“Suck it up buttercup.” That’s the stigma Kern County Fire Department Captain Derek Robinson is fighting to change. He’s been with the department for more than 17 years. It was only last year that he himself dropped the act, and decided it was time to ask for help. In August he detailed that fight to overcome his emotional injuries, in a Facebook post. He’s sharing that to help reach anyone else struggling with the same demons.
A study last year said first responders are more likely to die from suicide than in the line of duty. PTSD and depression rates among first responders are as much as five times higher than among civilians. Robinson didn’t realize for years that he was among those suffering. But the Friday after Thanksgiving 2017 he was called to a scene that changed that. A family was ripped apart by a drunk driver. A mother and child killed in a crash along Highway 99. “You can’t respond and not feel something, especially when you see the impact on the family. Here’s a family on Thanksgiving day traveling and their lives were not just interrupted, but completely destroyed and they lost a mother and a child, you can’t absorb that. You just can’t.” Robinson suffered from sleepless nights. He turned to self-medication at times. He lost relationships and lost his passion for the job. Years of repeated exposure to trauma had taken their toll. It was a month after that Thanksgiving crash that Robinson decided to seek help. That changed everything. “Where I am now is drastically different from where I am today by getting help. This is more of an injury and same as a physical injury it can be dealt with.”
Robinson wants other first responders to know it’s not only ok, but good to talk about how the calls affect them. And he wants to be an example of how you can come out the other side, and find a path back to happiness. Society, friends and family can all play a part in breaking the stigma around asking for help. “Ask the tough questions if you think someone is struggling. You will never regret asking, you will regret not asking.”
If you are considering taking your own life, there are several resources to get help. The local crisis line is 868-8000. The national suicide prevention hotline is 1-800-273-8255. First responders can visit: healingourown.org, iaffrecoverycenter.com or firestrong.org.
Rotary House Retreat is a local program for first responders dealing with anxiety and depression. There are two sessions yearly. The next is coming up in October. You can apply at rotaryhouseretreat.com.
I’m a hypocrite.
This isn’t easy to share.
It’s taken months to sit down and put pen to paper.
Even now I hesitate; I don’t like feeling exposed.
But I want to help.
It could be just one person, just one firefighter; that would be enough to make all this worthwhile.
Firefighter suicides have taken up too many headlines lately, and I can’t be quiet anymore.
This is my story.
This has taken a serious investment of my time and emotions. So thank you in advance for taking the time to read this through. Keep in mind the people close to you, and be aware of the signs. I’ve been in bad places before, places others could be in right now.
She was my Mistress once, hiding in the shadows.
Slowly she spins her webs around me.
On paper, on social media, in many ways my life has been charmed.
Trust me, I know: I’m the one who crafted that mask for all of you to see.
A mask to hide the pain, the emptiness; keeping all of you from seeing the emotional scars left behind by 17+ years on the job.
17+ years of the kind of calls we run.
I’ve been good at hiding my emotions, my reactions to the shit I’ve seen with my brothers.
Since 2001, I’ve seen the fire service embrace the persona of tough guys: “Suck it up, buttercup.”
But we’re learning too: that persona is no longer acceptable.
A dear friend of mine, now retired, put it best: “This job is far more violent than it was when I started in the 80’s.” I haven’t found any truer, more profound words than his.
In 2015, our International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) launched a campaign to “Stamp out the Stigma,” to embolden firefighters to admit they need help and to reach out.
Early in the campaign, I invested in advocating for the mental health of our firefighters. As union president, I didn’t want that call: that one of my members made the decision that taking their own life was their best- and only- option.
My passion for the cause took an even more personal tone shortly after, when a friend outside my fire family took his own life.
Back then, I didn’t understand it.
I do now.
Back then, I didn’t realize I was already dancing with my own Mistress.
She was shrouded in darkness, pulling me down the same path.
She asked me those same poisonous questions:
“What’s your fate in this world, Derek?”
“What’s your worth?”
“Would the world be better off without you?”
I found my awakening in a pile of sleepless nights.
I’d begun to self-medicate.
Getting drunk was necessary to get me to sleep.
Or maybe, more appropriately, pass out.
But it didn’t keep me asleep.
That’s when we danced the most: the questions of my own worth became fodder for those early morning hours.
I graduated to sleeping pills.
I was desperate; I needed to escape.
At the insistence of my ex-girlfriend, I threw them out.
But soon I returned to the bottle.
The sleepless nights continued.
I danced every night with the Mistress in my own mind.
She was my great deceiver.
More terrible calls came through at work.
And eventually all that was left on those sleepless nights was me.
My Mistress and I, dancing along the cracks, the breaks, the tremors of my own mind.
“Wouldn’t the world be better off without you, Derek?”
Nights grew darker.
She consumed me, enveloped me.
Night after night, darker and darker.
It’s all I could think:
“Wouldn’t the world be better off without me?”
That would end it: no more darkness. No more pain.
Now the songs of suicide spoke to me, deep down in my soul.
New songs to dance with Her.
I even found myself singing them aloud.
How was this even possible?
Her hooks were firmly set.
I was angry at work.
Calls were a nuisance.
My blood pressure spiked. My heartbeat quickened. My anger grew.
My crew must have hated my negativity; it must have been draining to work with me.
I always thought I loved my job.
My ex-girlfriend who knew me best at my worst:
“As long as I’ve known you, you’ve hated your job.”
I woke up.
She was right.
And my Mistress began to lose Her hold.
I knew I was in trouble; I’d bought into the stigma, and didn’t want to be seen as the “weak” guy.
I was the Captain, the leader.
By avoiding my own PTSI, my own anxiety, my own depression, I’d become my crew’s weak link.
I was not the Captain. I was not the leader.
And finally I reached out for help.
I don’t cry.
Suck it up, buttercup, right?
Seeking help was the best thing I’ve ever done. I opened up and got raw, I shared the shit I’ve seen. 17 years of scars came pouring out.
I didn’t cry before.
Now I know that’s unacceptable.
Looking back, I can see the impact this life has had on me. My anxiety was off the charts. I’d seen a cardiologist for chest pains. At 48 years old, swimming nearly every day for as long as I can remember, I’d suddenly was unable to swim 100 yards without losing my breath.
I’d never connected those dots before: physically I’d always been in shape, but mentally I was drowning. The anxiety left me clinging to the wall, fearing I couldn’t make it to the other end. It pulled me from the pool, gasping for air.
The death and destruction I’d seen had brought me to the edge of my Mistress’ dance floor.
Threatening to push me off, to end it all.
But with help, She’s finally released me. Actually, I escaped Her grasp.
I know now that PTSI is an injury that can be treated. I’ve built a strong relationship with my son, my family, my friends.
I can swim without worry.
The sleepless nights are gone.
The anger is gone.
And most importantly, I’m ready to share my story.
That Mistress, the dark thoughts of suicide… There are ways to escape Her, and my story is proof.
Do not be ashamed or afraid to ask for help.
Dealing with PTSI, with anxiety, with depression… Those aren’t battles for you to fight alone.
And if you have a loved one that’s in the military or a first responder, know the warning signs. Don’t be afraid to ask the tough questions. Fight for them; they’ve dedicated their lives to fighting and serving others.
PTSI, anxiety, depression: these are byproducts of the job that we never see. Nobody told us about them when we first signed up.
But you can help.
One police officer.
One first responder.
One military veteran.
Be brave, be better, and ask for help.
I wouldn’t be here if I hadn’t. I’m done being a hypocrite.
Firefighters battle the notion that our jobs define us, that we’re “heroes.”
We’re just doing our job, it doesn’t define us.
Our future does.
Writing this out to share with you has been tough, but now that I’m here, I knew I couldn’t keep quiet any more.
I have to thank the following people for their support, encouragement, and empowerment in helping me get to this point. I have also included some links for more information.
Stacy Colombo Froehlich
Joshua David Samuel
Brian K Rice