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I Could Understand Losing My Fingers, but Not My Mental Health

The following story is brought to you by The Movember Foundation. The Movember Foundation is the leading charity dedicated to changing the face of men’s health around the world. With a singular goal to stop men dying too young, the Foundation supports the following causes: prostate cancertesticular cancermental health and suicide prevention. Since 2003, the support of more than five million participants has funded over 1,200 innovative projects across more than 20 countries. To donate or learn more, please visit Movember.com.

My name is Erik Bjarnason and I’m a retired firefighter. I had a 30-year career at North Vancouver City Fire Department where I recently retired as a captain. I’m also a volunteer search and rescue member of the North Shore Rescue team where I’ve been involved since 1988.

North Shore Rescue is a volunteer community-based search and rescue team providing life-saving service to the public, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. These men and women give their lives for complete strangers every day.

In May 2005, North Shore Rescue put together a 40th-anniversary expedition to Mount Logan, the second-highest mountain in North America. We were on our way down after a fantastic climb when I found myself, along with two other volunteers, trapped in an extratropical cyclone on an exposed part of the mountain. In my 30 years of climbing, I had never seen a storm like this. It tore the backpacks off our backs and ripped our tents to shreds. It was a true miracle we were able to make it out alive.

After three days of being stuck on the mountain, we’d radioed our goodbyes and written notes to our families, preparing ourselves for the inevitable. Suddenly, our luck turned. The clouds parted and a rescue helicopter was able to reach us. We were saved – but not without sacrifice. I lost my fingers on both hands and half of one thumb to frostbite, which was… well, a bit of an inconvenience, but the important thing was that I was alive.

One would assume the suffering I dealt with when I got back would be from the physical injuries I endured and learning to deal with the loss of my fingers. That, in actuality, was relatively easy to deal with — it made sense to me. I could scientifically understand why I had lost my fingers. I could also still do pretty much everything I was able to do before the accident like fight fires and climb mountains. What I couldn’t understand, however, was the struggle I began to experience with my mental health.

For everything we do at the firehall, there are hours of training and certification that goes into it. We’re trained to never show emotion when we’re at the scene. And in most ways, I agree with that. We need to present an air of calm in stressful situations, both for our fellow firefighters and for those we’re working to help. The problem is, we take this training to heart and we bring it back both to the firehall and, in my case, to our homes.

During our training and our day-to-day, we never once talked about mental health, so I never thought about it. I always figured I was “fine.” It’s like when you put a frog in water and raise the temperature slowly until it eventually succumbs to the heat. The frog doesn’t know it’s boiling because it is such a gradual process. In the same way, many first responders don’t realize when they are going downhill until it is too late.

My family and friends didn’t know. I was always a happy-go-lucky guy but inside I felt like I was dying. I pulled away from my social circle and isolated myself completely. Before I knew it, I couldn’t make it through the day without a drink and I was having thoughts about ending my life. That’s when I realized I had hit rock bottom. I thought to myself, how did I get here? It finally clicked. I recognized I needed to make a change. I needed to get help. I started searching the internet for resources, opening up to other firefighters and going for counseling. If it didn’t work with one counselor, I’d try another. I just kept trying and eventually, I started to feel like myself.

After opening up, the biggest thing I discovered was that I wasn’t alone. I had always thought I was the only one struggling — the only one who couldn’t “handle it.” In reality, there’s a small army of firefighters suffering in silence who are desperate for help. Being able to talk about it allowed for others to feel comfortable opening up as well. After speaking openly about my experience, I’ve had colleagues and other firefighters approach me with almost identical stories.

Honestly, if I hadn’t sought help and if I hadn’t started talking, I would still be in my basement suite on this beautiful day, probably into my second bottle of vodka. I’d be surprised if I managed to make it another two or three years without drinking myself to death. In fact, I don’t think I would be alive today if I hadn’t recognized I needed help and started talking about it. I went through a really dark time and when I was finally able to pull myself away from that darkness, I realized everything is brighter and better. I’m back to doing what I love like spending time with my family and being in the mountains. I’m starting to feel like the man I used to be and remembering how to love life again.

Men, it’s OK to open up about what you’re going through. It quite literally saved my life and it could save yours too.

To find out more about Movember’s work in mental health and suicide prevention, visit www.movember.com/talk.

Image via Erik Bjarnason/Movember