The image of a firefighter is an emotionally charged one: a person who literally exists to save us from one of the most inherently terrifying forces in the world. It's a heavy mantle both figuratively and literally and one that never fails to fascinate. Yet truly authentic glimpses into the inner world of firefighters are rare – which is part of what makes Bryan Ratushniak's Aftermath: A Firefighter's Life (Cormorant Books) so exceptional.
Ratushniak's memoir is a captivating and, above all, honest look into 32 years spent in an adventurous but complex role that asks a high price of those who choose it. He spent his time on some of the busiest fire trucks in the country, balancing the demands of his unique job with home life and health – both physical and emotional. Heartbreaking and uplifting by turns, it's a truly candid account told in Ratushniak's warm and compelling voice.
We're happy to welcome Bryan to Open Book to talk about his experience writing Aftermath. He tells us how changing attitudes around mental health allowed him to honestly access the depth of his experiences, how the brother- and sister-hood of firefighting helped him in his darkest days, and how a four-legged companion assists him with the writing process.
How did your memoir project first start? Why was this the right time to tell your story?
All through my firefighting career, when I experienced a funny or tense situation, I wrote it down in a notebook mostly because people at parties would ask for stories and I wanted to remember the good ones. As the years progressed I found the situations I chose to write down in detail were the traumatic ones that bothered me most, but the stories I told at social gatherings were the ones where there was a light-hearted outcome. Where nobody died. It wasn’t until years into my life as a firefighter where I struggled mentally to deal with all that I saw that I knew I had to speak out about how the job affected me. How it affected my life. But, back in the day it was “suck it up, kid” and many of us kept those toxic thoughts inside. I think it’s important to pull back the curtain and show that we are all human and many of us suffer. I believe now is the time to bring this story to life because as a society we’ve finally removed much of the stigma of mental trauma.
Did your memoir change significantly from when you first started working on it to the final version? Was there anything that surprised you about the process?
When I first started, I wanted to write a series of funny firefighting anecdotes, but found that when putting them on paper some of the stories triggered other events that I forgot about or suppressed. As I wrote more, the process became more painful and I realized my life, and not just my firefighting life, had some very high highs and some very low lows. The way I wrote, before my amazing editors at Cormorant did their magic on my manuscript, was dismissive and glib. I played off horrible events like someone would recall their time grocery shopping. I didn’t realize how damaged I had become and subsequently how painful it was to admit it. As I went through the editing process I had to do it in stages. Work it, put it away, and work it again, all the while trying to keep myself mentally safe; having to rip off that painful bandage over and over and over again. The result is a much more candid and powerful memoir that I’m immensely proud of.
What do you need in order to write – in terms of space, food, rituals, writing instruments? BR:
I like to write in the morning after I walk my little dog Molly. By the time I get back home my mind is already in writing mode. If the weather is warm enough I usually sit on our front porch banging away at my laptop with a cup of coffee and Molly on lookout for squirrels. Otherwise, when it’s unpleasant outside, I sit on a comfy chair with my feet up in the living room. If I’m freewriting or brainstorming while I’m breaking a story I’ll go to the pub with a legal pad and just write what pops into my head. The pressure is off having to create a cohesive story and I give myself permission to write whatever silly thoughts come to mind. Sometimes my best ideas come from the most illegible scribbles and fragmented sentences.
What do you do if you're feeling discouraged during the writing process? Do you have a method of coping with the difficult points in your projects?
When I was writing Aftermath, one of the most difficult aspects of getting the stories on the page was having to relive them and open those painful memories again over and over. My wife, Sue, could see I was suffering from reliving the events and couldn’t wait until I had finished the book and the multiple bouts of editing. Usually when it became too difficult I would go for a walk or watch television. A black and white movie from the 1940s helps to take me away from what I’m writing every time.
Did you experience any anxiety about making a part of yourself public in this way? If so, how did you or do you cope with the vulnerability of publishing a memoir?
I felt I was airing my dirty laundry, so to speak. I have always suffered from depression and when I was going through a particularly painful time I was injured in a fire and was subsequently bed ridden for a period. As I went through the rehabilitation process I became despondent, but my firefighter brothers and sisters would, one by one, relay their own painful stories. It helped me recover. I realized I wasn’t the only one going through tough times and that publishing my experiences could help someone who was hurting. Exposing my soft under belly was a small price for me to pay.
What are you working on now?
I’m always writing screenplays, but right now I’m working on a book based on the life of my incredible sister Brenda who passed away from cancer in 2016. It’s called The Blue Roof and it’s about how she was eternally optimistic while facing adversity in her personal life and still made a profoundly positive impact on so many people living in a dying town. She wasn’t just a “glass is half full” kind of person but a “whatever’s in the glass is enough” kind of person. I hope to bring The Blue Roof to life in the next year.
Originally from Geraldton, Ontario, Bryan Ratushniak moved to Toronto as a young man to become a firefighter. He was promoted to the rank of Firefighter Captain before retiring. He received three letters of commendation for rescues made on the job. As a firefighter, he started competing as a bodybuilder winning Canadian Drug Free Athlete of the Year 2004 and Natural Mr. Canada 2005. He was October for the 1999 Toronto Firefighters Calendar, published in support of the Princess Margaret Hospital. Since retiring has worked in the film industry as a screenwriter and producer. He has two adult sons and lives in Toronto with his wife and dog.