It wasn’t that long ago I drove an ambulance for the first time, on a long shot run from a rural area all the way to the northern part of our state’s major city. In the back was a woman having chest pains and two paramedics. It wasn’t something I was used to as a civilian, having only driven in routine traffic and attempting to be as defensive as possible. Now I was in some sort of taut action movie, trying to avoid collisions at 50+ m.p.h. on crowded city streets. When your Captain is sitting next to you and tells you to keep the pedal buried, though the F550 you’re driving won’t go any faster, then he tells you “Don’t take the turns like Jeff Gordon, try to be smooth” it can be a bit nerve wracking.
Nor was it that long ago that I was “bagging” a man who had overdosed on an unknown substance. Some thought it was spice, others fentanyl. I’ll never forget watching frothy crimson issue from his nose and me holding my breath, praying he’d live. When we arrived at that scene, there were six firefighters working on him, someone holding an IV bag above him, and police everywhere holding back crowds of various people who were yelling, moaning, crying or asking questions. It was like a bomb had gone off on Mother’s Day.
We got both of those people to the hospital, and I’ll never know what happened to them, whether they survived, or what their quality of life will be like. Whether my hand was on the steering wheel, or on someone’s pulse, the sound of the siren was a constant, and it was something I was getting used to.
This is no longer true. It seems that now, every day, I’m hearing more and more sirens all the time. They last longer. I think I hear them in the silence even. Living in an urban area, this would seem commonplace. I guess the real difference for me is that now they’re amplified. I’m not quite sure how this could have happened, though I have a theory. The ultimate feelings I’m left with are a growing anxiety and confusion, powerlessness.
This week was filled with news stories that made the sirens multiplied- bringing the worldwide suffering to my front door, a growing crying sound heard around the planet, right here in my home. The subway shooter. A sheriff candidate arrested for drunk driving who still insists on remaining in the race, another Covid variant, and the existential vacuum cleaner taking place in the Ukraine. On and on.
When Covid hit, I was newly divorced. I was still in shock from the way it ended, certainly not the way I wanted it to, though it was time to move on. I tried dating before anyone knew we were in the midst of a pandemic, to no avail. Things got worse from there. I spent the next year working from home, remaining isolated from my colleagues I’d grown fond of, seeing my son only half the time, and not leaving home much at all. I gained 20 lbs and daily napping became a necessity. I then lost my primary job and had to do some soul searching to determine how I’d make a living, and if I had to, how I would re-invent myself. I was in a car accident that was my fault and totaled the car I had finally acquired through years of hard work. I was faced with the toughest used car market in decades, supply shortages, and an uncertain array of life choices that kept me in a perpetual state of dysthymia. I wasn’t sure at all about what the future held, and I’m still not.
After I got the vaccine, a series of health issues struck me. I found out I have something called an “arterial web” in my carotid. It is rare for this to occur, though they told me I’d have to be checked every six months to update any information, the implication being that it could suddenly cause a deadly complication with no warning. Following that were a series of acute stomach problems, ER visits, ocular migraines, skin problems, and a developing pain in my hips that I now wake up with every morning. Nonetheless, I plowed forward. I made what I could of all of that.
Fast forward to today. I still work as a therapist, just with a different company. I no longer am a volunteer first responder. I started a YouTube channel to help people with additional resources for mental health. I thought if there wasn’t anything else I could do, perhaps it was a start. I hear sirens all the time, and I still feel helpless. As my son lays down to sleep, I hold his hand. Every pulse I feel in his finger is like the tick of a clock, the beat of a drum, the pace steady. Though his hand is filled with life, I feel the pulse of death everywhere, I hear of pain and brutality and chaos.
One of my clients lives in New York City. He told me recently that crime is on the rise and that he wasn’t surprised to learn that police were “nowhere to be found” when Frank James, using a gas mask, stepped onto a subway car, ignited some kind of smoking device that filled the car, then began shooting. he hasn’t considered New York safe for some time. To quote him “Take any historical crime piece aired in the 1970s, and make it happen today, it’s no different.” That sent a chill up my spine, and then he told me that he’s been afraid to ride the trains for some time now, mainly because the “homeless are so unpredictable”, and “they live on the train”. When he and his friends get on a car, he said at times the smells and unpredictable nature of the inhabitants make them seek another car. He doesn’t blame the homeless, and he understands how many of them are struggling. He doesn’t criminalize them, he just avoids them. His other claim is that New York police would rather “bust you for jumping a turn-style”, yet “look the other way when any crime is happening.” My client is young, educated, wise, and to hear him talk like this and tell stories so shocking rattles me.
The sirens don’t stop. I find myself longing for a vacation, to escape to the desolate wilderness somewhere, to take my son and run and hide, but where to? I find myself sleeping more. Pulling the covers over my head to shelter in place from what the world is presenting- an endless siren, the signal of what seems to be our future. How am I to tell my son what in this world is developing? How am I to shelter him from it, yet teach him to take a breath and accept what he can’t change, yet refuse to stand by and do nothing?
Working in mental health, I know we have some answers if we can get people help. Too often, when people seek help, it’s very late in their suffering. Many wait until a crisis before approaching therapy, and even then, they often drop out quickly. I thought that perhaps after the last few years being a complete shit show both personally and externally, that the sun would rise on a new horizon of hope. The questions are: what are we heading toward next, and how do we respond to all this? Can we get people more mental health care? Can we see signals ahead of time? Can we intervene without a World War? What do we tell our children, and how do we connect with one another?
I don’t have to pick up a newspaper or doom scroll to hear the cries, the labored breathing, silence of hope drained powerlessness. It’s there all the time. Sometimes I don’t even think earplugs would make a difference. Now I just have to figure out what will.