Endings Can Be New Beginnings
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There is a reason that we do things differently. It’s because it works.
When you are laying at the bottom of the well you just fell down, looking up, that light seems pretty far away and unreachable. If you’ve fallen that far, it’s only natural to think that you’ll never get to the top. I fell down there once and managed to crawl back up. It was painful, emotional, challenging, frustrating, and often seemed impossible. I’m still here somehow; some would call that my “plan” in life. I haven’t figured that part out yet, but I’m working on it.
That picture up there is me. That was my “rock bottom”. Despite the common perception, everyones rock bottom looks different. Some fall harder than others, this just happened to be mine. This was taken during the days I spent in the ICU. A few days before, I had made the decision while in a drunken stupor to finally silence the demons that had been with me for too long. I’ve never shared this before because even now, it makes me uncomfortable. It’s taken a while for me to actually look at this despite having it for years because the path that led up to it was awful, and learning to manage the guilt and shame that I woke up with after that still bothers me - but I learned to channel that into being productive instead of falling back into destructive habits. You can read more about what happened by clicking here.
Thinking about these times and where I am today still feels weird. When I woke up from that, I never would have imagined that everything would actually work out or that I had even managed to take things to such an extreme. I can’t say for sure if I had any hope back then, but whatever was there I was able to muster into my personal mission to find some joy in life again. I’ve been told that every experience in life, good or bad, helps you build character and to survive. I think the key to this is finding to willingness to accept that more often than not, life isn’t going to be perfect. Something goes wrong, somewhere, and at some point, so what you do with that is important.
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One of the reasons that I finally decided to publish this picture was in the reactions that I get when talking to people that I don’t already know about my past. I feel that most people appreciate my willingness to share and the work that I do now, but I truthfully don’t think most of them believe me. When I mention that there was little expectation that I’d even survive, I certainly notice some skepticism in their expression. I’m not upset about it, because it does seem odd considering that I don’t handle myself differently or make an effort to push people to ask questions. I don’t like attention, I don’t want you to feel bad for me, and most importantly - I’m am not here to bullshit you. There are hard realities in what I went through that no one wanted to admit or speak up about. One of the major contributors to my near demise was having people bullshit me about what was going on, and it got me nowhere good. I mean generalized half-truths (and sometimes lies) like:
If you would just stop drinking, everything will get better
It will get better with time, just don’t think about it
Just go to a therapist and you’ll feel better
Go to AA
Find another job
“Maybe you aren’t trying”
“You knew what you signed up for”
Suck it up
When I finally decided to put my foot down and get my life together, I was amazed at how differently I began to view myself and the world around me. Through the support of my wife and the help of some amazing friends, I finally started to take the stance that the status quo was not good enough, and it was time to seek out the actual experts to get a handle on things. Though this may seem obvious to you and it does to me now, when you are in a vulnerable position and feeling lost, it’s very easy to follow the crowd or stray away. Whether we like it or not, the reality is that as first responders and emergency workers, we are our own demographic. We are very different from others because of what we experience in our professional lives and what follows us into our personal lives, so why do we grouped in with people who are very different than us? This had also been far more difficult that I had imagined - I couldn’t find anyone in my area who had experience in this or could direct me to a resource who could.
I am a proud alumni of the Uniformed Services Program at the Brattleboro Retreat. I returned after I left and my patch is proudly pinned on the wall with so many others. I was fortunate enough to find them and to find myself. I can’t even think of where I might be without what I got from there, and the only way I can ever repay it is to speak up and help others.
My process was the catalyst for starting this organization. It was so strange to be the person looking for help after spending my life taking care of others only to find there was nothing defined that would help me. Everything was fragmented or opinionated, a random internet search, or sometimes a blind grasp at something. I promised myself that when my journey to find myself was complete, I would do something to try and prevent others from going through what I did.
Four years ago, I thought everything that I wanted and had worked for in life was gone. My wife, my son, house, job, and so on. It took me a few months to gain any certainty in my mind that I’d live the way I wanted again. Nothing outlandish, just love and provide for my family. I now have all of those things back in my life and I can even announce that we are expecting a little girl early next year. My family is my reward for choosing to do whatever was necessary to live well again. I don’t dare to ask if I deserved the chances I’ve been given, but I took them anyways. I know in my heart that chance I got from four years ago is my last, so I’m making the most of it.
My son, who is five, lives in constant fear that his little sister is going to use lipstick on him. I adore the genuine concern he shows and the innocence that comes through. It gives me hope that I’m doing something right or well enough that this is his biggest worry after knowing how much differently this story could have ended and how awful the things he could be concerned with could be. That is my motivation to keep pushing for a better future for everyone.
(As a side note, I think we all know that she is going to paint him with lipstick at some point...)
So if you’ve read through this and the other blog, you know where I’ve been and now you know where I stand now. Some of you reading this may be headed down a bad path or know someone who is. Get them help. Show them my story, make sure they read it and let them make their choice. There is now a defined process for first responders looking for help in our area because you’ve all helped me build it.
I’ve gathered some wisdom through all of this, so I will share with all of you. You do not have to agree with me as this was my personal journey, but understand that I’m never going to allow my endeavor through hell go to waste when another lost soul could benefit from hearing what I have to say.
Keep in mind, this is not about anyone specific; these have been my observations in doing this work and reflecting back, advocating for others, and listening to what people say.
The world owes you nothing. God owes you nothing. The people who do owe you something are the educators, administrators, and oversight agencies who sit idle and fail to make an effort to explain concepts like self-care, warning signs, and provide education on subjects like your own mental health. I promise you that with that group of people, they know at least one suicide or addiction story about a coworker or a student and most will do nothing of value to deal with it in future generations of first responders. These problems are not secrets. We have to push for it or it will continue to be ignored and marginalized.
You are in control of your life. No one else is and no matter how much they may try to be, you have the final say.
Empower yourself; don’t become a victim and expect others to handle your baggage. Getting help is paramount and we all need it from time to time, but like every bird, you have to learn how to fly eventually. It will be uncomfortable, but don’t forget that you control your future.
You have to be ready to make the change. It doesn’t matter if it’s mental health, drugs, or alcohol. Until you are ready to surrender old habits and behaviors so you can dedicate the time and effort needed to live well again, you are setting up for failure. If God himself came down to ask you to stop and change your life and you aren’t ready or willing, it won’t happen. I promise you that.
Do it for yourself, no one else. You have to put yourself first in any process of recovery in order to be successful. If you aren’t your own first concern you will lose your focus. You cannot take care of others if you cannot take care of yourself. I always wished someone had told me that.
There will always be the haters, skeptics, and others that want no part in your journey of recovery and for various reasons that don’t matter. I live by two simple words for this: fuck ‘em. Move on. They have no interest in helping you through your journey then they are not going to be helpful to you now. Find the people who are and are genuine about it and keep the close. Listen and be willing to challenge yourself. You can reconcile with others later, but right now, you are what’s most important.
Trauma/PTSD is some serious shit and may not be present for years. There is no control over what will get to you and what will not. You have no choice in that. You do have a choice to get in touch with a professional and start working through it and not torture yourself needlessly. The things you went through are never going away, but there are ways to help you manage when they bother you and you’ll learn how to let the emotions not take over your life anymore.
You don’t have to be the one who responded to the “big one”. The most common symptoms of trauma come from small, constant exposure to stressful situations and repeated over time. It can start slow with nightmares or changes in mood - it’s not an all-or-nothing thing.
AA or NA can certainly be very helpful to people new in substance recovery. It can also be detrimental to the person. Be careful who you follow in those groups or you will soon find yourself feeling helpless again. You need to be empowered to make good decisions and supported through them, not discouraged because “the book says” you will never change. They say “take what you need and leave the rest” - just make sure you do. If those programs work for you, that’s great. If they don’t, move on.
Don’t feel shame for failing to meet others expectations. It’s your life, not theirs.
Set reasonable goals and expectations that you can achieve. Do not set yourself up for failure by not being realistic.
You should never need to apologize for being yourself. I still consider myself a bit “crazy”, but I take that in stride and stay motivated to do better. (If you know me, you know exactly what I mean)
Stop letting people walk on you when you take an active stance in taking care of yourself. Generally, your respective industries are more likely to walk on you to get a short term benefit for them rather than have your best interest in mind.
Stop sacrificing your sleep. Find a way to be rested so you don’t become a statistic.
Find a mental health provider and build a relationship before things take a spiral. Sometimes your marbles fall out and that’s ok; sometimes you just need help picking them up.
If you find yourself drinking or engaging in other activities to cope with stress or emotion, that should be your first clue that something is wrong. You should speak up and if you notice that in another person, you should advocate for them.
I’m willing to share this with you all because I was not able to find it myself when I needed it. It’s been a long road, but it was worth it. I’m definitely not the same person I was before, and I’m ok with that. It’s not about “getting back to your old self”, it’s about finding your new self.
Take care of yourself and speak up! You are welcome to email me at any time and for any reason.
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Authored by Dennis Cole, President of the Uniformed Services Peer Council (USPC)
The Uniformed Services Peer Council is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization located in Connecticut.
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