Thursday, March 22, 2012

Firefighting is like the Hunger Game, we eat our own.

I was a professional Firefighter for more than 30 years and it almost killed me. Fire almost killed me, guns almost killed me, people almost killed me, vehicles almost killed me, and the biggest threat to my life in the end was me. I almost killed me.
I tried to kill me; I was drunk again sitting outside of my house on a pleasant July 1st evening. The air was warm and I was sagged into a metal patio chair. My wife at the time, a fellow firefighter was inside with our three year old son and two month old daughter.
She was still home on maternity leave and had a few days left before returning to duty. A return to duty would mean leaving her children in my care for twenty-four hours at a time. My ex has many faults but abandoning her babies to an alcoholic wasn’t one of them.
Unbeknownst to me she had already made arrangements to leave me, to take her children and go to her mother’s home. She hadn’t told me this but somewhere deep in my alcohol soaked synapses’ there was a knowing, surrender had taken place in my mind.
I had surrendered to alcohol, surrendered to pain, and surrendered to death. Death was okay with me, in fact it made sense. It was the only thing that made sense in that moment. How could I release myself and those around me from the pain?
I had had a particularly bad run at work, seen more than I wanted to see. As a firefighter/paramedic you don’t get to look away, we don’t get to call a time-out; we don’t get the opportunity to say no thanks I don’t want to go in there.
We don’t get to hand “IT” off, whatever it is. As a paramedic you are the top of the medical food chain out on the streets. All your co-workers are EMTs and have been trained in basic life saving skills, and many are very good at it, they have skills.
But as the paramedic you are the eyes and ears of an emergency room doctor, you are their sock puppet. Medics go through months of advanced training, countless hours in emergency rooms, ORs, and class rooms. Then we spend hours and hours riding around in the back of an ambulance with a specially trained medic that mentors and evaluates our skills.
And then one day you get blessed, your physician advisor signs off on your qualifications to do the job and you go to your duty post and you are The paramedic. No fallback position for you anymore, no supervising paramedic watching over your shoulder and making suggestions, asking you if you have thought about this or that.
It’s just you, by now you have shoved hundreds of IV needles into arms, hands, feet, necks, anywhere you can get them. You have pushed plastic tubes down countless throats and injected gallons of medications into those IVs.
And you have watched countless lives depart this world, and not all of them peacefully. You have seen what a gun of pretty much any caliber can do to a body, you have seen what a person looks like after a train, semi-truck, car, or bus has squished, crushed, and mangled them. You know how easily skin comes off in your hands when a person gets burned up. You know the look in a person’s eyes right before they die, as they stare at you with those pleading eyes, save me, do something I don’t want to go.
You know the kind of grip a parent has when their child is hurt, you know they squeeze your hand so hard it hurts and you know the sound of anguish and hurt so well that it wakes you at night in a sweat.
And like Bob Marley’s ghost these things visit you.
So I had picked up the bad habit of pouring booze on those things and for a long time it helped. I thought I was getting rest when I was passed out when in fact all I was getting was quiet for a few brief hours, and they would rush back in like the waters of a broken dam.
They won’t leave you alone and that hurts. I can’t explain to you the utter sensation of total powerlessness that I felt in those situations. Maybe I was too caring, maybe I was too sensitive. I saw others unaffected by similar events, why and how could they walk away with ease, when I couldn’t.
We have little sayings to try and make us feel better, we say things like, we didn’t cause what happened we were just there afterwards trying to make it better. We did everything we could it was just their time, God’s will.
So I tried suicide as an escape, and was snatched away from that effort by the hand of God. I was thrust into a system designed to help what I consider normal people. Normal alky’s and addicts.
I am most decidedly an alcoholic, but I’m special, I’m a firefighter alcoholic. Now all drunks like to think they are special and are in their own ways, I’m not discounting the disease of others, I am saying that emergency workers (and soldiers I’m sure) suffer from the same condition, but to a much greater degree.
The support systems for treatment and rehab are designed for the average addict/alcoholic, not for us. This must sound arrogant but I am dead serious. Think of it this way maybe.
Let us say you own a very expensive, powerful, exotic, and specialized automobile, and something is wrong with it mechanically. You have a lot of money invested in this vehicle, a lot of time in it, and it isn’t easy to replace or repair.
But the cheapest and easiest way to repair it is to take it to some small local one car garage. Is that where you take it? Or would you look for someone trained and specialized in repairing that kind of car?
Well governments and other kinds of employers pick their health care providers based on their cost and their ability to treat the majority of normal people, not on their ability to treat special cases. I don’t claim to be an expensive sports car; I do claim to be a different kind of alcoholic. I’m a firefighter alcoholic.


Jenn said...

I think I understand what you are saying.. it takes a specialist to treat those who go through trauma all the time, (like a person with PTSD) and has alcoholism. My brother is a police officer-- I get it. I really get it.

When I worked with as a one on one with an individual with TBI-- it was so hard to be "Clinical" I was definitely too emotional and too attached and scared to death he would die with any given grand mal seizure. It altered my not so good ways. Thankfully, I finally walked away. But I dream of his seizures a lot-- I still watch him go down and turn blue-- and I'm helpless to do anything until his 7 minute window has passed or until he recovered. I still live with it--and that is probably nothing compared to what you've been through. And that I can't imagine!

All that to say-- I totally get it.

Cheers, Jenn

Fireman said...

thanks for getting it Jenn, I was glad for the help I got and was lucky to end up with the woman I worked with. But I'm hearing more and more from FF, that just want to escape treatment because they don't "Get" them. And I worry that that gap is killing firefighters by suicide.

November Rain - k~ said...

One of the things I have noticed over the years is that people want to believe they are unique when it comes to being an alcoholic. I cannot count the number of times I have heard from recovering alcoholics "look for the similarities, not the differences," and sure enough, if you do, you will find that there are many. I will agree that the circumstances of peoples lives are very different, but they share a commonality that is pretty well known: drinking is their means for avoiding issues that are uncomfortable, or intolerable to them. What pushes you to the edge, may be different than what pushes Alky A, B, and C to the edge, but the edge still exists for each one (or the "bottom" as they say).

I interviewed a man, years ago, that wrote the book "A Thinker's Guide to Sobriety," that had a different way of looking at people who drink who do not "fit" the profile of the brown-bagger drunk, or the every day things-are-falling-apart now drunk, but instead looked at the way in which people who are deep thinkers approach their reasoning for not being like "them." Check it out if you get a chance, I think you will find it worth the read.


Lauren said...

I am a paramedic and wife of a burned out paramedic & alcoholic. I have examined the situation from every angle I can as a woman, friend, wife, paramedic, co-worker and mother. I've experienced every emotion possible. But reading this I am reminded just because I can't see other people I know going through what we go through, there are others who suffer as we do.
It did one more thing gave me a man's insight on a similar situation.
Thank you.

Fireman said...

I'll check out the book Rain sounds cool. I'm not saying FF are unique as alcoholics, but I do believe the environment in which they work is unique and sadly an unsupportive one. Like me they can get and stay sober I'm just hoping for a change in their culture and better educated clinicians to help. You understand better than most.

Lauren if I can ever be of help please let me know and if I may suggest Alanon for you I believe it can be very helpful. I was a burn-out for many years but over came it ans was able to finish my career on the streets pretty happily, except at 2 am when "My knee hurts" then I was still pissy.

November Rain - k~ said...

It would be beneficial if all high-risk, high-stress positions carried with them an interwoven community of support that allowed people to let their insides out. I have been around people of uniform (police, firefighters, military, etc...) most of my life, and the stresses that I have heard about are difficult to imagine living with each day. I can empathize, sympathize and attempt to understand, but there are some things that only those on the inside will ever really know. Solutions come from thoughts like those that you are sharing in your posts and books... perhaps this one will be a kindling for another kind of fire.