"By definition, a hero is a man who battles against overwhelming odds for a cause, an ideal, or for the lives of innocents. The cause and ideal may vary with the morning headlines – while the innocents in today's world of muddy morality, may ultimately prove to be guilty. Which leaves but one constant in the definition: that a hero is, above all, a man... A man subject to pressures and responsibilities far beyond those of his peers. Such is a burden that must take its toll, eventually, from even the most valiant warrior.”
So begins the final issue of “Demon in a Bottle”, what many consider to be the quintessential Invincible Iron Man story arc. The nine-part series, which ran from March to November, 1979, pushes brilliant engineer and billionaire businessman Tony Stark to his breaking point as he battles foes from without and within.
As the title suggests, his worst enemy isn't a nefarious super villain. Rather, it's Stark's struggle with depression and alcoholism that poses the greatest threat to Iron Man's legacy, to his super hero team the Avengers, and to the citizenry he is sworn to protect.
“Demon in a Bottle” opens with Iron Man doing what he does best: saving a damaged passenger plane and defeating a horde of enemy soldiers. Things begin to go wrong when Stark's suit malfunctions on his flight back from the epic battle, causing him to make an unexpected crash landing. He later examines the faulty armor in his lab, but can't find anything wrong.
Thinking it a one-time fluke, he agrees to appear as Iron Man alongside a distinguished foreign ambassador at a public Stark Industries event. But “celebration turn[s] to shock as a malfunctioning repulsor... cut[s] through the startled diplomat like a cleaver through pasta”, killing him instantly. Explaining this mishap to the police doesn't go well, and they confiscate his suit for inspection. Stripped of his suit – and, in many ways, his very identity – Iron Man breaks down and turns to drink to self-soothe.
This only exacerbates his problems. The Avengers lose faith in him as their leader, asking him to step down. Iron Man's loyal butler, Jarvis, resigns after one of Stark's drunken rages. He becomes dependent on alcohol, telling Captain America, “You don't understand. If you could be inside my skin... If you could feel what I'm feeling, you'd know... You'd know that I've got to drink.”
In the end, it isn't the Avengers who help Stark confront his addiction, but Bethany Cabe, an expert in hand-to-hand combat and a romantic interest of Stark's. She reveals that her former husband had a similar problem with drugs, and that she believes her leaving him in his time of need led to his untimely death in a car accident. With Stark, she wants to be different. She wants to help him through his withdrawal and see him through to sobriety.
Ultimately, “Demon in a Bottle” ends on a positive note, as Stark patches things up with Jarvis and learns to cope with his addiction. While recovery from such a dangerous dependency is not always so swift, it was Iron Man's vulnerability and willingness to seek help that made it possible for him to overcome his addiction – not his wealth, wit or weapons.
First responders wrestling with similar demons are no different. There may be a high-tech suit and a pile of money separating us and Tony Stark, but we're all heroes – and we're all susceptible to hero mentality.
“We suffer what I call cultural brainwashing,” Jeff Dill, a captain at the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District in Illinois, told EMS World. “Once we put this uniform on, we’re expected to act a certain way: Be strong. Don’t show weakness. Don’t be the weak link of the company – we can handle problems on our own.”
Iron Man gives into this thinking in “Demon in a Bottle” when he drunkenly decides the answer to his problems is to “stop being Tony Stark... since Tony Stark is behind all my problems.” Donning his suit, he says, “Sure, other super heroes give up their costumed identities all the time! So why can't I give up my civilian identity? Yeah, from now on there'll be no more Anthony Stark. There'll just be Iron Man!”
Like getting drunk, this is just another form of escape. Stark hopes that inside all that protective, intimidating armor, his emotions will no longer matter. Essentially, Stark is buying into Iron Man's reputation as an invulnerable hero – what's often called the “hero mentality” among first responders. This kind of thinking gets in the way of acknowledging our true problems, such as alcoholism, depression and PTSD.
When we do acknowledge these problems, and their prevalence in the first responder community, what we see simply cannot be ignored. Global News reported on a 2014 survey by the Paramedic Association of Canada that found “upwards of 27-28 per cent of the paramedics in the country... say they have contemplated suicide in the past.”
Furthermore, Researchers Samuel Bacharach, Peter Bamberger and Etti Doveh confirmed “a link between the intensity of firefighters’ involvement in critical incidents and drinking to cope,” and studies show that between 30% and 50% of American men and slightly greater than 25% of women with PTSD have had dependence problems in their lives.
All this can lead to a feeling of burnout, often called “compassion fatigue” (CF). The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration explains “that CF is made up of two main components: burnout and secondary traumatic stress. When experiencing burnout, you may feel exhausted and overwhelmed, like nothing you do will help make the situation better.
“For some responders, the negative effects of this work can make them feel like the trauma of the people they are helping is happening to them or the people they love. This is called secondary traumatic stress. When these feelings go on for a long time, they can develop into 'vicarious trauma.' This type of trauma is rare but can be so distressing that the way a person views the world changes for the worse.”
Changing your view of the world for the better takes time – and treatment. I know the value of both, I pride myself in getting firefighters in touch with some of the best help available. Finding the right treatment program can be a tricky thing. So if you are that hero ready to take off the mask and get better, you can reach out to me, and I’ll recommend you to start the path of rebuilding.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He was the Chief Executive Officer of 360 Wellness Inc. (www.360wellness.org) and is the Vice President of Business Development with Sprout Health Group (www.frontlinerehab.com). Lamplugh is also nationally recognized in Crisis Stress Intervention through the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. He has helped hundreds of firefighters, police officers, veterans, EMS personnel, and civilians nationwide find help for addiction, alcoholism, PTSD, and mental health support. He can be reached for comment at firstname.lastname@example.org.