Wildland fire suicides and why choice is so hard to understand
I finally asked my mom if she would talk about her suicide attempt in order to understand the perspective of someone who gets to that point. This last summer suicide rates of wildland firefighters made the headlines and with such a long and devastating fire season, it seemed to add insult to injury for those in the community.
Wildfire Today and The Atlantic both ran in-depth pieces on the epidemic. I ran the numbers and they are staggering: Between 2015 and 2016, 28 firefighters died on the job. During that same period 52 firefighters took their own lives. Numbers do not lie and these numbers reveal that more firefighters die by suicide than by fire.
I wanted to address mental health and suicide at work, I wanted to get people talking about it to help remove the stigma that only the weak or selfish take their own life; hoping that perhaps if we try to understand, maybe we won’t judge and thereby provide a safe place for people to talk about what has caused them to reach a point of no return. But in order to do that I needed to try to understand myself.
I was touched by suicide when I was 25 years old after my mother almost succeeded at taking her own life. We’ve never talked about it. I don’t know why I have been so afraid to ask her about it but I figured it was time. I needed to understand. To my surprise she had no problem talking about it – seemingly eager to tell her story. Maybe she’s been waiting for an opportunity to be understood.
After my mom graduated from law school she got a job in the Utah Attorney General’s Office as an assistant attorney general. She was also teaching law classes at the University of Utah. Her and my dad were divorced and me and my three other siblings lived with my dad, but mom was around a lot. She had latitude with her work schedule working for the State. She was flying high – she had a great and prestigious job, she had flexibility, she had a successful boyfriend who was also a lawyer that she thought she might marry, and she had aspirations of running for office – she seemingly had everything; the sky was the limit. Until she flew too close to the sun.
The Utah Medical Association offered her a job. Life was moving fast. She couldn’t believe how great it was; surely being the attorney for the Utah Medical Association would propel her to the pinnacle of her career. She was warned by an associate not to take it, certain she would hate it. Her father suggested she let him negotiate her salary and told her not to take anything below $100,000. She didn’t listen to anyone because she knew what she was doing, it was a strategic move for her and her career – it was a prestigious private sector job. If she could hack this, she could take on the world. She took the job for $11,000 more than she was making, which was roughly $80,000.
The glamour and allure wore off fast. The new job did not have the flexibility or independence that the government job did. She could not work early and leave early, she was required to be with her bosses all the time, to have a cell phone so that they could get a hold of her, and then she started to have to work nights and weekends.
It was then that she began to feel like she was suffocating, like a noose had been placed around her neck and was tightening. No longer was she able to see her kids when she wanted to, she didn’t have time for her boyfriend; she didn’t have time for anything but work.
One night she did the math on her salary and the hours she was working and it amounted to little more than minimum wage. The warnings and suggestions she had heard before she took the job came back to haunt her. She had not done her research and now she was trapped. Her life became fragmented; she was losing control of it and watched helplessly as pieces of it started drifting away. For a professed control freak, this was terrifying. She started having anxiety attacks. It was a gradual sequence of events that led her there, but once she got there it sped up and her life spiraled out of control.
I had recently gotten out of the military and was going to school at what was Dixie State Community College in St. George at that time. I was living in my mom’s second home that she rented out to single women. I didn’t know at the time that something was wrong but I took a trip to Mexico with my mom and an old boyfriend hers that she had gotten back together with after her and her other boyfriend broke up. She wasn’t herself. She seemed scared and nervous which was completely the opposite of her normal state of being. Me and my brother blew it off as weird and didn’t think about it beyond asking, “What’s wrong with mom?”
A year later I had moved to Salt Lake City and was going to Salt Lake Community College. I went to visit my mom at work – I’d never seen her office. While we were talking she told me she couldn’t breath and took her chair outside to sit in the parking lot. Admittedly, it was strange but then again, my mother never liked being inside so it was kind of normal. I was still a little confused by her behavior and didn’t know how to respond to her telling me that she felt like she was suffocating in the building. It never occurred to me she was in trouble.
Years later when I was talking to one of my aunts, she told me that my mom was talking about suicide to them. They took her to a behavioral health hospital because they thought she was suffering from depression. The doctors gave her anti-depressants. As someone who doesn’t like to be out of control, she didn’t want to take the pills, but I think she did take them. Later it was discovered that she was suffering from anxiety not depression.
At this point she had married a long-time boyfriend and was living in Midway, Utah. She lost a worrisome amount of weight and was not herself at all. She said she had been told she had a life threatening brain disease. With this news she started to wonder what it had all been for. Why had she left her family and her kids to go to law school and then work a job that became a prison if she was just going to die anyway? She had given up what mattered most to her for something she thought had a higher purpose, that was bigger than her – a heroic life – only to find out that it wasn’t worth it in the end.
She started to look at what she had to leave us kids. She had $15,000 in the bank. She wrote notes to all us where she left all she had to us (I never saw the letters), took her bottle of pills and drove to Deer Creek Reservoir and swallowed them all. She thought what she was doing was a loving act not to make us go through the long process of watching her die only to leave us with nothing.
For some reason she drove back to the house. She says she remembers it being very scary because of all the medications she had taken. Her husband rushed her to the hospital to have her stomach pumped. When I got the call he was sobbing and told me what happened. He explained how she went into convulsions and only survived because the pills were time released. The doctors said that if the pills had all released at the same time she would have died.
I was in shock. I drove to Midway though I don’t recall why or what I did. All I remember is seeing the man who for all intents and purposes was a second father to me, sitting out behind his barn on the ground bawling – his eyes bloodshot, the life drained out of him.
The next day I had to go to school. I cried all the way there. I remember sitting in the parking lot and thinking that if I let myself feel this, my world would fall apart too. I wiped the tears away, pushed my feelings beneath the surface, went to class, and never let myself feel it again.
At the time I had just started dating my husband. We were in a long distance relationship and he would fly from Georgia to Utah to see me or vice versa. We were sitting in Barnes and Noble in Salt Lake City on one such visit and he asked me if I was okay. I said, “I’m not a glass doll, I won’t break.” In retrospect that seems like such a calloused thing to say, but in reality, it was a defense mechanism against the fear of falling into a void I was afraid I would never be able to climb back out of.
My mother was transferred to the LDS Behavioral Health Hospital. I recall only going to visit her there once. She was lying in the hospital bed and didn’t seem aware of my presence. I tried talking to her but she wouldn’t respond, staring straight through me. She looked empty as if she had succeeded at killing herself but her body hadn’t registered it yet. I wanted to hold her hand or lay down with her and hug her, hold her tight, but I couldn’t do it. The person in front of me was not the strong, fearless, larger-than-life woman I had known all my life – the person in front of me was a stranger.
I didn’t know how to reach her. I didn’t know what to say or do. I’d never been taught what to do with pain and suffering and so I sat there frozen and terrified. I felt a tremendous amount of guilt, certain I should be doing something but not knowing what, and thinking that I was a worthless daughter. So I just kept putting one foot in front of the other in order to survive myself.
What transpired after that is a blur. I got married, moved away, and started a family of my own. My sister got out of the Air Force and her and my brothers tried picking up the pieces while trying to find their own way in life. Mom never recovered. She had a mental break that left her in a perpetual loop of regret and agony. She became a ghost, an empty shell, a person without a purpose, living because – what choice did she have?
I don’t know if the suicide attempt caused my mother brain damage or if she already had some form of mental illness that was camouflaged by her success that would have eventually revealed itself in time, but mental illness is the only way to describe what happened to her. She bounced around for years living with family members who would take care of her until worn out and then pass her off to someone else. She did not take care of herself and engaged in erratic and disturbing behavior that left her and the family routinely dealing with the police. Mom was supposed to be taking medications but wouldn’t and the family couldn’t make her.
Roughly eight years later I moved back to southern Utah. While my mom didn’t live with us, we took her on and spent a lot of time with her. This was when I started to see a change in her; she seemed to be getting better. I don’t know if it was having me close or if it was my children, or if it was a combination of things but she found a desire to live again and started getting better – not whole, but better.
When we talked on the phone she told me she was so glad she didn’t succeed at killing herself and that even though she is homeless, she loves life. She wondered aloud if idealistic people were at a higher risk for suicide than others. She queried further if people who work “heroic” jobs, who witness destruction, loss, and ugliness in life – as well as heroic, bigger-than-life events that they are a part of – or those who have to choose between that life and people they value – or those who lose their “heroic” status – are at a higher risk. She told me that she definitely saw her work as heroic, as noteworthy – but that when that heroic world started to crumble, her idealism crashed with it.
She explained that it wasn’t one thing, it was a sequence of events that all collided at once and left her feeling fragmented, her life seemingly in shards that she couldn’t seem to put back together. While my mother’s story is her own and I am certain people have many reasons and different triggers that get them to that point, I’m also certain there is a common strand between all of them.
I am now the same age my mother was when she tried to end her life. I have never contemplated suicide but I lived long enough to question what it is all for, to wonder what the point is. I have taken the hard knocks of life and as Stephen King said, I’ve seen time begin its stealthy and rotten subtractions. I know what it is like to lose interest in things that used to bring value and joy to my life, and force myself to keep doing them, hoping the joy and fulfillment will return. I know what it is like for kids to become the only reason to keep going and do what must be done and I know what it is like to long for close friendships and community and not have the energy to reach out and maintain, establish, or build them while enviously watching others who have. This is all without a collision of destabilizing events.
I thought of my season on the engine, the high stress, high camaraderie, fulfilling, and fun work and then the denouement that followed at the end of fire season that left me lost and off balance when I returned to normal life. It took me a good two months to recover and find meaning in life outside of my job. I still struggle with it and that was one season. I can only imagine a career of it year after year with all that life throws at you – potential problems or stresses at home, perhaps unhappy spouses, or no support and loneliness waiting at the end, illnesses or injuries that end the job, medical expenses that lead to bills and debt, time away from children – or just trying to find value outside of a high-value job.
As my mother talked I thought of a conversation I had with my boss who talked to me about the stresses of of being a wildland firefighter and warned me of the strain it puts on a marriage, telling me to take care of the home life. He said, “There are a lot of divorced firefighters.” He then went on to say, “You never know what a coworker is going through, you may never know that one of them is living out of a car – let me know if you are struggling so that I can help okay?”
What he didn’t tell me was that fire is an escape from the worries of life, that for brief, adrenaline-filled periods you have a single purpose where the cares of the world fall away and, as Steinbeck said, “…a kind of glory lights up the mind like a fuse burning toward dynamite. It is a feeling in the stomach, a delight of the nerves, of the forearms. The skin tastes the air, and every deep-drawn breath is sweet. Its beginning has the pleasure of a great stretching yawn; it flashes in the brain and the whole world glows outside your eyes. A man may have lived all of his life in the gray, and the land and trees of him dark and somber. The events, even the important ones, may have trooped by faceless and pale. And then -the glory- so that a cricket song sweetens his ears, the smell of the earth rises chanting to his nose, and dappling light under a tree blesses his eyes. Then a man pours outward, a torrent of him, and yet he is not diminished,” – until it ends and everything turns back to gray. What my boss didn’t tell me was how hard it would be to get by in the day-to-day stretches of time after the glory had faded.
I asked my mom if there was anything anyone could have said or done to help her, any intervention that would have kept her from veering toward suicide. She wasn’t sure and said she would have to think about it. *
My mother was strong, fierce, and full of life – I still see her that way but perhaps more realistically now, more human; definitely fragile, breakable. Perhaps that is where we go wrong with people, we don’t allow them to be completely human – we don’t pay attention when they are living in the gray.
Perhaps the stigma of being weak if you are struggling with circumstances that appear to be a result of poor choices is what causes people to go it alone. Or maybe there is something insidious to the culture of rugged individualism where you are told to pull up your bootstraps and push through it despite needing help, and as a result, there’s a fear of sharing just how bad a shape you are in. And then there’s sharing your mental fitness with others – the trust required and vulnerability that would follow such an admission, combined with the very real possibility of repercussions for letting people know the truth – that could be a strong deterrent to that kind of honesty.
I am just taking stabs in the dark but I have to believe there are answers. Why is suicide so astronomical, especially among veterans, police, and firefighters? Why do “heroes” kill themselves? Why does anyone?
Furthermore, what makes a life worth living? What can we do for those who think theirs isn’t? What can we do if we think our own life isn’t worth living? It’s possible there are answers if we are willing to look, if we are willing to enter uncharted territory where answers are uncomfortable, don’t come easy, and where when they do, they’re hard to grapple with. I’m willing to go there and listen to find out. Are you?
After observing those who survived Nazi concentration camps and those who did not Jewish psychiatrist Victor Frankl said that survival wasn’t based on youth or physical strength but rather on the strength derived from purpose, and the discovery of meaning in one’s life and experience. He said, “Man is ready and willing to shoulder any suffering as soon and as long as he can see a meaning in it.”
Perhaps finding meaning outside of work is a starting place. If you want to talk or share you can contact me here.
*My mother has since told me that being given the statistics of suicide among children of parents who have committed suicide might have kept her from trying.*
Posted on January 29, 2018, in Connecting to Community and tagged answer to suicide, dealing with suicide, mental health and suicide, rugged individualism and suicide, stigma of suicide, suicide among veterans police firefighters, wildfire stresses of the job, wildland firefighters and suicide. Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.