Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The Flip of a Switch: A Life Plan Derailed -- Finding Purpose after a Trainwreck

By Guest Blogger Mike Schnittgen
Photo Credit: Craig Miller

On July 19, 2011 my life ended.

At the time I was a 27-year-old train conductor in Montana; a career that can be very demanding but allowed me to provide a quality of life for my family that even my college education could not afford. People would sometimes ask me if I got bored intellectually as if the career were not stimulating enough. I offset the negatives of the career by focusing on the positives like the one-on-one environment of the cab. I’d have fascinating conversations with co-workers -- former teachers, geologists, computer designers, investors, farmers, landscapers and many other types of professions that had all joined the profession in hopes of being able to provide a for a good life. Being an outdoors person, working on the rail gave me a mobile office and front row seat through some of the most scenic landscape on Earth.

In hindsight I had a pretty damn good life and one that seems almost like a dream teasing me with thoughts of what could have been. My college experience included scholarships for football and wrestling. Professionally, even though I had seen career opportunities waiver through grant funding cuts and furloughs, I had always been fiscally responsible and sound. A man, who’s currently a judge, once told me I had done a fine job of marrying “above myself”. My daughter, 6 months old at the time, was the perfect baby, rarely ever crying and sporting a gorgeous smile. I’m not sure I could have imagined a happier vision for myself.

Then, one fateful day my dream turned into a nightmare. Onboard a freight train in dark territory my engineer and I rounded a corner to see a train parked in the siding, a siding that we were erroneously lined into. At over a mile long and over ten thousand tons, the emergency brake lever flopped down with a pathetic limpness after I dumped the air. I knew I was going to die, and I felt terrible for that six-month old that was going to grow up without her father. There was an awkward moment of futility that occurred, when the realization that I had no control almost had a paralytic effect, it’s wasn’t even necessarily all fear but rather the knowing, that no action I could take would change the fact that I was going to die. Eventually as the sound of my engineer’s voice fought through that moment of shock, I followed his lead and resigned to my deathbed on the dusty floor of the locomotive cab. I laid there for what felt like an eternity but was only seconds feeling a terrible guilt for the leaving an infant fatherless. It’s hard to describe how long seconds become in a moment like that, time crawls by so much so that I started to un-tuck myself from the fetal position in an attempt to look around and see if somehow we had averted disaster. In that moment I felt the one thing that only a railroader could comprehend, I felt the violent sway of our engine as we hit a 10 mph turnout at over 30 mph. That moment the true definition of terror was revealed to me that moment was confirmation, that indeed we were going to collided with that train in the siding. As time goes on that is the moment, I don’t discuss in a crowd, I don’t describe to friends, and I don’t try to “feel”.

As I sit here typing this I still believe in some sense part of me did die when my train hit that other train. What I went through after that day, for a long period of time, I can only describe as Hell on earth. A lot of my ideas of what it meant to be a man, a father, a husband were no longer ideals I could identify with myself. Thoughts like: “What kind of man has panic attacks?” “How can I provide for my family now?” “What good am I?” “I can’t even lift the water jug onto the watercooler….”, were predominant and destroying my definition of my own identity. I was experiencing panic attacks, depression, feelings of shame and the physical limitations/pain, as a result of the extensive damage done to my back, did not help my mental status.

Inevitably the foundations of my life crumbled, after a year of treatment I was unable to safely perform work for the railroad, my wife asked for a divorce and at 28 years old I underwent my first back surgery. After the surgery, lying in agony in my father’s basement I felt like a monumental burden, a disappointment, a failure and a waste not even worthy of breathing. I had been a very independent and bright young man who took pride in always be able to find a solution to whatever problems life presented, at this point though I had none. A question crept into my mind:


Why deal the pain and the agony that was my existence at the time. My life had become too painful to endure and ending it seem like the only way to stop the pain. As I brought my pistol up to the side of my head, just like when I was facing that parked train in the siding, I waited for impact and my inevitable nonexistence, and my thoughts focused on that little girl who would grow up without her father. I have experienced some tremendous “cries” in the past five years but few have been similar to that one when I found a reason, a meaning, to keep fighting the pain, I cried thinking about how that would have affected her life, which meant that I was still worth something to someone. After that realization of meaning, to be a father that didn’t quit, I had a reason, I had purpose, and I had leverage against the pain. I still get choked up and experience a feeling of nausea when I think about the low point I was at that night.

I had sought counseling after the wreck and had been attending on a weekly basis but it was in a session, shortly after that low-point in my father’s basement, that I was able to find hope and figure out a path that would allow me to find an identity again. Even though I had been attending counseling, I struggled for over a year with trying to find an answer. My entire life plan had been wiped out in a matter of minutes and I felt an unbelievable amount of pressure to try to come up with a new one. Asking for help can be a difficult thing for anyone, especially working-age men. I believe the only reason I did is because I had heard the message so many times in my prior career. For a short period, had even been a spokesman at the state level for my county’s mental health committee but had never truly thought about being a consumer of mental health services. It’s not always easy but finding a reason to go on, but this has made a huge difference and allowed me to expand my answer to the simple question of “why?” Every time I hear some form of the word “dad” come from my daughter’s mouth I remember “why”.

Other things that have helped keep me going is an unrelenting family to whom I do not give enough credit.

Do something, anything to not be trapped in the pit of despair,” my father urged and kept forcing me to do simple housework and attend physical therapy, I hated him for it initially, I was in so much physical and mental pain. Though I am limited compared to the athlete I once was, my commitment physical therapy broke up that cycle of despair. My brothers dragged me out to fish and never complained about the expenses. The first time I caught a fish after the wreck I cried because of the intense burning sensation it caused in my back; that was humbling. I had surgery in the winter and they drug me back out in the spring to get me out of the house to do something I had enjoyed. Working out and fishing with my daughter still to this day remind me of how thankful I am to be here and how far I have come.

Honestly, I’ve never wanted to run from anything in my life the way I want to run away from this industry. However, I told a great man that people in this industry need advocates, that those coworkers who shared their knowledge and amazing stories with me were still out there working in an unforgiving industry with harsh psychological conditions along with many others like them. That great man agreed that trainmen need advocates and asked me what I was going to do about it. At the time of this discussion I had been seeking advice on a research paper for my graduate degree. That research was supposed to be on changing the mental health culture of a vocational field in which we had knowledge. With his encouragement I have shared the ideas in that paper with other mental health experts and potential agents of change in the industry. My desire is that sharing my ideas and experiences on what it’s like to be suffering and to be battling the various hurdles to recovery in the industry, will help reduce and prevent the future suffering of other railroaders. After years of physical therapy, counseling and the successful pursuit of a Master’s degree in counseling, I would like to help others to find their “why?” In this process of helping others, I too will benefit from a sense of purpose and greater meaning by using my experience of pain and suffering to help others with their own.

“He who has a Why to live can bear almost any How”-(Friedrich Nietzsche).

About the Author

Mike has found a new career, recently accepting a position as a school counselor in his home state. He continues to learn how to help others with their crisis and is currently adding to his education by enrolling in courses leading to certification as a licensed addictions counselor. He is thankful every day that being a father saved his life and always makes time for his beautiful little fishing buddy. Mike hopes to help raise awareness and improve mental standards in the rail industry to reduce and eliminate the mental health struggles of the underappreciated members of the rail industry.

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