Book excerpt: ‘The Unbroken: A Firefighter’s Memoir’

Assistant Chief Steve Serbic shares his story of seeking counseling after a series of traumatic calls


By Steve Serbic

The office was in an old storefront, in an old part of town. Unlike the other therapists I had tried, Teresa was on time. She gave me a cup of tea and asked if there was anything I needed help with right now.

I had a good vibe sitting there sipping my tea.

I answered yes, I needed help with the dark thoughts and the nightmares I was having. She wrote something down and asked, “Would you like to learn a trick to help you with that, how to block your thoughts?” Firefighters love short cuts and tricks, and I immediately answered yes.

“Okay then, first tell me a bit about yourself,” Teresa said.

I told her briefly about losing my brother to addiction and mental illness and how he had recently taken his own life. I spoke about my daughter catching the deadly RSV virus, and me responding to three kid deaths in four days. I told her I had no energy and was having dark thoughts, weird dreams, and drinking heavily.

Teresa looked genuinely concerned as I was speaking, and for the first time it felt like someone was actually listening.

“Steve”, she said, “we are going to start with your sleep, because without adequate sleep and proper REM sleep, it is difficult to recover from the trauma you have just been through. There is a technique I use with police, firefighters and paramedics that is helpful in assisting the mind to shut down unwanted thoughts.”

I smiled and said, “Okay, you got me, what is it?”

Without missing a beat, Teresa told me to close my eyes and tell her what a stop sign looked like in detail. I described it as red with white letters and a white border around the octagon shape. Then, she asked me to draw it on a flip chart pad. With a red marker, I replicated it to actual size.

When I was finished, she ripped it off, gave it to me and said, “Every time the thoughts come into your head, think of that stop sign. Over time, the thoughts will fade away.” Then she cautioned, “It will take some work to control those thoughts.”

Teresa explained that our first visit was meant to be a casual meeting. We would talk and get to know each other a little. Aside from the immediate simple stop sign trick, if I was interested, she would give me a project when I left.

“Steve, what do you want to talk about? What do you not want to discuss?”

“I think I somehow made a connection between the death of those kids to my daughter who was deathly ill in the hospital, and it caused some kind of chemical reaction, making me feel sick and have nightmares.” Teresa was writing stuff down and I kept talking, “I feel that part is what I need to focus on. I had pretty well made peace with losing my brother.”

Teresa asked what the details were surrounding his death and I said that he took his own life. He told me he was going to do it and he did, it was pretty simple. I said I didn’t really want to say any more about him right now but would let her know when I felt comfortable talking about his death.

“No problem. I am here to support you in any way I can. I am really glad we were able to meet and am looking forward to working with you. I have noted not to ask questions about your brother or his death.”

She asked how I was feeling about my first visit. I said, “I am very comfortable, much to my surprise.”

“Why is that?”

“Well just like that, not having to talk about my brother — I like the way you handled that. The other thing I don’t like about going to counseling is I’m usually asked about my childhood as soon I sit down.”

Teresa explained how it is hard to help someone if they don’t want to talk about the things that are bothering them. Childhood traumatic events that are remembered and not repressed are not just important to the health professional, but critical for patient healing and recovery of mental health.

It totally made sense, but I said, “I struggle about things in my childhood … I’m not sure I can talk about them.”

“Steve, how about we start small and go from there? At any time, if you don’t want to talk about something, we can move past it.”

I liked that idea. When the session was ending, Teresa said she would like me to go home and write a short story about my childhood right up to the end of high school. She asked me for one favour: “Don’t block memories if they start pouring out. Keep writing. Even if you don’t want to talk about it, there is a benefit to writing your thoughts down and reflecting on them.”

She gave me a little worksheet with questions to get me started. She said I might never need to see a psychologist again if I learned how to channel my thoughts properly. Teresa thought it would be easy for me once I understood the process. She knew I would like that statement, and to be honest I really felt okay going back into my childhood with her. I am not proud of my past, but I was sure I could open up and face it with Teresa’s help.

As I was leaving, Teresa told me she already had a good feeling about who I was as a person, and that she understood why I was having nightmares and uncontrollable thoughts. She told me to come back anytime I thought I needed to speak with her. That was a plan I was happy to follow. First responders need to feel supported, not told what to do, but to be asked instead. So I went away and started writing shit down about my life as far back as I can remember and right up to the present. I was determined to think clearly again. I felt sure that writing my story would finally shake loose those nasty dark thoughts.

“The Unbroken: A Firefighter’s Memoir”

Friesen Press (Victoria, B.C., Canada)

Copyright © 2021

Available on Amazon

About the Author

From firefighter to assistant fire chief, Steve Serbic writes about a series of traumatic calls on the job as a firefighter that leaves him shaken and unable to recover. He, reluctantly at first, seeks clinical counseling and as he begins to reflect on his past, he begins to write it all down. The good and the terrible. Those written words are in his book The Unbroken: A Firefighter's Memoir. Learn more at SteveSerbic.com.

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