Two Years Later: Checking in With a Fire Fighter in Recovery

Author: IAFF Staff

September 24, 2019

Eric Fessenden, a 32-year veteran fire fighter and active-retired member of Montgomery County, MD Local 1664, sought treatment at the IAFF Center of Excellence in June 2017. His struggles with explosive anger and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) were costing him important relationships. It’s been two years since Fessenden — who was featured in Fire Fighter Quarterly magazine — graduated from the Center of Excellence. He is now the operations manager, retiree liaison and head of Local 1664’s peer support efforts. Here’s an update on how he’s doing.

 


IAFF: Since completing treatment more than two years ago, how is your life different today?

Fessenden: Two years ago, I had only moments of joy; every other hour was a struggle. Now, it’s the exact opposite. Of course, I still have some bad days, but nothing compared to before I sought treatment. I spend a lot of time trying to help other fire fighters who are struggling to bring happiness back into their lives.

IAFF: Prior to entering treatment, when did you know you absolutely needed to seek help?

Fessenden: My daughter, who was only nine at the time, forgot to put her cereal bowl in the sink. I exploded, calling her stupid, lazy and other words I’m not proud of. My wife stepped in to stop me. So did my son, but that just made me even more angry.

A few days later, I returned from a meeting with a co-worker about his behavioral health issues and explained to my wife that I could relate to all the issues my friend was struggling with. She had been telling me that for eight years. She reminded me of the cereal bowl incident. I had no recollection of it. That is when it hit me and I knew I had to go get help.  

IAFF: What about your experience at the Center of Excellence was the most helpful to you?

Fessenden: My brothers and sisters at the Center and the tools we were given to help each other work through our struggles. The true brotherhood and sisterhood were a great help during and after my time at the Center.

IAFF: What coping skills did you learn at the Center of Excellence that you still use today?

Fessenden: The internal temperature gauge, which is basically a self-examination on your emotions — a constant self-check to make sure I am paying attention to my reactions to the world around me and that I take time to focus on me and my needs.  


 

IAFF: When you graduated from the Center, what was it like to return home to your crew, friends and family?

Fessenden: It was awesome to feel as good as I did emotionally when I left the Center, but I must admit I wasn’t as ready for the outside world as I thought. When you are going through treatment at the Center, you are off the grid and the world moves a little slower. But the outside world is still moving a thousand miles an hour and it’s a bit overwhelming at first.

My family, co-workers and friends were and still are incredibly supportive. I am blessed to have such a big support network. 

IAFF: What is the biggest challenge you currently face in staying on track with your recovery, and ensuring self-care is a top priority?

Fessenden: I must remind myself that I must do self-care, or I will regress. Finding the time to do self-care is sometimes difficult, but I quickly learned that if I don’t give that time to myself then I start to head in the wrong direction.  

IAFF: What would you say is the biggest emotional or behavioral health challenge for retired fire fighters?

Fessenden: The feeling of not belonging anymore or losing your identity is huge. You may feel useless and nothing fills the void of the job. That’s how it was for me when I retired. Grief and depression are the things I think a lot of retirees face. Also, the fact that PTSD was not out in the open until recently, so many retirees don’t have any idea why they feel the way they do. I know I didn’t. I had no idea I could even get PTSD. (For more information on PTS and PTSD, see the IAFF Guide to Understanding PTSD.)  

IAFF: What would you say to fire fighters who are reluctant to seek help for fear they’ll be judged by others?

Fessenden: I understand because I was worried about it at first too, and that delayed getting treatment. The stigma, in my opinion, is actually not a group stigma, but an individual stigma. We are much harder on ourselves than our brothers and sisters are. We think others will judge us, won’t trust us; that we will not get promoted or we will lose our job. The list goes on.

But in my experience, and talking to so many people about this, I was the only one who judged me for getting help. I have spoken to so many fire fighters. My story has been shared everywhere. And the only person who has ever shown any type of judgment towards me is me.

I have been supported by everyone! I was afraid of a stigma that was self-created. My friends and co-workers — who are mostly the same people — and my family have not done anything but support me.

So, I say to anyone who is reluctant that there is nothing to be ashamed of. I believe that any judgment would be a positive judgment. Being afraid is understandable, but I promise that getting help will change your life and you will be happy again.

IAFF: Is there one takeaway from your experience you want to share with other members?

Fessenden: The feeling you get when you turn away from the pain, struggles and darkness; seeing there is hope is not something I can put into words. I want to thank my brothers and sisters at the Center during my time there for saving my life and bringing joy back into my heart.

You know who you are, and I love you! – “Fezz”

If you are an IAFF member and interested in sharing your story of recovery from behavioral health problems, contact IAFF Behavioral Health Specialist Lauren Kosc, LCPC at [email protected].

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