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‘I never took the time to process the calls’

Using meditation to manage the memories of difficult calls and find happiness at home


During a four-day meditation retreat, I learned that meditation isn’t about stopping my thoughts, but instead becoming aware of my relationship to my thoughts.

Photo/John Vargo

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By John Vargo

After stressful, sleepless nights at the station, the only thing I wanted to do was to go home to my family and have a relaxing few days off with a clear mind and peaceful attitude. But more often than not, I could not find that peace.

As likely as it seemed that all would be good, laughing and joking with the next crew on shift as I left the station, I would slowly begin to feel the shift on the drive home. One thought would lead to another, and the tension in my mind and body would build. Twenty minutes later, I would arrive irritable and angry as I walked through the garage door.

The excitement to go home and the expectation that my days off would be fun and cheerful never faltered, yet inevitably I would be disappointed.

Feeling the stresses of work and home

Why was this happening? What caused the shift in my attitude?

I thought it could be the differences in format between work and home schedules and expectations. I had specific jobs to do on shift, and my duties and responsibilities as a paramedic/engineer were clear on medical and fire calls. At the station, I constantly maintained a hyper sense of awareness, ready for the next tone to go off to run another call. At times our calls were chaotic and stressful, but we worked through them in a systematic and methodical way. There was always structure and protocol.

At home I was missing a set of operating procedures and definitely had more than one job to do. As a father, I had sick kids, well kids, kids’ sports, meal duties, auto maintenance, home maintenance, and budgets, and as anyone who has been married for 22 years knows, marriage is always work in progress.

There was a lot of stress at home and at work, and both demanded a stress relief valve.

Once off duty, I usually planned my social activities with other off-duty firefighters because I wanted to avoid talking to my civilian friends about the “worst call I have ever ran.” Most of the wives were also good friends and liked to hang out together. It was easy and it worked, for a while.

Seeking peace of mind

I believe the reason for my anxiety as I arrived home, coupled with my need to blow off steam with other firefighters, was because I never created a positive and healthy environment for myself to recover after shift. I never took the time to process the calls, make up hours of lost sleep or simply recognize that I might need help. Instead, I would push through the day exhausted, working out to provide some stress relief, but really moving through the day trying not to lose my temper and looking forward to meeting friends for drinks in the neighborhood or at a bar to self-medicate and escape my anxiety.

Eventually, I couldn’t go out for just a few drinks. I had passed the point where drinking was fun, but I continued to lie to myself and say that I was a “social drinker.” Drinking amplified my stress and caused more trouble in my marriage as time went on. Hangovers would put me in a depression that lasted for days or weeks. For years I compartmentalized the horrific calls I ran over the years, but toward the end of my career, my drinking triggered memories and resulted in emotional breakdowns.

After 20 years on the fire department, I was tired. Tired of running calls on the same pathetic people, tired of not sleeping, tired of constantly being angry and on edge. I wanted peace.

I hoped that uninterrupted sleep in my own bed every night and freedom from running calls would bring me happiness. Instead, six months after I retired, I found myself in a very dark place. I was angry, depressed and hopeless. I sought help from agencies available to me, but the resources were limited, and in the end, there was no help.

Finding meditation

My wife understood my desperation and in December 2017 suggested we attend a four-day meditation retreat in San Diego aptly named “Transcending Emotions.” Additionally, a friend of mine who had been in the construction industry for most of his life surprised me by telling me that meditation had changed his life, and he and his wife had also signed up for the retreat. Not knowing what to expect, but open to trying anything to feel better and find some peace from the constant and irrational thoughts in my mind, I agreed to make the reservation.

Prior to the retreat, I was given an online program as an introduction to the history and practice of mediation. My first impression, combined with my lifetime bias, was that mediation was a little “woo-woo,” but I was willing to see if I could find any benefits.

In this short online program, I learned that meditation isn’t about stopping my thoughts, but instead becoming aware of my relationship to my thoughts. I learned that meditation is not a religion, but a way to enrich my life. I also learned that the practice is not a weak or soft skill, but rather a true test of mental strength.

But the most impactful and interesting aspect of meditation that had me hooked is the science behind it. There are countless medical studies showing the profound changes in the body and the brain during and after meditating. Since my first steps into the meditation retreat, I’ve read and listened to dozens of neuroscientists, psychiatrists and researchers explain how meditation will physically change the gray matter and neurotransmitters in the brain.

My mediation experience during the retreat was at once beneficial and gratifying. I began to feel a calmness I hadn’t felt in years. As I continued to practice over the weekend, meditating several times a day, it became clear to me how impactful this was going to be in my life.

The key to mediation is to notice thoughts as they drift into your consciousness, and then quietly let them pass as you return to focusing on your breath. This process repeats over and over in meditation. I have been able to slow my thoughts down and let them pass as they come, but it is and continues to be a practice. Somedays I find it difficult to meditate. On those days, I look for a guided practice online. There are several different apps that are useful.

I recommend to my friends who are new to meditation to start small and don’t give up. Build on your practice, grow it each day. Even a two-minute breathing exercise is a powerful meditation tool.

You will notice changes – and so will people in your life. After a few months of practicing meditation, I was on the freeway and another person cut me off. My teenage children were in the car and they wanted to know why I hadn’t yelled at the guy as I would have in the past. And for the record, “yelled” is putting it mildly; I would have blown my top, cussing him out for 5 minutes, holding on to the hostility for days. But this time I didn’t react. I didn’t give the matter any attention. Meditation is an exercise in creating space between thoughts; I had the increased mental capacity in this situation to choose my reaction instead of allowing my emotions to react first.

Gaining mental strength

For many years, I was looking outside of myself for happiness, but I didn’t realize it was in me the whole time. This retreat changed my life. It shifted my thoughts and opened me up to a life I didn’t believe would ever exist for me again. It is through the daily practice of meditation that I am able to bring peace back into my life, feel compassion for others and leave alcohol behind.

It’s been over two years since my first meditation and I am a different man. I’ve left behind the angry, bitter and jaded person I was not so long ago. I have found joy, a renewed compassion for others and love for myself. I have found peace and happiness at home. I have introduced meditation to other first responders, active duty and retired, with great responses, and hope to share this tool for mental strength and stability with many more so that they may find peace, too.

Stay safe, my brothers and sisters!

About the Author

John Vargo joined the Chandler Fire Department in 1997, serving as a firefighter/paramedic until his retirement in 2017. In 2018, Vargo created Turn In, a nonprofit organization designed to help active-duty and retired firefighters cope with post-traumatic stress. Turn In sponsors firefighters to attend wellness retreats free of charge. Vargo received certification as a Primordial Sound Meditation instructor from The Chopra Center for Wellbeing, and is trained mindfulness coach from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine Center for Mindfulness – Mindful Performance Enhancement, Awareness & Knowledge (mPEAK).