Close Calls: Is My Life Worth It?

Oct. 17, 2022
Billy Goldfeder's connection with a member of the Toledo, OH, Fire & Rescue Department brings to light the raw details of a firefighter's contemplation of bringing about his own death.

Important: This is real, raw and very personal. It focuses on the behavioral health of one of our brother firefighters, the issue of suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse. If you or someone who you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Consider your own department or local resources. You also can call/text 9-8-8, chat at or call 844-525 FIRE (3473) for firefighter-specific and family crisis help. Help is always there.

When I started this job, “behavioral health” was an unknown. If we had a bad call, we had a bad call. We never talked about it other than in a humorous way. We didn’t do an excellent job at helping people to deal with what we know today as post-traumatic stress issues.

Some believe that the newer generations of firefighters can’t “take it” or that they are different. The fact is, they are different, as was every generation compared with the generation before it. So, if you are a senior or veteran firefighter or officer, understand that, different or not, if you’re going to claim “brotherhood or sisterhood,” you must take the time to learn and understand.

Toledo, OH, Fire & Rescue Department Firefighter Tanner Duvall shared his story with us to help the brotherhood and sisterhood. I suspect that it will resonate with most, if not all, of you. By sharing his story, Duvall is helping to break the stigma that’s associated with behavioral health issues, and we thank him for that. There is courage in asking for help when needed.

In Duvall’s own words

Pain after a trauma is normal, and everyone generally accepts that. However, eventually, everyone expects you to get better, like it was a scratch or a broken leg. The problem was that I never really started healing. Every night, I relived the events. I often woke up screaming, in a cold sweat, shaking, heart racing and unable to calm myself. Most mornings, I woke up more tired than the previous night. Still, it felt like the rest of the world wanted me to move on and heal.

Growing up, I never thought that I would be a firefighter, although my goal always was to help people. My father was in a volunteer department since before I was born, and his dad followed a similar path.

Upon leaving high school, I enlisted in the Air National Guard and began going to college for psychology. This was going to be my contribution to the world and my way of helping. While at basic training, one of my closest friends passed away from cancer. Wrought with guilt over how we left things and with no way to get closure, I desperately looked for more ways to give back. The military wasn’t giving me the satisfaction I was looking for: more one-on-one connections while helping others.

I soon joined the same fire department as my father. He was my first fire captain and still one of the toughest. My goals still were to finish school and to help first responders and military members with PTSD and other occupational-induced psychological issues.

By this time, my brother had joined the university with me. He and I would daydream about conducting studies and debating over articles.

On the first day of the spring semester, my brother and I were enjoying breakfast at our parents’ house. I smiled, genuinely enjoying the morning that he and I had shared. I had to pick up some books; I told him I would be back soon.

A horrific life-altering discovery

I returned a few hours later and noticed a trail of footprints in the snow that led to my parents’ woods. Since it was in the negative temperatures, I thought it was odd that my brother would trek out into the woods; I found it even odder that no footprints came back. I remember a sinking feeling. I imagine it’s like the feeling of impending doom that patients experience in times when they sense death. I began walking toward the woods, unsure of what I would find.

I could see in any direction. I heard no one else and saw nothing. I followed his trail until I turned a corner, and my eyes caught sight of the first hint of color. At first, all I could tell was that there was something bright blue and bright green up in a tree. After a brief second, I realized the colors were from my brother’s favorite hat. I remembered climbing these trees as children, and my brain tried to make sense of the sight—he was climbing a tree, that’s all—but the noose around his neck quickly deterred any other hopeful thoughts. I dropped to my knees and screamed. My brain couldn’t initially process what I saw.

My next reaction was action. After calling my family for help, I tried to claw my way up the tree, but the weather encased the bark in a slippery sleeve of ice. I couldn’t feel as my nails ripped and tore.

After some incoherent time, I heard my father’s voice. The first hint of relief washed over me: My dad was here, my captain; he would know exactly what to do. He set up a ladder, readied his knife and ordered me to stand ready as he prepared to cut down my brother’s body.

Some switch in my head flipped, and I instantly became calm, but the shock of touching his rigid body caused me to falter slightly. He hit the ground with a moderate amount of force. I recoiled, instantly asking if he was OK.

My father pulled me back to the moment and ordered me to check his pulse. Reaching for his carotid, I saw everything I saw from the ground in much better detail: His eyes bulged, his teeth bit through his tongue and his throat was as thin as a piece of paper with the imprint of the rope. I hesitated.

My father raised his voice and ordered me to begin compressions. I looked at him and realized that this wasn’t my captain; he was barely my father. This was a grieving, broken man, desperate to save his already dead son.

I told him that we were too late. I made a note of the rigor and other obvious signs. Still, he adamantly protested that we still had time.

Beyond comprehension

The next night, while preparing my family’s home for out-of-town guests, my father broke down and uttered a sentence that seemed inconsequential then but would haunt me and shape me for years to come: My captain, my father, told me that I acted too slowly and that my brother would have lived if we had worked harder and faster.

Not long after, I secured a position with the Toledo Fire & Rescue Department, which had become what I considered to be my dream job, my chance to help everyone I could.

As time progressed, I found it easier to stay awake. I worked a 24-hour shift at Toledo, then went straight to a 24-hour shift at my part-time fire department, then the next day to school or the base, and so on. It didn’t take long before this cycle became normal, and it continued for years.

I began to feel as though I was missing something in my personal life. I felt empty most of the time. I had no real emotion, only the fake ones that I conveyed to get through the day. I felt like I was just existing. This emptiness drove me to anywhere I could get a drink and “live.”

My drinking became rampant. If I couldn’t find a way to fill my time with work, then I was surely drunk. That ensured that my thoughts couldn’t wander and that I wouldn’t feel something.

Eventually, I was introduced to cocaine. It seemed like a miracle drug. I could drink more, drink longer and have emotions. Even my fiancé seemed to like me more.

Out of control

Despite feeling as though I was handling things, a part of me knew that what I was doing was wrong. I would say something to coworkers about my recurring dreams, lack of sleep, drug use and drinking. The response almost always was the same. The person would find a way to normalize my behavior: It is just how I am, how I deal with stress, natural. I remember being discouraged, because that meant there was no getting better.

I believe that was the first time that I asked myself, “If this is just how life is, and there’s no changing it, was it worth living?”

Shortly into my drug use, my fiancé told me that she was pregnant and planned on getting an abortion. I felt trapped in the situation, unable to tell anyone else about it and unable to really talk to her about my feelings. The next time I dreamt, I dreamt that I made my way into the woods, but instead of finding my brother, I found my child dead in the snow.

Lost, but a glimmer of hope

It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely when I lost myself, but it had to have been around this time.

The following months were a blur as I ensured that I either was working or intoxicated. My fiancé left me: I was impossible to live with in any healthy way.

The military became aware of my actions and admitted me into rehab. Suddenly, all of the people who had normalized my behavior now treated me like a mistake and a pariah.

I was faced with a discharge from the military, and I felt betrayed. I felt like I had failed my mission and had no purpose anymore. I wasted no time. I drove from my commander’s office straight to my garage. I took an entire box of Benadryl and planned on going to sleep with my car running.

The next clear memory I have is waking up in a hospital bed several days later.

I spent two months in rehab, and, honestly, it was the best thing to ever happen to me. I never will be able to thank the Air Force enough. That said, it wasn’t an instant fix. I was diagnosed with PTSD. I was furious. I felt undeserving of the diagnosis, as if I had done nothing to warrant the disorder. Even today, I struggle to say it, though I realize I was indeed a textbook case.

Through rigorous therapy, I addressed my substance use and my PTSD. By the time I left, I felt like a new person. I still had issues I needed to work on, but I felt optimistic.

I began to question why I was so afraid to reach out for help. Then, on my first day back on base, I overheard a member of my leadership talking about the rise in suicide because of the pandemic. He said something to the effect of, “That’s good. Less crazy people for us to deal with.” I instantly realized why I formed my habits.

Although I fully accept my actions and all of their consequences and have no desire to pass any blame, it’s clear how my life got to the point that it did.

I have served on four fire departments, and all had similar SOGs, SOPs and policies regarding mental health. The fire service has a great foundation and protocols in place, but collectively, we must do a better job to recognize signs of distress and not be afraid of those who struggle. We tend to treat members like numbers, or walking protocols, when that’s the last thing that person wants or needs. How can we say that we are helping people when we are too afraid to help our brothers and sisters?

If you read this article hoping for some epiphany or answer to the growing problem of suicide in our line of work, then I am sorry to say there isn’t one. My message is very simple: Get to know your members. Foster an atmosphere of family and belonging, and don’t fear or look down on someone because you don’t understand what they are going through. Instead, reach out to them.

I can say proudly that I have avoided my previous vices for more than two years and have had several firefighters and other friends reach out to me about bettering their life. I haven’t remained in the shadows but broadcasted what I have been through and have seen a positive change.

Comments from Dr. Zemlok

Dr. Rachelle Zemlok is a licensed psychologist who specializes in supporting firefighters and their family members.

Zemlok points out that, as firefighters, we are helpers.

“You put the needs of others before your own,” she explains. “Just like in an airplane, every good helper needs to put on their own oxygen mask before they assist the person next to them. If you do not prioritize your own wellbeing, soon you might not be much help to anyone.”

Zemlok says that, ideally, you want to reach out as early as possible.

“Like anything else, early intervention can improve outcomes and might give you the best opportunity to reduce collateral damage,” she says. “If you have thought that maybe you need to talk to someone, or maybe your family members or coworkers have suggested it, reach out. If you’re worried about a coworker or family member, help them to do the same.”

Comments from Goldfeder

Although there is much to absorb in Duvall’s heartfelt account, I have two bits of advice.

First, we all want to help—and we should—particularly if we claim to truly be “brothers and sisters”—and that must be every day, not just when one of our own is in crisis.

Second, do what you are qualified to do and then find the next step for the one who you are helping. In other words, you aren’t a counselor nor a psychologist. Think of sizing up a situation and needing more resources to get the situation under control. Make sure the help or advice doesn’t make a situation worse.

About the Author

Billy Goldfeder

BILLY GOLDFEDER, EFO, who is a Firehouse contributing editor, has been a firefighter since 1973 and a chief officer since 1982. He is deputy fire chief of the Loveland-Symmes Fire Department in Ohio, which is an ISO Class 1, CPSE and CAAS-accredited department. Goldfeder has served on numerous NFPA and International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) committees. He is on the board of directors of the IAFC Safety, Health and Survival Section and the National Fallen Firefighters Foundation.

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