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.
20 thoughts on “Breaking Down the Walls that Isolate Us”
Thank you, Erik, for your vulnerability and courage. You’re making a difference in helping firefighters and the agency in overcoming the stigmas still surrounding mental health, substance abuse, and how we treat our folks. I wish you continued healing on your journey. Much respect. Riva
Strong words….I thank you for having the guts to speak out on this subject. Too often it is buried and not talked about, it’s the taboo subject, the ultimate case of showing weaknesss in this culture that we have built. Thou shall not show emotion thou shall not admit when problems become so overwhelming thou shall always put on a strong face.
I too have battled with all the stigmas that go along with not wanting to show any weakness amongst my peers, but in the past year, I have opened up to anyone willing to listen that it can and does effect more brothers and sisters then we realize. If talking about what has happened to you and how you dealt with the issues helps one person, then we are all better off for it
Eric, thanks for having the strength and courage to tell your story. Stay strong and keep fighting
Well said brother; you’re never alone. I too suffered through poor choices for 15 years and it cost me my family. You’re not done yet, think of the new chapters you can write about this new adventure!
Strong work Eric!! Most people do not speak up on these topics. The stigma that follows is a wall for most. I can identify with your story and tearing the world down. This should be a more open discussion and brought from the shadows. Alcohol and substance abuse is more prevalent than people believe. Each meeting and training you go to they focus on the happy hour that follows. Speaking from experience, you are not alone and each day after the change has gotten better.
Thank you Erik, I appreciate every thing you said. It is a hauntingly familiar story and I’m so proud of you for writing it. I admire your courage and authenticity and straight forward approach. We can be better, we need to be better for each other. So again, thank you for breaking down the walls. I wish the best for you and your future.
Take care, Estella
Truth… just sent a buddy this text, a couple hours before i read this article, today…
“Freakin’ fire fighters… 99.5 %, of firefighters, have to do a spectacular, or create, an epic personal and life wrecking/ court appearing crash, before they ask or are willing to receive help. In any way…
Wisdom there. And a little head’s up…”.
And thank you for the ‘amber light’, word picture. Gonna check in with a couple of folks tonight…
Nothing but respect for you and for your story, Erik.
Great Story Erik and thanks for sharing with us. I went through many alcoholic binges myself and I am not sure how I survived some of them. I managed to make-do somehow, which is really a poor excuse on my part because I am sure I stepped on of other peoples toes. At least I never punched anyone out. I think two week fire assignments are much harder on fire folks than we will ever understand and I really don’t have any solutions. I have been on many Type 1 and 2 teams and seeing how folks all bunch up in their own little groups at the end of shift, and its really tough to witness that, and there is so little communication, its not encouraged or supported. .
Bravo and thank you. No one is immune to alcoholism and mental health issues. A fire coworker raped me while he was under the influence. (Sexual assault being another taboo topic). Alcohol didn’t change who he is; it revealed it. But maybe if he had addressed his alcoholism earlier, he would not have lost his inhibitions and committed such a sick crime. His health status (alcoholism) affected my health status. No one exists in a vacuum—we all affect each other. I pray for him and every other alcoholic who still suffers.
I was in an “amber light” situation this fall and decided to get some help. I realize this isn’t a solution for everybody but I used EAP/ComPsych to get some counseling. The intake with ComPsych is efficient – you’re talking with somebody in Chicago, you tell them what is going on and in my case they got back to me in a couple hours with a listing of local providers. I was in my first session with the provider I chose in a week.
I work for the USFS and our information is found on the regions EAP page – supervisors and co-workers should know how to find it.
We as the USFS have a long way to go. My unit finally had a bully removed but only to be replaced by another. It really makes you doubt your own decisions we you are questioned on even the smallest issues. I personally knew two firefighters who fell to suicide, one was some one I looked up to in my early days of my career. The other I had a lot of respect for. Thank you for sharing.
thanks for sharing. unfortunately very common with us all.
Erik…words cannot express the gratitude I feel that you are still here to write these words. Or the raw f***ing bravery it must have taken to share this.
You know stories create and maintain our culture. Offering this one as a guidepost to the brothers and sisters out there struggling with despair, and the dangerous coping mechanisms many of us have used to fight it off, is huge.
“I walked home with my discharge instructions and prescription information, feeling profoundly how much my life had changed…”
Been there, done that, didn’t tell anyone. Thank you, my friend, for having the guts to say it out loud. May you find your footing again soon.
Your words stopped me dead in my tracks this morning bud. Not only was I right there next to you, not realizing, but all these years later, I find myself struggling with some of the same darkness. Thank you for reminding me that I’m not going to be the best judge of my own well being when I need help the most. It’s so important to tell the people who care about you; that you’re struggling. It’s also one of the hardest things to do. Well done E
I am currently under your “amber light”. After reading your brave story, I am contacting EAP right now. Thank you Erik for sharing your journey with all of us. You very well may have saved lives with your message. Maybe even mine.
I slipped into “heroic” drinking following the Black Summer fires here in Australia. After a prolonged season it abruptly ended with drenching rains across the fire grounds. Not long after the Covid-19 restrictions came limiting our ability to gather and decompress . While my fellow fire fighters and I were in regular contact via phone and social media the close contact was missing. So how did I deal with it ? Alcohol, lots and lots of alcohol. Mostly drinking alone, never just a couple of drinks. My weight ballooned ,my sleep was affected and I generally felt hopeless. I was drinking at dangerous levels and it was not sustainable. Finally we were able to gather again and it was great ,yep it involved lots of drink ,but we had a camp-fire cook up and we talked ,we talked a lot it was what we needed. But the underlying issues remained. After a solid 12 months of hard drinking it finally hit me . Around the anniversary of my last fire of that season I started my great reset. I gave up all alcohol initially for the month of Feb ,extending that for a total of 49 days. I changed my diet and started to exercise , I dropped about 14 kilos as a result and my mental and physical health improved greatly. I combined this with counselling sessions (I call it my mental massage) . I allow my self a drink one day a week ,not at the dangerous levels of before . Things had to change, had to be recognised and acted on and the support of others engaged.
Erik, read this today after a great conversation with a co-worker who linked me up with your story. Thank you for writing this so eloquently and for sharing it with us. I hope you have continued to get your feet under you since you wrote this. I’m thinking of times when “shared misery builds cohesion and camaraderie”, and looking for ways to build a ground-up peer supported response that names the misery and helps us as individuals and crews endure it, even when the power to change it is out of reach. Your experience gives these efforts more validation than ever. Sending you a huge hug and gratitude for your presence!
Meg, Thanks so much for taking the time to comment here. It means a lot to me that people are finding meaning and value in this. And thanks for being there for your peers and looking to build a support network, I think that can be extremely effective, and hopefully is more accessible for some folks to reach out to than other routes sometimes are.
So many thanks for sharing such strong and personal feelings and thoughts. This is probably the hardest subject to get through because it is such a struggle. I’m talking about Mental Health stereotypes, Suicide Prevention and helping each other through our career. Your article touched me right in the heart and soul and I thank you brother for putting yourself out there so very far. As you know, I also have Mental Health issues and medical issues. I can absolutely agree with you about you chain of command Always helping you as well as your co workers. I cannot function without the support you provided to me on your detail. I hope everyone in the Wildland Fire community will read, and print, your article and hopefully gain good insight into their own soul.
I printed your article and will use it as inspiration moving forward. Many thanks my friend.
This is powerful Tom. My thoughts are with you brother, I am so glad this meant something to you. Got my half dollar
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