“Be Brave … Ask for Help”
In 2017, more firefighters committed suicide in the U.S. than died in on-duty events. Within a two-month span earlier this year, three California firefighters took their own lives. On August 26, 2018, Kern Co. Firefighters Local 1301 President Derek Robinson took to Facebook to share his own harrowing story of post-traumatic stress, the depths it took him to, and his path out of the darkness.
I’m a hypocrite.
This isn’t easy to share. It’s taken months to sit down and put pen to paper. Even now I hesitate: I don’t like feeling exposed, but I want to help. It could be just one person, just one firefighter; that would be enough to make all this worthwhile. Firefighter suicides have taken up too many headlines lately, and I can’t be quiet anymore.
This is my story.
On paper, on social media, in many ways my life has been charmed. Trust me, I know: I’m the one who crafted that mask for all of you to see. A mask to hide the pain, the emptiness; keeping all of you from seeing the emotional scars left behind by 17 years on the job.
Seventeen years of the kind of calls we run.
I’ve been good at hiding my emotions, my reactions to the shit I’ve seen with my brothers.
Since 2001, I’ve seen the fire service embrace the persona of tough guys: “Suck it up, buttercup.” But we’re learning too: that persona is no longer acceptable.
A dear friend of mine, now retired, put it best: “This job is far more violent than it was when I started in the 80s.” I haven’t found any truer, more profound words than his. In 2015, our International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) launched a campaign to “Stamp out the Stigma,” to embolden firefighters to admit they need help and to reach out.
Early in the campaign, I invested in advocating for the mental health of our firefighters. As union president, I didn't want that call: that one of my members made the decision that taking their own life was their best— and only— option. My passion for the cause took an even more personal tone shortly after, when a friend outside my fire family took his own life.
Back then, I didn’t understand it. I do now. Back then, I didn’t realize I was already dancing with my own mistress. She was shrouded in darkness, pulling me down the same path. She asked me those same poisonous questions:
“What’s your fate in this world, Derek?”
“What’s your worth?”
“Would the world be better off without you?”
I found my awakening in a pile of sleepless nights. I’d begun to self-medicate. Getting drunk was necessary to get me to sleep. Or maybe, more appropriately, pass out. But it didn’t keep me asleep. That’s when we danced the most: the questions of my own worth became fodder for those early morning hours.
I graduated to sleeping pills. I was desperate; I needed to escape. At the insistence of my ex-girlfriend, I threw them out. But soon I returned to the bottle. Bottles, actually. I danced every night with the mistress in my own mind. She was my great deceiver. More terrible calls came through at work. And eventually all that was left on those sleepless nights was me, alone with my mistress, dancing along the cracks, the breaks, the tremors of my own mind. Night after night, darker and darker.
“Wouldn’t the world be better off without you, Derek?”
That would end it: no more darkness. No more pain. Now the songs of suicide spoke to me, deep down in my soul. New songs to dance with her. I even found myself singing them aloud. Her hooks were firmly set.
I was angry at work. Calls were a nuisance. My blood pressure spiked. My heartbeat quickened. My anger grew. My crew must have hated my negativity; it must have been draining to work with me. I always thought I loved my job. Not anymore. My ex-girlfriend who knew me best at my worst, told me that “as long as I’ve known you, you’ve hated your job.” I scoffed, but it lingered. And then, suddenly, I woke up.
She was right.
I’d bought into the stigma, and didn’t want to be seen as the “weak” guy. I was the captain, the leader. By avoiding my own PTSI, my own anxiety, my own depression, I’d become my crew’s weak link. I was not the captain. I was not the leader.
Finally, I reached out for help. My mistress began to lose her hold.
Seeking help was the best thing I’ve ever done. I opened up and got raw, I shared the shit I’ve seen. 17 years of scars came pouring out. I cried. I didn’t cry before. Now I know that’s unacceptable.
Looking back, I can see the impact this life has had on me. My anxiety was off the charts. I’d seen a cardiologist for chest pains. At age 48, swimming nearly every day for as long as I can remember, I’d suddenly was unable to swim 100 yards without losing my breath. The anxiety left me clinging to the wall, fearing I couldn’t make it to the other end. It pulled me from the pool, gasping for air.
I’d never connected those dots before: physically I’d always been in shape, but mentally I was drowning. The death and destruction I’d seen had brought me to the edge of my mistress’ dance floor. Threatening to push me off, to end it all.
But with help, I escaped her grasp.
I know now that PTSI is an injury that can be treated. I’ve built a strong relationship with my son, my family, my friends. I can swim without worry. The sleepless nights are gone. The anger is gone. Most importantly, I’m ready to share my story.
Help exists. There are ways to escape that mistress, the dark thoughts of suicide, and my story is proof. Don’t be ashamed or afraid to ask for help. Dealing with PTSI, with anxiety, with depression... those aren’t battles for you to fight alone. If you have a loved one that’s in the military or a first responder, know the warning signs. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. Fight for them; they’ve dedicated their lives to fighting and serving others.
PTSI, anxiety, depression: these are byproducts of the job that we never see. Nobody told us about them when we first signed up.
You can help. One person. One firefighter. One police officer. One first responder. One military veteran. One life.
I’m done being a hypocrite. Firefighters battle the notion that our jobs define us, that we’re “heroes.” We’re just doing our job, it doesn’t define us. Our future does.
Be brave, be better, and ask for help. I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t.