“I’d NEVER kill myself, no matter how bad things got.”
I said that too. For a long time. And, true enough, obviously, I never did it. But I had a time in my life when it seemed like that was the only solution and because of my experience it has made me more understanding of people who do take that terrible, tragic, and unfortunate path. I can’t justify it but I understand it now. I wanted to write this piece and bare my soul in the hopes of helping us all better understand suicide. I also wanted to provide some lessons I learned that might help save some of our brothers and sisters who are contemplating it.
I’ve come to see life like the surf at the beach. The years are a series of waves. Between the waves times are pretty good. Then a wave comes. Some of them just lift you up a little, take your feet off the sand, but leave you generally unshaken. Then it gets calm again. Sometimes though a wave catches you off balance and may even push you over. You get seawater in your nose, maybe in your eyes. It burns but you’re back up pretty quick. Then, however, a big wave comes, one of those that crash down on top of you and push your face into the sandy bottom, drive your shoulder into it, make you think you can’t make it to the surface before you have to take a breath. And sometimes it’s a series of those waves that, you’re convinced, will never let you see the light of day again.
It’s those last two types of waves which convince some people that the only…ONLY…solution is to breathe deep the ocean and end it all.
I speak from experience.
I made lieutenant in 2001 and things were awesome at the fire department. I was dating a spicy Latina, my battalion chief had just asked me to put in for captain, which surprised but flattered me. I was an up and comer, one of the “cool kids” and life was good. I was between the waves for sure. In 2005 I had recently married Romy, my Latina, and decided to do a two-year tour through our training division, traditionally, a stepping stone in our department to a promotion. This is when the tide started coming in.
Stress. We talk a lot about it and we know what happens when we’re put under it. Glucose, Cortisol and Adrenaline release. Your nervous system doesn’t know what the stress is and, honestly, it doesn’t care. It doesn’t know if a bear is chasing you or if its something less threatening. All it knows is that there is a threat and to release hormones. I was about to have some bears to deal with in my life.
Marriage is hard, the hardest thing I’ve ever done. Friends used to tell me this when I was single and I’d chuckle. How hard can it be? Living with someone you love can’t be that tough. How hard? Exponentially harder than I thought.
I married an incredible woman but we are from two different worlds; Alabama and Peru. To say that the first five years were an adjustment would be an understatement. To say it was a living Hell, for the both of us, would be far closer to the truth. To describe all of our misunderstandings, miscommunications, discussions, arguments, fights, ice boxes, and dog houses we put each other in would take too long for this piece. Let’s just say that, no exaggeration, 70% of our days we were either angry, actively fighting, or not speaking to each other. And at least a week out of every month came with heated arguing until two or three in the morning, sometimes ending with one (her) sobbing hysterically and slamming the front door, leaving until the next day. Or (me) punching holes in the sheetrock walls and leaving to sleep, if I could, in my truck. Stress.
Then Abigail came along.
My daughter is my life and I never knew the joy I could feel watching her birth. I take pride in telling her that I was the first person she touched outside the womb. For all the holding her and singing to her though, there were new stressors. Post-partum depression for Mommy and more stress. Additional reasons to wake up at night; changing diapers and feeding our “Chipmunk”.
We both had to adjust and it took a long time. Girlfriends told Romy that they would have left me. Buddies told me that they would have left her but we had made a commitment before God and we stuck it out. Things are so much better now. Sometimes it pays to be stubborn.
This sets the stage for my baseline mental, emotional, and psychological status shortly after I entered the training division; Chronically, as in nearly every day, sleep deprived with someone at home angry or not talking to me more days than not.
I once read a list of the most stressful life events. I think there were 10 of them. marriage and new baby were two of them. Starting a new job was another. On top of the previously mentioned two I changed jobs at the fire department. I went into the training division from being a company officer in the station about five months before Abigail was born.
So, on three to four hours sleep, I’d report to the training division most mornings around 0600 or earlier. And the sleep I did get was usually preceded by a two plus hour heated argument until we just got too sleepy to fight any longer.
I knew in my recruit school that I wanted to be in training someday so it was a career goal to have landed that position. Unfortunately, another stress was that training would be where my career aspirations would end as well.
No need to go into details they don’t really matter and have no bearing on the subject of the piece as it relates to stress and depression and suicide. It is enough to say that, because I had some matters of conscience to wrestle with, I had to choose between my integrity and my ambition. I chose the former. And for years it was a bitter pill to me that I “lost my career because I did my job” but that’s an accurate assessment of what happened. More stress.
There were other waves that hit during that time as well. We moved into a new house that needed a lot of TLC. A good friend of mine, Wayne White, the EMT Instructor at Cobb passed away. Moving and friends dying are on the stress list. My father was diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer which meant that we spent a lot of time going back and forth from Atlanta to Birmingham to help my mother, who incidentally, was diagnosed with dementia right after I came out of training…about the time I bottomed out.
I know that’s a lot to read but I’m trying to help you understand what chronic, even low level, stress does to people. Going back to the bear chasing you analogy, I had several bears chasing me over a period of more than two years. Your nervous system releases adrenaline to enable you to fight them off but what happens when your nervous system runs out of adrenaline? I mean, at some point, your adrenal glands just say “Hey! That’s all I’ve got!”
Here’s what happened to me. Stay with me, we’re getting close to the point.
Adrenal exhaustion. You’re absolutely wiped out by 8pm and then you wake up at 3am unable to get back to sleep due to your cortisol levels being jacked up. You stop thinking rationally and start doing irrational things. You do things like requesting a demotion from lieutenant to firefighter and a position on an air truck. I did that.
You don’t want to fish. You don’t want to hunt. You literally don’t want to do anything that you used to find enjoyable and you are convinced that there is no end in sight. In your mind there is no solution, no options, and no way out…except death.
And that is why people do it in my opinion. Their chemistry gets so jacked up that they are convinced suicide is their only solution. Death has to be better than these waves crashing over you day after day after day after miserable, exhausting day.
I actually remember being late for work one morning when I was at station 15 because I literally sat in the glider we had for rocking Abigail and stared at the floor motionless for about 20 minutes as if in a trance. I was trying to figure a way out of my depression. The conclusion I came up with at the time? There is no way out. I made up my mind that I’d be in this pit, this well, looking up with no way out until I died. The only thing that could happen was that it would get worse. I had no hope that things could improve, ever.
So why did I hang on? I’ll get to that. I Promise.
Drew Miller was my cousin but most people that didn’t know better thought he was my brother. When we were younger we looked similar. You couldn’t tell the difference between us on the phone. We shared mannerisms. When we were kids we fought like cats and dogs. Our personalities were very much alike. I was 4 years older than him and, somewhere along the line, we became really close. I loved him like a brother for sure. He felt the same about me.
Drew was going through a lot. A lot of things very similar to the things I described earlier that I had faced; life stress. He had been diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease. Huntington’s Disease is a horrible disease. Huntington’s Disease is hereditary. His father had it and died a slow, miserable death. Basically, your brain stem dissolves. You lose your grasp on reality and slip into insanity. In the end you can’t even swallow and most sufferers choke to death. He had that to look forward to.
Drew had some serious relationship issues as well. I think he had some debt too.
August 1, 2015 he called me, which was not unusual; “Nothing important” he said “Call me when you can.”
August 2, 2015, the day before my birthday, his mother, my aunt called me. “Bryan…Drew’s gone.”
They found him dead of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head from his county issued Glock 40. He had been a sheriff’s deputy in Jefferson County (Birmingham). I loved Drew and his death shook me hard…hard…real HARD. It still does.
Here are some things my experience and Drew’s have taught me.
Why did Drew kill himself and I didn’t? I can only speak for myself and speculate about Drew. This is the first difference that dawned on me.
The doctor that cured my depression, notice I said “cured” – past tense, asked me at our first appointment if I ever thought of suicide. I told him “If it weren’t for my faith and my family I’d have eaten a bullet months ago”.
Drew didn’t speak much at all to me about faith so I can’t know for sure where he was with faith. My faith was one thing that kept me hanging on. It was probably the main thing that kept me hanging in there. I kept thinking that there had to be a reason I was being put through this. God would eventually let me out when He taught me what I needed to learn. I remember thinking that, even though I had no hope, there was always hope in God. I would wake up at Station 3 at 3am and sit in the bay reading the Book of Job and wonder why God was doing similar things to me but believing that, in the end if I stayed faithful, He would make it alright again. And He did.
So, I kept hanging on.
I also had a wife and a baby girl at home that needed me. Drew’s wife had left him, after many years, as soon as his Huntington’s symptoms showed themselves. They both knew he had the gene for it and she had promised to see him through to the end, assured him of it. They even had a long-term disability policy. But as soon as the tremors started she got an apartment and filed for divorce with him begging her not to leave him. Some people, I wonder if they have a soul.
What are some other lessons?
I mentioned earlier that my doctor cured my depression. That’s unique in this day and age. How many people do you know who will tell you that their depression was cured? Not many. Most are being “treated” and have been being “treated” for a long time. First, they get one med and when that doesn’t work anymore the doctor gives another one or a different one and on it goes.
Traditional western medicine wants to simply treat about anything anymore. Have you noticed that doctors don’t even talk about curing anything anymore?
“You have hypertension. Here’s a prescription for Lisinopril.”
“You have diabetes. We’ll manage it through diet and insulin.”
“Your cholesterol is high. Take this Lipitor.”
My advice? If you’re struggling with depression, anxiety, etc., is to see an Integrative Physician. My doctor got my adrenals making adrenaline again and gave me the right stuff to get my brain chemistry back in line. After a few months with him my Serotonin levels actually went too high and we had to dial it down. My battalion chief at the time probably remembers walking into Station 3 one morning to find the bay cleaned like never before and his sad sac lieutenant actually optimistic and happy for a change.
Here is something else for all of us whether you’re a deputy chief or a probationary firefighter.
When a co-worker who has traditionally been a solid performer, a hard charger, go getter, professional, and up beat suddenly starts acting erratically something is wrong and you better find out what. That had been me for over 10 years. Suddenly I’m asking for demotions and moping around. I told the chief of the department once that I used to look forward to coming to work but, now, I literally had to drag myself to even get my gear out of my locker and put it on the rig.
These are red flags! If you are concerned, ask a simple question like “Hey, are you okay? You seem a little off.” If they confide in you and its more than you can handle suggest EAP or the chaplain or a peer counselor, or your department’s CISM team. And if they call you and leave a message. Call them back. I wish I could call my cousin.
I was blessed to have pulled out of my funk. It took a long time. It took a couple or three years to get out of my adrenal exhaustion, depression, and anxiety. It took a few more years after that to find myself again and completely get my wheels back under me on the job. But it happened and if can happen for me, it can happen for you or any struggling co-worker.
The fire service is full of stress and so is life. The waves are going to hit you, knock you off your feet and push your head under from time to time but we don’t have to drown and we don’t have to let the undertow drag us to a watery grave if we all act as our brother and sister’s lifeguards.
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