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