I thought being a paramedic would help me cope with my parents’ deaths. Or even prevent them. I was wrong.
Allow me to explain.
When I first applied to Beds & Herts Ambulance & Paramedic Service in 2000, it was a partly a decision borne of a kind of naive, morbid curiosity. I was eager to take on what I thought to be a varied and challenging job, but I wasn’t entirely sure I was up to it. I wanted to test myself, and I wanted the self-respect that came with being able to cope with difficult scenarios.
In hindsight, I don’t think anyone is up to job in the beginning. Emergency ambulance work is the sort of occupation that no amount of training, preparation and advice can completely protect you from some of the tests to come. It’s a trial by (blood, shit and) fire* that can make you feel that you’re in over your head until you learn to cope.
[*disclaimer: fire is obviously the fire brigade’s remit, but the blood and shit is definitely all us.]
The teacher of those lessons is mostly experience, but the contribution of your colleagues – both peers and those senior – is also critical.
There’s a kind of unspoken tough love – a combination of hazing, camaraderie, and tactical neglect – that takes place between new recruits and veteran staff which ultimately leads you to a point where you can either cope with the pressures and responsibilities of death, life and everything in between (and to be honest, it’s mostly the in between), or you get out. There are also some who get to this point where they should get out and don’t, but that’s a topic for another day.
My point is that throughout my progress from naive and cocky trainee, through competent clinician to embittered veteran, and beyond to broken paramedic, I was always content that, whatever happened, I was honing the skills and the mindset needed to be able to save my own when the time came.
The incentive was there on every attendance – but especially the cardiac arrests – to push for excellence, to go that extra mile, to leave no stone unturned because that’s what you’d want if it was your Mum or Dad.
In my mind, I’d frequently play out scenarios involving the collapse of a parent, working through all of the outcomes and eventualities like a scriptwriter exploring plot ideas or an actor endlessly rehearsing. All so I’d be prepared on the night.
The night never came.
Instead, in a cruel twist of fate, I’ve had to endure watching the unexpected early decline and death of both parents in long, drawn-out bedside vigils. In both cases they succumbed to diseases that ruined their minds before their bodies were ready to give up.
Those final hours watching their starved, dehydrated husks slowly shut down made a mockery of every life-saving skill I’d learned. I just had to watch, helpless, as the people who made me struggled and faded without saying goodbye.
Perhaps some of the softer skills came in useful during the ordeal; the ability to know when to do something, or when to do nothing. But knowing HOW to do nothing is harder. Knowing how to cope. I suspect these life moments are no more or less challenging whatever your background or training.
In any case, cope I did. But at a cost.
I withdrew from many aspects of my former life, including social media, in part because my participation was becoming a very negative experience which, without the security and validation that my parents provided me, had a far more profound effect. I found the social landscape of emotionally-led politics and 40th birthdays incendiary. Issues became more visceral, hurtful comments more harmful, my responses more aggressive. With the loss of the emotionally anchoring effect of my parents, I’d lost a maturity and stability that I never knew they provided.
And those who remained in my life seemed poor surrogates. Friends and acquaintances now seemed flawed, misguided, self-serving, hedonistic people making terrible decisions of a daily basis. I found contact with people I knew well resulted increasingly in feelings of disappointment, betrayal or disgust.
But the truth was that no one had changed dramatically. No one but me. The lens through which I saw the world had changed forever and I could only see the darkness and very little of the light.
It has been a brutally challenging emotional journey from the death of my Mum five years ago to my Dad’s laboured demise last Summer, punctuated by the ongoing struggles my younger sisters and their families face.
But in enduring, things seem somewhat brighter again.
Now, existing in this post-parent world far younger than I expected, I’ve learned to think around the inevitability and futility of existence, mostly by ignoring those facts. Just like starting out in the ambulance service, its a case of enduring until you find your feet.
I’ve been fortunate to have an amazingly tolerant and understanding wife, and two wonderful daughters who are all the motivation I need to try to be my best self. I’ve learned a lot about managing my failings. Keeping myself in check is no longer something I can outsource to my parents. I’ve entered an era of total responsibility which, while daunting, is also oddly freeing.
On reflection, coping is just what happens when you carry on.