“We’re all just one bad decision away from being our next patient.”
*printer feeds another page through its rollers*
The clicks and quiet hum of the printer are a precise sound my ears had become extremely familiar with. The exact millisecond the printer rollers start to hum as they spin, my heart clenches in my chest, what little air remains in my lungs expires and my heart rate jumps from 60 to 120 BPM in less than 10 seconds. *BEEP!* The tones drop and the melodic female voice comes over the intercom “Rescue 1, Engine 1, Battalion 1 …” I gasp for air, hold my breath for a second then utter a quiet affirmation under my breath: “You got this”, as I grab the paper off the printer, walk out the bay doors and jump into the ambulance.
Our call was downgraded en route, we went from a possible drug overdose to a behavioral call in a matter of minutes.
The guys start in on their sarcastic banter on the possible nature of our call picking up “the crazy bitch.” They look at me the probie with a smirk and say “Hey Wilson, this call is all yours, have fun!”
My throat chokes up and I want to lash out at them in their ignorance and unprofessional demeanor. “Yes, sir!” I managed to reply.
I forget not everybody knows what it’s like to be at your whit’s end and so drained from the constant battle at fighting your inner demons, that you are now considering if you would be better off dead.
“No problem I got this”. My silent confidence goes completely unnoticed.
We arrive on the scene to find a woman in her 30’s looking a little strung out and very anxious.
Bystanders thought that she had ingested some pills in an attempt at suicide but upon further investigation, she had not taken the pills yet, and instead just dropped the bottle on the bathroom floor in fear once she snapped back into reality realizing what she was about to do.
Crocodile tears stream down her face as I look down towards my feet, she sits on the curb below. I kneel down until our eyes are level and softly introduce myself and reassure her that I am only there to help. I sit on the curb next to her and proceed with my behind-the-scenes paramedic gathering clues and evidence to build my case in this version of a Clue game to ensure my patient’s safety and well-being.
The woman, who for the sake of this article we will call Violet, proceeded to mumble on about energy blocks, auras and different colors (hence the name Violet). My fellow medical not-so-professionals scoff by the rescue trucks scrunching their noses up at each other in confusion and ignorance.
Turning around so they can snicker without our patient seeing them I smirk at them for their ignorance and shake my head, then smile at Violet with affirmation because I know exactly what she’s talking about, who in fact is not crazy at all.
“Chakras… that’s what you’re describing “Violet” are chakras. They are energy centers that we have in our bodies and when they get blocked they can get out of alignment and cause us a great deal of pain and distress .”
Violet’s eyes get huge and then she looks up from the twig between her fingers that she has been in fidgeting with.
Her brown eyes meet mine and she wipes one of the crocodile tears away with the back of her hand and she practically looks through me. “Yes… That’s right,” she says quivering as the corners of her mouth start to curl up into a slight smile. It’s as if she has finally been seen and understood for the first time in years.
I had just opened a door for Violet to step right through to enter into a heart-to-heart connection with somebody who unbeknownst to her, had been where she had been.
A Story Behind the Helper: A Suicide Attempt
Twelve years prior to this moment I had swallowed various bottles of pills in a feeble attempt to take my own life. This was the culmination of a series of events that stemmed from two years of struggling with the onset of my undiagnosed PTSD.
I had been stuck in the system of a revolving door where people are thrown pills without many conversations and turned into human chemistry experiments, where are we treat just the symptoms but not the root cause.
During my senior year of high school, I was put on my first antidepressant.
During my freshman year of college, I was put on my first antipsychotic.
I started smoking pot at the age of 11 and clung to that substance as a way to regulate my moods and escape the voices that persistently screamed in my head.
After nine years of self-medicating with cannabis, switching over to Western medicine was practically doomed from the start. The numbness from the medications naturally prompted a sharp increase in my alcohol consumption. Between the medications, pot, and alcohol my brain chemistry was a balancing act destined to crash at any moment.
At one point I started hearing voices and seeing things that other people didn’t see because I was now being given antipsychotic medications without true psychosis which in turn manifested psychotic features.
Nobody thought to put me in detox and get to the bottom of the layers, instead, they assumed I was psychotic rather than just hallucinating from my casual experimentation with street drugs in a desperate attempt to feel an ounce of pleasure or joy.
To this day I still shake my head in disbelief that removing street drugs from my system was not the first line of treatment, but adding more chemicals to the mix was the method of choice.
We started treating the side effects of one medication with a new medication, which in turn caused more unpleasant side effects. I felt like a can of soup I was given so many different labels… Bipolar disorder, schizo-affective disorder, major depression, borderline personality disorder, seasonal affective disorder, general anxiety disorder, etc. the list was extensive.
Each new doctor came up with a new label for the madness between my ears as if giving it a new name was going to change the prognosis.
“How long do you have clean?” I say, having just snuck a peek of the fluorescent orange key tag on her backpack that was a proud symbol of her hard-earned accomplishments. From my own past experience with 12-step recovery, I knew the orange-colored tag was representative of 30 consecutive days “clean and serene”.
She looks at me like a deer in headlights wondering how I know this about her. I point to her backpack, she nods. “I had 97 days…” she says as she bows her head in shame and self-disappointment.
“Awesome! Congrats girl! That’s hard work. You should be proud.”
“Yeah, but…” and she proceeds to explain all the reasons why I should NOT be proud of her because now she had “messed up” (one of the main reasons I no longer subscribe to 12-step ideology).
A Way After a Setback
I assured her that nobody can take away the time and knowledge she gained during those 97 days and that she can choose to get right back on the wagon or take a potentially lethal detour from here.
I also confided in her that I had been in recovery for years and that I had my own struggles and that time in “the program” (enter your 12-step recovery program of choice here) certainly did not equate to “clean time”.
I informed her that we all have setbacks in life sometimes, but it’s what we do with those setbacks that matter. Do we let them defeat and define us? Or do we learn as we go and readjust the sails?
“Clean and not so fucking serene!”
I say as we share a laugh now in the back of the ambulance as I give her a ride to the local emergency room where I know she will most likely be Baker Acted (Florida’s term for a 72-hour mental health hold.)
We were a block away from our destination and I could feel our time together, coming to an end. My stomach started to flutter with anticipation and my throat choked up with words needing to escape and send her on her way with some parting words.
“Violet, you are going to do great things with your life.
To a Blessing or a Curse
You are going to look back on this day many years from now and help someone who needs to hear your story and know that it gets better. It’s a miracle that I’m even alive to share this time with you, and it’s a blessing that your family found the pills on the floor and called for help.
You can choose to look at what’s about to happen as a blessing or a curse. Yes, you are going to be Baker Acted. You are going to be sent to a psychiatric hospital for further treatment.
It’s up to you whether you shut down and waste your time there, or you embrace this opportunity as the gift that it is as a new lease on life.
You are about to be placed into a network of doctors, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurse practitioners, nurses, social workers, techs, and occupational and art therapists all under one roof. That, my friend, is a gold mine! People pay thousands of dollars to get this level of care.
Do not take this lightly. Take the time you need to get the help that’s being offered to you, some are less fortunate and they die trying to get to where you are now.”
Violet smiles and puts her hand on mine. “I’m glad I met you, Annie. You’re an angel.” We exchange smiles.
Twenty-three years (and counting) of therapy and spirituality have led me to all walks of life desperately seeking peace and serenity. I studied many different modalities and forms of healing which led to the teachings of chakras, meditation, and mindfulness, which I have found to be one of my favorite tools in my metaphorical toolbox.
Little did I know it would be the key to open the door that Violet needed open on one of the worst days of her life. Who would have guessed that I would be the only one at that moment that could open it for her?
I wish I could say that that’s where the story took its turn for the better and I have been saving lives ever since.
Unfortunately, I had much more to learn.
I have continued to struggle with finding balance in my life and learning to care for myself in a way that enables me to also care for others.
The Worst Day of My Life
July 1st, 2018… the worst day of my life. Flashes of light, familiar faces, broken beer bottles, and dozens of pink and white pills lay lye strewn all over the bathroom floor.
Was this a flashback to Violet and her life-altering day or was this reality happening in the here now?
Later I would learn that it was the cruel details of a nightmare that occurred in my own reality five days prior. The pills on the floor were all that remained from industrial-sized bottles of Aspirin and Benadryl as well as a bottle of prescription medication.
I knew this prescription would throw my heart into a lethal cardiac rhythm unless the paramedics or physicians knew exactly what was ingested, they would not know the medication to administer as the antidote.
I now knew far too much for my own safety.
Sounds were muffled my vision was blurred and I was coming out of the deep fog as a learned that I had been in the intensive care unit for a week after a very serious suicide attempt.
I started to become conscious in small doses. Slowly I started to take in more details of the room around me. Bags of sodium bicarb and potassium hung from the IV pole above. I follow the drip set tubing down all the way down to the 18-gauge catheter in my left ac and another in my right hand.
Life Saved AT a Familiar Place
I’m covered in bruises, 4×4 pads, and medical tape that leave a trail of blown veins and failed attempts at gaining vascular access in my declining body.
By this time I figured out that I was waiting on transportation to the local psych hospital where I will have the opportunity to get further treatment. (Sound familiar?.)
My stomach is in knots. I’m nauseous, my head is spinning, and I feel feverish. My ears are ringing due to acute tinnitus, a common side-effect of an aspirin overdose.
My heart starts to race and my mind quickly follows suit as I start to panic at the thought of who will show up to be my fancy transportation to treatment.
By this point, I had five years under my belt in the industry with both fire rescue as a first responder and private ambulance as a paramedic. I was familiar with just about everybody in the local emergency rooms, hospital floors, and private ambulances, as well as a bunch of local firefighters and now the charge nurse who just discharged me.
My breathing quality diminishes as the rate increases in anticipation of which crew will show up and transport me, and whether I will know them or not.
A familiar face walks through the door, a young EMT whom I had the pleasure of mentoring and encouraging to pursue this field as a career. “Fuck!” I think to myself. My heart sinks for a moment silently wishing it could have been a stranger. It does seem rather apropos that he’s the one here with me now. I suppose if it was going to be anybody that I knew, I was glad it could be him.
The Way I Feel As I Heal
Not one second did I feel judged by this young kid (I easily had 15 years on him), instead, he made me feel very at ease as we exchanged conversation catching up about people we knew and his career goals of his.
We were now engaged in something I am very familiar with which is not talking about the pink elephant in the room.
I grew up in a family that mastered this act.
Common in a home with childhood trauma (hence the origin of my PTSD which was later added to with traumatic EMS calls).
Usually, I’m the one to break this trend and make others squirm by addressing the elephant in the room, but at this moment in time, it was well appreciated.
I remember, prior to us engaging in conversation in the back of the ambulance, a moment of silence as they wheeled me down sterile halls under the fluorescent lighting.
I remember thinking to myself how could this be? How did we get here again? How did I go from being the one pulling the stretcher back to being the one on the stretcher? Where did I go wrong? Did I lose everything? How the fuck am I still alive? By all accounts, I should be dead.
There must be a reason I’m still here especially after the countless lives I’ve been given. Sure, there was even a moment where I was angry that I woke up, angry that I had not succeeded in my mission of extinguishing my own flame.
I stumble my way to an attitude of gratitude
I also knew from experience to trust the process. I was hoping I would stumble my way to an attitude of gratitude. All these questions were racing through my mind when it finally hit me, that we are all just one bad decision away from being our next patient.
It’s a surreal moment when you’re on the receiving end of your own services that you render to strangers on a daily basis.
I suppose it’s not very different from a surgeon who gets injured and needs the assistance of their coworkers. But for some reason, there’s a stigma out there when it comes to tending to the health of our brains rather than our bodies.
So many forget that the brain and the body are attached and that it’s not just another organ in our bodies but the most powerful one at that. Our brains are like fire, it can nourish and provide for us, but it can also destroy us if we don’t respect it.
As if the stigma by general society was not enough, there is an added layer placed upon firefighters and first responders to put on a macho persona, not show emotion nor reach out for help.
The stigma that we are weak if we cannot handle the demands of everyday life, and if we seek the guidance of a therapist then we are (pardon my language) a “pussy” (ironically miss represented as weak, when in all actuality they sure can take a beating if you ask me!! Hahahaha).
That we have to be tough and suck it up and we have a job to do at all costs, even if that means sacrificing yourself. In fact, there is a slogan that is rampant in the industry that they even plaster across T-shirts and posters that says:
“Service before self.”
At what point is it pushing the boundaries too far?
At what point do we sit back and look at the statistics and say that roughy 257 first responder suicides annually, which is 20 percent higher than the general public, is fucking unacceptable?!?
Let’s also take into consideration that these are only the Suicide‘s that get reported. I admit there has been significant improvement in awareness of the issue, but very little has been done in regards to action and taking the bull by the horns, and attacking this crisis head-on.
I’m tired of standing by and watching my brothers and sisters die by their own hands. I’m tired of saying there’s no shame in asking for help while I myself silently sit back afraid of outing myself.
For fear of what? Fear of judgment? Lol ha! I already have that because I am a short strong lesbian in a man’s world of Emergency Medical Services.
I’m already judged daily by the way I present myself with my haircut and my choice of clothing which pushes the boundaries of social and gender norms. I’m judged often by my sexuality and the fact that I find myself attracted to women rather than men.
And then there’s that added layer of scorn by the old-school men who feel that the fire service is a man’s world and that perhaps I would be better off at home cleaning the bathroom or preparing a meal for my non-existent husband when he returns from a long shift at work (eww gross! ).
So if the fear of being judged isn’t what keeps me from speaking up what is it?
Perhaps it’s the fear that I could be terminated after being deemed “unfit for duty“ when in all actuality my resume of mental health episodes makes me that much more qualified to deal with people in crisis when I have been there myself.
Ask any heroin junkie if they want a drug and alcohol counselor who learned to counsel others out of the depths of addiction by reading a textbook or by going through hell themselves.
Every single one of them will tell you hands-down it’s the person who’s been through hell like them that earns their respect, and that the words of the textbook therapists fall upon deaf ears.
So where do we go from here?
That’s the ultimate question. I have barely just opened the cover page of a lifelong book that I hope, long after my own demise the torch is passed and the chapters continue to be written by other warriors who go to the front lines not only for others but for themselves on a daily basis.
If you have read this far, kudos to you. Thanks for hanging in there with me while I pour out my guts for the world to see.
My hope is that this will serve as the groundbreaking for a movement to help bring awareness to our fellow first responders that we are not immune to these issues.
I want to remove the stigma that we should be ashamed of asking for help, and also serve as a platform to help network other first responders and family members with the help that they need to access the social services that serve as our lifelines.
But most of all, my mission is to start the conversation! It’s one thing to say “we’re addressing the issue” and getting them (fellow first responders) help, but if we’re just referring them out to other sources, we are only perpetuating the problem by sending the message of: “we don’t talk about that here” as opposed to providing a safe atmosphere where EMS providers can be transparent with one another and create community and a true brotherhood where we share our own struggles and how we have triumphed in hopes of helping pave the way for our own.
If we want ourselves and our fellow brothers and sisters to continue to fight for the lives of others, we must first take great care and caution intending to our own souls in body and mind.
Who’s with me? If you’re tired of hearing the bagpipes play and going to funerals burying our own, or you are on the brink of your family planning your own funeral, circle up and put your hand in
Angelina Wilson, is a Firefighter, Paramedic, EMT, Mental Health Advocate & Consumer, Trauma Survivor, Recovering Addict, Poet, Writer, & Photographer.