In my last post, I talked about the question that I hate to be asked and why it is a more damaging question than people realize. Today, I thought I might expound on it by talking a bit about my personal battle with the dragon on my shoulder; the remnants of a career in public safety which still haunt the deep recesses of my mind. I’m not going to talk about the specific incidents which helped make me this way, but rather how I dealt (or to be accurate, didn’t deal) with them. This isn’t something I’m comfortable talking about. Not at all. But I hope that by sharing a bit, maybe it might inspire others who are fighting a similar battle to know that they are not alone and that there can be a light at the end of the tunnel.
I was just a kid when I hired on with the fire department. I knew next to nothing about the world or about human nature, but boy did I learn fast. The first call that really stuck with me was my first call involving a child fatality. I remember back at the station that day, I was sitting on the front bumper of the engine. I couldn’t stop my hands from shaking. One of the old timers, a firefighter with 30 years on the job who had seen and done just about everything came over to me. He slapped me on the back and offered me a cigarette. “Here kid,” he said. “This’ll calm you down.” I’d never so much as touched a cigarette before, but it did help steady my hands. Before long I was hooked. I carried a pack in the rubber strap on my helmet. (Note this was back in the day…….long before departments cared about things like cancer. We could still smoke in the fire station and even on the trucks. It’s changed a bit since then.)
About a week later, I was still having nightmares about that call. I found the old firefighter who had so generously offered me a smoke and said “Hey, is it normal that I’m having nightmares about that dead kid? I can’t seem to get it out of my mind.” He seized my arm and rather forcibly dragged me off to a corner where no one could hear us. “Listen to me, kid,” he said, “don’t say a word about that to anyone. Do you want them to label you a psych case and toss your ass out of here? It’s part of the job. So suck it up, Nancy. Either you can do the job or you can’t.” As I was young and impressionable, I did just that.
In the many years that followed, I had my share of bad calls, as anyone in the fire service does. Dead people. Burned people. Abused people. Neglected people. I’ve held people’s hands as they slipped off into eternity. I’ve lied and told people they were going to be just fine when I knew they had minutes to live. I’ve punched vending machines in emergency rooms when the doctor calls a time of death for a patient we’d done CPR on for twenty minutes en route to the hospital. I’ve looked at the families of a deceased victim and tried to come up with something, anything to say, but couldn’t and so I turned and walked away. I’ve been splattered with just about every type of bodily fluid. I’ve seen families lose everything and held their crying children whose worldly possessions had gone up in smoke. I’ve known the thrill of making a save, but also the lows of losing someone. I’ve attended funerals of fallen firefighters. On the job, I broke ribs, fingers, and my back. I’ve learned to accept the severe physical pain I’m in on a daily basis due to injuries.
But while I was still on the job, I never truly dealt with any of that. I just ran from one call to another, to another, to another. I never took the time to adequately decompress, because, as that old smoke eater had told me, you can either do the job or you can’t. It was like a jack in the box. Pressure kept everything inside, but within a month of me hanging up my helmet, the pressure was released and out popped jack.
It all started one night in October of 2013. I woke up in the middle of the night screaming and drenched in sweat from a nightmare. The nightmare was about a call back in 2001. One that I hadn’t even thought about for over a decade. That call was just the tip of the iceberg. Within a few weeks, I was having nightmares every single night about a myriad of calls I’d stacked up over my career. During the day, I’d go teach my classes at the college and most people assumed I was my usual self. But they didn’t see what was just below the surface. As soon as I got home, I’d lock myself in my room and turn up the music to try and force everything out of my head. I stopped talking to my wife. And when she tried to initiate a conversation, I’d answer in a dickish way. Honestly, I’m not sure why she didn’t leave me as I gave her ample opportunity and reason.
And then I had a flashback during class. That was one of the scariest (not to mention embarrassing) things that ever happened to me. Then it happened again. And again. Things continued to spiral out of control. Finally, my wife sat me down and told me in no uncertain terms that getting help was no longer an option. I had to do it, or I wasn’t going to make it. I knew she was right, and so I sought out counseling. It took a long, long time to get to where I am now. Three visits a week for a few months, then twice a week, then twice a month, then once a month, and now, as needed. 15 years of trauma can’t vanish overnight. I think all told it was 18 months until I was somewhat “normal”, not that I even know what normal is anymore.
I still have my struggles. There are still days in which I’m followed around by the ghosts of victims I couldn’t save. There are still nights in which I can see them, gathered around my bed staring at me with accusing eyes. I still get irritable or angry for no reason. I’m easily startled. I do not react well to sudden changes, especially if they involve things I’ve planned. There are days when the last thing I want to do is interact with anyone socially or at work. There are times when a person is looking at me and talking that I can see their lips moving but I cannot hear them because I’m focused behind them, where I see a scene from my FD days playing out all over again. People who don’t know me very well probably think I’m an asshole at times. But I’m that way for a reason. I didn’t choose to be like this. It isn’t about what’s wrong with me, it’s about all the things that happened to me.
All that said, I have far, far more good days than bad days. The true hero of my tale isn’t me. I’m no hero and I never was. I just did a job and got a paycheck. I like to think I was good at it and made a difference when I could, though I more often felt like that little Dutch boy trying to hold back a flood with his finger. No, Dear Reader, the hero of my tale is my wife. The long suffering redhead who has stood by me through it all. When I say she’s my savior, I mean that literally. Read the Author’s Note in my book for a better explanation of my feelings. They are things that I cannot express to her verbally, and so I dedicated my book to her and then wrote a paragraph about her in the Author’s Note. And on the nights when I’m having a nightmare, my other girl (cat), Anastasia, licks my face until I wake up.
My purpose in writing this is to simply say that if you are struggling, know that you are not alone. I thought I could handle it all by myself, but I was wrong and I could have easily ended up making a permanent decision from which there is no turning back because of it. It takes far more courage to admit you need help than it does to act like you can face it all yourself. I also tried to channel some of my emotions into writing, both my novel and a few other pieces. If you read my book, you’ll see hints of my own struggle in both Michael and Karl’s character. I found that to be very helpful to my own personal situation.
Remember this: You are only beaten when you admit it.