‘Depressive Disorder’ said the patient care summary. The next line: ‘Please see for counseling’ followed by the name of the psych provider I was to schedule with, and the normal stuff like blood pressure, heart rate and height and weight. At the end of the page was the copy of my new prescription for antidepressants. I had known this was coming, but it still shocked me to see it spelled out so clearly in black and white.
It was New Years eve, a time most celebrate the past year and look forward to the year ahead. Not me. I had somehow survived the past year, and the years before that, but it was time to face what I already knew and find a future that was more than just surviving. I should have been in the prime of my life, but I was crippled by my mind after a traumatic brain injury from a training accident almost 3 years earlier. I had made a complete physical recovery and within 6 months was back on the fire truck and ambulance, and working with my national guard unit.
I was fully released to do everything I could before my accident and was looking forward to promoting in both jobs. But something wasn’t right. Everything I was doing seemed to be on autopilot; I did my job with little emotion and found that when something deviated from the norm I wasn’t as quick or confident in my reactions. I lived in a state of mental fogginess that I disguised as ‘tired from the extra shift I picked up, or extra time spent on paperwork.’ It took me longer to complete mentally demanding tasks and I noticed I would made simple, careless mistakes.
I started smoking again, and began using my friends ADHD meds to get me through extra busy days. I found it was easier to get my dog anxiety pills for summer thunder storms, than it was bring myself to pick up the phone and call my doctor. I told myself everything was ok as I mixed combinations of pills and alcohol to numb the pain, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that things weren’t right.I was driving to my national guard unit one morning, about 0400, the horizon was just showing the first light of morning.
I was 1 ½ years past my injury and had settled into a routine of constant headaches, struggles with anger, frustration and feelings of worthlessness. I was running late, as usual, and wasn’t even noticing the scenery as my foot pressed the gas petal down harder. I glanced at my speedometer as my trucks tires hit the rumble strip on the side of the highway. 97mph. I realized I was headed straight for a bridge pillar. It would look like an accident; motorist going too fast, fell asleep at the wheel, whatever the traffic investigator would call it.
I was far enough out of town that it would be at least a 20 minute response after someone would call it in. By then, even if I survived…..My grip on the wheel tightened, I wondered how long it would take someone to notice I hadn’t made it to work. Then to find me and to make notification to my husband and family. Something, not my own power, jerked the wheel back on to the road. The realization of what had almost happened hit me. I made it to work, and worked non stop for the next 2 days.
When the time came to go home, I asked my supervisor if there was anything extra to do or anything to set up for the next months training. He told me I had worked enough and needed to go home and sleep, it was obvious I hadn’t slept in days. I wanted to do anything besides get in my truck and drive home. I wanted to say something, anything, to anyone; but I didn’t know how to ask for help. I was afraid of the possible repercussions and the stigma. “Drive safe. Call me if you need to.” My supervisor said. He, along with everyone else, knew I was tired; if only they knew how tired I really was.
About a third of the way home, I stopped for fuel. As I stepped out of my truck, I was shaking. I had never been so afraid of myself, I felt there was now way I would make it home alive. I cried as I filed my truck and knew I had to call someone, but who? I searched my mind and contact list for someone who could help, but wasn’t a direct part of my chain of command in either job. I knew there where plenty of people I could call, but I needed someone who wasn’t in my chain of command and wasn’t mandated to report me. I called, and cried, as I told my friend, a veteran of the fire department and captain of the honor guard, about what had happened a few days earlier.
I knew he was trained to handle traumatic news, and that the honor guard was a very close knit group that wouldn’t expose my vulnerabilities without my consent.He talked me down and eventually I was able to get back on the highway and driving home. He kept me on the phone most of the rest of the way home, encouraged me to seek counseling and made me promise to meet him at the training building the next afternoon where he was teaching a class. When I met him the next day, he hugged me, made sure I was ok, but never said a word about my phone call the day before. He made me an assistant instructor for the reminder of the courses he taught that year and gave me something to look forward to each week, in his companionship and confidentiality.
I felt I was needed and valued on my days off, which helped me cope for a while.I muddled through the next year of life, cringing every time I drove that section of highway and growing increasingly angry at my inability to get my life together. Then one day, after not being able to drown my frustrations in pills and alcohol, I called a friend that I went to church with and who had gone through the academy in the same class as me. I drove to his house and, through the tears, told him everything that had happened that I had been hiding from everyone. He told me I had to get help because he wasn’t willing to keep my struggles a secret and feel responsible if I lost control of myself again.
For the first time, I was willing to listen, I knew this was bigger than me.Then finally today, after a few more months of ups and down and more failed attempts at denial, I carefully wrote my notes to guide my thoughts and went to see a Doctor. Much to my surprise, and relief, he listened to everything I had to say without making me feel weak for asking for help. He validated the weakness in my cognitive functioning as being caused by my injuries, and encouraged me that, with treatment, things would get better.
I picked up my new prescription on the way home and fell into an exhausted sleep almost as soon as I get the couch, a huge weight lifted from me. I finally knew what I had known for at least a year; I was depressed and needed help before it was too late.I have no idea what the coming weeks, months or year will hold; I know it will not be easy as I continue to fight the demons in my mind.
I hope to someday see the light at the end of the tunnel that leads to daylight and brighter things. It’s going to be a long road to healing, but I know there has to be something better out there for me and for all of my brothers and sisters that are struggling.
– Story written by J, anonymous first responder.