By Tom Bolin Imagine waking up every morning thinking about suicide, thinking your wife and children would be better off if you weren’t around. I am a 28-year veteran in the fire service, and this was my reality back in 2019. You see, I had let my mental health go unchecked for years until I could no longer deal with it.
One night, after an evening of heavy drinking, I came home around 2:00 am, took my gun off the top of my refrigerator, and headed to my basement. I had made up my mind that this was the night that I was going to do it. I sat down there with the gun to my head. I began to put pressure on the trigger. I prayed to God to forgive me and for my family to forgive me for what I was about to do. I was ready to do it.
I don’t know if it was the sound that I heard upstairs, but I put my gun down on my chest and closed my eyes. My 19-year-old son Josh had come home and headed down to the basement. He had seen me on this roller coaster ride, and he knew what was going on. I tried to make up an excuse for why I had the gun, but he knew.
He came over to me and said, “Let me take that.” He took my gun, went upstairs, and took my other guns and hid them in his dresser drawer. He then came down and talked with me for a while until I fell asleep. No kid should ever have to see this. A father is supposed to be a protector, and that day God sent my son.
There were four reasons I never talked about my depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD–I didn’t know I had it at the time): denial, stigma, pride, and ego. I went through every one of these throughout my career. Denial: It’s my family, my job, the world; it’s not my fault. Stigma: People will think I am weak, I will be labeled crazy, everybody will look at me differently. Pride and ego: I am a professional, I am not allowed to have these feelings, I can deal with it myself. Well, dealing with it myself led me to the point where I thought the only way out was suicide.
Why is it taboo to talk about our mental health issues? The stigma is in our minds, ego, and pride. It’s ingrained in our culture. I truly believe that a small percentage of public servants keep the stigma strong. You know them, usually the loudest barkers. We really need to find a way to break this pattern and make it normal to talk about mental health in the fire service and really in all public service.
There came a point when I hit a brick wall. I knew that I was either going to go get help or I was going to lose everything–my marriage, possibly my job if I kept on this path, and eventually my life.
One day, after I had made some bad decisions involving my wife, I sat on the floor in front of her, broken, an empty shell of the man she had married. I began to cry and told her I needed help. She agreed but didn’t know how to help me. I didn’t know where to turn. We had a peer support team, and I also had gone to four different counselors through our employee assistance program. The problem is that these counselors, nice as they were, did not understand the world that we live in, had not seen the 25 years of trauma that was my life for so long, had not had to tell the grandmother that her six-week-old grandbaby had died from SIDS, had not had to cut down the 17-year-old high school student who had hanged himself in the garage, or had not had to respond to the 15-year-old high school student who died in a car accident who was ejected from the car and it landed on top of him. This one was tough for me. This kid was coming back to band camp after lunch; my son was this boy’s age and was also in band camp that day. In that moment, it was my son lying there. I had some nightmares of pulling my son from under this car.
We see things that most people will never see in their entire life, and we need to learn how to process it and how to deal with it, hopefully in healthy ways. Yes, I know what I signed up for. We just never prepared our people for the emotional baggage that we carried with us for so long. We just never talked about it; we were usually told to suck it up or find another job. It still really angers me when people equate mental health with weakness. Seriously? Firefighters, police officers, military–there is nothing weak about us. I was a little lost for a while, maybe a little broke, but I was far from weak. It takes more courage to look the stigma and your own pride and ego in the face and say I’m done, I am taking my life back. That’s courage.
I still believe that this is the best job in the world. I love everything about it–the brotherhood and sisterhood, going out every day and not knowing what you’re going to get and overcoming those challenges. It’s very rewarding; there is no other job like it. I would not change anything about it other than how I would have confronted my mental health issues early on. You see, these issues didn’t happen overnight. It took years of accumulative stress, trauma, sleep deprivation, and insomnia on top of the normal day-to-day stresses of life. I wish I had dealt with it earlier than waiting 25 years until it all came crashing down over me like a giant tidal wave.
We can’t argue with statistics; the numbers don’t lie. The Firefighter Behavioral Health Alliance started to collect data on suicides vs. line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) in the fire service. We now see that we are losing more to suicide than LODDs, and the sad thing is, they still believe that 55 to 60% goes underreported. In 2015, we lost around 150 firefighters to suicide, but because a lot still goes underreported, we don’t know how bad the issue is. It could be up in the 300 range. We just don’t know. We are doing a lot of good things as a profession. There are so many resources out there now, but the sad thing is, we’re still losing the war.
When I finally agreed to get help, I needed to go to the extreme. A one-hour session a week wasn’t helping me. So, my wife made a call to the International Association of Fire Fighters Center of Excellence (COE). When I got home the next day, she had talked to them, and they were waiting for my call. She asked if I would call them back. I agreed, and the gentleman I talked to was a retired firefighter who had gone through the COE himself. I remember him saying, “It’s not your fault.” I said, “What do you mean?” I was struggling, and I had been dealing with my issues in some very destructive ways. Of course, it was my fault. I was a failure, I was weak, I had so much guilt for what I put my family through. They had a front seat for my implosion; they watched me spiral down this dark hole and could only sit and watch. If it had been one minute later, my son would have found his dad, well, you know. Of course, it’s my fault. How could I ever forgive myself for that? He said, “It’s not your fault; you have no idea the people who are struggling and are fighting the same demons that you are. It’s not your fault.” Nobody had ever told me that.
A week later, I was on a plane heading to the COE. When I first got there, it was a little intimidating. They called my wife and said they had me and I was safe. The next 31 days were filled with classes teaching me why I was feeling this way and helped me to heal from my years of torment and pain I was putting myself through. It made me face my demons and take my life back. Let me tell you something: It takes more courage to look the stigma and your own pride and ego in the face and say, “I am done, I’m taking my life back.” That’s courage.
Something else happened while I was there. We joked that the real therapy started in the evening out at the firepit, sitting around with 20 to 40 firefighters from around the country. There were all age groups from 60-year-old chiefs to five-year probes. Sitting there sharing our stories and knowing I wasn’t alone, that I wasn’t crazy, was huge for me. It really opened my eyes to the struggles that people just like me are going through.
When you arrive at the COE, they take everything from you. You see, this is not only a mental health facility but also a rehab facility. I got my phone for one hour a week. Obviously, my first phone call was to my wife. The second was to a good friend of mine, Heith Good. Heith works with me and was very influential in helping me with my struggles. Heith asked how I was doing. My response was, “Not good.” I said, “Heith, I am embarrassed, humiliated, and ashamed at how at 48 years old I let this happen. How will people look at me after this?” Heith told me, “Tommy, you are a respected officer and firefighter; you have no idea the lives you will change by just being vulnerable.” At the time, I was really struggling and let it go in one ear and out the other. The thing is, once I returned from the COE, I did share a little of my story. I had people reach out to me who I never thought in a million years would be struggling. Within three months of my return, I had helped four people go to the center.
Back in 2021, my brother-in-law and I got together and decided we should make a video of my journey. Since this video went live, I have had so many people reach out to me about their struggles. Some of them were my mentors who have retired. I did this video not for me or my ego. I did this video because I wanted to touch people, to let them know they are not alone. I did this video because I don’t want people to make the mistakes that I made. I care more about this than I do about my own pride and ego. If it saves one person, it will be so worth it. This has given me a new purpose in life.
So, I bring a story of hope, that there is life after depression, anxiety, and PTSD. You see, I still struggle with it. I have just learned to deal with it better. I have the tools now to live a happier life. It’s not impossible. There was a point where I never thought I could get out of this dark rabbit hole. It took some self-reflection and it was a long journey, but there is HOPE. Believe me, if I can do it, I know with all my heart that you can too.
Please don’t give up. If you go get help and you get nothing out of it, try again and again until you find something that works for you. We all have different lives and different journeys and struggles, but we’re in this together; you are not alone.
I read a quote that resonated with me so much: “The tragedy of life is not death, but what we let die inside of us while we live.” My depression, anxiety, and PTSD robbed me of so many things. It robbed me of happiness, it robbed me of those precious moments with my family and my kids. Don’t let that be you. Take the first step. Reach out to someone you trust. There are so many resources out there now. There are people out there who care about you and are ready to help. If you ever find yourself lost and you don’t think you have a way out, think of me and know there is life after depression, anxiety, and PTSD.
BIO: Thomas Bolin is a lieutenant in the Norwich Township (OH) Fire Department Hilliard and a 27-year veteran of the fire service. He began his career with the Prairie Township (OH) Fire Department and has been with Norwich for 25 years.