Spotlight: Susan Deyo, Firefighter/EMT ret., FRC Coach

The Spotlight series highlights individuals in first responder life who have felt an impact, made an impact, and shared an impact with others. We need to share our stories to know we’re not alone and we can do this… together!

Caroline: It’s another Spotlight and we have Susan Deyo here today. She’s a retired firefighter/EMT, firefighter of ten years, EMT-Intermediate for thirty. Now she’s a bookkeeper, life coach for FRC, and FRC’s Manager of Finance. She has a daughter who’s 27 and a son who’s 14. Susan suffered silently, as many first responders do, from PTSD, before she decided to finally seek help. We’re going to talk about the path to realizing the need for help and the courage to finally getting support and finding healing. It’s a topic so many first responders need to hear.

Susan, thank you for coming on today. How are you?

Susan: I’m good. How are you, Caroline?

Caroline: I’m very good, thank you. So, let’s start with what led you into first responder life. What was your inspiration?

Susan: I actually dated someone who was on the volunteer squad and I used to go to calls with him. Then I wanted to be part of it. I ended up joining as a volunteer for a long time and then got hired on full time. 

Caroline: Was that with a fire department or another company?

Susan: Hollis Fire Department.

Caroline: Was the EMT portion a requirement? I know a lot of departments require that.

Susan: Yes.

Caroline: Yeah, so you started with fire service and then you started working as an EMT.

Susan: Actually, it was the other way around. I started as an EMT and then, as a requirement of getting the full time job, I had to get my Fire Fighter [certification]. And so, I got that and ended up loving it and ended up getting my Fire Fighter II as well. I loved that side of it.

Caroline: Nice, so you worked for Hollis, New Hampshire Fire Department. How did that feel as far as your expectations for the job at first versus how it felt once you were actually really in it?

Susan: I thought it was great. It was in my home town and it was the department that my dad had volunteered in. So, I loved it; I just loved it.

Caroline: You really jived with the whole culture. That’s great. It gives a sense of fulfillment when someone finds somewhere that works really well for them. It feels like the right place.

Susan: Yes.

Caroline: So, you did that for thirty years altogether.

Susan: Yes.

Caroline: When did you start to realize some changes?

Susan: I think it was right around when 9/11 happened. You know, I was working that day obviously. [Later,] I was very obsessed with 9/11. I didn’t realize it then, but looking back, I can see it. Back then, I didn’t. I started to realize the dangers of the job, I also started working for Rockingham Ambulance. I was working in bigger cities and going into more dangerous situations and seeing more trauma. It just was cumulative from then.

Caroline: Did anyone else in your family or among your friends start to notice anything?

Susan: No, but as a parent I started noticing that I would shy away from things. When I actually really noticed it was when my child wanted to go to the circus in town. It was in this tiny little tent and I couldn’t bring myself to go inside the tent and… My poor kid, I couldn’t go in; I couldn’t do it. I realized at that point that I needed some help. I couldn’t go in an enclosed area.

Caroline: Was there help available for you at that time from your department?

Susan: No, nope. I ended up going to a private counselor.

Caroline: Was it helpful? Did you feel understood there?

Susan: Yes, it helped a lot. He actually dealt a lot with PTSD and first responders. So, he helped me understand what was going on and the steps I needed to take to help myself.

Caroline: That’s excellent, because that’s not the norm for first responders seeking therapy. I’m glad you were able to find someone who had first responder experience and could understand and help you. What do you think is the most common issue among first responders that are having issues with PTSD and don’t realize it? What do you think is maybe the biggest thing that they could start to look for as far as personal symptoms?

Susan: Mine was a fear of crowded places. I couldn’t go in the grocery store. I hated going to malls, anything like that, anything that had a lot of people. So, what you would look for is when you stop doing things you used to enjoy because you’re scared. For me it was fear-based.

Caroline: That is one of the main things they tell anyone that’s dealing with anything from PTSD, depression, anxiety… Any changes in things they used to love, they don’t love anymore. That’s always a huge sign and we want people to recognize that.

Now, you said you didn’t get any help through your department.

Susan: No.

Caroline: No, you found it on your own.

Susan: Yes.

Caroline: Kudos to that. Unfortunately, a lot of first responders won’t go through the effort of seeking help, especially if it’s not being handed to them. Sometimes not even then. Did you find that you faced any adversity in trying to seek help

Susan: Well, yeah, I didn’t even try through my department. I didn’t want people to know. I was very private about it for a long time.

Caroline: Yeah, that’s common. You didn’t want anyone to know. And you continued working at that time?

Susan: Yes.

Caroline: Did you find it easier or harder while you were getting help and continuing to work?

Susan: It was harder. I ended up leaving the 911 job I was in and going to a transfer company so that would be a little bit easier on me.

Caroline: Did you have to give reasons or were you able to keep that quiet?

Susan: No, I just changed.

I think substance abuse is another big issue [going back to seeing symptoms]. I did not have that issue. You mentioned things that people should look for. Substance abuse was huge with other people that I worked with. I’m lucky I didn’t have that.

Caroline: Yes, there’s so many things that people need to watch for aside from not enjoying what they used to enjoy and that’s a big one too. So, like you said, substance abuse, behavior changes, anger is another.

Susan: Oh, anger is a huge one.

Caroline: Did you experience any anger or short-temperedness?

Susan: Oh absolutely, yup! Road rage was terrible.

Caroline: Yes it certainly can be. Did you find that it was quick or did you find that it was gradual, meaning the changes that were happening?

Susan: I felt it was gradual. When I realized it, I guess I could look back and see it, but when I was going through it, I definitely didn’t see it. It was a gradual build up.

Caroline: Do you the story about the frog and the boiling water?

Susan: Oh I do! That’s right, yeah!

Caroline: So imagine a frog. If you were to plop it into a pot of boiling water; it’s going to immediately try to jump out. But set that same frog into a pot of cool or warm water that it doesn’t want to escape and slowly turn up the heat. The frog doesn’t notice the change as it’s gradual. By the time the water is boiling, it’s too late for the frog to jump out; it’s already dead.

Susan: Yes, that’s a very good analogy.

Caroline: Right? It’s useful for many things, this included. And I think that’s a good analogy for a lot of people who are silently suffering and need to seek help. What they’re dealing with is that they are not noticing the changes and think that each moment is their new normal or just normal. They think that it’s just a little bit worse than it was last week, Then a month later, they think it’s a little worse but that they can deal with it.

Susan: Well, my relationship suffered too. My relationship with my children, my relationship with my family, my divorces… All my relationships suffered.

Caroline: What do you think was the turning point for you? 

Susan: It was that circus. I don’t know why, but it was not being able to go into the circus. And he cried and I didn’t know why I couldn’t go in. I realized I needed help at that point.

Caroline: How far away was this from your transplant in 2018? 

Susan: So, that was in 2014. 

Caroline: So, you went to seek help and started getting help in 2014. You change ambulance companies. You changed the type of work you were doing, switching to transfers, which any first responder reading this outside of EMS can figure out transfers are a lot easier than going to a 911 call or dealing with any trauma. They’re just going from the nursing home to the hospital or the hospital to the nursing home or something like that.

Susan: Yes.

Caroline: And then, you finished off by being a supervisor. 

Susan: Yes.

Caroline: You did pretty well with that. Talk about the next steps in how you were doing.

Susan: With the PTSD?

Caroline: With the PTSD and with your career.

Susan: So, in 2018, I had a kidney transplant. I had a lot of complications from that. I had expected to go back to work but was unable to. So, it was a blessing in disguise because I got out of EMS. I think mentally it was a very good thing for me but it was hard because I had to leave the family. I didn’t have the family anymore around me and that was hard because this was my family for 30 years. 

So, I felt very left out and, you know, out of the groove. It was really hard – because of the PTSD – I also didn’t want to think about it and I didn’t really want to hear the stories. So, I actually didn’t want to hang out with them. It was weird; I missed them but I also didn’t want to hear about it.

But one of the wonderful things was that I did become very public with my PTSD then because I wasn’t part of it and I wasn’t working anymore. And I had a number of friends who were also in hiding about it contact me privately and talk to me about it.

Caroline: You became a beacon for them as they needed to seek help too.

Susan: Yes.

Caroline: That’s awesome. And did you see some changes in the way they were handling things once they were able to talk to you and get that support?

Susan: Yup, and I put them on the right path to go get help themselves. Then, once they got help, they were able to go help others. So, it’s kind of far reaching.

Caroline: Like a ripple effect.

Susan: Yes, that’s it.

Caroline: That’s great. So you’ve had a lot of turnarounds since all of that. And how are you doing now? 

Susan: Quite well. Doing well. You know, I don’t think it’ll ever go away. I was never really fixed. I take medication for anxiety and it helps with the PTSD too. There are still situations I can’t put myself in and stories I really can’t hear, but for the most part the anger’s definitely practically non-existent. So, that’s good.

Caroline: You’re such a positive person. Anyone who has seen you on social media has seen that you’re always posting literally just a picture of outside – it doesn’t seem like much. It’s beautiful though, and when you post it, you write something about the way the light’s hitting the snow or the way the rain looks on the trees. You’re always posting things like this and putting a beautiful perspective to simple things. I really appreciate that and enjoy those. I know I’m not the only one.

You’ve definitely come a long way; you’ve healed. So, let’s talk about the situation that generally the first responder world is in right now. What do you think is the preeminent thing that needs to change?

Susan: The whole thing around not being able to talk about it. Mental health is something we need to talk about. It needs to stop being such a stigma. You know, we see this terrible stuff and it’s okay to say that the stuff is terrible. We need to talk about it. We need to do whatever it is that we personally need to work through it instead of just shoveling it down like we used to. 

Caroline: Yes. Are you involved in peer support?

Susan: I’m not personally, though I do have a lot of friends in the service. I help them privately.

Caroline: So, you are but involved in peer support – as in supporting your own peers – but on a private level just to those that you know. That peer support is probably a bigger help than just hearing about it somewhere else.

Susan: It is kind of a peer support.

Caroline: It is; you’re helping them and we said it’s like a ripple effect. They’re helping someone else after that and it just keeps going.

Susan: You talked about my posts earlier and a lot of them are for me to stay positive but they’re also for others. I have a lot of friends who are suffering on Facebook and they’ve reached out to me multiple times and said, “Your posts have been the one thing that saved me today,” or, “I got up this morning and saw your post and knew that after all you’ve been through that I can do this.” So, that’s why I continue to be positive like that because not only does it help me but I’ve noticed it helps other people.

Caroline: It’s your driving force. You go from helping people [while] in uniform on the bus to actually helping people in other ways by being that example and that support. So, you’re still helping people.

Susan: I think I always will.

Caroline: That’s great! Is that your motivation? Is that what gets you up in the morning?

Susan: Yes it is.

Caroline: Let’s move into FRC a bit. Talk about your work as a life coach.

Susan: Well, you know it’s funny. I’ve always wanted to be a life coach for a long time. Obviously, I like helping people and I thought I’d be a really good life coach. Then the whole transplant thing happened. I was actually in college because I was trying to get my accounting degree. Then, I wanted to help people with PTSD. I ended up seeing Keith posting about First Responder Coaching.

What a marriage of all the things I’ve wanted to do: be a life coach and help people with PTSD! So, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen that I could do. I’m so excited about this. I don’t have a degree in psychology or anything, but I’ve wanted to help people and this is one way I can help them.

Caroline: Through your coaching course, you’ve been coached as well. Let’s talk about the effects of coaching and how it’s different.

Susan: I think one of the things that’s good for first responders is that we want to help other people, but we don’t want to accept any help from anybody else. It’s a generic first responder trait. With counseling, they’re kind of telling you what to do. But with coaching, you’re doing it yourself. The coach is helping you, but the answers are being pulled out of you. I feel like I came up with this answer, not the coach. The coach helped me to come up with it within me. And so, it’s me helping myself which is an easier pill to swallow than to have someone else help me.

Caroline: Yes, you’re right. First responders don’t want to get help from somebody else. It’s that whole, “Nope, I’m fine. I got this. I’ll be the helper.” So, now you’re a life coach. You have that feather in your hat among many others. And you’re also Manager of Finance, so you’ve got your bookkeeping going on as well.

Susan: Yup.

Caroline: How’s that going for balance, going between bookkeeping and life coaching?

Susan: It’s good because with bookkeeping I don’t have to talk to anybody. With life coaching it can kind of take a lot out of you. To talk to people [in coaching] it mentally takes a lot out of you. Bookkeeping really doesn’t take a lot out of me. I can go in my own world, listen to music, and make numbers work which I love. So, they’re two very different things but they’re two different sides of my personality. One is the introvert and the other the extrovert.

Caroline: So, you’ve found a lot of balance between healing from PTSD, doing what you love, and helping people still. What do you think is the number one piece of advice you can give first responders who feel like they may be suffering and aren’t quite sure how to reach out for help?

Susan: I guess try to see what they can do privately. See if there’s someone they can confide in, even if it’s someone outside of EMS [or their line of work.] Try to do some inner work. It’s all about reaching out. But I think if they can just kind of do some inner work and see that some of their mental habits are not healthy, do a check-in. Make sure that things are going okay.

Caroline: We have a Check-in with FRC and everything is confidential there. It’s difficult but we do need to get rid of the stigma. If you admit that you’re not okay, that doesn’t make you an inadequate person. I think it just solidifies a person’s humanity.

Susan: I think maybe when they work on financial stress or relationship stress… Maybe work on those. It’s a symptom of PTSD, but maybe getting those in order will help them to go through the other stuff. I know that coaching can help that. It can really help in getting your thoughts in order and going through [mental] things you haven’t finished.

Caroline: That’s great. Do you have anything else that you want to add? Mom, bookkeeper, life coach, Manager of Finance, retired EMT/firefighter… Many hats.

Susan: And friend.

Caroline: Friend! Absolutely, friend! That’s definitely not a retired status. Susan, thank you so much for joining us on the Spotlight. 

Susan: Thank you, Caroline.

Caroline: We look forward to all the other help that you will continue to provide at FRC and through all of your own connections.

Susan: Thank you.

Caroline: Folks, with Susan, a local search helped her find someone local to talk to. Sometimes that’s all it takes, but if you need more help, reach out to us here or connect over social media. Again, everything is confidential. We want to help you get back to being yourself, move forward, and get back to what you love.