In our previous blogs, we have talked about the importance of self-care as well as the symptoms associated with compassion fatigue, or burn-out. A few symptoms of burn-out include a lack of empathy, exhaustion, and an increase in drug and/or alcohol abuse.
This blog focuses on the extreme end of the latter - addiction - and it comes to us from a fellow first responder.
Initially, we had some concern about potential backlash from those who don't understand the jobs we do or the stresses associated with it. However, we also recognize the benefits to the writer to tell their story while acknowledging the power it has to help others as well. This aligns so perfectly with our mission statement that it would be wrong of us to not share it.
We'd like to personally thank them for sharing their story, and for trusting us with their confidentiality. One day at a time, friend!
I am a Firefighter. I have run towards danger. I have seen people on the worst day of their lives. I have seen children being born and I have seen the elderly pass. I have helped many people in my time in this field, but the one person I never helped was myself. I am a Firefighter and I am also a drug addict.
Here is my story.
I served in the military for about six years right after high school. I did one tour overseas and when I got back from there, I had several back issues that came and went as they pleased. I got out of the military and decided that I wanted to start a career in the public safety. I started with getting my EMT certification and eventually my Paramedic certification. I soon got hired on at a local Fire Department, and that was the start of what I thought was a pretty amazing life after the military. I had met the woman of my dreams and I had a great job... and then I injured my back. Not sure how, or what I was doing, but I knew I was in a lot of physical pain.
I went to my doctor, and that was my first time I had been introduced to narcotic pain killers. I knew the risks of addiction. I knew what narcotics were and how dangerous they are, but that all changed. I received a rather large prescription, I think around 120 pills. 120 pills of highly addictive, extremely dangerous, and what I thought, magical pills. Magical pills, that made any and all pain go away. Made any worries you had nonexistent. To me, these pills were the answer to everything. Back hurts? Pop a pill. Can’t sleep? Pop a pill. Bad call? Pop a pill. One pill turned into two. Two turned into four. It was a vicious downward spiral into the world of drug addiction.
After that one prescription, I continued to go to my doctor for around 2 years, receiving 120 pills every month on the first, like clock-work. For the next two years, I lied to myself, I lied to friends and family. I denied having a problem. I always found a way to justify my actions. In my head, there was no problem at all. I HAD THIS UNDER CONTROL. I had been on countless overdoses in that time span. I watched mothers grieve over their dead children who had just overdosed. I had watched wives cry as they found their husbands dead on the floor from overdosing. You would think that having seen some of those things it would open my eyes to the dangers of what I was doing. But it didn’t. In my head, I wasn’t an addict. I wasn’t a junkie. I wasn’t stealing people stuff to go buy drugs. I’m not that bad. In my head, there was nothing wrong. So it just continued.
Eventually, my doctor decided that I had had enough and I got cut off. Cold turkey. No more pills. I think deep down at this point; I knew I had a problem. I still couldn’t admit it, and the last thing I was going to do was tell anyone. I had spent this entire time going through this on my own. It had become my problem. And even worse, my secret. I started finding different reasons to go to the doctor to get some pills. I would ask friends, and I went as far as taking them from family. Very quickly I found myself doing things I had never thought I would ever do. And in my head, nothing was wrong. What I was doing wasn’t wrong. It wasn’t hurting anyone right? I still have this under control. Nothing. Is. Wrong. Right?
This went on for a few years. I eventually was able to go months without having a single pill but the second it was available, or I knew I could get it, it was all I could think about. It consumed me. It consumed my mind. My thoughts were no longer my own. The addiction had me so far gone that I would dream of experiencing that high. I learned how many pills I could take to not get tired and fall asleep, how I could stretch out a few pills if that was all I had to last the longest. I was turning into something I swore I wasn’t. And I knew I wasn’t going to be able to beat it on my own. But again, it was my problem. No one else’s. I looked up rehab centers, addiction therapists, “how to kick addiction”, you name it, I searched for it. The furthest I had ever made it was having a number dialed and when I went to hit dial, I couldn’t do it. I instead deleted my browsing history and any evidence that I was searching for help and convinced myself that it wasn’t that bad. I don’t need help. I’m not an addict. I told no one. Not my family, not my friends, not my wife. No one.
I lived this lie for over six years. Longer than I had been married. My wife and I had been through a lot together, ups and downs, and we had a very strong marriage. We counted on each other. We were there for each other when we needed it most. She was my best friend. She was the person I wanted to tell most and I couldn’t do it. I kept it from her for years. I lied to her. I stole her own pills a couple times in pure selfishness just so I could get a fix. And again, in my head, I was doing nothing wrong. Addiction finds a way to change the way you think. The way you rationalize. The way you live. It traps you. It re-wires your brain so in that moment, nothing matters but that high. No matter what the cost. Those pills and that high was the only thing that matters.
Late last year, something happened that would change my life for forever:
I GOT CAUGHT.
I was at work when it happened. We had a guy transfer in and I knew had a bottle of Vicodin in his bag. I couldn’t tell you the last time I had a pill before that day, but here is how addiction works for me. I knew he had some based on a conversation I overheard him having a month ago about it. I was going through some personal stuff in my life and it was like a light switch got turned on. How can I get some pills? Can I get some pills? What is he doing? It is like your mind goes on auto pilot. Nothing mattered at that moment other than those pills. Nothing. Not my wife and kids, not my job, not my friendship with that individual. Nothing. So I waited for my opportunity and I took some. Not sure how many but enough for him to notice. And him noticing is the greatest thing that ever happened to me. He had brought it up to the entire station that he was missing some pills and he just wanted them back. My heart started racing and not in a good way. I was terrified. I had never been caught. What do I do?
It was in this moment that I finally told someone. I followed him back to his room. Shut his door and for the first time, I told the truth about my addiction. I was terrified. I was embarrassed.
I was so disappointed in myself. How could I let this happen? How could I let it get this far? I finally came clean to someone about my addiction. The next day, I got a phone call. He gave me an ultimatum. Either I come clean and get help, or it goes to the Chief. I got off the phone, I walked outside and took a deep breath. Went back inside and told my wife for the first time that I was a drug addict. In that moment I felt so many different emotions. I was terrified. I was ashamed. But I was also relieved. It was like a weight being lifted right off my shoulders. But I was still terrified. Terrified of losing my wife, my kids, my job. I felt my world crumbling right in front of me. After telling my wife, I called my Chief and told him what was going. That next day I checked myself into a rehab program. I continued to work and slowly started sharing this experience with my coworkers. I expected the worst from everyone. I didn’t deserve my wife. I didn’t deserve her support, but there she was. She stayed by my side and has been a huge help in my recovery process.
My coworkers were more supportive than I ever thought they could be. It was the first time I realized I didn’t have to do this alone. I wasn’t alone. I didn’t have to fight this battle by myself. It was one of the hardest things I ever did. I needed that push. I knew deep down that I wasn’t going to be able to do this on my own. I needed help but I didn’t know how to ask for it.
I was scared. I was embarrassed. I was ashamed. I was sick.
I NEEDED HELP.
Getting caught saved my life. I’m now almost nine months clean.
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