The Last Sunset…
of 2016 was beautiful. I had to see it. Actually, I missed it. But missing it is quite fine with me and here’s why; sunsets are crowded. Everyone gathers at the best location possible to view that big orange sphere sinking below the horizon. They all, almost at once, turn around and head back to their vehicles to return to their busy lives. Me? I stick around – because I learned that if you are patient the most beautiful part of the evening happens to be after the sun drops below the horizon. There is nothing more beautiful than the colors that emerge via the sun rays that radiate through the clouds and reflect off the waters of our great planet Earth. I wanted to see that beauty on the last day of the year, but for me it represented more; it represented the end of a year full of stress, self-reflection and a bit of forced self-awareness.
On November 15th, 2016 my year came to a very sudden and quick halt. I found myself with chest pain that I thought was simply stress. For some reason, 22 years into a career of public service I found myself having some real issues with the visions of death and violence that I had visited many times. A first responder, over the course of their career, will experience things that most people’s nightmares are made of. Some of those experiences never go away. Instead, they will appear randomly in the mind like a negative from a roll of film. A snapshot of terror. Not every experience gets stuck in your mind and sometimes I wonder why some stick and some don’t. However, 2016… 22 years into a public service career my head was full of those snapshots and they had merged together to like a complete roll of film that would show up unannounced, and then a slide show would start. Usually it would start as my head would hit the pillow. Why? I have no idea – but that damn slideshow would not stop and the nights were short.
I decided that changes were in order and so I quit consuming refined sugar, joined a gym, and changed my daily schedule. It started to help as this roll of film was no longer complete, but instead went back to single images that would pop up for unknown reasons. The images were at least manageable. Then one day the chest pains started. I tried to talk myself down from the stress but the symptoms started changing and I soon realized that stress may not be the answer for the pains and so I drove myself to the hospital on November 15th, 2016. Once there, the staff ran me through a series of tests which all came back with negative results for a heart attack. While that was good news, I felt silly for being in the emergency room, having people running around catering to my overreactions, sticking me with needles and running a multitude of tests.
The answer, according to the heart doctor, was an overnight stay and then a heart catheter to make sure there were no problems. At first I objected and questioned the over-achieving cardiologists suggestion that a heart catheter was needed. He said he had a “feeling” that with a stressful career, my age, and a family history of heart disease that it was important to make absolutely sure there were no problems with my heart. Reluctantly, I agreed to have the procedure. The doctor said that if there were no issues I’d be in and out in about thirty minutes. But, if he did in fact find a problem he could fix the situation. I said goodbye to my lovely wife and said, “I’ll see you in thirty minutes.” Two hours later the doctor would emerge from the lab with news that he had found severe blockages and I had needed three stents in my heart. Furthermore, he said that I was lucky. I was lucky to have listened to my body and driven myself to the hospital, because had I not I would have had a heart attack and died. He found a 95% blockage in both my Right and Left arteries.
How did I end up in such a situation especially after, on paper, I should have been released from the hospital? According to the doctors, stress was the answer. Since that day I’ve received quite the education in how the body deals with stress by creating chemicals which, in turn, eventually break down your organs. It was scary to say the least and when I was finally released from the hospital I found myself at home alone, while the kids were at school, and my wife went to the pharmacy to pick up the medications that I’ll be on for the rest of my life. And it was at that moment that I realized that I could have died. I broke down and sobbed. I realized during this emotional state that God was not through with me. See, I’m a Christian and a firm believer that God is in control. I’m not at the end of my life; this is just the beginning. I’ve been given a clean slate, if you will. A chance to fix some things that are broken in me and a chance to share with others through my experiences. A chance to learn to be more patient.
I’ve been consumed by self-reflection and self-awareness since November 15th, 2016. I have to learn how to flip a switch. I’ve always lived my life based on right and wrong and if things were wrong it became an obsession to make it right even if it meant adding something to an already full plate. I’ve found myself, over the years, saying things like ..”I used to do “. Or, I’d say “when I retire I’m going to do “. Nothing makes things clearer than the thought of almost dying.
As I sit here nearing the end of the first week of February I reflect on the fact that I did not make any New Years resolutions. No. I decided changes needed to be made on November 17th, 2016 when I found myself sobbing alone in my house after being discharged from the hospital. The thought of leaving my family behind because I had allowed myself to be too busy and stressed from work is something I never want to do again. Changes are here. More family time and less obsessing over the things that cannot be controlled; less obsessing over work. The doctor told me on November 17th, 2016 that I need to turn work off everyday and focus on disengaging. I’m guessing more of that would help the violent snapshots that still haunt me. So I’ve started, by listening to the Dirty Heads and putting my thoughts in writing here in this blog. Last month I took the family on a hike, to crawl around caves in the Withlacoochee State Forest. We then sat on the bank of the Chassahowitzka River while having a snack.
After several months of self- reflection, I’ve realized a few things about myself. The most important being that just because others are emotional does not mean that I too need to become emotional. Years of public service have bled into my personal life. When you work in a career of public service you are expected to be on your game every minute of every day. If you allow it, like I had, the career never turns off, even on your “days off”. So, what does that mean for me? A constant inventory of my life has been going on since the day I drove myself to the hospital. I’ve come to realize who I am as a person. Therefore, I do not need to become emotional because others are emotional about a set of circumstances that are outside of anyone’s control. Control what you can and then problem solve what you cannot. It’s really that simple, for me at least.
While 2016 was full of stress and negativity, it was also full of growth. Personal growth. It has forced me to take inventory. Inventory in my life about what really is important. Life is simply about two things, relationships and experiences and nothing else really matters. Don’t wait for a life event to make changes. Make changes right now. Hug your loved ones, be creative, and self reflect. I’m sure there are things you are worrying about that are not important. Take inventory in your life, decide what is important, say no to the things you don’t want to do, and make changes. Enjoy today because tomorrow is not promised.