Mark Lamplugh is a 4th generation firefighter and former captain with the Lower Chichester, Pennsylvania Fire Company. He is an advocate for the behavioral and mental health of firefighters and first responders. Today, Mark is 9 years sober and very active in the first responder recovery space. He has created several responder-specific treatment programs and is recognized by the American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. You can listen to Mark’s journey into sobriety and the interview in its entirety here.

Mark grew up with firefighting in his blood. His family has a legacy of 90 years of service with the same fire department in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, “my father is still an active president, I was a captain, my grandfather was a chief and my great-grandfather, [has] an award that they give out to somebody every year named after him,” Mark shares.

As a young firefighter, Mark recalls having alcohol available at his fingertips, “at the fire department there was a bar right in the firehouse, so we would hang out there after events and [we] would drink.” But drinking was just the tip of the iceberg: Mark’s major issue was prescription drugs. He started taking pills every day and he also drank alcohol. Mark knew even if he was able to stop taking prescription pills, he would not be able to stop drinking. He wanted to be able to drink like everybody else, “my father drank, and all the guys at the firehouse drank, and I just wanted to be able to drink,” but he realized the alcohol was a gateway to the drugs.

Fighting Addiction

When Mark was 23 years old, he totaled his car while under the influence: he had to be cut and physically removed from his car. He was overwhelmed with embarrassment. Yet, he knew his involvement in the community protected him. “They all knew me, [I] probably got away with things a little bit more than others, because of who I was.” Mark believes his addiction went on for as long as it did because of this protection.

In 2010, in his early 20s, everything came crashing down. Mark was out of control, and negligence on the job almost killed him.  “We had a working house fire and I was on the nozzle; I didn’t have my helmet clipped the way it should be, and I fell down the steps, and my helmet flew off. It could have been a serious, serious problem.” Immediately after the incident, Mark’s father and several other fighters gathered in the chief’s office and told him he needed to get help, so that’s what he did. “I didn’t go to a fancy treatment center, I went to an institution for 14 days and then I went to a state program for 22 days,” recalls Mark. He didn’t feel he had a choice; he was going wherever they sent him.

When Mark was a year and a half sober, he started working for a treatment center in admissions. Mark knew a lot of firefighters that needed help and would spend hours calling stations asking what services they were offering firefighters that needed help. “First responders have issues with PTSD and a lot of their drinking or drug use stems from self-medicating to deal with their symptoms,” Mark says. Because first responders are so revered in their communities, it makes it difficult for them to seek treatment, “they get treated differently because of their positions and I think some of that attitude is detrimental for them to get help.”

There is a mentality for some, that if you do seek help as a first responder, you don’t belong on the job, “if you can’t handle it, you shouldn’t be here,” says Mark. First responders see people at their darkest moments every single day and it can affect their day-to-day lives, and in some cases this PTSD can cause death. “Firefighters are committing suicide for a lot of reasons, because they don’t know how to deal with the stress, and they don’t have an outlet or know of anything.” 

The threat of losing their job if they seek help for substance abuse is a huge deterrent for seeking treatment. For Firefighters or first responders their job is their identity; combine that with the threat of losing their job, and it’s extremely difficult to convince them to seek help. “It’s your life, and when you take that away and you lose that identity, what do you have?” says Mark.

Help for First Responders

Several careers fall under the first responder umbrella; dispatchers, corrections officers, paramedic, EMTs, firefighters, police, nursing professionals, veterans, military and medical examiners. Resources are available to help first responders, but very few people are aware they exist, “nobody knows about them,” says Mark. 

Some departments are better than others. “Some departments do a really good job with helping their guys and stuff like that, but others, they don’t do anything,” reveals Mark. Oftentimes, the onus is on the hurting individual to seek help and look for the resources that are available. Mark shares, “there’s no motivation there until they have four department suicides in six months.”

Many first responders refuse treatment because they don’t want to take time off of work or they don’t want their department to find out they have a substance abuse problem.  “Many of them will admit PTSD or mental health issues, but not the drinking or taking benzos to sleep every night,” shares Mark. He believes that if  departments developed a hard-nose around substance abuse it could help get more first responders into treatment. “You can get rid of their wives, the kids, whatever, but you threaten their job, you hang the job over them, they’re going to go,” Mark explains.

Lionrock created ThinLine Recovery; a first responder-specific treatment option that addresses the daily traumas that our first responders deal with. Lionrockrecovery.com offers a free support group every Thursday night for first responders that are in recovery, may need recovery or just want to explore what recovery is all about. You can find this group under the Support Groups tab. 

Quotes have been edited for clarity.