Updated: Oct 5, 2021
The foreword to my current collection about PTSD is too important of a subject to not share with everyone possible, therefore, I'm making it available here for free. While A Firefighter Christmas Carol and Other Stories is a collection of psychological and supernatural suspense stories for everyone, the title novella is an emotional exploration of first responder PTSD and suicide. My foreword explains why I wrote about such a sensitive topic.
Charles Dickens wrote his novella A Christmas Carol in 1843 over the course of six weeks. Since that time, the story of a greedy old man named Ebenezer Scrooge has been adapted and reimagined countless times across all types of media. The following story is my own reimagining with a modern flare and a slightly different message. I believe it is one that Charles Dickens himself would understand.
In 1865, Charles Dickens was involved in a fatal train crash in which seven carriages plunged over a bridge that was being repaired. Dickens was in the only first-class carriage not to plunge over the edge. As he was one of the few to escape serious injury, he began tending to the wounded. In a sense, Mr. Dickens became a first responder at his own accident. One gentleman had a laceration on his head so severe that Dickens had to look away. Using a hat to hold water, he washed off some of the blood and calmed the man with a sip of brandy from a flask. The man died during Dickens’s care. A woman he tried to help also died shortly after. Ten people died that day, and forty more were injured. After such a traumatic near-death experience, Charles Dickens suffered lingering aftereffects that, in modern times, we label as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD.
It’s normal after going through something traumatic to experience some symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) that eventually go away on their own. It’s when those symptoms don’t resolve or get worse and start to meaningfully interfere with your life, work, and relationships that it becomes concerning. Symptoms of PTS could be anything from an increased heartrate in stressful situations to increased anxiety when placed in a similar situation to the one that caused the symptoms in the first place. Feeling anxious or leery of going into a swimming pool after almost drowning could be an example of PTS. Waking up in the middle of the night unable to breathe after having nightmares of drowning would more likely fall under PTSD. Judging from Dickens’s own words a few years after the accident, his PTS symptoms had progressed into PTSD.
In 1868, Dickens wrote, “I have sudden vague rushes of terror, even when riding in a hansom cab, which are perfectly unreasonable but quite insurmountable.” His son told of Dickens gripping carriage seats in a state of utter panic at the slightest jolts and at least once throwing himself onto the isle floor in fear the train was about to crash.
Most people experience some form of PTS in their lives. Some of those people go on to suffer from PTSD: First responders, parents who lose children, soldiers, witnesses of horrible tragedies, as well as many others. In the fire service, we struggle with PTSD on a catastrophic level. Firefighters across the world commit suicide at an alarming rate each year. I have lost half a dozen friends on the Columbus Fire Department alone. In Columbus, Ohio we are fortunate to have an administration that strives to understand this issue and has devoted resources to helping fight it. We have a wonderful Critical Incident Stress Debriefing Team, an Employee Assistance Program, and support from all levels of our leadership. Despite this, we still lose members to suicide, sometimes more than one a year, and it is devastating.
There are many reasons this is a difficult problem to address. I won’t list them all here, but I’d like to mention a couple. A lot of times, the person suffering from PTSD isn’t even aware that they are in as dire straits as they are. Or they may believe they are still experiencing the more common symptoms of PTS and things will get better on their own like they have in the past. Most firefighters think of themselves as strong and not susceptible to such “weaknesses” without understanding that there is nothing weak about it. After all, firefighters are inherently fixers and not used to “needing fixed.”
The effects of PTSD and the progression from PTS may come on fast or slowly over time like the proverbial frog in a pot of water. By the time the person suffering realizes there is a problem, the water might already be boiling.
That’s part of what might have happened to me.
After an accident that killed a little boy close to my son’s age, I unknowingly started down that path. While I had seen other children die in my career (too many), there was something different in how that particular call played out. I won’t get into details here, but a keen eye will be able to put some of the pieces together as they read through this story.
Here’s the pisser about trying to self-recognize PTSD: It isn’t always one event that brings it on. For me, I had nearly twenty years with the fire service, seeing everything you can imagine. My feelings of sadness usually faded over time, but they could have been lingering in the back of my mind for years. That call could have been the sole catalyst for what happened to me or simply the terrible, life-altering tipping point after years of buildup. I can’t know for sure. Whatever the reason, my symptoms weren’t getting better over time.
In the weeks, months, and years that followed, several things happened. First, I started writing as a cathartic way of escaping my feelings. Second, I neglected my family to the point of nearly losing my marriage and basically missing a year or so of my son’s life. I remember responding to one particular report of an auto accident involving children that filled me with unbelievable dread while sitting in the passenger seat of the medic truck. I had to concentrate on calming my breaths and fighting the urge to simply stay in the truck once we arrived on scene. Though that call didn’t turn out to be serious and I quickly reverted to doing my job, it was almost overwhelming for a few seconds. I wondered how I could keep working.
You have to understand I didn’t know I was broken. I mean, sure, I knew my world was falling apart around me, but my brain constantly told me I was fine. Or I would be fine. I was the strong one, after all. I never let the shit get to me before and it wasn’t getting to me then. It couldn’t. Friends even told me I was acting differently, but what did they know, right? They didn’t know what was in my head.
Or did they?
I’m one of the lucky ones. I was able to recognize what was happening to me at some point and I had resources to help. Not everyone is so fortunate.
I’m better now. I came out the other end better equipped to recognize my triggers, and now I use what I learned to help others when I see in them what in hindsight I saw in my younger self.
I started my take on Charles Dickens’s wonderful Christmas tale with the idea of helping people better understand PTSD while giving a unique take on his story. What it turned into was, in a strange and unexpected way, a piece of me. Not exactly how things happened for me, of course, but enough.
The first full book I ever wrote was called Slow Burn. In a clumsy, amateurish way, Slow Burn attempted to show how the terrible things I saw as a first responder almost broke me as a person. It was a good idea, but poorly done. I’m thankful that it only lives on my computer and in my heart and not out in the world. Thanks to Charles Dickens’s inspiration, I believe that with this story I have succeeded in writing what I wanted to write all those years back.
While I never reached the point of contemplating suicide, it wasn’t because I’m stronger than anyone else or any garbage like that. It was because of luck, my own personal circumstances, and getting the help I needed when I needed it.
If you are struggling with PTSD, depression, or suicidal thoughts, you need to know that people care about you. You may not believe that right now, but you are special in this world, and this world is better because you’re in it. The ways I got better were unique to me and my circumstances, and the ways you can get better might be completely different, but the trick is recognizing that you can get better and finding the ways that work for you.
Sometimes the path to suicide feels inevitable. Even if you read nothing else I ever write, read this: It is not inevitable. I’ll say it again. Suicide is not inevitable. That path needs broken somehow so you can see it from a different angle. A lot of times, it can’t be done on your own. I don’t care how “strong” you are.
If you’ve prepared a plan to kill yourself or even consider it on occasion, please call 1-800-273-8255 right now or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org before it’s too late. Your life matters more than you know. There are good things for you still. You just can’t see them right now because they’re hiding behind a mountain. But they are there. You’re not weak. You just need what we all need sometimes: help.
Good luck. I’m pulling for you.