Goodyear Fire Department program helps long-time firefighter conquer mental-health struggles
Liam Tierney kept it to himself for a long time. Too long.
Like so many first responders, Tierney, who’s served for 14 years as an engineer and paramedic with Goodyear Fire Department, began to find that some of the more difficult calls he responded to were weighing him down – more than anyone could possibly know, because he didn’t like talking about them.
But three years ago, two major events happened that changed everything for Tierney. The first occurred while he was playing with his son at home.
“I was tickling him and pressing up and down on his belly, and he was laughing and having a good-old time. And something in that moment, when I was pressing up and down on his belly – I can’t describe it, but something switched in my brain. I had this vivid picture of me performing CPR on my son,” he said.
“I don’t know where it came from. It wrecked me. I couldn’t get it out of my head. Just out of nowhere, out of the blue. Having a blast with my kids, and then, I was done. I was scared. I didn’t want to have those thoughts go through my head again. And I couldn’t shake it.”
Something has to change
After the encounter with his son, Tierney knew something had to change – and that’s when the second event took place.
Goodyear Fire Chief Paul Luizzi introduced his team to Dr. Tania Glenn, who specializes in “resilience training” designed to help first responders confront and work through mental-health concerns.
“Normally I’m the biggest skeptic in the room, but going after that training, I was so desperate for something to change, for me to be passionate about my job again, for me to get excited about going to work, for me to have meaningful sleep,” Tierney said.
Dr. Glenn’s training included a PowerPoint presentation, in which she detailed some of the most common stressors among first responders.
“I remember just getting the chills with just about every other slide, thinking, ‘Man, that’s me. That’s definitely me,’” Tierney said.
“All the negative aspects, I just saw myself. I didn’t really know what to do about it. She had this outlet, this open invitation. I knew before the training was over that I was going to be seeing her.”
Opening up for the first time
Dr. Glenn specializes in a therapy technique called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), which helps those dealing with mental or emotional trauma move those traumatic memories from one part of the brain to another.
“We basically sit in front of each other, and she moves her fingers at a pretty specific frequency,” Tierney said. “She says, ‘Focus on my fingers and just think about these calls that you can’t get out of your head. Think about the ones that bother you, the ones you have nightmares about, the ones you worry you’ll have to go on again. No matter how difficult it might be to think of it, just relive it in your head.’”
Dr. Glenn then navigated Tierney through those difficult memories. The entire process lasted about 15 minutes.
“It wasn’t an invasive procedure at all,” Tierney said. “It was just my comfort level and what I wanted to share.”
After the session, Tierney went home – and even though he hadn’t engaged in any physical activity that day, he felt exhausted. He slept for nearly 15 hours, waking up only to eat a quick meal and get a glass of water.
The next morning, he woke up with a pounding headache.
“(Dr. Glenn) called me in the morning and asked how I’m doing. I said, ‘I feel terrible. I feel ill. I feel injured,’” Tierney said. “She said, ‘You know what? Good. That means it worked.’”
Dr. Glenn explained to Tierney that his brain had just gone through the physical equivalent of running a marathon without prepping for one.
“She said that’s where I got the headache from – it’s physical brain pain, and the sleep was because my body was exhausted,” he said.
Enjoying life again
In the days and weeks that followed, Tierney finally began to experience the relief he desperately sought.
“Things just got better. It was amazing,” he said. “Prior to that training, I was unable to talk about certain calls without welling up and not being able to stop. It just hurt so much. The memories of it, I couldn’t help myself; I just started to break down and cry.
“Now when I think about them, I still remember some of the minor details and I remember what I did, but it’s almost like a fuzzy memory. It’s like when you wake up from a dream, you remember everything vividly, and as the seconds and minutes go by, it gets more and more faint, and eventually you can hardly remember it. That’s kind of what it is with those calls when I try to recall them. But I could openly talk about them again. I was completely unable to think about them prior, just because of the emotional pain that it caused.”
After meeting with Dr. Glenn, the things that had once made Tierney happy, such as making a difference at work and being a dad to his son, Lincoln and his daughter, Ava, began to bring him joy once again.
“I love coming to work. I look forward to it. I have fun, even through the stressful calls,” he said. “I also look forward to going home and doing stuff with the kids. We regularly go on hikes. We’re involved in sports. Because of our schedule, I get to be involved with some of their school activities throughout the day.
“It’s just something that wasn’t there before I saw Dr. Glenn. It was an amazing outlet, and it was a fix, and I’m a firm believer in the help that technique provides.”
Encouraging others to open up
Since his first visit, Tierney has had several more sessions – “tune-ups,” as he calls them – with Dr. Glenn. But he knows his colleagues also deal with the same mental stressors he has, and some could benefit from the same kind of help that Dr. Glenn provided him – so he made sure not to keep his experience to himself.
“I didn’t want to preach to anybody or coerce people to go, but anybody I heard just in casual conversation saying they had similar issues that I was going through prior to seeing Dr. Glenn, I was just open with my story – the issues I had before, and the complete 180 turnaround I had overnight following my EMDR session with Dr. Glenn,” he said.
Tierney has also joined a peer support group within Goodyear Fire Department. He and about a dozen colleagues will actively check on fellow firefighters who may have just gone on a difficult call, or just seem like they’re not quite themselves.
“We catch wind of when there are high-stress calls, and we just kind of reach out. We’re not aggressive or demanding; it’s just, ‘Hey, I heard you went on this call, if you want to talk about it, please call back.’ Or, we just invite someone to hang out and talk about whatever,” he said.
“We look out for each other. I feel like the culture here in Goodyear for our department – we have buy-in into this program. That’s the reason that I’m so open about it, talking about my experiences, because I hope that other people will feel the drastic change that I got from it, and help themselves to it, also.”
And while the stigma of discussing mental-health concerns – especially among men – may still exist within certain fire departments and similar occupations, Tierney said Goodyear Fire Department isn’t among them.
“There’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Tierney said. “Illnesses or broken bones don’t discriminate. This is a different type of injury. Anybody with a bit of sympathy and empathy, and just that human quality that everybody possesses – there are things that are going to bother you. Not everybody needs to go speak to somebody about it, but if there are things that keep you up at night, if you can’t shake certain thoughts and memories, if you just keep on remembering the same thing over and over, it’s time to go see somebody.
“We’re not perfect. You can’t fix your broken bone yourself. You go see a doctor, someone with medical training. That’s what someone like Dr. Glenn does. She’s trained to deal with these emotional injuries. There’s no shame, no matter what walk of life you come from, in dealing with it and just wanting to be healthy.”