Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Wringing out the mop....

I still shake when I think about it. I still wonder if I will ever screw up the courage to confront it. Do I read it, or see it? Which choice is the lesser of two evils? I know what I am facing, or what I will be faced with. It will force me to relive certain things that I have only recently come to terms with.

In 1996, Joe Connelly wrote "Bringing Out The Dead," a novel based on his experiences as a paramedic in Hell's Kitchen, the area around Times Square. Frank Pierce, a burnt out paramedic is haunted by the life of an asthmatic he could not save. Frank is a symbol for many of us who worked EMS in NYC, myself included. He is a fictional character that by all accounts, based on what friends of mine that have read the book said, is as true-to-life as it gets. The book was made into a movie with Nicholas Cage, directed by Martin Scorcese.

When it first came out, my first thoughts were, 'Oh, great. Someone else thinks they know how to show what it is like to work the streets.' I must admit I was a bit jaded. There was a book that I reviewed ("Paramedic.") for the professional journal I wrote for back in the 90's, and while it was non-fiction as opposed to fiction, it was a piece of garbage, and I said so in the review. I was not expecting much when I heard about this book, but then, snippets of opinion from colleagues started filtering in. They were all positive, and I was encouraged to read it.

I chose not to.

My reasons were simple. I lived the life. I did not need to relive it in a book. I did not need to know about a paramedic who was on the verge of suicide because of events that haunted him. I already knew a paramedic that went over the edge, in no small part due to the job.

In 1992, six NYC paramedics/EMT's committed suicide. One of them was a guy I worked with. We were not steady partners, but I knew him well enough. He had a monkey on his back from the age of 15. He already took time off once to get clean. We thought he had really beaten it back this time.

Then I got to work one morning, and the first thing I was greeted with was that Bill was found on the side of the FDR Drive with a needle in his arm. Devastation is too mild a word to describe how we all felt. There were those who said it was an accidental overdose. Those of us who knew Bill knew better.

I worked Bedford-Stuyvesant and Crown Heights in Brooklyn. As bad as Hell's Kitchen might have been, Brooklyn made this section of Manhattan seem like a suburban house party. Brooklyn was a war zone back then. Brooklyn was Beirut. Brooklyn was Belfast. Brooklyn was LA 2019.

What we all had in common was the sheer volume of calls that would descend upon us during a given tour. It also had the effect of wiping any naiveté from you very quickly. The young EMT's that would come in, full of that "I am here to save the world" attitude had it chipped away. There are those that could adapt, and there are those that never could. I watched some come through my hospital and stay 6 months or less; they simply could not cope.

"I realized that my training was useful in less than ten percent of the calls, and saving lives was rarer than that. After a while, I grew to understand that my role was less about saving lives than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop. It was enough that I simply turned up."

The above was what Frank comes to realize about what his job was all about. (I found the line on IMDB, from the movie, but I believe it is in the book as well.) It sums up what I did, what Joe did, what we all did in a way I have never seen expressed before. It is exacting, and painful at the same time.

This book/movie has become my Balrog. It is the thing I have yet to face. It is the demon from the depths of my brain that while I have contained, I have not yet conquered. Even if I do face it, what will it do for me? Will it help me come to terms with my own set of memories that still haunt me as they did Frank? Will the fiery whip come and pull me down again into the pit that I fell into once before? I made a promise that I would never venture down into that hole again.

I'm forced to wonder though, if one day I will have no choice but to face that Balrog once and for all.

6 comments:

BenefitScroungingScum said...

I saw the film years ago and own the book. The film more so somehow is so dark.
My now ex (the Captain) has what I as a non medical person would call a pretty good going PTSD. It always seemed to me that watching films relevant to his experiences allowed him to talk about them in a way he probably wouldn't otherwise, though I don't know if that helped or not.
I'm sure whatever you decide will be right for you at the time. Good luck with it though, Bendy Girl

Mr. Nighttime said...

Hey BG, thanks for popping in. I have heard also that the film has an even darker tone than the book.... BTW, I would be curious to know what your brother thought of it, if he has read/seen it.

AnneDroid said...

A thought-provoking and moving post, Mr N. I was discussing a similar issue with my mum recently. She's of the SUMO mindset, SUMO being Shut Up and Move On, and whilst I think there comes a time when that is completely the right thing to do, I do think that we need to "work through" our issues whatever they may be. I don't know anything about the book/movie or whether you should watch it, but I do hope that you find some method to "come to terms with my (your) own set of memories that still haunt me (you) as they did Frank?" without the fiery whip getting anywhere near you. I'd volunteer to be your listening ear, as I'm genuinely interested, but I'm rather far away!
Ax

Holly said...

Hi Mr N--I can completely see why you would avoid the book and movie, but you've made them sound pretty damn compelling. It's not something most of us know much about, so I'm glad someone is explaining this world to us--not just Connelly but you.

BenefitScroungingScum said...

My brother? I'm very easily confused you know ;)

Mr. Nighttime said...

Yeah....Purpleplus....I hang on his site, unless I missed something in the Brit - American translation, I thought you mentioned he was your big bro??