ORLANDO, Fla. – As Adam Gruler, a former police officer who was working security the night of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, stroked a paintbrush across the easel in his kitchen, he gave his artwork some emotional context.
“Sometimes I won’t be happy with it and I’ll have to start over,” he said. “I’m OK with that because I’ve had to start over many times in my life.”
The art therapy has replaced the badge he held for 20 years with the Orlando Police Department, a job he walked away from because of one night that he admits has never stopped haunting him—when a gunman opened fire in Pulse on June 12, 2016, killing 49 and injuring more than 50.
“It really didn’t come to light until after my first suicide attempt,” he recalled. “That’s when my wife was like, ‘You’re going somewhere. You’re getting help.’”
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According to the 2nd Alarm Project, a nonprofit aimed at helping first responders, 15% of those in the profession have contemplated suicide while 37% self-reported harmful substance abuse.
Gruler was diagnosed with PTSD and alcoholism, dealing with flashbacks of the Pulse Nightclub massacre for nearly seven years now. The 20-year veteran was off-duty working security at the Orlando nightclub when he confronted and exchanged gunfire with the lone gunman.
“The depression grabs and holds you and my answer was alcohol,” he told News 6. “The alcohol was to take me out of reality so I could forget what’s going on.”
Eventually, Gruler was allowed to step down from his post with worker’s compensation benefits because of the PTSD legislation News 6 fought to pass.
Senate Bill 376, which was approved unanimously by both the Senate and the House in 2018, provides first responders with wage compensation as they receive treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder.
[RELATED: Florida PTSD law a ‘game-changer’ for 1st responders, more needs to be done, attorney says]
Under the law, PTSD is finally acknowledged as a legitimate medical injury. The ability to get workers’ compensation while receiving treatment is something that thousands of Florida first responders, including Gruler, benefit from.
“There’s no gain for me. I didn’t turn and become a lottery winner because of that law,” Gruler said. ”What that law did was it gave me the resources and the assistance.”
One of the important resources is the group of professionals with 2nd Alarm Project.
Dr. Kellie O’Dare of the Institute of Public Health and Florida A&M University told News 6 the goal of the nonprofit “is to reduce the need for claims under the PTSD law and keep responders healthy.”
O’Dare and a team of first responders with Orlando, Tallahassee and Coral Springs-Parkland fire departments presented an abstract report on what has been defined as a behavioral health access program or BHAP.
According to the 2nd Alarm Project, 23% of first responders reported suffering from PTSD while 77% reported symptoms of depression.
Through the resources provided by the nonprofit, Gruler is able to have monthly sessions with a psychiatrist and counselor and able to listen to others who have struggled with PTSD.
Gruler said he listens to their fears, their flashbacks and their challenges.
“Find somebody to trust and be willing to open up,” said Gruler, addressing how others can combat PTSD. “It’s not easy, but be willing.”
For more information on the 2nd Alarm Project, click here.
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