Taking the Mask Off


Occupational Trauma: The most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological isolation quote is by Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver. poster of a masked firefighter created by Bergen and Associates Counselling. Photo is by tony26

There is the very real dilemma and tension of needing to put on a mask and to armor up against fear and vulnerability on the job, and then find ways of reversing that to be emotionally available to his family:

The brain is affected by trauma…we know what the names of the brain are that operate differently, when the brain is exposed to occupational trauma because of public protection.  So often firefighters, paramedics, police officers and other law enforcement don’t understand how their brains become wired differently…and the easy-at-hand solutions of drinking and isolation work against productive solutions.

Connecting deeply and intimately and authentically and genuinely with another requires softness, gentleness, openness, risk…vulnerability.

For some, those characteristics are best not front and centre in a job that is in some sort of military/law enforcement field where a person needs to be “on”–needing to have “an edge” and be ready for adversity unexpectedly.  Heck, even a doctor/nurse/health care professional has times when they need to put on “the game face” and go in and do a difficult procedure.

I remember being with a family member in Emergency with a broken bone.  He was young and strong and had a displaced fracture.  The treatment of choice was to dope him up with drugs that will dull but not kill the pain, and another drug that would give him amnesia for the time around the “fracture reduction”…which is a polite way of saying four male health care professionals each strained and pulled with everything they had to slip that fracture into place. Those bones and muscles were strong…it did not reduce easily. The patient screamed in agony…literally.  It was ear piercing and hard to watch…and, I’d imagine, brutal to do.

The bone was slipped back into place, casted, and the new X-ray showed the faint line on the now-straight limb.  The treatment was a success, and the patient remembered none of it.

The doctor, orderlies and nurse had done their job well…but creating that sort of pain in someone comes at a cost…unless you’ve figured out how to deal with it in some way. How do you dismiss the screams of agony that you perpetrated in the name of your occupation as if they don’t matter?

There are times in many people’s lives where they need to “turn off” some sensitivities to be able to do a task effectively.

To not would be to put the health and safety of others or themselves at risk. Heck, even being stuck in a job that appears innocent but comes with a nasty boss who is a bully can make the day long and hard…and needing to put on a mask to make it through the day.

The challenge is to negotiate with oneself out how to take the mask off to allow for connection with those that are important and “safe”.  To drop the mask and reconnect vulnerably…not easy after having it on all day. That means understanding how the brain works, and working with it–with the natural tend

Perhaps the greater challenge is to find ways of staying connected in ways that are humanizing even in the midst of difficult situations.  Orchard Park School had high rates of violence, absenteeism and drop outs…their solution (which was wildly successful, by the way) was to cut out the high security budget and re-allocate it to the arts.

Children who were once cutting classes and each other are now cutting a rug, writing, and expressing themselves on canvas.

It took some real chutzpah for the principal to fire security and have 80% of the staff that was brand new go in and do their jobs those first weeks.

Turning away from shutting down, and opening up the “opening up” transformed the school, creating improvement in so many ways.

In dangerous jobs that require a person to face difficult people, do dangerous tasks, and watch incredible suffering, the temptation to armor up and close off is immense.  How else can a person make it through the day, day after day, for years on end?

The problem is that that very strategy, designed to protect and help, actually closes off the soul, and starves it of life, and the danger of shrivelling atrophy is real…with the need to battle the resultant loneliness and isolation with numbing strategies like alcohol, gambling, porn, or mindless and endless channel surfing.

Shame resilience recognizes that the very masks we use to keep ourselves safer can be suffocating.

Shame resilience recognizes that the very masks we use to keep ourselves safer can be suffocating. Click To Tweet

And finding ways of staying present, leaning into the uncertainty and discomfort by staying grateful and acknowledging our core values, and practicing self compassion will allow folks in challenging vocations to remain available and open to those they love…and those they serve.

It’s not easy to be on the front lines of a difficult and challenging job…and even harder to be an engaged family member after a tough shift.

But it’s worth the struggle. Yep.  I’ve watched folks engage in the struggle and change their lives–and those of their family.



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