It was about 12:30am when I got the text from my husband who, to my knowledge, had been out tinkering around in his workshop:
“I need help. I’m not me and I can’t explain it. My will to live is gone, I don’t know what to do. I’m struggling so hard to keep it together. I’m losing it. I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. I love you so much and you deserve so much better. I’m such a disappointment, you need someone way better than me. I can’t even believe God allowed me to have kids, I’m such an asshole. I’m such a bad father. I really offer them nothing. I’m so sorry you wasted your time with me. I’m just so disgraceful and worthless.”
My husband has been in the fire service for 18 years. He started his career as an EMT directly after high school and then went on to become a fireman paramedic. He has a passion for firefighting unlike anything I have ever seen before. He works hard, trains hard, and serves hard. He is a respected leader and an accomplished professional around the United States.
Throughout his time in the fire service, he has seen it all including: murders, shootings, stabbings, suicides, vehicle accidents, house fires, and car fires. His position regularly puts him directly in contact with erratic addicts strung out on meth and other drugs. He has seen more heroin overdoses than he could possibly count, but those events pale in comparison to calls involving deceased children and babies.
He has been trained to stay unattached, not to get emotionally involved, bottle it up so he can move on, and to act like it never happened. But it did happen, all of it and more. He is human. Humans were not created to carry so much pain, suffering, violence and hurt. It is unfathomable; impossible to grapple with alone.
For far too many firefighters, there is no time to stop and get help, no resources on how to process the traumatic events they have witnessed. They are expected to keep going, day in and day out, serving the community, putting their own lives on the line. Every. Single. Day. So they stuff the inner turmoil down for years and years until it is all bottled up like a shaken 2-liter of Coke.
One day the volcano of repressed traumas and emotions begins to erupt. That is when the nightmares begin, and eventually the nightmares make sleep impossible. Then the depression begins to creep in unexpectedly. The feelings of despair, exhaustion, unexplained sadness and deep rage slowly take a toll on your body and mind. But you don’t know where it is coming from. You struggle to hide it from your wife, family and friends well enough that no one sees it coming. The unravelling has already begun. Maybe you are just overworked, need more sleep, or need a vacation and then perhaps it will all just go away. But the calls keep coming and the pressure keeps mounting.
Looking back now, I see that there have been years of warning signs that the eruption was imminent. My husband had become agitated and on edge, easily overwhelmed by basic tasks at home, struggled to maintain focus and began drinking regularly.
In recent months, the urgency of the situation had begun to intensify. He withdrew, spending more time outside alone in his workshop, drinking, and listening to heavy, dark music. He complained about work and his dislike for it, but he could never put his finger on what was really bothering him about it. He was still working hard to serve the community like Superman while maintaining his best “husband” and “dad” facades at home. He fought to keep things “normal” on the outside. He succeeded at hiding his pain from me.
Then, I got that text. I knew that his volcano was erupting.
Unless you have ever witnessed the strongest man you know down on his knees crying inconsolably, it will be difficult to grasp the gravity of that moment. While I willed myself to remain calm and composed long enough to talk him through it, I knew our situation was critical. I did not know what to do or who to contact. A regular emergency room just did not seem like the right place. He needed help from someone who could specifically relate to all the trauma and pain he was reliving in his mind. I was unable to sleep that night, trying to figure out what I needed to do to save my husband's life.
The next day I contacted a respected friend of his in the fire service and learned about the IAFF Center for Excellence in Maryland. The center was developed by firemen for firemen. They offer treatment for depression and PTSD as well as drug and alcohol rehabilitation. With my husband's consent, we quickly started the interview and enrollment process. He was admitted a week later.
The 30-45 day inpatient program at IAFF is intensive. They have skilled nurses and doctors, therapists and psychologists. He is learning about work-related trauma, triggers, and how to deal with all of the traumas he has been exposed to. He has hope that his life is never going to be the same. He is thinking and feeling more clearly. A weight has been lifted, and the healing has begun. I can already see a marked difference in him; his eyes are brighter, and his smile is bigger.
I do not know the end of our story yet because it is just getting started. I am thankful that we have been given this opportunity and that my husband will come back renewed, mentally sound, and equipped with life-changing tools.
Waiting until someone’s volcano erupts is far too late. It pains me that professionals who choose to spend their lives helping others often do not have sufficient support or access to mental health training throughout their career. For men and women who serve on the front lines as first responders, trauma counseling and mental health education should be offered from day one.
If my husband had not had the courage to text me that night, our story would be wildly different.
No one should suffer with PTSD on their own. If you’re a fire fighter struggling with this disorder, or you know one who is, the team at IAFF Center of Excellence wants to help you. Give them a call to speak with one of their professionals, and regain your peace of mind.
For more information on PTSD and the warning signs, go to:
Kellie Abbott is a member of Fire Wife Life. She lives in Ohio with her husband and three young boys.