As he sits, nearly motionless, the world is moving all around him…people walking past like he’s not even here. Indeed, he’s not here. He’s nowhere close to where “here” is right now.

Here is a place he longs to be with every fiber of his being. Right here is good. It’s where his family is…and wants him to be. It’s safe. Secure. Comfortable. Peaceful. Relaxing. Oh how good here really is…if only he could be here to enjoy it.

He’s here physically, but he is constantly fighting to stay here mentally. An inner turmoil that rages deep within his soul, the daily struggle to stay here is real. And it wears on him…emotionally, physically, spiritually. Here is a place that fades in and out of reality for him. Reality for him is constantly bouncing between here…and that other place.

“There” is a place all too familiar to him. Every semi-loud sound jolts him back there…a world he’s left behind and returned to so many times over two decades it’s hard to discern which is real and which isn’t. There is a place like no other…where the memories of past runs reside. A collection of all the worst incidents he’s responded to in his 20 years on the job. Many so gruesome he’s wept afterward, then been forced to bury in the depths of his mind so he can run the next one.

No matter how hard he tries to forget, he can’t. Some things can’t be unseen. Unfelt. Unheard. Unlived. Even with his best efforts to forget, they always seem to find their way back to the surface every now and then…often when he least expects it.

Today is the first day he’s had the whole day to spend with his family in awhile…a day that’s supposed to be spent making fun memories. His children are playing nearby, laughing and screaming with joy. An all too innocent scene, but today the sounds bring the pain. They instantly carry him back there.

There, a mother’s child screams in pain while he and his crew desperately work to cut the metal from around them, trying to free his mother and him from a mangled mass of what once was their family minivan. Moments earlier, he was giggling and laughing as his family was off on an adventure. Their first family vacation ended before it ever began, and no family vacation will ever be the same for them again, as his dad lay lifeless over the steering wheel.

Here, as he watches his children playing, he has repositioned the chair he’s sitting in so his back is in the corner, and he faces the exit. Ready to bolt at a moment’s notice, he’s on edge when he can’t see what’s going on behind him. He quickly surveys every room he enters for threats and a quick way out. It’s the same in every situation. He sits on the outside of an aisle. Close to the exit. Every time. If he arrives too late to pick the ideal seat, he’d just assume stand in the back of the room and watch from afar than be confined in the middle of the room. You’ll never see him standing in the middle of a group of people if it can be avoided. Instead, you’ll find him on the edges, just close enough to participate, yet able to slip away unnoticed when his senses overwhelm him and force him to leave.

There, he’s watched colleagues ambushed and killed, and been verbally and physically assaulted by the very people he’s come to help more times than he can count. He’s been hit, kicked, spit on and yelled at so many times he’s become callous and indifferent. He’s constantly wondering what’s lurking behind him. His mind is conditioned to accept the reality that as noble as his profession is, there is evil lurking all around him…an evil that preys on him and his people. He’s come to accept that it’s not a matter of “if”, but “when”.

Here, the boys are talking loudly behind him. His daughter is watching a loud video beside him. Traffic is swirling all around him as he drives the family home. The combination of so many stimuli all at once is all too reminiscent of what he faces every day on the job, and it keeps him there instead of here.

There, he’s consistently multitasking on a level above average, walking into life threatening situations and assessing all that is happening in a traumatic and high-stress environment, processing multiple solutions, weighing the life and death outcome probabilities of each possible one, choosing the option with the hope for the best possible outcome, then implementing those actions to bring order out of chaos. All in just seconds as life hangs in the balance. As much as he wants to be here in this moment, there has ahold of him and won’t let go. 

And he hates himself for it…all this emotional baggage he carries now is the price he pays for what he signed up to do. And he knows it…accepted that long ago. Although never fully able to truly grasp the real cost at the time, he willingly stood when his time came…jumped at the opportunity. He was young and eager. Ready to save the world. If only he knew then what he knows now about the emotional turmoil his new career choice would bring over his lifetime, maybe he’d have passed.

Probably not. Ignorance is bliss. And helping others is in his blood. Serving others is who he is. No matter the cost. He knows the job has to be done, and if not him then who…if not now then when. Even if he knew everything he knew then, he still would have jumped in with both feet, ready and willing. He just hates that his family has to sacrifice so much for it too. He signed up for this…they didn’t. He hates how it’s affected his family, and his ability to enjoy them in the here.

As his family mingles around him, he bounces between here and there. It’s the end of the day now, and they’re settling into bedtime routines. Life is slowing down for the night. Night often brings the nightmares and sleepless nights, but for now he’s content to embrace the night and hopefully a peaceful night’s sleep. Right now, he’s not here or there. He’s bouncing between the two, but not settling long in either. And that’s alright to him, because when he’s somewhere between here and there, he isn’t there.

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