'You're not alone': Veteran Surrey firefighter shares personal story of mental health struggles, healing and hope

There was a time Steve Serbic couldn’t imagine sharing his story.

“Not so long ago, I was in a really bad place,” he said Wednesday. “And now I’m sitting here talking about that, and I think, you know, my whole life has purpose now.”

The Surrey Fire Service assistant chief has written a memoir, called The Unbroken, about his early life and career, including his experience with anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress.

“I’ve worked very hard to get here and I’ve definitely struggled,” he said. “Mental health is not perfect. Do those sad days still come? Sure they do. But I manage them differently and I don’t do it with alcohol.”

Serbic said drinking was a way he used to cope.

“You go to a bad call and have a couple drinks, and you put it in that duffle bag,” he said. “And you just keep doing that.”

He said the stigma surrounding mental health and the fear of appearing “weak" still exists. It’s something he’s hoping to change.

“Just because you tell yourself you don’t have depression, doesn’t make it go away,” he said. “When I was alone, I would have moments of sadness, waves of sadness.”

Things came to boiling point in early 2001. In his memoir, Serbic recalled a stretch of time where he had to attend multiple calls involving children. All the while, his infant daughter was ill and in the hospital.

“I can’t even explain what happened to me. I had a mental health crisis,” he said. “I was in a very bad way and I started to go to clinical counselling.”

After finding a counsellor he connected with, he also began to write about his childhood as a therapeutic exercise. He never thought he’d end up sharing it publicly.

“I had to tell myself my own story, and I ended up changing my own narrative by doing that,” he said. “It’s so healthy to look back at your past and accept your challenges.”

Serbic’s memoir doesn’t sugarcoat his younger years, growing up at the boundary of Burnaby and Vancouver. He describes struggling in school, getting into fights, and how alcohol had a devastating effect on his family.

“My parents were good people though, hard-working labourers and the nicest souls you could ever meet when sober,” he wrote. “When they were together, however, not so much. There was always drinking and fighting - a very negative environment when I look back on it now.”

Serbic also writes about the day he realized he wanted to become a firefighter: sitting at a bus stop at Main and Hastings after a boxing class, watching a fire truck go by. One of the firefighters at the back smiled at him as they passed.

“I was a lost little kid, with no self-esteem, no self-confidence,” Serbic said. “When a fire truck drives by, and one guy smiles at me...changed my life.”

In 2015, Serbic accepted a promotion as a chief officer on Vancouver Island. He remembered it being difficult at first, until he met and befriended a retired captain and chaplain who became a pivotal influence in his life.

“He was such a cool guy,” Serbic said. “He said, ‘Steve, I know you’re struggling, I want to help you.'”

In his memoir, Serbic describes how his friend supported and encouraged him to speak out about mental health.

“He really empowered me to keep talking about it,” Serbic said. “His thing was, we’re going to break down the stigma.”

Then in 2018, tragedy struck. Serbic’s friend died by suicide. He was 58 years old.

“That’s how powerful mental illness is...it can blindside you,” Serbic said. “I didn’t see the signs when I was talking to him. I had no idea he was struggling.”

Serbic said his friend wanted him to finish writing the story of his life.

“He wanted me to share it, at least with my kids,” Serbic said.

Serbic’s memoir is now dedicated to that firefighter, along with his wife and children.

“I can talk to them openly,” he said. “But I think about the people that don’t have that. I think about the people that are alone and they’re in this pandemic, and they’re struggling.”

Serbic said the additional strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic prompted him to release the book now, calling it “an extremely challenging time for first responders."

“Everyone’s exhausted,” he said. “I’ve lost a lot of my friends to suicide and I don’t want to lose any more.”

Serbic is donating $10 from each hardcover book sold to support an online resource created by the University of British Columbia called HeadsUpGuys, that helps men fighting depression.

“They have had people write them letters saying, I was going to take my own life, but somehow I ended up on your site,” he said. “The reason they ended up on their site is because their analytics direct them when you start looking up ways to take your own life."

The title of Serbic’s book was inspired by a moment when he found himself crying at the doctor’s office, and she asked him what he wanted.

“I said, I just want to be unbroken,” he said. “And she said, ‘You’re not broken, you’re wounded. It’s like pulling your hamstring. It’s an injury.' I needed to go for clinical counselling to repair that injury.”

Serbic said post traumatic stress can affect anyone, and he is hoping if people who are struggling read his story, “they’ll know that it’s courageous to reach out for help. I’m living proof of that”.

“Life is school, and it’s about learning about yourself. And that’s what I did,” he said. “There’s lots of us out here that are looking to help. You’re not alone.”