Recently, I learned of a driver who had committed suicide. It broke my heart that he would have taken such a drastic step, certainly, but I know it is a much more common act than many people expect. I know that because I've been there. I started my career driving truck in 1993. At the time, I honestly had no business out here due to the simple fact that I was a drug and alcohol addict. Reasons for my use might be described as simple. I hated life, I hated myself, and I hated everyone else. My hate stemmed from my childhood and the torment I'd been put through being raised. I did not know at the time, but I was self-medicating due to a serious mental health issue. By this time, I had attempted suicide through alcohol poisoning -- I tried drinking myself to death, essentially. At my worst, I was drinking a half-gallon of whiskey a day.
I had tried suicide by vehicle, walking down the middle of I-5 in California blind drunk and daring someone to hit me. Add to that the risk-taking: racing my motorcycle at 180 mph, surfing my bike at high rates of speed daring gravity to do the job for me. Also: picking fights for no reason with the biggest guy in the bar, each time hoping it was my last.
If you are struggling with similar issues and have thought about giving up, reach out for help. Call or text the national suicide prevention hotline number 988; there's help available there 24/7. By the time I started driving, I was actually trying to clean up my act. I had two babies in diapers and could not bear the example I would be setting for them if nothing changed. Though I loved the work, I was sick to death of heavy highway construction, where often enough I’d get the layoff slip before I could get my family on solid ground. Minimum wage at other jobs simply was not cutting it.
My wife and I fought all the time about money, being unemployed, and my addiction. When I climbed into a truck for the first time, I was running away from life with the excuse of trying to provide better for my family. A year later, I was going through a divorce and still had not cleaned up my act. Yet I was still trying, and through the help of the VA, I checked myself into a treatment center. While the treatment helped, it was finally surrendering to Christ that helped me maintain my sobriety. But the reasons I had been self-medicating were still there. Slowly but surely, Christ helped me work through them, but the one thing I struggled with the most was anger, which became a daily struggle, one I had to learn how to control.
For the most part I have, though I still have my moments. It is my daily walk with Christ that makes it possible. I have been clean now since ’96 and do not miss my old life in any way. In 2005, after 12 years over-the-road, I quit driving truck and tried to make a life away from in the highway. In 2007, I was finally diagnosed with chronic PTSD (post-traumatic stress syndrome), the result of my traumatic childhood. With that, I began researching my diagnosis so I could learn what I could to help myself.
[Related: Driving through depression's dark valleys]
This, in turn, reignited a love for psychology and a return to school in 2010 -- I became a substance abuse counselor in 2013. I thought that was what I was meant to do with my life, but oftentimes our plans do not coincide with God’s. In 2015 I returned to trucking while I figured out what the next step was.
I became a road chaplain for truckers, then returned to school online to further my counseling education. As I began to work with truckers, I soon discovered what so many of us are up against -- basic access to mental health services is fraught with barriers most people just don’t contend with. Operators’ reality (consistently crossing state lines) meant many local counselors only licensed to treat within the confines of their state just couldn’t accommodate drivers when they really needed it.
I became certified in several psychological techniques, including suicide prevention and life coaching (the latter so I could help others without the restriction of state licensing). Having struggled with suicidal ideation in the past (a symptom of my PTSD), I have a unique perspective. I have since finished my master’s degree in mental health and wellness and continue to offer my help free of charge to anyone who is in need.
According to the CDC, suicide is on the rise in recent times. Trucking has always been a job of isolation -- before, during and since COVID -- and trucking ranks as one of the professions with the highest rate of suicide. Truckers learn to depend on themselves, and mental health issues carry a stigma. So, as I well know, it can be difficult to ask for help, but you must know that you are not alone. My story, I hope, illustrates that.
"Again, you are not alone. We are your community, and we are here, willing to help. Please: Never, never, never give up." --This story's author, Clifford Petersen, whom you can call or text via this link
According to a report by Mental Health America (MHA) looking at years 2019 and 2020, around 20% of adults in the United States are experiencing mental health issues, and almost 5% have had serious thoughts of suicide. Extrapolate those percentage to the roughly 3.5 million over-the-road truckers working today and you get a picture of just how common these issues are. According to the MHA, more than half of those struggling with mental health have not sought or received treatment.
There are signs that may indicate someone is struggling. Learn to recognize these in yourself or in your loved ones and associates. Personal risk factors are previous suicide attempts, a history of depression or other mental health issues, serious illness or chronic pain, legal or criminal issues, financial problems or job loss, impulsive or aggressive tendencies, substance abuse, current abuse or childhood trauma, or a sense of hopelessness. Working over-the-road can strain personal relationships, and losing someone you love, be it through a breakup or death, can increase the risk. All such stressors can increase thoughts of giving up. Add to that the stress of the job as well as cultural stressors, and the risk gets greater.
If you see someone struggling with these issues, reach out. Offer them someone to talk to, or let them know resources are there. It is not turning on a brother or a sister trucker. It could simply be saving a life.
If you are struggling with these issues and have thought about giving up, reach out for help. Again, you are not alone. We are your community, and we are here, willing to help. Please: Never, never, never give up. There are other resources, too, of course: Call or text the national hotline number 988; there is always someone there you can talk to.
At the same time, telehealth has been on the rise post-COVID. While you may have to take time off to see a counselor, at least you still have a future.
And personally, I’ll say, you can always call me at 573-730-2370. I still truck, and I still work with truckers -- and I’ll never charge you a dime. I’m here to help.
[Related: You are not alone in the fight for stable mental health]