1 firefighter's story: Bullying drove me to the brink of suicide
Coworkers, men and women, bullied and tormented a young paramedic during a difficult period of her life instead of training, mentoring and supporting her
In the days after the body of firefighter-paramedic Nicole Mittendorff was found and allegations of bullying and harassment were made public, we received messages from women who have experienced bullying, harassment and sexual assault in their EMS agencies and fire departments. This article is from Sarah Mielke, creator of the Emotional Trauma Life Support program. "I was basically in Ms. Mittendorf's same position. I only survived because I ran," Meilke wrote in her first email to us.
By Sarah Mielke
The first time I really faced bullying was as a probie on a skilled, well-regarded part-time fire department.
I had come from a volunteer department in a different state so I had a lot of changes to adapt to, and of course, like any other newbie, I did make mistakes. But where it really became a problem was the response to those mistakes.
A few of the firefighters were cool about helping me out and a few gave me the credit for being able to do the job since I had been a firefighter/EMT before and I had been hired to do the job.
Another group basically sat back and said, "Oh yeah, prove it." They were quick to believe the worst about anything that happened.
Finally, there was another group that was outright hostile — mocking me, being sarcastic and consistently undermining me to the officers.
They were quick to write a bad report when I messed up, rather than correcting me and showing me how things were done at their department. With at least half of the crew, I could not do anything right. This was where it really started to cross the line into harassment and not just "let the probie prove herself."
If I was diligent and hard-working, always trying to learn the trucks, then I was the "sparky" rookie and an annoyance. They would roll their eyes and sigh when I asked for help to learn the fat binder of information or to complete drive time.
Often, they would tell me they'd be right down from the day room to help me out. I would wait in the apparatus bay for half an hour until I figured out they weren't coming.
But if I backed off and wasn't assertive or assertive enough, then I was labeled as a lazy slacker and uninterested in learning. There was absolutely no balance.
If I showed up for as many calls as possible, which I was expected to do, then they treated me like an annoying, yappy dog with too much energy. Yet if I backed off even a bit, they were quick to report to the officers that I was slacking off on my obligations.
More and more often I went home at the end of my shift in tears. When I couldn't go home I found quiet places in the station to cry out my frustration. I also tried to pound out my frustration on the treadmill.
Every so often someone would be sympathetic and ask me how it was going and how I was doing. I actually thought they were sincere. I would talk about how I was frustrated and discouraged but not giving up. I found out months later they were actually gauging how their campaign of harassment and intimidation was working to see how close I was to quitting.
They tried everything in their power to make me quit, but I held on until finally one day I was called into the office and given a choice to "quit and save face" or get fired.
In retrospect, I'd been voted onto the department so I'd probably would have had to been voted off. But I was so shocked at the choice that I gave in.
The worst part was that almost all of the individuals who harassed and bullied me worked for at least one other department, so I was effectively blacklisted from working anywhere else. I had no idea who was actually my friend and who had been betraying me all along.
I hadn't known that the fire service could be like that. My trust was destroyed, along with my dreams for being part of a fire department. At the same time, my marriage was failing and I was living in a new state.
I never had a safe place.
Life got worse and so did the bullying
The second time I faced bullying and harassment, a few years after the 6-month fiasco at the fire department, was far worse. It nearly ended my life.
My life had gone from bad to horrific. It was my first year as a paramedic, which was hard enough.
My marriage was nearly done, I was living in fear every day, and my in-laws, my only family in the area, had walked out of my life when they found out about the failing marriage.
It was just weeks before Christmas so I faced another set of holidays alone, and my birthday besides. At or around Christmas I lost a patient I'd bonded with — a police officer, I lost my first grandparent — my grandmother, I faced the 12th anniversary of the day I have PTSD from, and I had a supposed close friend betray me.
In February I had a back injury on the job. Ten days later I was hit on the freeway at high speed, giving me a severe concussion that I was unaware of, putting me in physical therapy for three months and out of work for a month. This trapped me in the house with my sociopathic, abusive husband.
Three days after my return to duty in March, my other grandfather died suddenly. The day I was to fly to the funeral my best friend called in hysterics, having just been diagnosed out of the blue with advanced cancer.
At the end of June, my divorce was final. I was finally able to move out of the house where I had been living in terror for months, afraid for my life.
In August I sustained a second head injury at work, just shy of six months after the MVA. A second concussion before the first concussion heals is a nightmare scenario.
Originally fast-tracked for flight medic training because of my medic school performance, I now found myself permanently grounded by the head injuries. I was watching my flight medic dream die.
I didn't realize I had a problem and tried to go on functioning, but I'd been through far too much. I made it 40 days after that second accident before I finally collapsed.
A pack of bullies
Then the bullies showed up. This time the bullying was primarily women, not men, and women can be far more cruel than men for some reason.
I was completely destroyed. After living suicidal and very depressed for almost a year, with my ex having destroyed any remaining confidence or courage, I had nothing left to fight off their attacks.
The pack was a half-dozen field personnel and two dispatchers. Bad things started happening in October. My performance was somewhat compromised, of course, but they decided I needed to go.
Don't worry about finding out why a formerly "exemplary" (their term from one of my reviews) employee and FTO was suddenly irritable, sarcastic, and angry. I had great crew chiefs and a great ops manager, but I don't think anyone really knew what to do or how to go about dealing with a situation like this.
Instead, my paperwork started getting lost. I started getting written up for stuff. Awful rumors were spread about me. At least two people were corroborating these stories even though they were not true. Two members of the pack pretended to be close friends while passing on everything I said.
For example, because I was at work early all the time and stayed well after my shift was done, I was supposedly having affairs with two of the crew chiefs. In reality, I knew I stayed at work until I could be sure that my soon to be ex-husband would be asleep when I got home. I always left the house as soon as possible in the morning.
By Christmas, my third miserable set of holidays in a row, I was terrified. The despair was choking. All I could think about anymore was ending it. I told my operations manager and crew chief where the spare key was in case I didn't show up some day.
Bullies were killing me
I didn't necessarily want to die, but I couldn't handle the pain any longer. The bullies were slowly killing me. I knew it. I was furious and terrified, but I could not do anything to help myself.
I knew these people. I knew they were small-minded, hateful, hurtful and arrogant individuals whose opinion I wouldn't have thought twice about before. But I didn't have the cognitive ability to not accept their verdicts.
It was as if I had been drowning and now this group had gathered around me and was taking turns adding weights to my limbs and holding my head under water.
They even tried to get my address from their cohorts in dispatch to come over and "set me straight," but fortunately, the dispatchers didn't have access to that information.
By January they had managed to get me a verbal and a written reprimand for "excessive sarcasm with coworkers and excessive teariness at work."
My job was severely in jeopardy. There were so many attacks on so many fronts — paperwork, patient care, colleagues, crew chiefs, payroll and time cards.
Nothing was sacred. Even if I had been fully functioning it would have been overwhelming.
My doctor, meanwhile, had also found a lump on a routine exam and sent me for a biopsy. My remaining friends had become increasingly distant as I got worse and worse; they quit standing up for me at work. I had only one person left who was still my rock and knew the whole story, but she was thousands of miles away and nearly frantic with worry.
It was like I was watching myself dying. And so I ran.
I made a desperate, last-ditch effort to save my life. I moved home, over 2,000 miles away.
The damage was so intense that it took another four months of dealing with suicidal ideations before I started to get my feet under me again. I spent almost a year and a half suicidal.
And those bullies —the word is too weak, too flimsy, for what they were — had not only almost ended my life, but they would not have felt the least bit of guilt or realized it was in any way their fault had they showed up at work to hear that I had killed myself.
This is the first time I've ever really talked about what happened to me even though it's been almost four years. I still can't think about it without the terror, fury and hurt coming back.
The fury was aimed at the bullies who cut away at me every single day, at those around me who simply did nothing to help, and those who didn't care enough to figure out why this formerly exemplary employee had become such a shattered wreck.
About the Author
Sarah Mielke is a paramedic who has been in fire and/or EMS for over a decade. Her experiences in the field laid the groundwork for her creation of Emotional Trauma Life Support, a new training program that will train responders to deal with their patients' emotional trauma (grief support and death notification) as well as their own (burnout, PTSD, suicide). The program will be released in September and has already gathered worldwide interest.