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It’s what we should all be good at. Actually, it should be what we do best … SAVING OUR OWN!

I haven’t been around for a while and I think most of you have some sort of an idea why, but; I’m not sure you really understand. I’m going to try to tell ya the story and may even have to do it in multiple posts. They’re going to be long ones but TRUST me and PLEASE read these posts.

Those of you who have followed the site know that I lost my brother back in December. What you may not know is that Jack died by suicide and he did it at dads house. He hanged himself.

I got there very soon after dad found him. So quick in fact that they hadn’t removed his body.

I’ve seen a lot of bodies and deaths by various means throughout my career but THIS… this was different. This was my brother. It was Jackson laying there.

They allowed me to spend some time alone with him before I helped place him in a body bag and move him to the gurney. It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done or seen in my life.

I took some time off from work to grieve. The support I received from my Brother and Sister firefighters, friends, family and followers of the blog was overwhelming but it couldn’t erase the pain / guilt I felt, fill the void in my heart or answer the questions in my mind.

After a while, I thought that getting back to work would help me get back to some sense of normalcy …it didn’t (Click here for the link to read “A Firefighter’s Boots” ) .

I was lost … a walking zombie ( Click here for the link to read “Positional Awareness … Where the Hell Am I? ) . I had done some research, talked to some close friends who are professionals in the field and thought I had things under control. I didn’t. I was lying to myself and everyone around me. When asked how I was doing, I’d say “Ok” or that “I’m feeling better”.

In my own order, I stumbled through the stages of grief (link) and found myself stuck with depression.

I was back to work, traveling with my MN8 FoxFire family and even went to FDIC, Harrisburg and Firehouse Expo. I “went” but I really wasn’t “there”. I was getting back out and around people but in reality … I WAS ALONE.

My depression grew deeper and began to control my life.  YEA … DEPRESSION.

Just 9 months ago I thought like most other folks … I thought depression was something  “just in your head”… you know … an excuse … laziness, self pity …. something that you can (should) “suck up” and move past.

Remember that General George Patton scene when he slapped the soldier with “shell shock” or “battle fatigue” and called him a “Goddamn Coward”?  I felt like that coward.

I’ve said it here before and will again … NOT ALL WOUNDS ARE VISIBLE.

I wasn’t eating or sleeping well. I made excuses to delay work around the farm. I’d stay in bed until 10 or 11 am. When I was out of bed, I sat alone drinking. Images of Jack laid out in the basement floor or in that cold, dark body bag haunted my every moment. I wondered where he was, heaven or hell; and if he was suffering or at peace.

When I did sleep, I’d have nightmares. In them, Jack and I ride around on my first mini-bike visiting a lot of the fatalities I’ve seen on the job.

That “filing cabinet” just opened up. You know…. that place where we “store” and forget all the memories and images of the “bad ones” we’ve caught .

My dream is almost like that ghost of Christmas past movie in that I’m watching it all happen. I’m watching me and Jackson riding around, talking about what we’re seeing and what I did or had to do on each incident we visited. I feel bad about being there and don’t want him to have to see these things. I wan’t to get back on the bike and hurry home to Granny’s but he keeps us there…. asking questions.

At the end of the dream, we always end up at a tree on the farm  I called ” the hanging tree”. A December wind storm uprooted it and I called Jackson to help me cut and split it up. We had an argument standing there that morning and he left mad. I told him to go. That was just a week or so before his death and the last lengthy conversation we had. I’d give anything to have that morning back.

Months have passed. The nightmares continue. I spent most days alone and crying, trying to drink enough to dull my thoughts and the pain. I couldn’t think straight or concentrate on any single task. Everyday, I knew I needed to get out of bed and do SOMETHING… ANYTHING but I just couldn’t make myself do it. I felt as if I were (or may go) insane. I didn’t talk to my friends or family about what I was going through because I didn’t want to hurt them too. I didn’t want to talk to someone else because I didn’t think they’d understand.

Things kept going down hill and I was inching closer to the edge of the cliff.

My inability to function allowed the farm and my equipment to decay but it didn’t seem to matter to me at all.

Work at the firehouse was just as stressful as staying home. My Senior Firefighter was battling throat cancer and ended up with a (career ending) complete laryngectomy.   I was passed over for the 6th time for a promotion to Battalion Chief. I was placed on sick leave “restrictions” and told to “do your job” (which I assume meant get back to work).

Still, everyday; wondering if Jackson was suffering or resting in peace was the question that kept haunting me as much as anything. That’s what bothered me the most. It HURT. It ACTUALLY HURT. All day, every day, I felt as if I had been kicked in the gut and couldn’t breathe. For no apparent reason at all, I’d frequently break down in tears …. I was dying from the inside out. I have thousands of friends but felt more alone than I ever have in my life.

I’ve built a career protecting, helping and saving other people. People I’ve never met … total strangers yet I couldn’t (didn’t) protect, help or save my own brother. I knew he was in trouble. I knew he was struggling but instead of helping, we argued that December day.

I had waited and waited for the answers to come but they never did. The only thing I could think of was to go to him. I needed to be where he was. I didn’t want to die but I had to know … I wanted to see him again and know that he was alright or take care of him if he wasn’t. I knew I had more reasons to stay than to go. How could I put my family through this hell a second time? It was all so confusing and I couldn’t see a clear way out. My last post “Zero Visibility” was an apparent scream for help.

A friend and TRUE Brother firefighter SAVED me.

Rhett (Lt. Rhett Fleitz aka The Fire Critic.com) knew I was in trouble. He knew the signs, seen and heard my silent “MAYDAY” (click here to read a previous post of mine “Time For A MAYDAY” ) .

Not only did he see it, HE HAD THE COURAGE TO ACT ON IT!

Rhett got to me and reached out to some of our friends at the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation (link) for professional help. I’m not sure I’d be here today if he hadn’t. Rhett, and the process he sat in motion SAVED MY LIFE that day and I will be forever grateful!

Shannon Pennington of the North American Firefighter Veteran Network (link) also played a huge role as he kept me on the phone until he was sure I had the help I needed.
I started out by seeing a professional counselor. I was skeptical at first because I wanted someone who specialized in Firefighter’s mental health. I was surprised at how difficult that was to find.

I wanted that because I didn’t think some dude in a fancy suit or a woman like Jennifer Melfi (Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist) would understand the nightmares I was having or the daily stresses I faced on the job. They wouldn’t / couldn’t understand the things we see on a daily basis and how they affect us. I didn’t think they could understand the fears I had of returning to the job.

Click HERE to read “A Father’s Grief” published in Fire Chief Magazine and written by Chief Pat Kenny 

I actually didn’t want to return to work. I wasn’t sure what I was going to do but I did know that I didn’t want to see another dead body. I was tired of death. I was tired of seeing people at their worst. Tired of seeing people suffer. That and I wasn’t sure how I’d be received by the members.

My counselor (female) actually turned out to be a great fit. I wish I had met her 9 months ago! She teamed us up with a psychiatrist who was just as fitting. I was diagnosed with MDD (Major Depressive Disorder) and PTSD ( Post Traumatic Stress Disorder ) triggered by bereavement.

Together, they got me into a local psychiatric facility.

I wasn’t in a rubber room or a straight jacket but my stay there was HELL.

The “experience” of being in there was eye opening  but not very helpful. I’m convinced that this is the part of this whole process where we (those of us in Public Safety and the military) need specialized treatment centers.

I was the only one in there wanting and seeking help. It seemed as if everyone else was simply “pulling their time” and waiting to get out. Most of the people there with me were in for some type of addiction. I was obviously the “odd man out” and stood out in the group. There was nobody in there that I could relate to … nobody who could relate to me. Nobody who shared a similar story or who was suffering from something like me.

I got out and continued my sessions with the counselor and psychiatrist. I had promised my wife, Rhett and a couple other people that I would give 100% to this recovery effort and put “all my cards on the table” when working with my doctors. I did.

I didn’t hold back and quickly found it easy to open up to my counselor. I felt “safe” there. She has a background of dealing with the military and PTSD and seemed to understand what I was going through. Everyday I go there I still cry but there’s also a little piece of me that feels better. TALKING HELPS.

I also started taking some medications. Again, I was a HUGE skeptic and once again wrong in my thinking. The medication helps. I’m not walking around like a zombie or someone “drugged up”as I had feared but, things have “slowed down” in my head. I can think straight again. I can focus. I’m sleeping and eating better. I actually want to get out of bed and do something. I’m no longer trying to drown the pain in Evan Williams and Mt Dew.

The process is helping and again I’ll say that I wish I had started it 9 months ago. I’m starting to understand what has been happening.

I now know that like me, Jackson was sick. He had an illness… a mental illness and it’s nothing to be ashamed of.

He was suffering through what I have been for the last 9 months. He didn’t get the help I did and in the end must have felt suicide was the only way “out”. The only way to escape his pain and suffering.

Im not healed, “over it” or done grieving. I still have the nightmares but I am learning to cope. I’m learning to live minute by minute, hour by hour and day by day. I’m taking the necessary “steps” to reach my “new normal”.

I made a lot of hay on the farm last week. It felt good to be back on the tractor and doing something productive. Obviously I’m trying to write again. It’s been difficult not knowing how or what to say. Now that I’m doing it, I will say it’s somewhat therapeutic for me. I’m also back on duty. My first run back was for CPR in progress. We get there and I have to call a D.O.A (Dead On Arrival). That too was difficult but I made it through it. IT CAN BE DONE AND THERE ARE OTHERS LIKE US OUT THERE. I want you to learn a few things from my story.

  • First, what you’re feeling will never go away but it will get easier. Now that you know that, don’t wait as long as I did… SEEK HELP EARLY. There is NO SHAME in asking for help and you will not survive this alone (I’ll have links below).
  • Look for but don’t limit yourself to counselors with firefighting backgrounds. Open the door and start the process (take that first step) and then let them help you find someone who fits your treatment needs.
  • Don’t be afraid of the medications. The right ones, at the right dosage can help.
  • Don’t be alone. By that I mean “by yourself”. As hard as it is, try to stay around people, it’s much harder to cope when your alone and way too easy to make the wrong (or poor) decisions. Keep yourself busy. Find or make some kind of routine and stick to it … make yourself do it… ANYTHING other than sitting alone.
  • Stay away from the drinking. We all know alcohol is a depressant and only deepens and adds to the depression you’re already suffering through. You can NOT drink enough to make it go away. When you wake up, you’ll be right back in that place you were trying to escape from.
  • Don’t lie. To yourself or those worried / asking about you. If you’re not “alright” say so.
  • Know that it’s ok to cry … to show emotion .. even if it’s at the station. WE’RE HUMAN.
  • Don’t think that you don’t have options because YOU DO.
  • TALK. Talk to your family and friends. Hiding or not telling / sharing your feelings / story with them hurts more than telling them the truth no matter how bad it may be.
  • Learn the signs of stress, depression and PTSD. Look for them in your Brothers and Sisters. If you see it, ACT ON IT. Marital problems, financial issues, health concerns, the death of a family member,  job related incidents etc are just a few examples that can trigger stress and depression.
  • Don’t overlook a class / lecture / presentation on mental health and wellness for some type of H.O.T (Hands On Training) class. Our mental health and wellness should be THE TOP PRIORITY for the fire service and until it is Nation wide, MAKE IT YOURS!

I’ll add some helpful links below but before I do so, I’d like to say THANK YOU  for all the thoughts, prayers, comments, e-mails etc. I want you to know that I have read them all and each has brought me some level of peace and comfort.

Safe Call Now  Help Starts Here

North American Firefighter Veteran Network

Firefighter Close Calls (The Secret List) .. Personal Survival 

First Step Hope    Grieving Behind the Badge

Psychology Today  Grief.com  

On-Site Academy

I also found a treatment center in Vermont called Brattleboro Retreat. The have a program designed for Fire, EMS, Police and Military personnel. Use the link below to learn more…

Brattleboro Retreat “Uniformed Service Program”

Art Work by Jodi Monroe

Stay SAFE, in house and don’t be afraid to take that “First Step”!

Captain Wines

 

Comments - Add Yours

  • http://www.nottrainedbutwetryhard.blogspot.com Wayne “Firecap5″ Zeman

    God Bless you Brother. We love ya, and are glad to know you are doing better.

  • http://firefighterveteran.com shannon pennington

    Willie/brother of mine: I am my brothers keeper I am my sisters keeper. You are with us again. Yes it is very very painful to be in the center of the emotional fires in the basement of your soul…the worst type of fire to be in, searching for a way out. Your not o.k. YOU ARE NOT O.K. but you are O.K. ENOUGH and that is GOOD ENOUGH for now. Time moves us all forward. You took the F.I.R.S.T. S.T.E.P. of H.O.P.E. (see firefighterveteran.com front page). Finding your NEW NORMAL is hard work full time 24/7/365 for the rest of your life. You can do it. Our firefighterveteran talk was deeply felt by both of us and we buddied up two in two out for the close support you needed. You had the radio and called in the “Mayday” and you are alive today because you did. Besides Brattleboro there is WEST COAST POST TRAUMA RETREAT out of San Francisco. We at NAFFVN (firefighterveteran.com) are also working on a retreat area for first responders where firefighterveterans such as yourself can LEAD OTHERS on the mystery and the journey out of depression and suicide. There is a farm setting on 3 and half acres being developed on the East Coast more on that later. To see you own your outcome means the healing journey your on has started. To see you “SOUND OFF” to the fire service by talking about it in this blog shows EMOTIONAL MATURITY and true LEADERSHIP from the fronlines of the fire service we are so committed to. We will talk into the next few weeks. Keep up your good work on the job and with yourself. Your presence in this battle against depression and suicide is much needed. Thank you for sharing your heart and soul with all of us.
    Warmly Shannon Pennington ptsd firefighterveteran
    North American Firefighter Veteran Network
    F.I.R.S.T. S.T.E.P. H.O.P.E.
    on the web; firefighterveteran.com
    get connected to large diameter thinking on depression and suicide

  • Camerin Schimenti

    Cap, I am not sure of you or your family background regarding religion, but a couple months ago we had a young man commit suicide because he had been bullied to the point where he too felt their was no other choice. The next Sunday my pastor made a great comment on it, he stated that suicide was NOT a one way ticket to hell at all, in fact he believed that the first thing anyone going through that situation sees after they pass is Jeses running at them as fast as he can with his arms wide open trying to save them. I believe this to be true, the pastor believes some people lose their way and forget to ask for god’s help. They are not bad people just lost people. I believe with all that I have that your brother is up in heaven watching you become a better, stronger person because of him. Maybe this is no help to you, but thought it wouldn’t hurt to share. Keep moving forward.

  • Huw Jones

    Everything you have written is true, depression is the hidden illness.If you have an accident at work and break a bone then people will make allowances for you, it is an obvious injury, but, if you break your mind in work, then everyone, including yourself, will just say, “you look fine, pull yourself together and snap out of it”. A mental injury is the hardest injury to take, especially if you have prideded yourself in being a tough personality, which we in the Fire Service tend to do. Our generation was brought up with the attitude, don’t complain, and this attitude is helping to kill us.

  • John P. Bondrew

    Hey Cap,
    I’m glad that you found the right path. The road is rough, but it will all work out.

  • http://FirefighterWife.com Lori Mercer

    Willie, You are an amazing and special man to fight this so strongly. I know you probably don’t feel that way and that’s why it must be said. You are not the only firefighter struggling with this but you are the only one I know who has shared this important story and that is so brave. Please know that you and your family have all my prayers and support.
    Keep it up! We are all here to support you! <3 Lori

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  • Naomi

    I am so glad you wrote this. As someone with a lot of mental health issues I think the more mental health is spoken about the less stigma there will be.

    Naomi

  • Lt. Triple J

    Thank you for sharing your story. Writing, in itself, can be very therapuetic and by sharing your story, you very well likely have opened another Brother or Sister’s eyes that they too need to get help. I am very well qualified to tell you that you are far from being alone. Some of us have joked, but then realized the severity of the problem about how nearly half of Public Safety workers take some sort of psych med to be able to function. We see things nearly every shift that takes its toll over time and when something happens to someone close, it can put us over. Keep on fighting the good fight.

  • Robert

    Welcome back Brother!!

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  • Gary Grancey

    Brother, i am sadden at one point to hear of your struggle. On the other hand that someone realized and helped you, I am thankful for. You are right that we in the fire service down play, make fun of it and just plain down think of depression as being real. However a lot of people do the same. My own spouse was a believer of that sort, just pull your bootstraps up and get on with life.

    Even worse many of our supervisors and bosses are the worst at it. Yes I can say that, at one point I was a supervisor. No longer am and very closely related to depression. In fact ended up being forced into a self demotion or be fired for misuse/abuse of sick leave. Apparently because I had not been successful at suicide, which was mainly related to being 30 minutes from anywhere and over about a thousand miles from home. My employer’s Dr. claimed I was faking/lying, even went as far as to say because I was overweight, didn’t have an issue of loss of appettite(30 lbs documented loss), getting up to go to bathroom once in a while due to blood pressure meds discounted trouble sleeping, to stubborn to call 911 for chest pains(therefore a lie). Three healthcare professionals diagnose of major depression ignored.

    The biggest saving grace for me was knowing something not right at first just not sure what seeking out a LMSW social worker. The second was the local mental health agency putting up a billboard the said” Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem/pain. Yes depression can be painful and overwhelming at times. Also medications help but they aren’t an instant fix and not the same one always works for everyone. The other thing I learned the hard way is that they aren’t like a antibiotic, take for ten days and your are done. Didn’t know that my Dr. wrote Rx for amount with no refills because of their guidelines , took it and when it ran out felt better and stopped. BEWARE most antidepressants have to be weaned off, sudden stop bad problem. Well not go into when insurance changes every year and they only want to pay for certain meds.

    Keep up the good work, thank you for sharing your story. I still struggle with that part. Oh my the way if you know me and work with me YOU ARE NOT ALLOWED TO READ THIS BECAUSE I AM NOT ALLOWED TO TALK ABOUT IT WITH MY CO-WORKERS. However i am allowed to talk with others if not co-workers.

    For anyone, especially a firefighter, police office, public safety worker learn the warning signs/symptoms, speak up if you think it is you or someone you know. Please take it serious and don’t make the jokes, etc about giving lesson for the losers that tried but did it wrong, etc. That is one of the biggest cry’s for help, give it with compassion. If you can not give it then bluntly i will say shut up, step back and let that touchy feelly crew member/co-worker help them instead.

    Also if you think any of what Capt. Wines said here applies to you, and you need someone to reach to, to start with i offer myself if you have no one.

    Gary Grancey JAFF.

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  • Capt. R J Pease

    Best to ya Cap… You aren’t alone, and never will be. Thanks for being honest wit yourself, and with your friends and family… The natural one and the career one.

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