I am not the most manly of men, as anyone that knows me can tell you. However, I was a firefighter for ten years and had my fair share of chopping wood, checking the air pressure on huge truck tires, and other various things that tested my comfort zone. Granted, I did tend to gravitate more toward gardening and cooking at the firehouse, but they still made me cut cars open with the jaws of life occasionally.
During my time as a firefighter, I had two cousins commit suicide in 2008. Since we were often exposed to suicide attempts and acts, this part of my job as a paramedic and firefighter brought up personal issues (although you don’t need to have a personal experience for that to be challenging as a first responder). I recall one ride to the hospital in the back of the ambulance with a young man that had attempted suicide, and the conversation about why he attempted it and why I thought he should consider living left me with nightmares for months afterwards.
I was surprised to find that my employer, both the Chief of my department and the village management that supervised our department, were completely unprepared to support employees with mental health challenges at the time. They took a completely risk averse approach to the situation, basically forcing me to separating me from my support system at work and alienating me. From what I have since learned, this is not uncommon in police and fire departments, and is probably common across our entire society.
At the time, I was required by my department to get cleared for mental health before returning to work because of some comments that I made as a union steward around protections for time off requirements. I went to see a therapist twice, who talked to me about the situation and cleared me to come back to work.
I didn’t take advantage of the opportunity to really go deeper with therapy.
Years later, I now run an energy efficiency company in Chicago. I am also the proud father of two beautiful girls, and a husband. Both have their own challenges that drain and test my strength.
Running and Growing a Company
My company, Chicago’s Verde, has grown from just myself in 2010 to over 20 employees. This has created so much stress, more than I envisioned when I started the business 8 years ago.
The hardest part for me was one that I was not expecting – I went from having 30-40 colleagues around me that I could talk to about anything (and I mean anything), to having 20 colleagues around me that looked at me in a much different light. No matter what happens, I am always the one that has to fire people and make the hard decisions. I think it is hard to remove that from day to day interactions.
In 2016, I gave personal therapy another try, and this time spent two years on it for personal growth and development.
I learned from this round of therapy to go find my time with my true “peers” again. I organized a poker night once a night with college friends, worked with my wife to find a night a week to have dinner with friends, and reconnected with people I truly cared about. It took a lot of work — just to get back to a place of balance that I clearly took for granted in the past.
I can’t say that therapy has made me a better boss to those around me. I can say that it has made me more in tune with who I am and what I want, and I hope that eventually that makes me a better leader. Improvement did not happen overnight, but instead went in small incremental improvements over months and years.
Being a Father
I am often jealous to think of fathers in the 1940s and 1950s that had a very defined role. Fathers worked to provide for the family and fathers did the physical repairs around the home, and I think drank a lot of beer. I think it was uncommon for a father to change a diaper, let alone the other common activities in raising children.
Modern fathers are meant to take on more of the parental duties, and while a lot of attention is rightfully spent recognizing how modern mothers are undervalued – men have their fair share of challenges. I am often drawn more to home repair, and less to the paperwork for our kids school. It doesn’t make it right, but it is also often a push and pull to both feel recognized as parents for contributions.
Therapy has helped me sort through these complicated feelings, and let me share those concerns and sort through them. I can’t say that therapy has made me a better husband or father. I can say that it has made my relationship with my wife stronger now than it has ever been, and that I feel more present with my kids than I did prior to therapy.
Before you pick up an axe, I encourage you to give therapy a try if you really want to test your manhood. There are few activities that will be more challenging and even fewer that will provide as many rewards, in the experience of this father and entrepreneur (and former firefighter).