I started my fire service career in 2006 at the age of 18. I started with a small, rural department. I gained experience and went to EMT and Paramedic school. I eventually ended up working as a firefighter/paramedic for a professional fire department that served a middle-upper class suburb of Sacramento. The early years were a lot of fun and learning. I just remember being wide-eyed and excited to learn more every day. I got married in that time and bought a house. About 10 years into my career, I started to see change. I had a daughter in 2016 and I loved being a dad with every ounce of me, but by the end of that year, my wife was noticing things about my personality that were much different than the man she married 5 years earlier. I don’t think she knew what to say, and honestly I didn’t pay much attention to what was starting to fester. In late 2017, I responded to a suicide by handgun in an apartment complex in our district. There was nothing particularly devastating about the call, other than we didn’t know we were responding to that type of call. I actually thought I was there for an attempted overdose until I saw the victim. We completed the call, wrote the paperwork, and moved on like everyother call…or so I thought.
About a year later, I started having weird dreams that were that exact same call, but I couldremember every little detail about the living room and the pictures of the man’s daughter on the wall. Occasional dreams became consistent nightmares, and eventually my thoughts during the day would drift off to dark, disgusting calls that I had been on. These were usually gruesome calls that were from the past, but my mind would replace the patients with my family members. Meanwhile at home, things were starting to get worse. My temper was becoming short and I was jaded. This was a big change for me because I had never had a temper before and I truly loved people and being a fireman and paramedic. My wife would say things like “you’re not the person you used to be.” Or “you never used to say things about people like that.” I didn’t pick up on the little clues along the way, but now as I reflect on those years, it’s crystal clear what was happening. I reached out to my captain at the time, but being at the end of his career and probably endured a lot of the same things, he ensured me that it was “normal once you had kids” and it was “part of the job.” I don’t fault him for this response, honestly not very many of us know any different.
2016 – 2019 the symptoms worsened dramatically. I couldn’t turn off the stress of always trying to be “ready” for work. I distanced myself from friends and stopped participating in hobbies that I once loved. We had our second daughter in 2019. I also had a serious back injury and was out for almost 6 months in 2019 just as we were having our daughter. Being away from work left me with a lack of coping methods. I spiraled into a deep depression, was on medication for my back that was damaging my memory, and separated from my career without knowing if I could return. I had my brand new baby in my arms and I couldn’t find joy. That was the first time in my life that I considered suicide with actual details in my head. I knew I could never leave my family like that though. I knew I wouldn’t follow through, just out of providing for my daughters and my wife. I returned to work in August on light duty and was able to get back into the swing of things pretty quickly.
My hostility grew and my anger towards people and myself grew over the following two years. I had been to a few pediatric drowning calls in my career and one of our engines responded to a successful field save for a young boy drowning in May 2021. I couldn’t get the thoughts and images of my daughters drowning to leave my head. I started finding myself reliving pediatric codes that we had been on and even avoided driving by the streets in the district when possible. I constantly thought about the families left behind. I was really impacted by the thoughts of having to clean out a crib or donate the things from your child who was dead and gone. My wife sent me a picture of the girls by the pool with no floaties on and I lost it on her. Of course, she had no idea why I had such a violent reaction to her picture because I hadn’t shared any of this going on with her up to this point. I had landed at a point where I had no emotions left, I couldn’t and didn’t want to be sad or cry, but I couldn’t physically be happy about anything. I would stare at the wall next to the TV because I couldn’t even focus on a TV show long enough to finish it. I bought a tractor and made sure to disappear onto our property most of the days I was home. A quick side note on busyness – You can be an alcoholic or you can be a workaholic. They are both effective ways to escape your reality that you’re living in. No one congratulates you on how many beers you drank when they know you’re an alcoholic, but we all admire how much accomplishment and progress people make in their excessive “busyness.” For me, staying busy and constantly taking on new projects was my way of not having to be around my family or friends, or deal with my thoughts and struggles.
May 2021 was the breaking point for me. I became angry and hostile with my kids, and I realized that I literally had nothing left to give. I looked at my amazing wife and my two beautiful daughters and knew that I needed help. I was overcome with a feeling that I had never felt since entering the fire service – I NEVER wanted to put on that uniform again. I NEVER wanted to do this job again. I went to work, tried to have a sit down with my captain a few times, interrupted by calls and honey do’s, by almost lunch time, I finally pulled the fire engine over to the side of the road and had the biggest break down of my life. 16 years of built up emotions came pouring out. Emotions from horrific calls, lack of sleep, insane amounts of caffeine, negligently under staffed crews, ridiculous work expectations, hiding vulnerabilities, betrayal from the so called “brotherhood”, incompetent admin, and the list goes on and on. I was fortunate to have a captain at the time that had direct contact with a first responder therapist that some of the guys at work were actually seeing. I walked into her office and it was literally like someone played connect the dots with the last 5-10 years of my life. I was a walking textbook for post-traumatic stress and I realized in that moment, that I knew absolutely nothing about what PTS actually was or what it actually looked like in real life. I completed about six months of EMDR through my therapist and had amazing results that I feel like helped me return to who I used to be. Therapy was a life-saving experience for me quite literally and it helped me find purpose, joy, and my old self back. There were two individuals in my agency who contacted me. They were the most elite guys that we had. One is the best fireman that we had in our department and the other was the best captain, hands down, in our agency, and probably the entire county. They were respected by their peers and to me, they were bombproof. They both opened up to me and were vulnerable. They shared about their deep struggles with the same thing. They told me it was ok to not come back. They told me it was ok to choose my family over the job. For that, I owe them more than they will ever know. The hardest part about leaving wasn’t disappointing the Chief, or not going to fires anymore. The hardest part was realizing that although I could physically continue for the second half of my career, there would be nothing left when I got to the end. My family would be gone, and hell, I don’t even know how much of me would be left. I bucked the system, and although some didn’t like that or found it as something to talk about at the dinner table, the amount of support I received from other men that were going through the same thing was undeniable. I am here to tell you that there is a light on the other side. I am here to tell you that if you need help to get out of a bad spot, there’s no shame in that. If you know it’s time to be done, there is no shame in moving on to save yourself and your family. Brave men being vulnerable has had more impact on me than any other interaction in the firehouse or in the field. If you know someone going through hell, make sure they know they aren’t alone.