away…
Fuck this city
Fuck the street with the dark crematorium parking lot where I bled
Fuck having a finger on this impoverished pulse
Put your finger on the delicate dip in my wrist and feel my pulse.
This is artificial, this is the hype of round holes and square pegs
Fuck making something out of nothing but adrenaline
and time away from playing happy family.
Fuck leaving this in the dust,
A beat doesn’t wait, a pulse will throb
until its absence resonates.
Its the silence that speaks to me. Its always the silence
Stop giving me your soundtrack,
I’ve got my own playlist
Fuck pretending, who would bother pretend, and why, when this pain is so exquisite?
How do you connect? Lately, I’ve been wondering if the very reasons we’re good at our jobs are the reasons so many of us have problems at home. We come to work completely steeled against the potential tragedy of our EMS day. We have compassion in a limited and guarded way. We walk into that corner of our brain where the switch for emotional availability lies and we flick that switch off before signing on with dispatch. Its hard to see back into those dark corners to flip up the switch when we’re bleary and beaten at the time clock at the end of the day. For those people that have regular partners, this unavailability is shared….its a bond forged in un-bondable conditions. Its strong. We have a ‘you and me against the world’ feeling with some of our partners at work. Are we able to translate that to our home life? I think largely the answer is no. In a non-EMS family, there is one absolute bond: the bond between family members that would lay down their lives for each other. When you respond to 911s, you’re looking at your partner and saying, ‘I will never let anything bad happen to you.’ If you’re like me, part time and thus routinely subject to partner du jour, I say that, I make that silent promise to people I barely know. Its a fierce loyalty that I give to someone who is sometimes nothing to me other than a body seat-belted in beside me. What do I have at the end of a shift that is just for the person to whom I’m committing my life? What special bond, unique bond can I give to a man that trumps my ability to look at a stranger and feel protective of them, and put their emotional and physical well-being at the forefront of my mind for 12 hours?
I’ll be honest. I’m not in a position to wax poetic about the joys of marriage and making a life with someone right now. But I can look at this situation without the rosy adrenaline fueled glasses. The feeling that I get, on an ambulance, responding to the worst that humanity has to offer with my partner at my side is valuable to me. It defines me. I need it in a way that is occasionally directly inverse to the ways that I need to be with my family. Sometimes I find myself picking up hours, a shift here or there just because I’m looking for that thrill. The feeling that comes from knowing that I have no idea what’s going to happen next. The loss of predictability. Its reckless….and yet it isn’t. When I’m at work, I walk into chaos and create order. Its a feeling of ability that I’ve never had at home. I can’t create order in these four walls, I can’t even create happiness. But when I get in my truck at the beginning of a shift, I know that sometimes order comes solely because I demand it. That’s not being interested in the loss of predictability though is it? Its a desire and actualized form of being in control. I’m not reckless, I’m the opposite of reckless. I’m desperate to be in charge of a situation, any situation in my life, and I think that’s something that I share with my EMS peers. We want to control our scene, we aren’t playing a game, we aren’t just driving fast and shooting from the hip. We’re looking for a way to ensure that everyone goes home. For me at least, I’m offering my fellow responders care and protection that I haven’t been able to extend to my loved ones in any tangible way. I’ve failed at home, but at home is not where lives come in to play. I’m making a mess, leaving figurative bodies in my wake in my personal life, but at work, everything is copasetic. I’m in charge of the path I make at work. I’m in charge of the whole show. Why wouldn’t I want to work 70 hours a week? That’s 70 hours a week when its ok for me to be commanding, and when my commands create good. Declarative statements never work at home, that’s not how we relate to our loved ones, not how we make bridges between one emotional being and another. But at work, my emotions don’t have anything to do with my task. I’m an automaton. Doing exactly what needs to be done because I know what’s best. Can a person do both? Can I walk into work with the confidence and authority required to successfully do my job and look out for my partner and on the same day throw off my gloves and be vulnerable at home? I’m not rotten, I’m not a mean person, but I have a hard time letting go of that need to know that everything is ok. For everyone. I’m not a control freak, but I take it personally if people around me are unhappy, or uncomfortable. How do I learn to be part of a relationship that isn’t based on one person being in charge of happiness and security? I’m half of a team at work. I want to be able to do that at home. But we need more than a safe scene at home. I take care of my partners at work. Can I be someone that takes care of my partner at home? I think I can. Maybe more central to the issue-for me at least-can I be someone that allows her home partner to take care of her?
You’re saying you don’t love me anymore?
So I’ve struggled with what I want this blog to be. It has been cathartic for me to write, and good for me to be able to peruse when I’m having a bad day. I’ve always felt that in my heart I’m a writer before everything else, and truly, its the only thing I’ve always done well-well, writing and being modest that is. But I look at these posts and I don’t see all of Angela. I see half of who I am. Perhaps this is because I’ve felt like half a person for so long, just part real, and the other part just a portion of the stuff that goes into a marriage. Truth is, I haven’t been really happy in a long time. I’m not going to say that my marriage is awful, or that I’m miserable. My husband has never done any of those lifetime movie of the week things to make me decide one day to get up and leave. But as I’ve spent more time in the world, as a worker, as a friend, mentor, student, whatever, I’ve realized that I’ve become just a part of a whole. Just a piece of a larger picture, and its not really a picture I buy into. Don’t get me wrong. I want to enjoy being a wife, and although the 2 year old challenges my patience on a moment to moment basis, I do love being a mother. I guess maybe this just isn’t the situation I thought I would be in. I haven’t felt like my husband and I are on the same team in a long time, actually, since before we were married interestingly enough.
So, I decided to leave. And for some reason, it surprised him. I think about that a lot. All the warning signals were there for him to see, I’ve clearly been using work as an escape-and also as a means to repair my broken self esteem-I’ve been distant and I glaze over when we have the same argument for the 5th time in one month. I haven’t even had the passion to fight about anything. I checked out a long time ago. I was just too insecure to leave. But this seems to be something he would have been happy doing forever.
And now I’m leaving. I’m moving in a little over a week, and I’m really excited about it. People come up to me and say that they’ve heard a rumor and I think they expect me to break down crying as if I’m a woman scorned, or perhaps I’ll confide in them-give them all the juicy details of my personal failure, as if no longer being married makes me less of a private person. My standard response is, “Yeah, I think it’ll be good for everyone. Sometimes you just bring out the worst in people.” And more than once I’ve gotten the very judgmental, “Well, you seem happy about it at least.” What does that mean? What’s the response to that? “Yes! I’ve been annoying someone with my happiness for 5 years! I’m gonna let go now before I become someone I hate! Isn’t it great?!” I know I don’t have to answer anyone’s questions but my own, but its a very strange and disarming feeling to know what a small world EMS is and that I’ve been a topic of conversation in this world for a few weeks.
So I’m starting a new life. I’ve been asked if I have a “plan”, as in, loose guidelines as to things I want to happen in my new life. I do, I have those things. I know I want to be in EMS forever. I know that I want to magically turn into the kind of mother that other women so effortlessly seem to be. I want to be happy being alone. But the big questions right? Do I want to be married again? Do I want more babies? I think I have to table that. The first time around I was sure. I wanted a baby, I wanted to be his wife. There was no doubts…..perhaps because I refused to listen to them. This time I’m going to listen to doubt. I’m not going to be so cocksure of myself. But I’m not going to hold back either. I’m going to be happy, and look for happiness and beauty everywhere. I’m going to love fiercely. I have a tough time believing that we shouldn’t give our hearts away, that we’re on this planet to guard our emotions, to hold back when something feels right. That we’re on this planet to just at all costs avoid getting hurt. Its an exquisite, breathtaking pain when a loved one hurts you. Its also a moment of clarity. We can learn so much about ourselves from simply putting our hearts in someone’s hands and letting them do what they will with it. I’m not scared of being hurt. I’m scared of never being in the position to be hurt again.