The number one step is to forgive yourself. You are not a defective piece of equipment. You are never a failure for your feelings. There is no dishonor in what you have experienced. In fact, many of the strongest, kindest, noblest firefighters I ever met had come through some terrible darkness and lived to see the other side. Suicide attempts, opiate addiction, alcoholism, poverty, and crime. To come to terms with the dark parts of your history requires great integrity and courage.
Alcoholism, in particular, is nasty because it is self-perpetuating. It is cyclical. Every firefighter knows the feeling of intense panic, clenching at the chest. Every firefighter knows the unbearable waves of hot shame that follow an unfortunate error, rising in your gullet. Who wouldn’t want to escape that? You get drunk one night, go too far, and you do some stupid, embarrassing stuff. The next day, you’re carrying around that shame, on top of the problems from before, on top of a hangover and the residual depressive effects of the alcohol. You struggle through the day, feeling rough, and when work is done, all you can think about is drinking again to forget about it. Then, the next day, you’re carrying around double your share of a hangover. The further dehydration and depression continue, like in long division. You never resolved your shame from the first night, either - you just avoided it, and now you’ve compounded it with some new guilt. Well - maybe tonight will be different.
Alcoholism is sad and hard. But it’s not unique. Many, many firefighters grapple with it every day. Our culture practically demands it. Alcohol is bonding, ritual, comfort. It knits the squad together. And we use it to cope, too - to briefly forget our emotional distress, our chemical imbalances, our broken homes, our long-term injuries, our fallen friends. We drink to cope with the fact that; we just don’t care anymore. This is why alcohol is seductive. It’s like a bad friend, sneaking around to whisper in your ear - “It doesn’t matter.”. You start to talk to yourself differently - “Stupid of you, like usual. What’s the point? Damn disgrace - just gut it out, and you can get drunk.” It affects your health, too. Headaches, high blood pressure, liver and kidney problems. Acid reflux, stomach ulcers. Weight gain, less testosterone. You become slower, dumber, less cautious, more anxious.
When you quit, the first week or so will be the worst. Depending on how long you’ve been a drinker, it can even be extremely dangerous. If you’ve been abusing alcohol for a while, you can expect it to be something like the worst flu you’ve ever had. It’ll probably start with a jittery, nervous feeling. You’ll start craving your daily drink, and as time wears on without getting it, you’ll start experiencing headaches and a lot of anxiety. This will eventually translate into actual shaking, starting with the fingertips and potentially move across your entire body if you’ve been an alcoholic long enough. The first night will likely pass sleeplessly, as you feel uncomfortable and prickly. But the next day or so is when things start getting rough. Deprived of its usual alcohol dosage, your body has no idea how to function. You’ll experience terrible nausea, and probably spend a lot of time hunched over the toilet bowl, dry heaving, and retching. You’ll alternately be sweating or shivering cold, or both. Your head will hurt so bad it feels like your brain is pushing your eyeballs out of your skull. Clear thinking is next to impossible.
At this stage, it’s crucial to be careful. You should consult your doctor before quitting alcohol cold turkey. They will advise you not to do this at home. They can prescribe you medication that can help with the cravings and side-effects, or devise a program to wean you off. If you’ve been drinking consistently for years, suddenly quitting carries a grave risk of seizures or even death. Alcohol is one of the drugs that can kill you when you quit. Many drugs will make you feel awful when you quit, but alcohol would rather kill you than let you go. Depending on your circumstances, you may need to make your stand in a hospital or a rehab clinic. It’s better to be safe than sorry.
The withdrawals hit their peak around the 3rd day or so. At this point, you will likely be totally out of commission. If you have been a drinker for a long time, you will probably lose most of your motor skills and will have to ride it out in a hospital or clinic. This can last anywhere from a couple of days to a week, depending on your condition. This period should be marked by regular attendance at therapy, to help coach you through this difficult time. Your brain will not be functioning well, your emotions will be out of balance, and you probably will experience a lot of anger, guilt, and confusion. You’ll have to do the hard work of forgiving yourself, which often starts with confronting the things in your past that led you to drink in the first place. This is a time where your friends and family will have to be patient with you, and you with them. From here, it only gets better.
Around week 2, you will start to emerge from under the cloud. Your body and brain will start to recover, and you will find that you feel far, far better than you have in a long time. You’ll start to notice colors being more vibrant, smells more distinct. Your reflexes and memory will improve. At this point, the cravings will most likely still be pretty bad, but you won’t have a dark fog hanging over your brain at all times. At around a month, you’ll be feeling great - and this is the point at which you have to be extra careful. You’ll feel so good that you’ll start to let your guard down. You’ll feel so proud that you figure you can handle anything - even a drink or two. This is where a lot of people slip up. If you do, there’s no shame in it - it’s more common than not. Just tell your support and pick up back at square one, a little wiser. But if you manage to power through, you’ll be rewarded with increased faculty and agency. You’ll be thinner, with more testosterone and a more resilient mind. But best of all, you won’t have the feelings of guilt and self-directed anger always bubbling up inside you. In their place will be a gentle pride and the collected wisdom that only comes from hard-earned life lessons. You’ll be free, like a person just out of prison.
It’s a tough road, but when you come out on the other side, you’ll carry yourself with the strength and conviction that only those who have seen rock bottom can know. You’ll recognize the struggle in your friends and fellow firefighters, and you’ll be able to help them, too. They’ll see your resiliency, and you won’t be afraid to lend them a shoulder to lean on when they need it. They’ll need your compassion. If you’re struggling with alcohol, understand that you never need to take another drink, if you don’t want to. It doesn’t have to be this way. You can live through this, and see a brighter world than you ever imagined was possible. Reach out to a trusted firefighter, friend, therapist or me today. There is no shame in bettering yourself.
Mark Lamplugh is a fourth-generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester (PA) Fire Company. He is the Chief Executive Officer with 360 Wellness Inc. (www.360wellness.org) and Vice President of Business Development of the Frontline Program (www.frontlinerehab.com) at Sprout Health Group. 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.