First Responder Mode


Wounded arriving at triage station, Suippes, France from sanitary train. Selected by Scott. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I had dinner last night with a friend who recently experienced a significant break up. This also happened to coincide with her completion of an education program and the start of a new job.


She’s in first responder mode as she works to triage her life. The pain and heartbreak have to be pushed aside for the moment as she tends to exams and the demands of a new job.


It’s a state I identify with – the adrenaline fueled days and sleepless nights. The pressing demands overriding any fear or emotion. The tunnel vision that develops so that you can attend to one crisis at a time. The weird excitement that courses through the body, even in the face of loss.


I went into first responder mode when my husband left. I was facing overwhelming change – loss of a husband, home, dogs and health. Nothing was the same. I had never ending legal obligations between the divorce and the criminal trial. I had the same job, but the start of the school year was fast approaching and that is always a time of increased stress and adjustment.


I triaged my life. I set priorities and worked to accomplish them. There wasn’t room to feel sad. I let my focus narrow and I allowed anger to be my fuel. In an emergency, you have to be able to ignore all non-essentials to address the matters of life and death. You need to be able to act rather than feel. You don’t have time to worry about non life threatening issues or to attend to the bigger picture. It’s all about doing what needs to be done so that life continues for another breath.


Eventually, the emergencies pass and the first responder mode is not appropriate any longer. I remember my struggle to let go of my first responder and to allow a more holistic self-caregiver to take her place. Here is the advice I gave my friend last night based on my own experiences:


– It’s okay to not feel right now. You have to do what needs to be done to make sure your basic needs are met. It doesn’t mean there is anything wrong with you.


– Just like the reality of a medical emergency hits after the danger has passed, expect the reality of this to hit you once the initial crisis have been navigated. Don’t be surprised.


– Allow yourself to feel; don’t stay too distracted for too long. You’ve compartmentalized for the moment so that you can function. Those walls won’t hold forever. When you are ready, slow down. The fear of the pain is usually worse than the pain itself.


– Again, when you are ready, look for what you can learn from the relationship. When those nuggets come up right now, file them away for later when you are better able to analyze them.


– I know you want to be okay. But don’t let that desire cause you to pretend to be okay before you really are. There is no timeline, but if you don’t heal, it will eventually fester.

– It’s okay to ask for help. First responders rarely work alone.


– Be careful of the adrenaline; it can become addictive. Unless you want to live your life jumping from one emergency to another, you have to learn to let it go when it is no longer needed.


I know my friend will be okay. She’s strong and capable. In time, her emergency will resolve and she can leave her first responder mode behind.


Thank you for sharing!

7 thoughts on “First Responder Mode

  1. candidkay – Experienced journalist, marketing exec and mother of two, I write about life as I know it. Sometimes happy, sometimes sad, sometimes hilarious. But always interesting.
    candidkay says:

    I called that survival mode. Figuring out the finances, the kids, how to keep the basics in motion. I feel her pain!

    1. I’ve called it survivor mode too. I decided on first responder to try to capture that weird, third person looking at your life from a distance feeling you can have in those times.

  2. reocochran – I am experiencing crazy and hapless adventures in dating that may interest people over fifty. I am now 65 this year (2017) and enjoy taking photographs, incorporating stories or poetry on my blog. I have many old posts which are informative and written like essays. I have several love stories collected from family and friends. Even strangers spill their stories, since I am a grown version of the girl next door. I have been trying to live a healthy lifestyle with better food selections and active hiking and walking. I have written four children's books and illustrated them. They are not published but a battered women's shelter used one about neglect and abuse for their children's program and a 4H group used my "Kissing a Bunny is like saying a Prayer" as a coloring book. Please comment or respond so I may get a chance to know you. Sincerely, Robin
    reocochran says:

    Very excellent advice! I liked the way you wrote this, it is well written and the list of things for her (or a man in same situation) are beneficial and meaningful. I think that saying i”t is not normal and it won’t feel normal for a long time” is a lot like what you said. (Those are words I pass out…)

  3. Reading this post gave me some perspective on why I waited until I had sold my house and created a stable living environment for myself before I began grieving deeply. It feels like I am moving backward, because I want to be done with grief. But it may just be the best way forward. I am less than a year out of my marriage, and it’s really helpful to hear the reflections of women who are a couple of years ahead of me. Thanks!

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