Image courtesy of Geralt.
By Nathan Fuist
For Part 1 of this article, click HERE
In the fall of 2016, I had my first baby—a beautiful boy whom I love. My wife and son seemed to be the only thing that provided stability during that time. I didn’t want to do much of anything except be by their sides. I had a month off of work for the birth and had some great experiences with my new future firefighter. However, the time flew by, and it was time to go back to work.
My first day back was fairly uneventful. I got to tell the guys everything that had gone on while I was off, and that mom and baby were doing great. Of course, I also learned of everything that had changed while I was off work, too. This time there seemed to be only good changes happening in my life!
But when I started my second shift, I was not quite in the right state mind. I was highly anxious awaiting the next call, and I became withdrawn. After that shift was over, I came home and cried to my wife. I rarely cry; I may get angry, sad, and depressed, but I hardly ever cry. After getting most of things bothering me off my chest, the day seemed to get better. In fact, I would say I had an enjoyable day.
However, I couldn’t fall asleep, and then panic set in until I had a full-on panic attack. I could not pin-point the reason, nor could I fall asleep. I was shaking for six straight hours. That’s when I reached out to the PEER support group—the same one that I am a part of—to get help.
It was early in the morning, but one man reached out and called me and asked if I was suicidal or homicidal, in which I replied “no.” We talked for a bit more to try and figure out what was going on. Once I started to calm down, we created a plan that I promised I would follow and call him after completing it. The plan started with calling my therapist, then my primary care doctor, and finally my chief (because I trusted that he would take care of my best interests).
RELATED: Spencer on PTSD and Suicide in the U.S. Fire Service ‖ Antonellis Jr. and Staben-Burroughs on Perceptions of PTSD and Alcoholism ‖ Simpson on Community Resilience and PTSD
At around 0900 hours, my chief came to my house, and I shared with him the symptoms with which I had been dealing. There was no way I could work in this mindset. I shared a call with him that kept creeping up in my mind, and I couldn’t sleep anymore (and not just because of my newborn). I felt unhappy, and I was afraid I could no longer perform the duties of my job. He was very understanding and was able to place me on the Family and Medical Leave Act under personal health reasons.
Although I was off, I followed my plan, and I went to my therapist and then my primary care doctor. They found that after years on my prior medications, it was time to switch to other medications for my anxiety and depression because medications may become less effective the longer you are on them. I was hoping this would help, but then I began to stutter; I developed a tremor and wound up having two more panic attacks. I was worried, and I just didn’t feel like I was getting better.
Just prior to the time I was scheduled to go back to work, I was unable to sleep. Something had become clear: The thoughts I’ve had for the past 15 years were, in actuality, suicidal thoughts. It was difficult to admit this to myself, but it was going to be even harder to tell my wife. Once my wife woke up, I told her how I was having suicidal thoughts and that they had been with me for many years. Something I had never admitted to, mainly because I was in denial. Even when I taught my classes, I had a presentation that showed signs and symptoms for mental health problems such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD); so, I told them I lived with those disorders. However, I never said that I had suffered with suicidal thoughts.
That was it; I finally broke down, and I cried with my wife. It felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. I called my chief to talk, he invited me to his office and I told him my realization, and he listened. I told him everything—that I had been in denial for so long, but now I have truly realized that I suffered from suicidal thoughts and my continued struggle with the anxiety, PTSD, and depression. I am lucky to have him as a chief. He said all the right things. he has been through training on how to help coworkers with types of mental and behavioral illnesses. He was there with me the whole time as we called the center to get my psychiatric evaluation. He discussed with my wife what was going on and made sure she was okay. I kissed my son and wife goodbye, as I was not exactly sure if I was going to be in-patient or in the out-patient program. He stayed at the facility until my wife arrived, and he made sure she had his number and that he had hers so they could communicate and check in.
I learned a lot during the psychiatric evaluation. Just because you have suicidal thoughts does not necessarily mean you are automatically on a 72- or 96-hour hold. I was not a threat to myself or anyone else. I have had the thoughts for years but I never wanted to act on them. They determined the best course of action would be to put me in an out-patient program with sessions meeting three times a week, and then continually evaluating my progress. This meant I would have four sessions of group therapy per day, a therapist available every day, and a psychiatrist that I would meet at least once a week.
Going into the first day, I was quite nervous. My wife drove and told me that the help I was going to receive took strength and courage, and that I was going to be okay. When entering the building, I did not know what to expect. Worrying about the unknown is one of the basic definitions of anxiety, so the feeling I was having was not unusual. For my first day at this particular facility, it was hectic; they definitely prepare you for that. During the first session, I met all of the different professionals that would be a part of my treatment plan.
Stay tuned for Part 3, which will be posted on Tuesday, March 21.
Nathan Fuist is a firefighter/paramedic and the medical officer for the Shrewsbury (MO) Fire Department in St. Louis County. He became an advocate on lifting the stigma on suicide and mental health after he lost father to suicide.