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My demon is an angel

What follows is something I rarely talk about. But I believe it’s necessary in order to heal. I also believe that if this story helps just one person come forward and want to seek help, then it’s all worth it.

It was June 26th of 2010. I was in medic school and had been a firefighter for only 5 years with a part time department at this point. I came into work eagerly hoping a call would come in as I needed the experience to finish my medic ride time for class. I remember it very clearly because this would be the last time that I ever hoped for a call.

Nothing happened during the first part of the shift at station 2. Nothing new, especially since I needed the points. I went to my bunk somewhat disappointed. That lasted till 0200. Ambulance abc respond for the 5 year old having a seizure.

En route to the address I remember being apprehensive as I didn’t have much experience with pediatric patients. Suddenly I hear the radio come alive with the voice of a concerned dispatcher. She is telling us that she is issuing CPR instructions and the patient is turning blue. It wasn’t more than 20 seconds later that the station 1 Lt. Comes on the radio saying if we needed help we better call mutual aid. He followed up with we are busy. It was way too early for my brain at the time. All I could think was what in the F#%k was more important than a 5 year old not breathing!!

Arriving on scene, we arrived at the same time as a local police officer. I begin pushing on the chest of a little girl with gorgeous blonde curls. I switch between the gravity of the situation and asking the police officer for equipment and telling her where it can be found.

We found out from her parents that she woke up her parents saying she didn’t feel well. She had a strong fever so dad put her in a cool bath. That’s when she had the seizure. Shortly after she stopped breathing.

We did all we could in the house to stabilize her. We began moving to the ambulance. I remember every single step I took in the house. I remember the police holding onto my back as I walked down the stairs, I remember the feel of the cool morning air. I also remember the sound of her dads voice when he said “that’s just great… she’s dead!!”

We drove like hell to the hospital trying to get as much done en route as we could. Several times I would see the pt going from asystole to what looked like a sinus rhythm. Each time I allowed myself to get my hopes up only to find that its PEA. Then finally I had a weak pulse… right back to PEA. No matter what tried, she wouldn’t hold on. I could also see that she wasn’t quite ready to give up.

We arrive at the hospital, do the turn over and my partner goes to write the report. I was glued to the room. Could have been 5 minutes, could have been 5 days. I didn’t move. I was just fixed on the little girl that should be in bed getting the sleep she needed for a long day of playing with her friends.

45 minutes later, they stopped working. Said it was enough. My heart fell out of my body. I started walking. Mechanically moving to pick up supplies, then returning to the ambulance to clean. I told the guys that they called it. She didn’t make it. I could see the eyes drop to the floor but they didn’t let on that it bothered them.

Later back at the station, there was no talking, no tv, and no eye contact. I tried to bring up something and was told we weren’t talking about it. That’s how it stayed. For years… in the shadows. Something we didn’t talk about. I have done a lot and seen a lot. I have cut dead bodies from vehicles, my entire company came within a minute of falling Through a floor into a basement fire, but nothing has affected me like this beautiful little girl.

I became an insomniac, I didn’t want to lay in bed, my thoughts would get me. I was having horrible dreams when I did sleep. My wife kept telling me that I would swing my arms in my sleep and throw pillows. I also found myself excusing myself from groups as anxiety took over. For example, I once hid in a bathroom because a waitress told me they didn’t have a drink I ordered! And of course my anger… I didn’t recognize any of it.

Fast forward years later. I felt that I was in a good place with it all. Time is supposed to heal all wounds right?! What I wasn’t seeing is the way I treated people. One day everything came to a head. I had my wife ask me why I treated her like garbage over small things. I couldn’t see that I was mistreating her so badly! Not only that, but it had been going on for years! Then I had my son…my 4 year old son that I felt looked up to me like a god ask me “daddy? Why do you get so mad at people?” That was the moment I knew I had a real problem. I could now see my anger coming out, I could usually stop it, but now I was becoming withdrawn so as to avoid it.

Eventually I had a few good brothers and sisters tell me about myself and make me seek help. It took me several doctors to find someone that I liked, or connected with. I learned that not every doctor is a good fit. What works for one person may not work for the next.

Today, I feel I am somewhat better. I still don’t really sleep at night. But when I do, it’s sound and I don’t have the nightmares. I also enjoy being around people more. I’ve been told I am also more pleasant to be around. More importantly my wife and son are happier.

You don’t have to live in silence, you don’t have to get completely better in one week. It may be a long road to recovery, but every little victory is just that. A little victory! If your hurting, let’s take a walk.

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Walk with me

Hello! Brothers and sisters, my name is Brian. I have been a professional firefighter since 2007. In that time I have witnessed some of the best in life, and also some of the worst. I have been in situations (much like you have I’m sure) that made me want to give up.  I was fortunate enough to have a few brothers pull me to the side and love me enough to make sure I got help before I did something I couldn’t take back.  I made this site as a testament to them. I want you to know that you are enough. It’s ok to NOT be ok, and I’m glad that you are here.

If you ever feel like life, career, family, or just your own thoughts are getting too heavy…Lets take a walk.

If you ever feel like you could have done more or just need a friendly ear…Lets take a walk.

But most importantly, if you feel as though your in too deep and you have no one to turn to… Lets take a walk.

This site is not meant to be professional help. Nothing can take the place of licensed mental health professionals (Lord knows I’ve had my share of time with them). I only want you to see my story, read something here that sounds interesting, or share a story that may help a brother or sister.

Good company in a journey makes the way seem shorter. — Izaak Walton

What follows is….

img_2111-1My brothers and sisters, you all know that I love each and every one of you, but what I am about to say may sting. I don’t believe you have a mental health DISORDER.

You don’t have to live with this pain FOREVER. This is not the way things are going to be FROM NOW ON! What you do have is an INJURY! An injury that can be healed.

If you broke your arm, you would get it set, put in a cast, and go to physical therapy. Not only would you do it, you would probably tell others about your progress. People ask you questions and you gladly answer. It’s just part of the job right?!

Our brains are no different. We need to start understanding that while trauma and hurt are part of the job, the experience is in fact an injury; one that can be healed. I, for one, benefited greatly from EMDR treatment. But others are out there.

I’m not saying that there is a magic treatment out there that will free you from your pain. I’m not saying that with treatment, your bad memories will disappear. What I am saying, is that by reprocessing, and working through your injury, you can learn to live a healthy life with a healed brain.

Not feeling ok with a traumatic event is healthy! We aren’t supposed to enjoy it or block it out like robots; but when it hurts, you CAN heal. You don’t have a post traumatic stress DISORDER. you have a post traumatic stress INJURY.

Lets take a walk sometime and find a way to allow you to get better.

From the bottom of my heart

Today as I got out of bed I received a wonderful thank you message from an anonymous source. I have to tell ya, it’s amazing to be able to start a morning feeling this good! To all of you that have ever dropped me a line, this thank you is for you. This site would not exist without the support of my brothers and sisters. To those of you waiting to reach out, just know that you do not have to leave any contact information. If you need to take a walk sometime, an email would be great, but I will never ask for a name unless you offer it. So again, thank you all very much. I hope you gain something from this site, I know I have benefited greatly on my own walk from people like you. As always, if you need anything, please, let’s take a walk

Sincerely, truly, fraternally,

Brian

Mental Health Viewpoint: The Fine Line Between WHAT and WHO.

In the last few years we have witnessed a major turn in the way we view our minds. First responders of the past were though of as hard men that had a calling. This calling brought out the best of men and women that saw the worst the world could offer. Now we know that even these men and women were merely as human as we are, and humans feel things. We are all affected by what we see, but it may affect us in vastly different ways.

Now I pose a question: Is being a first responder WHO, or WHAT you are?

We all start out on our journeys in much the same way. Walking through the door eager to learn. We wait for an opportunity to prove ourselves to our brothers and sisters in the hopes we will soon be accepted. We work our jobs, but go home to our lives. In these moments being a first responder is WHAT we are.

All to soon we get the calls under our belts, or the time in theatre. We feel like this is what life has always been. We lose the ability to see the defining line between our professional and personal lives. At this point, being a first responder is WHO we are.

Neither position is a bad spot to be in on the surface. If being a first responder is a WHAT, we still have the ability to be great at what we do. WHATS can still be true brothers, sisters, mentors, and teachers; all the labels our community needs. WHATS still also carry the risk of being affected by what we see. Depression, anxiety, substance abuse, PTSD and suicide are still real for the them. Bad calls hurt, but making a first responder WHAT you are allows one a mental area of refuge, a safe place to spend your time and devote yourself to. You may be a paramedic, a fireman, a soldier, or a police officer. You may have still be hurting. You still may need to talk, but after hours you’re a father, a mother, or a friend.

It’s been my opinion, however, that the largest risk for mental health disorders and substance abuse issues lie with those that use being a first responder to define WHO they are. It’s no longer a job that you devote yourself to, but a lifestyle. WHOs are still wonderful family men/women, friends, and have exciting lives outside of the job, but first and foremost they are first responders. They are firemen that are fathers, Cops that are friends, soldiers that are brothers and sisters. The job is our number one priority with everything else being second, or even lower. When things go wrong with the job: bad call, argument, seeing something unexpected, or even retirement… WHOs have nothing to fall back on. It’s not just a bad moment on the job, it’s a major snag to their identities. This makes every untoward event extra difficult for someone defining the job as their primary identity.

Brothers and sisters, go back to the question posed in the beginning. I’m sure you have already realized which side you are on, but let’s take it a step further.

I’ve told you many times that I’m always ready to walk with you while we figure things out, while we make it safe, and while we heal. Now is say to all of you: I want you to walk with me while we figure out How to take the best parts of each side and make them work in unison? We will never end the hurt a human feels seeing what we are bound to see, but how do we give ourselves the tools to survive.

Will you walk with me?

Our hospital staff are human too!!

It’s a subject that isn’t often talked about. As much as fire/police/EMS want to be recognized for what we go through in the line of duty, nurses and hospital staff are still falling to the wayside.

I’ve had many conversations on this topic lately, and it occurred to me that no matter which of my demons pop up, no matter which moment, there was usually an ER team involved. As much as fire/EMS/police see, we all have an advantage: We can generally find a quiet place to go, whether it’s a car, ambulance, gym. Nurses don’t get that option. If something happens with a patient, they are forced to just “suck it up” and move on to the next one. They even deal with families after the fact.

This will definitely be a subject that gets more discussion in the future, but for now, let’s all take a moment to think about the people we bring our problems to. Let’s realize that, like us, they are merely people. People that have the same hang ups we have.

Nurses, doctors, techs… we will always have your back. If you ever need anything, as always, let’s take a walk.

A lot can be said for an old truck

Yesterday, I had to remove all the equipment, tools and hose from the first truck I rode on at my career department. It made me think…

How often have you felt empty on the inside? Felt drained, lacking, or even useless?

Fact is, this truck is still in great condition. Engine runs like a champ, transmission is fantastic, and it pumps like a dream. All the lights work, generator powers anything and the truck is mechanically in top shape.

This is much like those of us suffering from PTSD and other behavior health disorders. Just because we feel empty on the inside, doesn’t mean we aren’t useful or important. We have scars, blemishes, or other trauma.

Truth is, this truck is still useful and will be appreciated by its service and potential.

Be proud of the memories, don’t get hung up on the bad, but focus on the positive and possibilities of your life.

You are loved, and you are not alone. Know your worth!

Brett Havlin

Are you ok with just getting by?

Me with one of my personal hero’s in the fire service, Paul Enhelder

The problem with mental health issues both in the ranks of first responders, and in the civilian world, is not in the illness itself; it’s in how it’s treated. Treatment is often the same in a professional setting as it is for someone trying to deal with it on their own.

COPING

What is coping? In laymen’s terms (words that I understand), coping is just dealing with it. Coping is finding a way to live with the pain that makes it hurt less; a facade if you will, a scab over the injury.

The problem with “dealing with it” is that it doesn’t work! It doesn’t allow any room for slip ups, no margin for error. Dealing or coping only creates further problems, and often times, these problems are invisible to us until they have affected others. Issues such as anger, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse are all masked by the facade of coping; or at least we want to believe that.

In my own experience, it took me a very long time to admit I had a problem, this is because I was “getting by”. I knew I had bad thoughts, I knew I replayed the events over in my head, I knew that my own wife didn’t like sharing a bed with me because of my constant tossing and turning. But most of the time I knew that I would be able to cope.

It all came to a head after my wife and son called me out on my anger. These stories are in previous blogs so I won’t bore with details again. It was at this moment that I knew I needed more than coping. I couldn’t “deal with it” any more.

It was when I realized this that a whole world opened up. Admitting to the problem allowed me to see. I saw that many others fight the same fight that I do. From that I discovered a new way.

HEALING!

If we break a leg or cut our hand, we wouldn’t just cope or deal. We would get professional help and FIX the problem. We must be prepared to do the same with mental health.

Professionals are available that can and do help. Healing is not about getting by, it’s not about masking, and it’s not about denial. It’s about taking ownership of your problems and admitting you can’t do it alone. This is where true healing starts.

My blog has many resources available. Some resources are tailored to specific needs, such as family, substance abuse or a specific branch of public safety. These resources may or may not be what works for you. This is only meant to be a starting block. I myself tried 5 different doctors before I found my fit.

You can do this! You have the strength. Real work starts here! And as always, if you need a little extra push, a little motivation, or just someone to talk to…

Lets take a walk.

Where is it?!

See me smiling? See me laughing? I don’t have a care in the world but to enjoy a weekend with some of the best people I’ve ever had the privilege to know. there is a secret behind this smile though. Would you believe that this happy face is just moments away from a panic attack?

This photo was taken during the recent honor guard convention. I was having the time of my life. I had just gotten out of practice. My wife was seriously enjoying herself with all the great people we get to surround ourselves with as Well.

As my face began to hurt from all the smiling and laughing, I decided to sit down to check on an email. That’s when i noticed something wasn’t right.

WHERE IS MY IMPORTANT FOLDER?!?!

I kept a folder in my email to keep special things. This folder was simply labeled “important” Most importantly was an email I had received from my former EMS system. This email told me everything that I needed reassured of pertaining to “the call”. You did all you could, you did it right, nothing you did or didn’t do would have been able to fix the outcome for the better. I must have read the email a million times. I could recite it line by line.

WHERE IS THE EMAIL?!?!

I look around the room. I see the same smiling faces, some of them even look back at me. I feel a hot flash. I Shoot a half smirk their way. I feel my legs begin to shake. I search feverishly through my email boxes over and over to no avail. My breathing hastens. More waves and how are ya’s from old and new friends alike. I don’t even know what I’m responding at this point but apparently it’s good enough for them, they smile and say “Great! See ya in a minute then!” My eyes are feeling wet and inflamed. I have to get out of here!

I NEED THAT EMAIL!!!

That’s when a very close friend of mine steps over. He starts small talk until he sees the look on my face. “I need to talk” I say. Within moments we find a quiet spot Off the hotel lobby. No sooner do I look at him than the tears start falling, I open my mouth and nothing but quick shallow breathing and a staccato of what almost pass for words come out.

I’VE HAD IT SO LONG, I NEED IT AND NOW ITS GONE!!!!

He listens to me as long as I felt I needed to talk, I stammered and paced the floor for so long, and he stood there listening. When I had said all my voice would allow, I fell against the wall. My vision is blurring I’m getting dizzy and I’m wishing to God that the next time I looked at my phone my precious security blanket would be back.

WHY IS IT GONE NOW!!!!

I didn’t realize it for a few minutes, but in one fell swoop, he disarmed my panic with a single blow. “Maybe that’s because it needs to be.” He says. Wow… seriously? An answer so simple and yet, my brain is wrapping around it. I knew what that email had said, I could recite it, I knew everything that was in it. Why did I need to keep the copy? Why did I need it? What benefit was it to have taking up space to read yet again?

The answer? Painfully, I didn’t. I didn’t need it, I shouldn’t have been using it as a crutch for my emotions. Thankfully I had a true friend to help me through the pain of this realization.

Everything slowly comes back into focus. My breathing gets more regular, my legs stop shaking, and my voice comes back. I say thank you and ask for a moment alone. It took a few more minutes, but because I reached out to someone I could trust, now I saw the light at the end of this passage, I knew it was over and I was going to be ok.

Brothers and sisters, I know it’s tough sometimes when we face the unexpected. I know things aren’t always going to have a great ending, and it’s ok not to smile all the time. We have to understand that despite the normality of a bad time, it doesn’t have to mean a bad day, a bad week, a bad year, or a bad life. We have to get back up, and if need by find someone to help us get back on our feet. Whether military or civilian, police, dispatch, fire, or EMS, if you ever want to talk, let’s get you through this together.

Let’s take a walk.

Oh you’re a (insert first responder title here)?!…..

Before you saw the picture, I’m sure you knew what the next question was going to be. I’ve heard it countless times, and I’m sure you have too. These words asked hundreds of times a day all over the world, are, in my opinion, second only to “Thank you for your service”.

Oh wow! Your a fireman?! What’s the worst thing you’ve ever seen?!

This question used to get to me every time; right to the core. How could someone think it’s ok to ask a stranger to go back to a moment like that? What right do they have to put me back in these moments?!

The answer, quite frankly, is that they ask because they don’t understand what they are asking. How could they possibly know what it’s like to watch a coworker die, to disentangle someone from a mangled vehicle, the smell of death, or to calmly perform cpr on a 5 year old girl while your insides cry out!

The picture above has always intrigued me. I love the work of Paul Combs. I think we can all see the obviousness of a lone firefighter that is traveling with his “baggage”. What is less obvious, and I could be wrong, is the innocence in the eyes of the person asking the question. He has no idea about that mans hurt, he just wants a “good story”.

It has taken me quite a while, but this work off art has given me courage. After all, if you follow me, or have read my previous work, you would see that the little girl in the front is my personal baggage. The man carrying her could easily be me, or any of the countless others just like me. The man to his left can’t see them, he just wants a good story to distract him from his day, after all, we as firemen/medics/police/soldiers do a wonderful job of showing the world how awesome the job is, why would the man not want a story?!

I try to remember this when I’m asked the question. Like I said, I used to get upset, shy away. Now? I just give a smile back, along with a very polite: ” please, you don’t want to hear that. I save that one just for me.”

Brothers and sisters, I know this topic can be hard. Especially when you’re hit off guard. I’m here if you ever need to talk. I promise I won’t ask, but if you want to share, let’s take a walk.

Why are you mad all the time?

The words cut me like a knife. My son, my life, my reason for being, right out of the blue. I knew I had a problem, but I also felt as though I was getting a handle on things.

It seemed like something so simple, a car in front of me that was moving too slow for my liking. Didn’t he know I had to get my son to school?! “Move!!!!! F#%k!!!” Then the words that sent me downward.

“Daddy? Why are you mad all the time?”

My buddy, my everything, my son. He just called me out on my bullshit, and it took all the breath out of me. It took a 5 year old to let me know I was living life with blinders. The worst part, now I had to own up to it.

Thankfully, it’s easy to apologize to a 5 year old. He even asked me if I would say sorry for yelling. I said I’m sorry, and I said I would do better. He smiled and it seemed enough for him.

I wish I could say the same for me. His words cut my soul! I was holding back tears over the thought of my son covering his ears every time I would raise my voice, or keeping silent when he knew I was about to blow up again. At 5 years old, this was going to be his memory of me should I die tomorrow.

Now, I already knew that anger was my way of handling my anxiety, and stress. It seemed to come without any warning, large scale blow ups followed by shame and distance. Now I had to own up to all of it. I’m being called out by a five year old!

So what’s my point? The point is, everyone… EVERYONE raises their voice or gets angry from time to time. Anger is normal, everyone experiences it in a normal day! IT’S NORMAL!!!

That’s when it hit me. Getting angry in front of my son wasn’t the problem. The problem was not providing context. Not just to my son, but to myself! When I got angry, I never explained to him why. I never had a rational explanation, and never talked it out. Not to him, not to anyone, and never to myself. Changes had to be made.

Jump ahead to the present. I still get angry, I still yell from time to time, the difference, is after I have the outburst, I recognize it. I calmly make sure that I’m understood as to why the outburst took place, and if it was unnecessary, I own up to it and don’t blame it on my condition.

Bottom line brothers and sisters, not all anger is a step backwards. It’s ok to have emotion, even if it’s not positive. Just make sure that you are accountable to it, admit fault, and apologize when your wrong. Not only to others but especially to yourself. We are only human and we all slip.

As alwaysIf you need to talk I’m here. Let’s take a walk!

Once it’s gone…

I have been dwelling on the dark side of my brain for about a month now. I recently received some “not good but not necessarily bad” news from my annual physical.

I instantly got the webmd flu. Anything that COULD possibly be wrong… suddenly BECAME wrong. To make matters worse, I was not receiving any answers from the doctor! By this I don’t mean he was beating around the bush, I mean the office wouldn’t answer calls or return messages. This dead end lasts for 2 weeks! 2 weeks without answers. 2 weeks sure that my life was over.

I ended up calling my regular physician, which is kind of a misnomer. I really only see him when something is REALLY wrong. It took 2 more weeks to get in to see him.

In the mean time, I’m trying to plan a funeral, make my peace with God, and imaging what the after life is like. I’m sure that what I have will take me away from what and who I love. I’ve all but made up my mind that the universe just doesn’t care about me. I keep telling myself that I have lived a great life, but big deal! I’m ready to lay down and wait for it.

Moving ahead now in the story(past the part where I come completely unglued in my counselors office about being afraid of my own mortality) to the point where I see my doctor. To his credit, he got things done rather quickly! He also got results of outpatient bloodwork and ultrasound to me in less than 5 hours. I guess I was being persuasive.

All of my tests were normal, except for one, but the abnormal result could be accounted for by a recent sickness. Even my ultrasound showed nothing to be alarmed about.

Now comes another set of emotions! Now I’m beating myself up, not for being weak, but for not living the life my family deserves.

I asked myself: What the hell is your problem?! Good or bad, you have a life! By not living it, by dwelling on bad news, it only takes the small amount of time you have on this earth away from you and those that love you. When you dwell on the bad, when you think the worst before there is a worst to think, you are depriving yourself of the moments that make life worth living.

Now that I know my health is no longer an issue, I realize that I have lost that time. I missed an entire month of memories with my family over something I couldn’t change to begin with! In this time, we could have made a memory that would stay with us the rest of our lives.

While allowing worry to consume me, I lost time that will never come again. In the past this would have meant an endless cycle of guilt and regret. While I know I have another chance to be better. I’ll never get the past back, but I can use it to make things better, not just for me, but for those that I love.

I’m not going to say this is a quick cure, or that it will make it easier the next time, I won’t even say that this thought will be of use to someone going through something similar. What I will say, is that I get it and I’ll always be here to listen. If you need me, let’s take a walk.