The Thing I Feared Most Wasn’t Fire: A Firefighter’s Tale

October 18, 2016
mormons in sobrietyWe firefighters belong to an exclusive club, the “The Brotherhood.”
So do law officers and other first responders. We can come to think that membership in this club makes us special compared to the average citizen. We also like to believe our behavior and our thinking places us in a special realm, high above the challenges that the “common person” falls prey to.

While the public we protect holds us to a higher standard, we indulge the belief that we are invincible. Being part of such an elite group becomes intoxicating.

Our superhero storyline is a great work of fiction, making us vulnerable to self-medication. When we actually fall for it, we live as if the slogans boldly printed on our t-shirts were true. But under the bravado, far too many of us are falling by the wayside, losing a grip on the ability to handle drink and drugs.

For anyone in the brotherhood who has an addiction, it’s disturbing to watch the rest of the population use responsibly and enjoy, or at least not become obsessed with their intoxicants. How can a member of the elite succumb when John Q. Public stays afloat without effort? This thinking leads us to denial – what drinking problem?
On the other hand, some of us know we have a problem. We simply cannot stop doing substances. And since we know lack of control is unacceptable to the group, we hide. Soon we find ourselves on the outside, no longer living the part of a firefighter, paramedic, or police officer, but only acting like one.

When we think we are getting away with the act, we’re not. They know, and we know they know, and the group begins to sense cracks in its foundation. Those of us who know can sense addiction taking us down a very lonely road.

Call our special helpline for fire services: Fire/EMS – 1-888.731.FIRE (3473).

man in recoveryBeing alone and dealing with a problem while the surrounding culture prides itself on strength of character is especially difficult. It’s not that our career organizations aren’t telling us to talk to somebody, to get help, to use the resources at our disposal. We get plenty of messaging that the right thing to do is to seek others for support. But we have invested so much energy holding our strongman sand castle together that admitting our frailty would be nothing short of demolition. Letting go terrifies us. We feel it would only be a matter of time before everything fell apart. We feel our comrades will never look at us the same way again. As we long for our earlier days, when the heroic act was our stock in trade, we are certain that once we stop plugging the cracks in our strong image, we will be ostracized, talked about, not trusted. We will be permanently branded as “less than.” We feel like the sick wolf that can no longer keep up with the pack. For firefighters and other first responders, the thought of losing the respect we crave is unbearable.

People from all walks of life find themselves in trouble with drugs and alcohol. People who don’t run into burning buildings that everybody else is running out of are alcoholics. People who don’t fight crime become addicts. People who lead relatively quiet lives contemplate suicide. Some of them do take their own lives. And so do lots of us. It’s a fact we have to swallow.

Much like many “regular Joes,” I brought my drug and alcohol problems with me when I began my career.  As the years moved on, the problems associated with drug and alcohol abuse progressed. Like millions of regular people, I had the psyche of an addict. Add a few traumas, a shooting or two, some disturbing domestic scenes, and a dead baby, and I can see how developing the disease of addiction was only a matter of time. Over time, I let my grip on the bottle replace my grip on sanity.

It wasn’t fun to lose the illusion that I clung to, the upstanding member of society. I watched as the image respected by all and admired by many was shattered. I feared there would be no coming back.

I will admit that letting go of the sand castle, and watching so much of what I clung to crumble is the most painful and also the most dangerous time. Answers don’t come in a straight line. No one hands you a map to “out of the pain.” Sometimes help comes; more often help must be sought. Programs designed to help those who suffer are wonderful, and effective, but only if we work them. And few people expect the failures and mistakes. They underestimate the time it takes for Recovery to set. At this stage, you may seek treatment but are still hesitant to engage the system. It’s very tempting to go back to old comfy tactics – self-medicating, suffering in silence, isolating while putting on a brave face. But the problem is, you continue to die inside.

Overdose deaths are on the rise in almost every state – and what they often don’t reveal is how many of those who overdosed just didn’t care enough about life. They cared more for the high than for waking up another sober day. It’s a sly, less reported part of the progress of addiction. Before you can get a handle on it, death has become a valid option. Sometimes you see it as an upgrade. Or you may find it preferable to continuing to live with the shame. It’s important to remember that we have piled a lot of this shame onto ourselves – especially we first responders. We chose to believe that we were special. And now, we blame ourselves, thinking that, once special, we have fallen from grace. We can remember whole hosts of “drunks and druggies” we rescued. They seemed hell-bent on self-destruction and we saved them. Now their memories confront us with an ugly thought – we are no better than they were.

New Beginnings Do Happen

Concept conceptual 3D male businessman on stair or steps over suWhen I recognized I had a problem, I took the longer road that winds through denial. After quitting and relapsing and trying to “manage” my drinking, I alienated my family and watched them move out. It all seemed to come to a head around 9 – 11. Shortly after 9-11, after crying in my beer for a few weeks and listening to the silence I had created at home, I stopped blaming “the job” and faced the things that I feared.

The thing I feared most had nothing to do with fire. I picked up the phone, and for the first time I could remember, I told somebody else the truth. I’m an alcoholic. And I haven’t looked back.

Starting over is never easy, or comfortable, and nobody likes their comfortable routines more than an alcoholic or addict. But after a long slog, some brutal self-honesty, and a slow climb to a vantage point where I can appreciate life from new angles, I can say to those who stand where I was, a better life awaits anyone desperate for a chance to rejoin the living. In spite of how difficult it is to embrace change (that’s embrace, not endure), change is the exact thing that will save a person who struggles with addiction. When I changed the way I looked at myself and the world around me, I and the world around me changed. I came to understand that it wasn’t a castle that fell, it was a prison. New friendship, new opportunity, respect, and satisfaction – these things all came with my new life over time. I had broken free to a new life, a life well lived.

American Addictions Centers partners with national first responder organizations to treat first responders struggling with addictions through The First Responder Lifeline, a program for first responders, by first responders. To learn about the program, call one of the following dedicated help lines: Police/Corrections 888.972.2704, Fire/EMS 888.731.FIRE (3473) or Veterans/Military (888) 902- VETS (8387) or visit the fire services and law enforcement pages online.

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