September Update - What we are doing.
August is an interesting month for me. Most people, as they should, hold onto their sobriety anniversary and find some way of celebrating it. August for me is a month of remembrance; remembering that I have come so far from the depths of which I came and the ultimate reminder to me that my life and wellbeing are worth far more that I had ever realized. I was clouded, lost, and simply unsure of what lay ahead on the road for me. Thankfully with the help of the people who loved me I made it through to being able to experience happiness, joy, and all of their love once again. If it weren’t for my wonderful wife, I wouldn’t be here writing this.
As with most alcoholics, I grew up in an alcoholic household. There was never physical abuse, but the temperament in which I grew up left a mark which I have only recently been able to come to terms with. We drank - that’s what we did. It’s what we did when things were tough, when things were ok, and for no other reason than just to drink. That was my only coping skill. I was raised knowing that alcohol was the medicine of choice for just about everything. It’s a lot like normal people taking a Tylenol for aches and pains for me, except the pains were internal and became part of my soul. Where normal people were able to just have that one drink and put it down, I was the guy who finished the bottle or passed out. Later in life, social drinking just became a rouse for my closet drinking and pretty constant state of stupor when I was alone. I had become so conditioned to being drunk that I was functional; and because of that I was in denial for many years that I actually had a problem. Alcoholics can’t hold jobs, right?
I started my public service career at 15 as a cadet with my local volunteer fire department. While most guys my age were busy chasing after girls and planning things later in life like college, I was running calls and helping with fire department functions. It’s not that I didn’t have an interest in those things, but I became so enamored with other things that I eventually set myself up on a career path as a Paramedic. I didn’t fully understand how my experiences so young in life would affect me until much later on. I had an early interest in EMS and it wasn’t long before I would witness my first traumatic death. I remember tying to mentally prepare myself for the scene, but nothing prepared me for the sight and smells that accompany it. I still remember them very clearly and I think about it often. I was definitely too young to experience that and I wish that I had the knowledge I do today. I probably would have avoided it all together and chose a different career path.
I was always ahead of the curve as it relates to being in EMS. I had taken and passed my EMT test by the time I was 16 and had my first paid EMS job just before I turned 18. I worked for a great service - the people were great, the calls were “good” and I got experience that I don’t think I would have anywhere else in the area. I elected to go to Paramedic school at 18 and I was licensed and ready to go just before my 20th birthday. I got my first job as Paramedic and I remember being very proud of myself for the accomplishment. It didn’t come without my share of detractors however. I was young and relatively inexperienced compared to the rest of my coworkers, but I didn’t let that get in the way of what I was doing. Early on I received several awards for my work in the community. I wasn’t a big fan of awards and never have been, but I took it with what pride I could muster for the moment. As a few years moved on, I found myself in various positions of management at the company I worked for. I did well at it; people respected me and I could always get the job done. But at around five years into my career, something started to go wrong.
Social drinking, to say the least, is a favorite pass time of EMS. I very quickly found myself drinking to excess - blacking out, doing stupid things, and always having to pick up the pieces from the night before. I was young and making good money, so I didn’t think much of it at the time. It just seemed normal. Then about a year later, things started to really go downhill.
It started with not being able to sleep. I would often lay in bed for hours and not be able to close my eyes, and for no reason that I could think of. Alcohol was the answer for me. I got drunk, I was “happy”, and I was able to sleep. Then the nightmares began to set in. Nightmares so vivid and violent that I would often wake up and not be able to tell reality from what was going on in my head. I looked to alcohol again as my answer. The more I drank, the less likely I was to have the nightmares. The worst part about it was that it worked. It gave me exactly what I was looking for and I could keep doing it under the guise of just being a social drinker. It wasn’t long before my wife began to notice a change in me, especially my habits. I was hiding empty liquor bottles throughout the house and drinking just about anything I could get my hands on. And I’m not talking about one or two, I’m talking dozens. At the peak of my drinking career, I was drinking close to two gallons a week. But I sure as hell was no alcoholic; I have a steady job and I provided for the family.
Two years ago, my drinking finally reached a boiling point. My wife was working a late evening shift and I was home alone with my son. When I put him to bed, I began my ritual of drinking and then denying it when she got home. Only that night, I blacked out. Something had happened where there was a text exchange between herself and I. I still don’t know what it was about, but I envision she was - and correctly - upset that I had allowed myself to be so far gone while I was supposed to be watching our son. I woke up several hours later to my name being called over a PA system outside my house. In a drunken stupor, I walked out the front door and to my surprise, I was met by about a dozen state troopers and I was taken into protective custody. What I didn’t know at the time is that while I was in my blackout state, I had taken a picture of myself with a loaded gun in my mouth and sent it to my wife. I had put her in a position where she had to act, and I’m glad she did. I had unknowingly put everyone in dangerous position; especially the people I loved.
I took a very embarrassing ambulance ride to the local hospital in handcuffs. It got even worse because I knew all of the staff. I got to spend a majority of the night in the drunk tank and eventually made it upstairs into inpatient psych. I ended up staying for a little over a week. I had been stabilized both medically and psychiatrically and a discharge plan was set up for me. I’ll never forget how cold it was up there. I felt an overwhelming sense of embarrassment, shame, and felt like at total failure. I knew sobriety was my only choice if I wanted to keep my family and my job. I was set up with a local sobriety agency and began taking classes for several weeks. I began to feel better and regained my hope that better things were to come.
I maintained my sobriety for about six months, but I then found myself caught in a trap that many other people in my situation do. Everyone wanted to deal with the alcoholism - not the mental health aspect. I was told time and time again that if I just stayed sober, everything else would get better. That didn't happen. The nightmares began again, I was beginning to feel depressed and hopeless and I eventually made my way back to the old ways. It didn’t help the cause that I had a very passive Psychiatrist and therapist. I didn’t know any better at the time, because I felt I was doing the right thing. It wasn’t until several months later that I knew something was wrong with the situation I was in and even after all that I found out that they were fraudulently billing my insurance too. That had totally turned me off and I turned my back on what should have been the most important thing to me.
After about six months, I began to sneak alcohol. I had a radically different schedule from my wife, so I knew how far I could push the envelope and for the most part not get caught. I did get caught on several occasions, but after some creative wording and what would eventually be false promises, I managed to dig myself out of that hole. I continued this for several more months and before I knew it, I was again in the same position I was less than a year ago, only worse this time around. I was having daily flashbacks, sensitivity to smells, I was withdrawn and was feeling like there was no way out. Being sober had been helpful to a degree, but the people I was seeing were ignoring the fact that I had other issues going on. Alcoholism shows on the outside, but mental health problems are often only the burden of the people suffering with them.
Almost a year to the day, what would have been my final incident happened. It was a hot day and I was out doing yard work. I had an old tractor at the time which constantly caused me problems. One of the belts broke as was customary for me when trying to cut the grass. Two belts later, I finally had the bright idea that it was time to go get some beer. So I did. I ended up almost to the point of blackout. I remember screaming to the top of my lungs outside because I couldn’t get those belts on, kicking the tractor and throwing stuff around the yard. I had enough of that damn tractor and I refused to get the best of me. I didn’t know this until after what had happened, but I had stumbled down to the local tractor store with the intent to purchase a new one. I was completely drunk and they still let me open up a line of credit. I’m not entirely sure why I didn’t end up with a new tractor that day, but I’d like to believe that they thought I was too drunk to drive it home. As I was walking home, I remember a call from my wife. She knew that I was drunk and up to something stupid. The rest of what happened I’ve had to piece together because it’s a blur and even after a year I can only remember a few details.
I woke up four days later in the ICU. I had been on a ventilator and by all accounts, they were concerned that I was brain dead. Apparently my wife had come home after picking up our son and found me passed out on the couch. An exchange happened where she took our son and went to her parents house so I could hopefully get my act together. It was at that point, I decided I had done enough damage and I had enough of the person I had become. I was tired of the guilt and shame that came along with addiction. I was tired of suffering and not being able to find the light at the end of the tunnel. I took what should have been a fatal overdose of medication. I was still so drunk that I couldn’t even write a legible suicide note. That was enough for me. I was hopeless and in my mind at the time, my family and the world would be better off without me. The details are still quite fuzzy, but now knowing myself like I do, that’s the best reconstruction that I can come up with.
My wife had come home not too much later and immediately knew something was wrong. She could hear me gasping for breath in what could have been my very last few. She called 911 and my colleagues came to my rescue. Given the amount of medication I had taken and it was unknown how long I was down, it was doubtful that I was going to survive. Even the ER doctors had their doubts. My primary care Physician (who is awesome by the way) met my wife at the hospital. He basically explained that it would be a miracle if I woke up at all and without brain damage. Somehow I pulled through the next couple of days. I still cannot understand the stress and heartache I put her thought, but somehow she still managed to love me.
I remember waking up in the ICU and having my breathing tube removed. I was quite groggy but I remember several of my friends were there for the occasion. I spent the rest of the day in a haze from all the medication. When I finally came to, I was on a medical floor on 24 hour watch. I remember this being so strange - why was I here and what happened? It wasn’t until around the next day that I was told exactly what had happened. I was in total disbelief. This wasn’t me, I would never do something like that. It wasn’t until I was confronted with the hard evidence of what had transpired that day that I finally accepted the choice that I had made. I was in an alcoholic blackout and decided to end my life - something I never would have chosen to do sober.
I spent about a week on the medical floor trying to put the pieces of my life back together. It was there where I experienced one of the worst things in my life and definitely one of the more memorable. I had been without my medication for a little over a week at this point and I was caught completely by surprise by something I had never given thought to - serotonin withdrawal. The medications I was on work by increasing the amount of serotonin in the brain which helps alleviate some of the symptoms of depression, and now without this medication, my brain began to react badly to not having enough serotonin around to use. I became so disoriented that I couldn’t tell night from day, I couldn’t figure out where I was, I was having hallucinations to the point where I couldn’t sleep and had to be sedated. This lasted for about two days and was by far one of the worst experiences of my life.
Once I was able to get myself together, I elected to check myself back into the inpatient psych floor. Here I was again, in a place I dreaded and didn’t want to be. I knew that if I wanted any chance at being able to live a normal life again, I had to start somewhere. I got back on my medication and was feeling better. I also met some very good people there who I still stay in contact with. I was discharged with plans to start attending a hospital sponsored program the same day. I remember leaving the psych unit in a pair of sweatpants, hospital socks, and a t-shirt, and I hadn’t shaved in weeks. I arrived at the program looking just like that. Thankfully, some of the people there had encountered the same experiences so it was nice to not be alone.
My wife and I had decided that it was probably best that I not return home immediately until I was able to get myself together. I had already done a good job traumatizing my son and the distrust and uneasiness I left the house last time in was still looming in the air. I opted to stay with my brother for a period of time. I left the hospital that day looking like I had just crawled out of a cave and I didn’t even have shoes on. That for me sets the bar as the lowest point in my life. I was determined to never put anyone through that again, including myself.
I spent a few weeks in the hospital program. Thankfully the people were great and I was blessed with a good case worker. There did seem to be something missing. None of the people I was in the program with had any public service experience. They weren’t accustomed to the way we deal with things or even the humor. All were good people, but I couldn’t help but feel a bit lost still. How could I be open with people who have no clue what it is like to see tragedy and death on the scale we do? Most people only see this stuff when it makes the news or are watching one of several bad TV shows that portray emergency work. I was having trouble relating and engaging in the program. Thankfully my case worker was a very dedicated and intelligent person, so we began to look at alternatives.
After some research we stumbled upon a place called Brattleboro Retreat. They offered a program specifically for first responders and military veterans that focused around mental health and addiction called the Uniformed Services Program. After some calls and some more research, I decided to go. I was lucky enough to have the support of my friends and coworkers and two of them drove me up to Vermont to the campus. When we tend to think of Psychiatric Hospitals, we often think of these closed facilities where everyone is locked up and just force fed pills all day. The campus was beautiful, modern, and open. The people were caring, dedicated, and very well educated. It was the exact opposite of what I had expected.
I entered the program with my counselor and immediately began to feel at home. We entered our building and the walls were covered with patches of people who have been to the program. It was very reassuring that I wasn’t alone. All of the people there were either first responders or military, so we quickly got along. I was able to easily engage in therapy and medication management. After a few days, I felt so good and I hadn’t experienced that in quite some time. I missed my family very much, but I knew the only way to get them back was to get well. I spent two weeks there and when I left, I considered everyone there a part of my extended family. The friends who had dropped me off came to pick me up too. It was a great sight to see familiar faces and know that I was finally going home.
I knew that I still had a battle ahead of me, but this time I felt prepared. I was determined to regain my family, my dignity, and a sense of normalcy. I managed to get back to work just a few weeks later. I elected to resign my management position and go back to focusing on being a Paramedic. I think that was the best choice because now I was putting as little on my plate as possible. Learning to say no had always been a tough decision for me, but now I finally felt competent to do so. My employer was very understanding and quite helpful throughout the entire process. I am very grateful for that. When this first happened, I thought I had lost everything that I had worked so hard for.
A year has since passed since I made that drunken decision to commit suicide. Every day I am thankful that I survived despite the odds against me. Brattleboro Retreat gave me the tools to get my life back and my wife, friends, and my brother gave me the motivation to not only do so - but to be well in the process, something that had been missing from my life for many years. I can never express in words the gratitude I owe these people, but I just hope they know it.
I founded this organization to help plug a hole in the public service industry. I included veterans because so many of them end up in the public service sector at one point or another. I am committed that no one should have to suffer and go through the hell that I did just simply because good resources are hard to find and people may now know where to tun to. I know there are many out there who are suffering with mental health issues and addiction and I want my story to be a means shedding hope to those who need it. Life is precious - that includes yours. You don’ have to sacrifice your happiness or your livelihood to work in public service.
We as public servants see the worst humanity has to offer. We are expected to fix problems that sometimes cannot be. We see tragedy, death, and suffering on a daily basis and it affects who we are and how we see the world. Just bearing witness to these things can affect your soul. I am here to tell you it doesn’t have to kill you, it doesn’t mean you have to suffer - there is a sensible way out and it begins by speaking out, if not for yourself then someone else.