I was 15 the first time I called 9-1-1.
I was working the counter during an evening shift at the local shotgun range. My slightly older co-worker was out “pulling”(pushing the button that releases the target) for the Wednesday night crew. These guys came every week and played this game where about 15 guys would stand in a long line shoulder to shoulder. The first one would call for the target to be released, and then they would shoot in order down the line. If you hit the target, anyone ahead of you that missed it was “out.” Eventually it would narrow down to a shoot-out and only one guy would be left standing who would get the cash pot. Then they’d all ante up again for another round.
The same guys came every week. Mostly they were older (at 15 everyone was older) and were super nice. Getting the Wednesday shift was a plum assignment because they always tipped well, either to the puller or to the one cashing out for the beers.
Due to the wet weather that evening, they had decided to stand under the awning that surrounded the store where I was selling extra shells and beers in-between rounds. Being further away from the target just made it more interesting. When they were in the midst of a round, the sound reverberated through the whole building, making it impossible to do anything.
That night, I was counting out the cash drawer as they finished up their final round. They had just started, perhaps they had done one or two targets worth of shooting, when suddenly everything went quiet, then erupted in shouts.
My co-worker shoved her head into the service window and yelled at me to call 9-1-1. Tell them to send an ambulance, she said, one of the guys collapsed. Also, do you know CPR?
[One of the other guys] is doing it, do you know what the compression to breath ratio is?
I had been CPR certified since I was 12. I had taken the class twice. I KNEW this stuff.
My mind blanked.
I was already calling for the ambulance, and when I frantically asked her (read: I yelled at her through the phone to give me the ratio). I don’t really yell much, especially to unknown people on the telephone, so it is not an exaggeration to say that I was freaking out. I couldn’t remember our address for the life of me. I could not figure out why she needed my name. Basically: I was a hot mess.
It was a defining moment and I knew I was messing up. I knew I should be handling it better. But I just couldn’t.
She was very good with me. She calmly got the information she needed and gave me the compression ratio.
(Of course, I can’t remember what she told me now, because it turns out CPR best practices CHANGE. Current trends urge you to just do compression. )
The ambulance arrived shortly there after. Along with the fire department. Who, in my small town back in those days, were good friends with most of the guys shooting that night. We later learned that it didn’t matter how quickly they came or how well CPR was applied. He had died from an aneurysm. He was gone before he hit the ground. My frantic worry over compression ratio could never have saved him.
I share this story because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how I react in a crisis. Over the years I’ve gotten better at in-the-moment crisis, but I’ve come to the (shocking? horrible?) conclusion that I am not generally “good in a crisis.” I am capable. I don’t run away. I’m not about to stand around while someone is bleeding, throwing up or falling off a ladder. However, I’m not particularly good in them.
I handle them.
My vision narrows. My scope of understanding of the world narrows. I focus on the very immediate present. I get done what needs to get done.
Which is a great survival skill. In fact, it is a perfectly acceptable response, in the midst of an acute crisis.
Unfortunately, most crisis in my comfy 1st world suburban life are not acute. Yes, I’ve had more than most people die on me while I was at work (nature of the job working in Hospice care). Those crisis last a few minutes to a few hours.
I’ve been realizing recently, that I’m coming out of several years of crisis – with plenty of acute situations but hallmarked by an ongoing level of stress.
My dad was declining badly for about 3 years before he passed and I took on a lot of his care until the final year. My grief took me well over a year to process before I began to establish my ‘new normal’. I have never been without gainful employment since I was 12, but I seem to gravitate to unstable jobs. With this company I am on desk #20 in just under 4 years and just found out that I will be moving to desk #21 before my 4-year anniversary. Because of all this, many areas of my life are also in constant flux – living situations, finances, relationships, goals, etc.
These are ‘crisis’ which do not have quick resolutions. They require months to years to work through. I’m not good in these situations.
My vision narrows. What I can handle ratchets down super fast. My ability to work on long-term goals or plans vanishes. I get done what needs to get done, but I cannot handle anything else. I focus on helping others to the detriment of my own health and self-care. I get my emotions too wrapped up in other people’s crisis and external situations because it feels selfish to separate myself. I cease to be truly functional.
I am so embarrassed to realize this about myself. I want to be the one who can take care of everyone who needs it. I want to be able to expand and help and do MORE. I want to be more capable.
This realization makes me feel very small. Very young. Very unable.
I hate that.
I sit with this and the feels around it are so numerous that I struggle to put any more eloquent words to paper about where and why these feelings come from. Why am I not more able to handle lasting stress situations? Why am I not more capable?
I have some thoughts as to the root of these issues, buried in my psyche, but the bottom line is this:
Handling stress well is not something I’ve chosen to practice.
Life with the Sailor has been eye-opening because his life experience is so different than mine. He grew up a jock in the 1970s. A different culture completely from my nerdy 1990s high school experience. He has this skill of determination. Which is not un-present in my contemporaries, but it is thought to be something you either have or don’t have. I just always assumed I didn’t have it.
He tells stories of learning to be determined.
I can chose differently. I chose be better at this. If it is a skill, it something that can be learned. I am really good at learning things.
So my current personal development work is around growing this skill of ‘determination.’ I am reading Grit, which talks about learning determination and stick-to-it skills. It’s fascinating.
Turns out, intentionally growing in your ‘grit’ improves and involves your ability to deal with chronic stress from constant change.
Adventure, it turns out – and specifically wilderness adventure – is good for this.
I love it when a plan comes together…