A wildland firefighter shares his personal story
surrounding mental health and addiction in hopes it will help us
all to better understand each other and build a path forward.
This revealing personal narrative includes the topics of addiction, overdosing, and suicide. If you’re feeling suicidal, talk to somebody. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255; the Trans Lifeline at 1-877-565-8860; or the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386. Text “START” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. If you don’t like the phone, connect to the Lifeline Crisis Chat at http://www.contact-usa.org/chat.html.
By Erik Apland
When I left my local hospital’s inpatient behavioral health center, it had been 5 days since I had drawstrings, shoelaces, or a belt. It had been 8 months since I had decided, in a previous moment of crisis, to overdose and put myself in the hospital. The intervening months had been a rollercoaster of hope and hopelessness, intensive therapy, and very hard truths. I walked home with my discharge instructions and prescription information, feeling profoundly how much my life had changed, and how surprised I would have been as a 25-year-old to see myself now, closing in on 35.
But my 25-year-old self shouldn’t have been surprised.
The Heroic Feats of Alcohol Consumption
2010 was my first fire season as a senior firefighter on a U.S. Forest Service engine in Washington, and what a year. I binge-drank my way through the summer, finding it funny to consistently have to PT hungover. Some nights the only dinner I had was the free chips and salsa I’d get with my margarita fishbowls.
At the same time, the engine module became as close as family. We had a slow season, but I loved every minute of that summer. When I left the module early to go back to grad school, it felt like a hole opened up inside me. My transition from senior firefighter to grad student was not a pretty one. My primary tool for dealing with it was to continue the heroic feats of alcohol consumption. Not only did I miss my friends—my brothers—but I felt intense stress in finishing my classes and trying to write a thesis.
The only thing that calmed me and improved my mood was drinking.
I can’t say exactly when alcohol turned on me. It may have just been a function of getting older. But, whatever the case, alcohol began to have more and more the opposite effect than I desired. I drank to feel at ease—but I only felt sad. My relationship with my partner suffered drastically, as I isolated myself from the person who knew me best in the world.
In 2019, it finally all came down on me.
Suicide is a common cause of death in Millennials and Gen-Z, which is many of our firefighters—now and into the future.
The main thing I have been chewing on since I left that behavioral health center is the phenomenon of firefighter suicide.
One of my colleagues recently made the point that it isn’t actually clear whether or not there truly is an increase in firefighter suicides; this increase in numbers might simply be the result of improved reporting.
That said, suicide is a common cause of death in Millennials and Gen-Z, which is many of our firefighters—now and into the future. Whether or not the problem is particularly acute among firefighters is a little academic to me; the problem exists and firefighters are dying from suicide.
There is a sometimes-stated goal that the federal government be the model employer. I believe that with our generous (for America) leave policies, we already are doing a pretty good job with allowing employees to take time to do what they need to do to be healthy without worrying about their jobs. But on many other issues, the government is not the model employer, and the stress and/or displeasure involved with the job itself may be adding to the feelings of hopelessness, loss of control, no future, etc. that lead to more serious suicidal ideation.
Just yesterday I had a conversation with a coworker who said that she had so lost meaning or satisfaction from her job that she typically drinks at night just to numb out. To me, she has an amber flashing light over her as someone who is in danger of slipping further toward alcoholism, isolation, and potentially the kind of hopelessness that leads to self-harm.
I’ve never been shunned or belittled for getting help or taking medication. My supervisors, without exception, have been there for me. My peers have opened their hearts to me. That network helped me choose walking to the hospital under my own power.
The Importance of Safe, Anonymous Reporting
To me, a major intervention point in the case of my friend is with her supervisor and her cohorts coming together to discuss their work issues and to try to revitalize a program that is clearly sub-optimal and potentially unhealthy for employees.
Many supervisors will say they have an open-door policy for their employees to come to them with issues. Likewise with district rangers who say: “The most important thing is you going home safe to your family.” These statements are laudable but passive.
In my opinion, someone who is in danger of self-harm will only seek assistance when they are overwhelmed with anxiety, uncontrollably depressed, or experiencing other severe symptoms. At this stage, the intervention is likely to be inpatient treatment or intensive outpatient therapy, and possibly referral to a psychiatrist for medication. These interventions are effective, but obviously, it is better to course-correct further upstream from an acute crisis. I am not suggesting supervisors should be more intrusive or try to force interaction with employees, as this would likely be counter-productive. But methods of safe, anonymous reporting could identify systemic problems or units/modules that are making employees miserable.
Emotionally Abused Employees
I believe we have accepted that some programs/modules will simply make their employees miserable. Supposedly, the misery breeds camaraderie and cohesion. I am thinking of personal friends with experience on hotshot crews with known superintendents who create environments of abuse and bullying. (I’m using hotshots as an example because particular people come to mind. I’m not singling IHC’s out.)
The fact that this is known and accepted in the fire culture is absolutely ludicrous. A supervisor who treats their employees this way is creating potentially more serious long-term health issues than a supervisor who doesn’t allow employees to drink water on PT hikes.
This “no water” practice we would now universally condemn. An overheated employee will go down on the hike. An emotionally abused employee may “go down” in a crisis long after living totally immersed in an environment that exacerbated their feelings of isolation, hopelessness, loss of self-worth, etc. I am not just throwing rocks here. I know. I, too, have helped create these environments in the past.
I believe I owe it to my brothers and sisters and to myself to tell the truth about my experience.
Breaking Down the Walls of Shame and Taboo
There is something you learn at mental health facilities and clothing-optional hot springs: we are all the same; we are all different. I’m the same because I’m in almost every majority in the Forest Service and the country: I’m cis-gender, I’m white, I’m straight. But I’m different because when I needed it, I had so much help. I’ve never been shunned or belittled for getting help or taking medication. My supervisors, without exception, have been there for me. My peers have opened their hearts to me. That network helped me choose walking to the hospital under my own power.
My behavior over the last 10 years has turned my life upside down and profoundly hurt the people who mean the most in the world to me. I don’t believe I have my feet under me today, as I am writing this. But I believe I owe it to my brothers and sisters and to myself to tell the truth about my experience. Likewise, I hope that we can be open to the experiences of others, including those unlike ourselves. (I am particularly impressed with Sara Brown’s 2018 post about women in fire, as well as the 2017 interview of Wally Ochoa by Bre Orcasitas and Paul Keller.)
Only by coming out and speaking to our fire family can we break down the walls of shame and taboo that surround mental health and addiction. And only when we break down these walls that isolate us can we start to understand each other and build a path forward.