Finding his way to a new sense of self
As a firefighter and soldier in Iraq, Tim Long was fueled by adrenaline. After years of battling PTSD and addiction, he’s found a more peaceful purpose.
Listen to Tim’s Story
Tim Long always enjoyed a good rush. Whether facing a big wave on a surfboard or a burning building as a fire fighter, adversity fueled his confidence and sharpened his focus. Picturing himself as a man of strength, a rescuer, “a person who stands up for what is wrong in the world” was pivotal to his sense of identity.
“In those situations, I could remain calm, make good decisions, control the situation,” says Long, 40, his soft-spoken voice a contrast to his heavily tatooed arms. “For some reason that was when I was always at my best.”
But what happens when that self image is whisked away, not bit by bit, but in a single jolt, like a magician snatching away a cloth to reveal something that wasn’t there before? Who are you if you can no longer be the person you always thought you were?
In Long’s case, the answer is not a pretty one.
After his British parents divorced, Long and his brother and sister moved from a tiny U.K. village to Venice Beach with his mother, who had remarried an American citizen. That marriage ended not long after the family arrived in Florida and Long, then in fifth grade, says he has almost entirely blocked the memory of his stepfather, who was “not a nice man.”
But though money was tight — his mother worked for minimum wage cleaning apartments in the complex where they lived — he remembers his childhood as “really happy” and their little foursome as “tight knit.” For fun, they’d treat themselves to Big Gulps from the 7-11, drive up and down Manasota or Casey Keys singing to oldies on the radio and talk about how they’ve live in one of those mansions some day.
After graduating from Venice High, Long’s lust for adrenaline propelled him to the fire academy and a job with the Nokomis Fire Department. It felt like destiny. His favorite calls were the ones where someone had to be extricated from a twisted car or a burning building before it collapsed.
But after 344 firefighters were killed on 9/11 and the American death toll in Iraq began to mount, Long felt what he was doing wasn’t enough. Every time he read the paper or saw a recruiting commercial,, he thought about those who were risking their lives and how, as an immigrant, he owed more to his adopted country. Eventually he asked his chief for a leave of absence.
When an Army recruiter told him that, with his skills, he could choose whatever job he wanted, Long said he wouldn’t sign up unless he was guaranteed an infantry position.
“If I was going to do this, I wanted to be on the front line with the other guys putting their lives on the line,” he recalls. “I wanted to have the job that gave me as much adrenaline as fire fighting did.”
After basic training – the indignities of which he welcomed as a test of his fortitude — he was sent to Fort Hood, Texas for schooling on the tank-like carriers known as Bradleys. Not long after his arrival, he fell hard and fast for a woman who asked him to marry her. Fearing he might “miss maybe my one chance of having a wedding ceremony,” he accepted. One month to the day before he deployed to Iraq on October 1, 2006, they were wed.
Long’s unit was stationed inside Balad, known as a hub for bomb makers and terrorist cells. His job was to conduct searches of homes hiding targets aimed at stopping outgoing supplies to U.S. forces. IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were an everyday threat; within the first two months, his unit lost several men.
Long remembers December 6 as “a particularly traumatic day.” He rushed back to base after a disturbing sortie and waited impatiently for an open computer so he could email his wife about it. When he saw a message from her in his inbox, his heart soared — but only until he read it.
She was coming clean, she said. She’d been seeing another man, even before he left and she was now pregnant with his child. She’d only married Long for the life insurance she’d get if he didn’t make it back, she confessed, and for the share of his pay the Army declared her entitled to (even after the Dear John letter). Later he would discover she’d also emptied his bank account of about $10,000.
“At that point, my reason for being there went from helping the Iraqi people and being the best soldier, to a world of hate,” Long admits. “I was sad at what had happened, I was angry at what was happening around me, and the combination of the two essentially allowed me to make decisions I wouldn’t normally make with my moral compass. My new purpose was to be there to hurt people and get revenge.”
He won’t discuss details of the “darkness” that descended or what it led him to do. But he does say, “The enemy looked exactly the same as the civilians, so you kind of had to turn off your morals. Everyone was the enemy, even the cute kid you gave candy to.”
In the hours before dawn on September 17, 2007, two weeks before the anniversary of his first full year in Iraq — his Bradley was struck by an IED. Medivac’d to a base hospital in Germany, he was determined to have sustained a frontal lobe traumatic brain injury, a severe lower back injury, almost total loss of hearing in his right ear and permanent tinnitus. After becoming combative, refusing to eat, pulling out IVs and insisting he be sent back to the battlefield, he was transferred to the psychiatric ward and diagnosed with acute post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“I lost my s***,” he admits. “There was not a cell in my body that wasn’t disgusted that my men were there and I wasn’t.”
Transferred back to the states, Long was prescribed a plethora of powerful medications for pain, depression, anxiety and psychosis. He downed them with a river of alcohol, adamantly refusing to accept any notion that he was mentally ill because he knew “it would mean my military career would be over.”
“I wanted to get back to what my identity was,” he says, “but inside my head, I knew I wouldn’t be able to be in the infantry, or return to the fire department. So I’d lost two careers that were only things I wanted to do and that was something I couldn’t face.”
In 2009, he was determined by the VA to be 100 disabled and medically retired from the Army. The next three years were a blur of pills, alcohol and self- loathing. He fought with his family, moved briefly to Colorado (for a girl) and to Georgia (with an Army friend), then landed in the “drug ghetto” of Sanford, Florida, addicted to crack cocaine “and any other drug I could get my hands on.”
Haunted by guilt over his actions in Iraq and shame for having been sent home, he constantly considered suicide and more than once tried to intentionally overdose. At his lowest point, in the spring of 2012, a “battle buddy” who came from Wisconsin to Orlando for spring break stopped to see him. Shocked by Long’s condition, which he found “just not acceptable,” he returned two weeks later with a truck to move his friend north.
“I was so relieved when he picked me up and took me away,” Long recalls. “He was so nonjudgmental and accepting. It made me want to change.”
In Wisconsin, Long returned to the VA for treatment, got clean, and started started college on the GI bill, studying psychology and substance abuse counseling. He became president of the campus psychology and vets’ clubs and started planning a career as a counselor. He also got a dog, “Jax,” an English spaniel/border collie mix who would become his lifeline.
In the year before he earned his degree, Long interned as a peer support specialist for a group of at-risk high school boys, a job he would keep after graduating. But alcohol remained his steady coping skill and eventually he racked up six DUIs..The last one earned him a felony conviction as a “habitual offender” and a lifetime ban on obtaining a driver’s license. He has not been behind the wheel since 2016.
His underlying trauma still unaddressed, it didn’t take much for him to fall again. A romantic relationship with an opiate user led him to an IV heroin addiction that lasted more than two years. During that time, he says, the only thing that kept him alive was Jax.
“He needed me to open the door, fill up his bowl, pet him. Many times those were the sole reason why I needed to wake up the next day. If I were to be gone, there would be nobody to explain to him what happened, he would think I just left him. And I couldn’t do that to someone who never judged me for my use or PTSD or actions in combat or how much I weighed or if I could afford nice clothes. He just loved me.”
When his relationship ended, he got clean again, this time moving in with his sister in Michigan. But after another relapse, she insisted he move out and explained to her two young sons exactly why “Uncle Timmy” had to leave.
“That was the lowest I’d ever felt,” Long sighs. “I was more disgusted with that than with anything I ever did in combat.”
In March of 2020, just about the time the COVID epidemic was getting underway, Long checked himself into a Michigan VA hospital. After completing treatment, he moved back to Florida where, for the past five months, he’s been facilitating peer groups online for a wellness center in New York, as well as working with the local NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) chapter. With no transportation and still feeling intensely vulnerable in public, the virtual world of the pandemic has been something of a blessing for him, providing support and purpose, without the anxiety or temptations of the real world.
“I had such a fear of being judged, of losing my identity; I felt like my voice had been taken and now I was just a mentally ill junkie and who would listen to that?” Long says. “In my head, I didn’t deserve to have a voice. It’s taken over a decade to allow myself to believe that my thoughts aren’t facts, to allow me to forgive myself and tell myself I deserve a good life, and sobriety, and happiness.”
The latest hurdle came when the VA reduced his disability status, cutting his benefits from $4,000 a month to just $1,000. Were it not for his aunt allowing him to live rent-free in her Northport home, he’s not sure how he’d even be able to afford food. He has filed an appeal with the VA and says if it is granted, he will continue to work without pay as a volunteer, with the goal of facilitating vet-to-vet groups in the Charlotte, Sarasota and Manatee County jails for men suffering from PTSD and substance abuse disorders.
The nightmares, panic attacks, guilt and embarrassment still resurface regularly. As do, less frequently, the cravings and suicidal thoughts. But every day that he stays connected to his support system and practices the mindfulness and guided imagery tools he’s been taught, he becomes “a little more confident that I can make it another 24 hours.”
Best of all, he’s finally enjoying a sense of purpose again. It’s helped him reclaim his identity as a caregiver, though a racing heart and a rushing rescue are no longer part of the equation. He’s come to realize that quietly helping save others may be the only way to save himself.