Scott Geiselhart grabbed his .44 Magnum revolver because he knew it would do the job.
He loaded the gun with six bullets, put it against his head and pulled the trigger. There was only a click. The gun didn’t fire.
Confused and shaking, Geiselhart slammed the gun down. He gathered himself and sat at his computer. Hoping to decipher his demons, he typed “anger nightmares flashbacks drugs” into Google.
“I hit enter and PTSD lit the screen up,” the 48-year-old said. “I didn’t even know I could have PTSD. I thought it was just a military thing.”
In time, Geiselhart figured out that the death and destruction he was exposed to as a volunteer firefighter with the Frazee Fire Department had been haunting him. He underwent therapy for post-traumatic stress disorder, and he managed to emerge from what he described as a dreary, gray existence.
“I started seeing the colors, and I started seeing life again,” he said. “I wanted to live.”
Geiselhart has since dedicated himself to speaking to groups of firefighters and paramedics around the country. He lets them know it’s OK to seek help for mental health issues, that it’s not a sign of weakness.
“There’s help out there,” he said. “It’s just got to be talked about.”
Jeff Dill, founder and CEO of the Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance, estimated that 30 percent of the 1.3 million career and volunteer firefighters in the U.S. suffer from PTSD.
Last year, 132 firefighters and medics died by suicide, and so far this year the tally is 121. But those figures don’t represent the entire problem, said Dill, who estimated that 60 percent of firefighter and medic suicides are not reported.
The National Fallen Firefighters Foundation estimates that firefighters are three times more likely to die by suicide than in the line of duty.
“With personal issues, we think that we have to remain strong and tough and handle them on our own,” Dill said. “Well unfortunately, a lot turn to addictions.”
That’s what happened to Geiselhart.
He joined the Frazee Fire Department in 1995. With his skills as an auto mechanic, he helped start a team of firefighters who specialized in extricating crash victims from wrecked vehicles.
“We had a lot of fatalities,” he said. “We’ve seen some pretty gruesome things.”
About five years ago, he was sent to a crash where he pulled a young man out of icy water. The rescue went smoothly, and the victim was initially expected to survive.
“He ended up dying about a month later,” Geiselhart said. “When we lost him, I started blaming myself.”
Geiselhart fell into a dark hole. He would isolate himself for 20 hours a day in his repair shop, and he would drink every night. At some point, he began using methamphetamine to keep himself awake so he wouldn’t have to face his nightmares.
“The nightmares were so bad, with my kids falling out of the sky on fire and drowning in front of me,” he said. “I couldn’t help them. I was paralyzed.”
He became increasingly angry and would yell at his sons, now 15 and 19, and at their mother. His family eventually moved out.
Geiselhart didn’t know what was going on in his head. “I thought I had a split personality,” he said.
After trying to kill himself with his revolver in July 2014, he found help by calling the National Volunteer Fire Council, which connected him with The Village Family Service Center in Fargo. The next day, he went into therapy.
He received a type of therapy known as EMDR (eye-movement desensitization and reprocessing). The therapy uses eye movements and other procedures to help patients work through traumatic memories.
“It stimulates our natural healing process,” said Deb Fetting, a Village counselor.
Not everyone with PTSD needs EMDR; some heal through talk therapy, Fetting said. “EMDR is a lot of times used when it seems like there’s something stuck, and traditional talk therapy isn’t working through it very well,” she said.
Geiselhart said therapy gave him a peace he hadn’t felt before. Over time, he quit meth, his anger dissipated, and he started sleeping again.
“The nightmares were out of my head,” he said. “I never thought I’d be free of that.”
Geiselhart is still a firefighter, and he’s working to form what’s known as a critical incident stress management team that would offer assistance to firefighters in his department after a traumatic call. Fargo-Moorhead has some similar peer groups for law enforcement.
Lately, he hasn’t been on a call that’s troubled him. But now whenever he’s struggling, he has a new habit: He reaches out for help.
“It’s just a different world,” he said. “God used that gun to get my attention.”
Warning signs of suicide risk
• Talking about wanting to die
• Looking for a way to kill oneself
• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
• Talking about being a burden to others
• Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
• Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
• Sleeping too little or too much
• Withdrawing or feeling isolated
• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
• Displaying extreme mood swings
National Volunteer Fire Council Helpline
National Suicide Prevention Lifeline