The majority of adults get up every day at the same time, have coffee at the same place, make the same drive, deal with the same traffic, and arrive at the same place, work the same hours, at the same job, with same people, for the same pay, with the same results. To top it all off, most adults do not like their job, they don’t like what they do, their supervisors, or their co-workers, which leaves them unhappy with the working aspect of their lives. They say the definition of insanity, is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. I have not always been a firefighter; I have held many other jobs including construction, security, and private EMS. I have experienced the disdain with my everyday life, I have lived the routine, I have disliked bosses, co-workers, what I did, and overall who I was. It has been a while though; I have been a career firefighter for 10 years, 6 months, and 17 days to be exact. I can say in that time, I have never felt the routine mentioned above, I have never dreaded the drive to work, I have never disliked what I did. Quite the opposite.
I love what I do; each day brings unique and exciting challenges, each day brings a new opportunity to make a difference, each day brings a chance to work with my best friends, who are more like family. They are my brothers, closer than most of my family. The fire service is not all sunshine and roses, but overall the job of a firefighter is highly satisfying.
When I first got involved in the fire service, I considered the opportunity to do this job, full time, a dream come true. I had no backup plan, no plan b. I wanted to be a firefighter, and nothing was going to derail that plan or change my mind. I still believe in that to this day; I still love what I do. The benefits of this job far out way the challenges. I love the fire service and will not apologize for that love; I love everything about this job and all of those who do this job.
The job of a firefighter is simple. Treat others how you would want to be treated, treat everyone, as you would want your family to be treated. Sound familiar? It should; this is the golden rule. This rule is taught at an early age; in the Bible and school. We have all heard this a time or ten!
The public calls the fire department when they do not know whom else to call. They call us when they are experiencing their worst day; they expect us to have all the answers, and to solve their problem. You and I both know, however, that not all issues have a solution, not all problems have the right answer. Family members die, houses burn down, car wrecks happen, loss is experienced every day. We do our best, show extreme compassion, and go back in service. We don’t always know the outcome; it is like reading a book, a book where the last couple of chapters are missing. Why would anyone buy a book that is missing the final chapter? Why would anyone sign up to be a part of the story that doesn’t always have a happy conclusion? I often tell new firefighters that it’s crazy to love a job that breaks your heart! We see the worst in society. Death, destruction, fire, chaos, and sometimes all in one shift. Remember, I said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting different results. Firefighters, by definition, are insane! We show up every shift and deal with death and destruction. We come to work every shift not knowing what we may encounter.
Over the span of a thirty-year career, the effects of this job are felt long after you hang up your turnout gear. However, as a young firefighter, you don’t think about that, you don’t think about the bad. You see the excitement of the lights and sirens, you long for the heat of a fully involved house fire, and you yearn for the power of the hydraulic tools, as you open the door to a mangled car.
We rarely think about ourselves, after all, we are here for THEM! We are tough, we are strong, and we are the rescuers! I remember that feeling! I still feel it every day, when I go to work. I still believe in the difference we make in our communities; I still believe we are there to save others.
I will admit that ten years and several shifts later, I do have more questions than answers. One question has entered my mind over the past couple of years though. If we are here for THEM than who is here for ME? We are the ones who rescues others, but who exists to RESCUE ME.
It was very surreal! This place didn’t feel right, I had never been here before, and it was all new. I didn’t know any of these people. I had driven past this place several times but never stopped. They walked me back, took my vital signs, weight, temperature, and then said he would be in soon! I sat in that room and thought about the last ten years, I thought about my life. I had my dream job, a wife who I adored, a woman who supported what I did and sacrificed so much so I could chase my dreams. I had a nice house and great friends. I felt like I was living the American dream! What brought me here today? I remember contemplating getting up from my seat and leaving that office, after all, I didn’t need their help. I am the one who helps people. Was I being weak? Was I being dramatic? I didn’t want to waste this doctor’s time; he had sick people in the room who needed his help. I thought to myself, I’m not sick, I don’t need his help. Then I heard his voice outside the door and thought, I will humor him and get through this. I had a firehouse to get to, a crew that needed me, a job to do. I couldn’t believe I took personal time for this, what was I thinking?
Hi, Mr. Bratcher, I am Doctor ********, let’s talk. It wasn’t long until I was pouring my heart out to this stranger. I told him what I did, about my family, my marriage, my son (foster son at the time.) I told him what was going on in my life. I told him about our struggles to have children. I told him about my alcohol consumption, which, at this point, was at an all-time high. I told him about my mood swings, trouble sleeping, nightmares, low energy level, my anger, my nervousness, and every other symptom that brought me to his office that day. I had no intention to tell him any of this; I intended to lie and get out of there as quickly as possible. When my wife asked, I would lie to her and say everything was fine. I can’t believe that was my plan. I, to this day, still don’t know what changed my mind. Was it my wife, my son, my conscious? I have no idea what happened in that five minutes that made me change my mind and pour my heart out. I believe that God intervened in that doctor’s office and I am thankful.
If you have read this far, you have noticed that I checked almost all the symptoms for depression. Classic symptoms, which had surfaced slowly over the past couple of years. This can’t be, I live the dream, that’s what I told myself. I was married to a great woman and on my way to adopting this perfect little boy, who I had dreamed about for years. I had my dream job and many friends, who are more like family. I had a great mom and dad, a sister who I loved. I had everything, a good upbringing, no genetic problems; no one in my family had ever had depression! Where did this come from?
The foster care process was a tough one, constant visits with biological family and constant struggles with the threat of my whole world leaving my home and going back to the people who betrayed him. What did that look like? After all, I could handle it, but what about my wife? It would break her heart if he left. I am supposed to protect her, how did I talk her into this? She never wanted to foster a child, she wanted to adopt. I felt called from the beginning to be a foster parent, and we would adopt that way. This would save us money and it would provide a child who did not have one, a home. It would all work out; I had it all figured out. I was wrong. This little boy I had grown to love was close to leaving, he had regular visits with his birth mother, and she was doing well. What was I going to do if she got her life together? What was I going to do if I never got to see my little man again? What would this do to my marriage? I talked her into this; now I could be the reason why her heart would break! Why would she stay with someone who would want her to go through this? Why did I push her to this? Why did I, as the leader of our family, allow us to go through this?
I had everything on the outside, but on the inside, I lived with constant fear, anxiety, and overall sadness. I remember most days laying in my bed and crying at the thought of what I had become. I remember going to the firehouse and just going through the motions. I would do my 24 hours and go home. I wasn’t the firefighter that I once was; I had given up on fitness, didn’t care about training, didn’t care about anything. I just wanted to get paid and be with my friends. That was what the fire service had become to me. A place to get away from all of my problems, a place I could go and be Firefighter Bratcher. I didn’t have to be a husband, a foster father, a friend, or a son. I didn’t have to be anything except the guy who drives Engine 42. I was a shell of who I once was. I remember every shift I would look at my watch and count down the time until I could have my next beer. It had gotten out of control. I drank every night that I wasn’t on duty; I didn’t just have the two beers that I told the people who did my physical. I would drink eight to ten beers a night. I didn’t have a problem. I was in my home drinking beers and not driving, drinking hard alcohol or anything like that. I couldn’t drink every third day, so I could not be an alcoholic, after all, alcoholics drink every day. At home, I paid no attention to my wife, never played with my son. I didn’t want to talk; I did not want to do anything. I never went to the gym, never went out at all. I still feel guilty for how I acted for those few years. I would give anything to have that time back, and I would do things completely different.
On top of all that was going on in my personal life, at work we had been on a string of terrible runs. We had several fatalities, pediatric cardiac arrests, burned victims; my shift, in particular, ran several terrible calls in a small period. I felt like I could handle that. At this point, I had been on the job for over seven years, I was used to this. I was good at my job, I worried about the younger guys, they hadn’t been around this stuff like I had. They didn’t grow up around the fire service, the younger guys hadn’t been around this since they were sixteen like I had. Those were the people I worried about. They were the ones who were new to this. I was a veteran. I could handle this. I was a seasoned firefighter, or so I thought.
In March of 2016, my life and my career changed. We lost one of our own, a great kid, a young man that I had the pleasure of watching grow up right in front of my eyes. I had worked with his mom for seven years, his brother was a volunteer with us, and he was on his way to becoming a firefighter himself. I got an opportunity to train him the shift before. He was an intern assigned to my shift. As an intern his job was simple, to learn, ask as many questions as possible, and to observe the job. The shift before this young man passed, we trained all day, from 0700 to 1700. He would have trained all day, every day if we had let him. It was refreshing to be around that type of enthusiasm. He was fresh, new to the fire service, and eager. He was everything a young firefighter should be. He was going to be my intern for the next couple of months. I was going to train him and he was going to be great, just like the rest of his family. He came from a family of firefighters; he was destined to do this job. Our heavenly father had other plans for this young man, as the next shift, he was called home. A life so young was taken from us in an instant. I remember laying in my bed and tones went off. I got the engine, started the engine, knowing precisely where I was going, but something was different. I knew that address; it sounded very familiar. We sped to the scene and, in an instant, my whole life changed. It was the worst night of my life. I still struggle to understand why I was there that night, why was it my engine, why him, why then, just why? The next few weeks were a struggle. I had little sleep, several nightmares; my personal life had met my professional life. My depression and anxiety could not hide at the firehouse anymore. The place I had once called my safe place became a painful memory. I was scared of the next run. Would the next call be my last, could I still do this job? I was worried about what we would see. I did not want to see the bad anymore. I needed help! Everything that was going on in my personal life culminated with a lousy year at the firehouse had led me to dread that drive to the firehouse. I remember wondering if there was anything else I could do to earn a living. Only once in my life had I ever considered finding a new occupation, I loved the fire department, but I could not take it anymore. I could not handle the death and I couldn’t handle the schedule. I was worried about my wife, my son, and how I fit into their lives. I have never told anyone this, but I even wondered if my life had any value. I cannot say for sure that I was suicidal, but I wasn’t in a good place.
For months I lived life just going through the motions, I felt as though I had no purpose! Then, one shift, I was at the firehouse and I remembered back to late February 2016, and my little buddy, my intern. I remembered his enthusiasm. I remembered how much he wanted to do this job. I remembered how it was his dream to be a firefighter. A job that I had grown to hate, was all he ever wanted to do. His passion for this job grew in such a short amount of time. The memories from the one shift I had with him still carry me to this day. He relit the flame of passion that I once had for this job. He renewed my desire to be a firefighter. In life, you never know why people come into your life, but I knew he came into my life to continuously remind me that I was living the dream. I can never repay that young firefighter for what he taught me. He gave me my career back, he saved my job, and in some ways, he saved my life. He rescued ME!
I loved my job again and I loved the firehouse again! I wanted to be there every shift, the good finally felt as though it outweighed the bad again. I realized that I could deal with anything if I was able to remember the good about the job and if I remembered that kid and how badly he wanted what I had. My brothers at the firehouse also saved my life. They had my back and were there every step of the way. They were my support system. I had hidden my depression from them. I’m sure they saw the changes in my life as I became very transparent about my situation. They knew how much I loved my son, that he was a foster child...they knew the whole situation. He was their family as well. They were my shoulders to cry on, my ears to listen, they saved my life. My Lieutenant and best friend was there for me every day. He and his family became my family. I’m sure I was a difficult guy to have on his crew. He noticed the changes. He had to! He never gave up on me, and he was always there. He saved my life and I can never thank him for those few years as he helped me through the most challenging days of my life. My wife selflessly stood by my side and was very honest with me. She was patient, loving, caring, and is the reason I am here today. During that time, I was a difficult person to love, but she never gave up on me. She was able to lead our family when I could not. She was my rock and continues to be. My son, who is now mine to love forever saved me. He is the reason I get up every day. I made a promise to him, to protect him from everything that tries to hurt him. The journey that made us a family was a tough one, it almost broke me! He rebuilt my heart. I am supposed to teach him and lead him, but he is the one who taught me, and he is the one who drives me every day. My doctor, who became my friend saved me. His ability to listen and his knowledge helped me to be in a better place today. He was able to empathize even though he’s not a firefighter. I couldn’t imagine how he understood what I went through each day, but he did. My doctor and I have more in common than one might think and his guidance is one of the many reasons I am here today, doing as well as I am.
Depression and anxiety will always be a part of my life. It will be something I continue to struggle with for the remainder of my life. In this life, there are difficulties and each day presents a new challenge. The only reason I can write this article you are reading is the peer support that I received from my brothers. The people I work with every third day carried me through one of the darkest points of my life. Their willingness to listen and let me bend their ears saved my life. I can never repay what my brothers did for me. I can only hope to be able to provide that same support to them in return. They were there for me when I felt abandoned.
To sum up this very long story. We are the only ones who can save us. We are the ones who live this life and are the only ones who truly understand what our brothers go through. We have to be intentional about supporting one another. Therefore, instead of being so quick to cut each other down on a blog or social media, remember we are all we’ve got. We are our brother’s keeper. Stay safe and take care of each other.
-Lieutenant Tony Bratcher, Sugar Creek Township Fire