You can feel the air turn tense before a word is even said. You know it was a bad shift. Something must have happened to make such a drastic change in your firefighter. Maybe he is angry, or silent, or sad….you just know something isn’t right.
Do you ask about it? Or do you sit patiently waiting for them to break the silence? Do you ignore and go on about your day trying to ease him back into the normal that is your family home hoping the images will fade from his mind?
This is a pinnacle moment. It’s a moment that is unpredictable when for years one approach works but then suddenly one day, it’s all wrong. What changes in a brain (and a heart) that can for years compartmentalize and deal with the tragedy they see on the job in healthy ways but then there’s that one call that makes everything different?
This pinnacle moment could go in any direction with no rationale. No matter if you find the grace and wisdom to share the right words (or no words) and the right touch, glance or embrace, or if you totally flub it up, it’s a milestone moment you will reference in your relationship history. Remember that call with the infant when you were just made captain? You’ll reflect on it with both hope that you can get through another and also as a stark reminder of how bad things can get as you approach another potentially rough moment with the scars of this pinnacle moment reminding you what may lie ahead. Let’s go into this with the reminder that you were made for this moment. 24-7 COMMITMENT to your marriage will get you through this.
What Really Happens In the Brain of a First Responder
Let’s step back and put some definition around what actually happens to a first responder when they encounter a tragic scene. Founded in 2004, Trauma and Resiliency Resources, Inc. (TRR) is dedicated to assisting traumatized individuals connect with trauma-related resources. They share this:
While it is true that most people exposed to traumatic events get over this experience on their own, when people are very close to what happened, physically and psychologically, the effects can be more long lasting.
This starts to give us some clues as to why our first responder has reacted to a situation differently than others who were on the same scene. Or why one situation is fine but another evokes a seemingly irrational response. What if the victim looked strikingly like your wife? What if the victim was the same age as your sweet, giggling 8 month old cherub at home? What if your brother-in-law is an addict that puts your sister at risk and you witness firsthand what an addict is capable of in their doped up state? What if this house smells just like your grandma’s house when you were 8 years old? What if you were a victim of abuse as a child? Can you really separate that personal wound when treating a child who has experienced the same? Coming across calls that invoke some sort of personal emotional connection can wreck one person differently than the rest who were on the scene.
Prolonged exposure is another threat. When the car is entangled around the victim so violently that it takes more than a couple minutes to free them. Even a small slip in the placement of a tool by hands that are capable and sure of their work can leave a lifetime scar on the hearts of the rescuers. “What if” thoughts can haunt you for far too long. Just standing on the scene and waiting for coroners to arrive can be considered prolonged exposure. There are just things that most people in the world never need to see with their eyes yet some brave soul who is a first responder must view, identify and quickly cover while trying to file away those images to that place they never need to return.
There are also those who believe that the grief bucket can just get too full. One more infant taken by SIDS. One more teenager lost to drunk driving. One more victim of domestic violence. One more body burnt to unidentifiable in a preventable house fire. Which one will be too much?
Our human brain is physically changed by these moments. Again good information from Trauma and Resiliency Resources, speaking specifically about first responders and 9-11 but consider the above definition of traumatic events and how that may translate to your first responder.
Those first responders who were on site the first day, or during the first week, or who worked at the site repeatedly over the course of 8 ½ months, had what we in the field of traumatic stress would consider to be prolonged exposure to horrific sights, sounds and smells. This was a combat experience.What many don’t understand is that this produces chemical changes in the body (on the hormonal level), which make it difficult, if not impossible to simply “get over it”.
These chemical changes are what give rise to symptoms of hyperarousal – agitation, anxiety, difficulty falling or staying asleep and intrusive memories (flashbacks) and nightmares. Or, they can give rise to symptoms of hypoarousal – the shutting down of sensation – difficulty feeling anything. (Often times people shift back and forth between both extremes).
Ironically, shutting down the more natural response to horror (grief and rage) is what makes you so good at what you do – you train yourselves to not see what you are seeing in order to do your job. The downside is when you are unable to turn this back on and continue to not feel anything, including pleasure. This is why many of you are not able to enjoy being at home with your wives or partners (or husbands, in the case of women first responders) and children.
It has always helped me as the wife of a first responder to know and understand that these are genuine physical and chemical reactions in the body and not a condition of the heart. While it doesn’t lessen the sting of being the recipient of the irritable mood and angry words or complete shut down and isolation, it does help to know that there is a tangible, physical cause to this unpredictable madness. There are literally cognitive changes in the brain. So begin with trying to separate your emotions, step back and recognize the situation for what it is. The cognitive response can be damaged as a result of traumatic events, yet here you are as a spouse, not a trained and experienced third party psychologist, so this is not an easy skill and will take some practice.
Now that you understand a bit of the physiological works happening here, be careful of overusing that response. You can drive yourself and your spouse crazy constantly trying to sleuth out what trigger just resulted in that irritable outburst. It’s sufficient to just realize they are there and make some gentle notes of possible triggers. I have found myself frustrated with his grumpiness while standing in a line of people waiting for ice cream while the rest of the crowd is simply enjoying the moment of hot concrete, summer sunshine, cute little girls in sundresses and that decision of which exotic combination of ice cream and mix ins they are going to get. We’re living the dream! Freedom. America. Summertime. Enough money for an ice cream treat. Nowhere to be but here enjoying our family. Why are you letting a little line up and a slightly incompetent 15 year old summer time employee learning their way in the world ruin it for us? But, the triggers. Could be the crowds. Could be the noise. Could the way we are all completely unaware of the tragedies in the world and people fighting for our freedom and sudden danger that could be around the next corner since our brains didn’t experience traumatic events and didn’t rewire themselves to go into fight or flight mode as a result.
If first responders and military members had known this would be the price they’d pay, would they have still chosen to serve? Possibly. I believe people are also wired to do the kind of combat and rescue work that is required of them. Would you have married someone drawn to this had you known the challenges? No need to answer that. We are where we are and for those who are believers in either God or universal destiny, it’s where we were meant to be.
So what do you say? What do I say when he’s had one of those traumatic calls? The requests come to our website frequently from those spouses of first responders who are have reached the end of their patience rope with the symptoms and the havoc it’s wreaking on their family. Let’s break it down into a few scenarios.
New Firefighter / Spouse Scenario
You may be surprised, shocked and caught off guard by this first moment when you experience an extra difficult call. (If you’ve read Honor & Commitment, our A to Z guide for firefighter families, we hope you are at least a little prepared.) Because it’s your first experience, it may take a moment to recognize it for what it is and some extra time to figure things out both together and separately.
What the firefighter may feel: The firefighter may experience anger and doubt. I love this job. Why did that rock me? Am I really cut out for this? What will others think? They may want to compartmentalize and stuff it (like they’ve seen modeled by other mentor firefighters). If they are confident and have good self awareness, they may be fully ready to come home and address it with their spouse, who can be a very safe place for them to express these emotions.
What the spouse may feel: The spouse who at first doesn’t recognize it for what it is, could become angry at their partner. Why are you acting this way? I didn’t do anything to deserve this. For those relationships where there is more self awareness and communication is good, the spouse may find themselves the recipient of more gory details than they ever imagined and want to retreat and draw the line. Personally, I had this experience and found myself dreaming up visuals of scenes I was never physically present for that can still pop into my brain when mentioned.
What you can do together:
- Develop a signal: Find a word, or a hug or action that says “I’ve had a bad day” which indicates to the spouse there is something going on but they aren’t ready to dive into it right now. This alleviates the immediate confusion when the first responder returns home after a shift.
- Decide how much of the details you will share: Not sharing all the gory details, doesn’t mean you don’t care. Agree upon where those limits will be. If the spouse is also a first responder or works in the medical field, they may have a higher tolerance for such stories. Our human psyche somehow has this “need to know” trigger that we then regret. Exactly what does a dismembered arm look like when it’s retrieved at the scene of a bad auto accident? Know your limits. At the same time, if the first responder needs to share more, be sure they have a safe place with another first responder (of the same sex) who can help them process. These are intimate moments that first responders experience together and bond over. It’s a great asset for them to have each other but not one that replaces the marital bond.
- Agree on methods, time limits of communication: Spouses don’t nag on this one. This is why the agreement is necessary. Will you talk soon? In a day? Over text or in person? For a couple minutes or will it take some time to unpack which may mean clearing the calendar? Will the first responder initiate this so the spouse doesn’t feel like a nag? Is there a fair moment for the spouse to say, hey, I can see this is still bothering you, let’s talk? This may vary based on the intensity of the situation and how many people are impacted. A larger event affecting the whole crew can linger as different people process at different speeds. Something one crew member says a week later could bring back a flood of emotion to work through.
- Discuss when outside support may be needed: While you are in the midst of this, it may become clear that talking to a third party could be necessary.
Seasoned Firefighter / Spouse Scenario
You’ve been married for a while living the fire life. You’ve got this right? That’s what it feels like until something unexpected jumps up and rocks that boat.
What the firefighter may feel: They’ve been doing this for a decade and they’ve seen a lot. So why now? Why can I not get that little girl out of my head? Why am I tired and drained and….. what’s wrong with people anyway? Is everyone out there so self-absorbed and unaware? Pull it together. You’ve done this before. Those young guys are watching. I’ll give them the ole pat on the back check in. You good? And we’ll move on to the next shift. But something has stolen that zest for life. Your time is robbed by stress and strain. You’re not thinking straight and feel like you are wading through life upstream.
What the spouse may feel: You’re 12 years in and been around this block. So why is this time different? In a busy family, a spouse may think, he’s got this. I’m going to let him go process. Or they may think, not now. We don’t have time for this now. Or they may simply think he has really turned into a cynical, bitter, grumpy person! What is going on? I just want his happy back. I know how to do this. Let’s talk it through. Do our thing and move on.
What you can do together:
- Take a break: When you find yourself in this scenario, whether it was one particular run or a series of misfortunate events, take some time off, escape from the routine of life and getaway together. Nature has a way of reconnecting us to what matters most whether you’re a beach or a mountains person. Often these getaways offer milestone moments of conversation and perspective and processing that help you see the way out. Maybe you need to talk to someone this time. Maybe you’ve been running too hard and need to take more breaks.
- Be direct and call a time out: By the time you are married for a few years and busy with family, the routine can mask the need for special support. Either the firefighter or the spouse can call a time out and say “this time is different and we need to approach it differently.” This could be met with either resistance or relief but might be a necessary step to recognize the issue and not let it be lost in the busy distraction of life.
- Process with your community of like minded people: Whether this is close family, a church group or other first responder families, talking through informally over a casual gathering has a way of disarming that big bomb that’s been building up inside. You realize you aren’t the only one who has experienced this, there is a way out and you have a ton of people who love you and want to help.
- Reach out to that senior mentor: Both as the first responder and the spouse, by now there is someone in your life who “gets it”. You’ve proven yourself as a firefighter and it’s no secret that everyone hits a rough patch occasionally. Reach out to that trusted confidante for some encouragement and advice. Seek your chaplain or if needed, follow up with professional counseling. As the spouse, you can do the same with spouses of other first responders you admire and trust.
Seasoned Firefighter / New Spouse Scenario
Oftentimes a seasoned firefighter meets their spouse after being on the job for years. Or perhaps they’ve remarried later in life. The scenario is a mix of the two above. Be sure the new spouse to this relationship is informed and coached and given a chance to learn about this challenge that first responders face. But more so, this spouse could be thrown right into the fire, excuse the pun, if a firefighter has been battling this for some time. Unaddressed PTSD and behavioral health issues are often one of the causes of many failed marriages. When re-marrying, it’s even more critical to be transparent about what the firefighter is facing and for the new spouse to be very patient, self-aware and emotionally intelligent about what they are stepping into. Give time for the new spouse to understand this aspect of the fire life.
When There Are Ongoing Issues with PTSD
When is enough enough? One of the most challenging situations in a marriage is when one spouse can see that the other is hurting and needs professional help but that spouse is in denial and does not want to seek services. Guard your hearts. Gear up for the good fight. Keep yourself as the spouse filled up during this season. It may be one of those moments when you can say nothing but your spouse needs someone other than you to help them recognize what’s going on. If you feel your first responder is going to harm themselves or others, it may mean you need to reach out to a department chaplain or EAP service. Otherwise, as the spouse you are in that difficult place where you can’t force an adult to do anything. Seek new words, new situations and new patterns of behavior that might open up an opportunity to address this with your spouse. And most critically, keep yourself healthy and filled up. Marriage is give and take. There are seasons when one spouse is asked to give more than the other. This is likely one of those seasons.
Was it just a bad call or does my spouse have PTSD?
Either way it’s cause to stop and reflect. Here’s a quick survey from PTSD Foundation of America. As a spouse, learning about PTSD and it’s symptoms can be one of the most freeing and eye opening moments of learning for your marriage. I’m not one to label everything so please don’t jump to that conclusion. Take some time. Review resources such as these and talk to experts. When the burdens of dealing with difficult calls feel like they are a bit much, it’s time to take your actions to the next level.
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