SALISBURY, Md. – Not all superheroes wear capes. Some actually wear a leash and collar. “I got calls from veterans at 2 or 3 in the morning and they said, ‘Chris, I’m sitting here with a gun in my hand.’ I’m starting to freak out, but they’ll say, “I’m fine. My pup came up and put his head in my lap and gave me those big eyes and saved my life,'” said Chris Hardy, executive director of US Kennels.
New family member, new beginnings
The O’Barsky family recently began their own journey to acquiring and training a service dog. Serenity, Ren for short, is still in training. She is already proving to be not only a pup with a promising future, but a symbol of a much bigger fight. As Salisbury Deputy Fire Chief Chris O’Barsky says, there is a stigma around mental health in the first responder community.
Now, O’Barsky hopes his and Ren’s story will help change that narrative. “I felt like if I said anything, people would think I was weak, that it was time for me to quit my job, that I couldn’t be trusted, that I wasn’t good enough,” he said he. “Ren is just another way someone will be with me constantly with unconditional love and no judgment. She just knows when I’m in trouble. She will help me.”
“Swallow it, Buttercup.”
While first responders are the real superheroes of a community, like everyone else, they don’t have superpowers. Heather Brown, counselor for Eastern Shore Psychological Services and founder of Behind the Line, says the scenes that first responders attend every day can be traumatic at times. “You see people at their worst. You see people who are in crisis and can’t help themselves or are on the verge of death,” she said.
Brown likens this slow build-up of unprocessed emotion to a fire. “You’re doing what you can to erase it. This is where the negative coping mechanisms come in, and unfortunately it doesn’t work. Then it starts to spread and get out of hand,” she said.
That’s why O’Barsky says putting your life on the front line means putting your mental health on the back burner. “It’s the ‘gulp on buttercup’ attitude. I’ve heard many times, “That’s what you came into ministry for.” But it really isn’t,” he said. “I didn’t come into the ministry to end up having nightmares and flashbacks and end up in a center for 40 days or end up drinking. I didn’t sign up for that. I signed up to help people.”
This stigma eventually led to silence. O’Barsky’s wife Tara says while Chris quietly struggled, his family’s well-being was also strained. “They don’t want to share this trauma with us or expose us to it. So they just keep pushing it back or dividing it,” she said. “He’s at work for several hours at a time and then he has to turn that off and come home and have his brain and be with his family, it’s so difficult.”
An everyday struggle
O’Barsky eventually battled severe PTSD. Brown says those dealing with the disorder face a daily, uphill battle. “A trigger could be a smell, it could be a sound, it could just be a thought. It could be as simple as driving on the freeway and remembering an accident that happened at an intersection,” she said. “We think if we can just push away emotions or push away reactions, that should be the end of it. In fact, that only makes things worse.”
O’Barsky says that when he got help, he learned how to use positive coping mechanisms. But even that is sometimes not enough. Brown says a breaking point can be easy to achieve. “When you get emotionally attached, it becomes way too overwhelming and you can’t do your job. So you learn to numb yourself. By numbing yourself, you will be exposed to these tragedies every day,” she said. “But the problem is, once they stun themselves, the stun doesn’t stop there. It flows into all other relationships and areas of their lives.”
Hope is a four-legged friend
At this point in O’Barsky’s road to recovery, he says he’s doing better. But he wants others to know that they don’t have to do it alone. There might even be a glimmer of hope in the form of a four-legged friend. “Ren is just another way to be with me constantly with unconditional love and no judgment. She just knows when I’m in trouble. She’ll help me,” O’Barsky said.
Brown says animals like Ren or her therapy dog, Benji, can make all the difference. “He just brings a smile. He breaks the ice, he relaxes people, he makes them feel better. Getting into a therapeutic situation can be very scary for someone, especially when the culture has been ‘we don’t talk about things,'” she said.
But that help can come at a hefty price, sometimes as high as $30,000. “Lots of little things add up. It’s about dog food, training treats, gear, the training itself, travel time,” Hardy said. “They look at vet bills, dog food. The dog food we use is $60 per bag. So if I have a Yorkie, then okay. we can stretch it But if I have a bigger dog like a Great Dane, we need a little more dog food.”
Luckily for the O’Barsky family, US Kennels agreed to pay half of that $30,000. In the past, the 501(c)(3) nonprofit limited its services to certain disabled veterans. To qualify, the recipient must have a disability of at least 70%, provide a letter from the VA confirming ongoing treatment, and in most cases be involved in combat operations. Hardy says US Kennels toyed with the idea of opening services to first responders for about a year. After seeing the impact service dogs have on disabled veterans, Hardy says O’Barsky’s story was the perfect place to start.
And for the other $15,000, the community stepped up and pledged their support in a GoFundMe campaign that quickly surpassed the original goal. “Never in a million years did I think I could raise $15,000 in four hours, let alone $18,000, let alone where we are now,” O’Barsky said.
Smash the stigma
Now that Ren is part of the family, the O’Barskys are once again reaching out to the community. “It’s very humbling how supportive this community has been — our friends, family, community members, complete strangers we didn’t even know,” Tara said. “We hope this momentum continues so that we can continue to help other people. I mean we raised almost enough to help another first responder with a dog.”
But this mission isn’t just limited to helping others in need find their own service animals. The O’Barskys say their ultimate goal is to shatter the stigma surrounding mental health in the first responder community. “It’s okay not to be okay. There’s nothing wrong with that. It doesn’t make you weak or less valuable. It’s okay to be vulnerable,” O’Barsky said.
If you would like to donate to O’Barsky’s GoFundMe, click here.
categories: local news, Maryland
, Chris Hardy, Chris O’Barsky, East Coast Psychological Services, first responder, Heath Brown, Maryland, Mental health, ren, salisbury, Fire Brigade Salisbury, serenity, Tara O’Barsky, us kennelbehind the line