I have to preface this post. I have been requested to write a personal story for a publication that deals with grief, bereavement and an increasing occurrence of suicide in firefighters. This is a very personal story and an exposure for me, but I am willing to share it in the hope it might help another. So understand I don't share this in an effort to generate sympathy from you. I share it with hope in my heart.
As a firefighter/paramedic for more than 30 years I can safely say I have pretty much seen it all. I have seen death in every incarnation and life as well. We on the front lines are not invited politely to join in the fray of life; no we are thrust into chaos on a daily basis, it’s our job.
It is to say the least an unusual profession, no two days are alike and no two emergencies are alike. The environment is rarely predictable and the events and people even more unpredictable. Yet we go.
Who takes care of us? Our families? They try, I know mine did. But the average or normal person cannot share our experience, they can’t imagine what we do or see.
I know many days I felt like a human garbage collector, picking up the waste of society. People although fascinated with the gruesome, macabre, or terrifying only see it from a distance. We hold it in our hands and get it on the soles of our boots.
For me personally I decided to treat my condition, my discomfort with alcohol. The ease and comfort that came from a bottle was a welcome house guest. I could turn off the noise, shut out the visions and thoughts with at first a few beers and in the end gallons.
I was haunted by the calls where I was powerless, where all my training and knowledge were useless, where the patient still died in spite of my best effort. Those people visited me on my days off. They came to me in my sleep. Only the situation changed.
I would relieve a terrible T/A in my mind, only the replay was altered. Instead of the real victims of the accident I would find my family trapped in the wreckage of mangled steel and chrome. And I would still be powerless to help; now the screams I heard in my restless mind emanated from the throat of a loved one. No sleep would come, no peace could be found.
So I became accustomed to passing out instead of falling asleep, I became used to coming to instead of waking up. For years that got me through it, and then it stopped working. Now what?
I could seek treatment; lord knows it was offered on a regular basis. Every time we had some particularly horrendous event the good old Stress Debriefing Team came around to offer us help. My problem was this. I saw that most of my co-workers appeared unaffected, they were dealing with it, even joking about it.
Was I some kind of weakling, why was I so disturbed on the inside when those around me remained intact? If I sought help and the others learned of it, would I be considered less than?
I was a badass firefighter, a seasoned veteran, even looked up to. How could I be seen as weak? Simply put I couldn’t. So I pushed on, I drank more, worked more and everything around me began to crack and fall apart.
My inability to seek help had real consequences. My family life was in tatters, my finances were in ruin, my health declined and my madness grew.
Finally on a warm July night, drunk again I crawled into the cab of my pickup truck, closed the garage door, found an appropriately sad song and passed out with the truck running.
Only by chance did my wife discover my suicide attempt, without her intervention my effort would have been a success.
Now I was in the hands of all my co-workers, she had called 911 and guess who showed up. My peers, from the fire engine, to the ambulance, to the cops, then on to the ED where my physician advisor was attending me. The only thing that could have been more embarrassing would have been to have my parents in the emergency room for a tour.
Just like work I was thrust into the system, I was placed on a 72 hour hold and confined in a mental facility. I was placed on a work contract and forced in to counseling.
Sometimes you don’t know the best days of your life while they are happening. It is only through hindsight that you make that discovery. I finally got the help I so desperately needed and had my feet firmly placed back on the ground.
Is this the method I would recommend as a path to treatment? Obviously no. If you hear anything here, know this, you are not alone in feeling the way you might be feeling. My story might sound specific to my career as a firefighter, but it isn’t.
We all have experiences that can be overwhelming, insurmountable, and feel hopeless. So what the hell, give the people that can help you a chance, all you have to lose is everything.