This article is a call for accountability to solve a root cause as to why violence happens by first responders. We live in a world where I need to add that disclaimer. Let’s get on with the important work.  This is a marathon, not a sprint and a healthier humanity with equality for all is the goal.  ~ Lori

My first thought was “What kind of sicko does that?”

And immediately my heart knew the answer.

As the wife of a First Responder for 16 years (and now ex-wife) and founder of the Firefighter Wife community where our mission is to support and strengthen the spouses, families and marriages of first responders, I’ve had a front row seat to the mental health crisis in First Responders.

Hundreds of wives of first responders have come to us privately describing the mental instability they live with. Spouses are often the first to personally witness and experience the depth of the mental health issues.

How they walk on eggshells when he’s home off shift not wanting “that mood” to explode.

That at home he’s a depressive lump on the couch in between shifts, emotionally abandoning the family.

We’ve heard stories of addictions to medicate the pain. If not to alcohol or drugs then to money and spending and the adrenaline rush of “living on the edge” hobbies and the job itself.

Then of course the obvious statistic of suicide rates which are multiplied amongst the first responder community. This I know so personally as a dear fire wife friend became a widow to suicide at age 39.

{note:  it’s a gender neutral topic but my personal experience is as a wife and with wives so that is the language I use.}

{note 2: Not all cops are bad cops. Thank you to those in the police and fire community who already see and recognize this mental health crisis and are in the good fight. We need to step up this battle, especially now as the stressors on First Responders only itensifies. }

As soon as I saw the horrific video, and cried once again at the inhumanity in the world, my thoughts turned to the wife and family of the officer with his knee on that neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Regardless of what kind of back story there may be, nor how the police force is trained, there seems to be one thing we all agree on – that is unacceptable.

I literally felt sick in my body for what his wife might be facing from that kind of rage at home. And then, a few days pass and we learn she has filed for divorce and asked for no contact. (Please respect that.)

I didn’t know her personally nor the details of her police wife story. But from years of interacting with the first responder community, we know that living with someone who has the capacity for that kind of behavior is not easy.  In fact, it’s dangerous and destructive.

George Floyd situations aren’t a “first offender” situation. There’s a practice dummy for that behavior, often in the privacy of the home.

 

{Statistics:  
“Two studies have found that at least 40 percent of police officer families experience domestic violence, in contrast to 10 percent of families in the general population. A third study of older and more experienced officers found a rate of 24 percent, indicating that domestic violence is two to four times more common among police families than American families in general.” Cops “typically handle cases of police family violence informally, often without an official report, investigation, or even check of the victim’s safety,” the summary continues. “This ‘informal’ method is often in direct contradiction to legislative mandates and departmental policies regarding the appropriate response to domestic violence crimes.” Finally, “even officers who are found guilty of domestic violence are unlikely to be fired, arrested, or referred for prosecution.” }

Source: Womenandpolicing.com

The short version of those stats is this:  spouses of police officers are often silenced and unable to get help for the domestic violence they face.  But there’s more to that story…. because first responder wives are strong people and we’ve maybe wrongly carried the burden of some of this problem as well. Let me explain….  

Behind the scenes and quietly here in our fire wife community, we’ve been invited into the private space of fear that an abused woman experiences time and time again. As wives of first responders found our community, they “finally had a safe space to share” what’s been happening behind closed doors.

To say “cops are wife beaters” is an unhelpful, generalized statement that throws all the good officers in with those about to go off the rails. I want to unpack some behind the scenes of first responder families and then propose a powerful call to action for this police and fire community.

What if there was a way to prevent more violence and deaths at the hands of police officers?

I’m a fixer – I know, weird for a woman so go with me here. To standby and bring awareness to a cause is not enough for me. I’m over watching innocent people die and our entire world hurt over the circumstances.

Here’s a topic I have seen mentioned so very little in the wake of the tragic murder of George Floyd: After multiple “incidents” and disciplinary actions, why is an officer who shows signs of mental instability still on the streets?

(I’ll admit I’m stretching the “mental instability” statement there not having personally known this officer but I do know human kind well enough to know one does not simply go to the 8+ minute neck hold in their first rodeo.)

Let me give his command staff the benefit of the doubt….. maybe the “signs” weren’t so obvious? That seems ridiculous (and undeserving of the benefit of the doubt) but here’s how this can happen.

When a group of people work or live closely together, dysfunctional behaviors can be normalized. This explains (but doesn’t excuse) why the other officers could stand by and observe.

Also please note that I don’t see this as a white police / black victim situation only.  One of the officers convicted is of Asian decent as well.  The statistics show these mental health issues in first responders know no color or race boundaries.  (This does not take away from the importance of Black Lives Matters.  Improving mental health is a win for everyone.) 

I wrote his article a week ago and then sat on it.  Because our world is such an emotionally reactive place right now, I did not think it would be received well in that moment (and certainly there’s no pleasing everything these days).   And….. I’ve never in the history of this blog felt it was my place to tell first responders how to do their job.  With this moment in time, that is changing.

I’m here to be a voice for the home front and make a strong plea to our First Responders to level up….. or the world is going to force your hand and do it for you.

My heart hurts to say that because I know how many of you are out there working so hard at improving the mental health of first responders.  Maybe I should say…. our voices are getting louder and joining the fight in a bigger way.

One thing that pushed me over the edge to publish this message was watching the president of the Minneapolis Police Union on this public video demonstrate a complete disregard for mental health.  To say “We are fine” was another way to say “if you ask for mental health support you shouldn’t be doing this job.”   So wrong on every level.  Even our military knows that seeing people shot and to be shot at yourself is incredibly damanging.  And with police this is happening in your own communities, not a foreign country.

First responders have some “dysfunctional behaviors” that are rationalized away as “dealing with the horrors they see.” (again…. I’m not throwing every first responder into this mix but you all know more than a handful capable of losing control.)

I have personally spent enough time in the firehouse kitchen (on family pizza night actually…..when behavior is somewhat toned down) to observe and hear the “dark humor” that has come to help them express their emotions over a difficult call.

I do believe it can help but really that’s a weak mechanism for self-care. It’s avoidance and masks the real hurt.

Some real life examples of the tragedies first responders see for those who haven’t been in this life:

    • the first call of a firefighters career and dad takes a gun to mom, 2 little kids and then himself.
    • Mom leaves oven open to heat their apartment and 2 year old climbs in and closes door. She doesn’t find him until minutes pass.
    • Dad puts crying infant in a pillow sack and beats it until it “stops crying”.
    • Husband attempts suicide in the bedroom with a gun in the mouth and fails. Wife only hears the gunshot and calls 911 thinking he has passed.

I’ll stop. Those are only stories I’ve heard, not seen ….. as various first responders in our community needed to get them off their chest. (There is a such thing as secondary PTSD and the fact that I can remember and visualize details of these stories is evidence of the impact of horrific scenes our first responders encounter and handle)

We have worked so hard at this blog to save marriages. And my goodness we still want to see them saved. But my approach has evolved since we first began. Everyone’s initial answer is “marriage counseling”. But now I disagree (partially).

Do you know the best way to save marriages and stop abuse? HEAL INDIVIDUALS.

This is a different message than “work hard on your marriage”. It’s “work hard on yourself and hold everyone accountable to mental wellness.”

I want to see humanity move towards healing. To recognize dysfunctional behaviors and work to amend them. Then to love the hell out of each other while we journey in that healthy direction (because….. we’re going to muck it up on the way and need appropriate doses of grace, not permission to mess up but ownership then grace when we do.)

Some of you may be surprised to read that the founder of firefighter wife is now a divorced fire wife…… It’s a heart wrenching journey and I don’t recommend that path until you’ve fought to the very end to save your marriage.

The beauty of now speaking to this as a divorced fire wife is had I still been married, I wouldn’t be able to speak up because I would possibly be putting my husband’s job in jeopardy for being so outspoken.

There are no boundaries now. This is about humanity and I want to be the voice for all the victims of violence and abused wives who cannot speak due to fear. And also to convict first responders to police themselves and prevent another George Floyd situation.

I have nothing to lose here. Now that I’m far enough removed from my own destructive marriage, I’m good and pissed at what other first responder families are going through living with mental illness and resulting abusive behaviors both privately and the horrific public outbursts like the death of George Floyd.

We used to say “be his safe place to land”. But I got that wrong. Home should be a safe place for all family members to land.

I’ve heard other first responders talk about each other. “Oh yeah, I wouldn’t want to piss him off.” Or…. “I became a firefighter instead of a cop. I wanted to be a good guy and knew I couldn’t control my anger if I was a cop.” (actual words from firefighters I personally know.)

I started this site in 2012, quickly felt such a strong sisterhood and hosted our first annual fire wife event – half of them brought husbands and I realized….. we can’t strengthen marriages without both husband and wife involved. We quickly adjusted and added the support elements and events for couples.

Today, 8 years later, the wives continue to be the ones pouring so much into this (one of my core volunteers even said this to me this week – the wives are carrying the load of this org and events.)

I wonder how many spouses are carrying the load of their homes and marriages while their first responder spouses are just trying to keep their head above the waves of mental health?

 

I never, ever, ever want to have to wonder if a wife who reaches out for help is full of fear as she goes to bed at night because her first responder husband is not dealing well and taking his emotions out on her (AFTER we taught her that she needs to be “his safe place to land”.)

Yes, those were actual words we have used here on this blog. And they are accurate. Except for this…. the family home and marital bed needs to be a safe place to land for everyone, not just a broken first responder and everyone adapts around them.

The spouses are getting the front row seat to the mental health issues. These first responders may hold their shit together on the job but they come home and release it all in front of their families (eventually)

This is what I see behind the scenes. I see some wives living in fear in their own homes, not speaking up and trying to be a better wife every single day to avoid another outburst. Until they are broken and living in fear and grateful for the reprieve and peace at home that a 24 or 48 hour shift brings. And hopefully, finally, they own truth of the situation and press back. It’s a destructive and unhealthy pattern for everyone involved.

In case you wonder if I’m just talking from my own place of broken marriage, I get an email or private message at least weekly that is a rinse and repeat story of the pattern I just described.  My divorced state has made me an even safer place to share this damage.  I can’t sit back and ignore that.

(Wondering where your marriage falls on that spectrum?  Watch this video by Leslie Vernick “The Difference Between a Difficult, Disappointing & Destructive Marriage”)

For as many George Floyd deaths we see publicly play out, I am guessing there were thousands of incidents of angry outbursts that happened privately at home.

Maybe I’m exhausted or maybe I’m wiser or maybe it’s just time. The wives can’t help them hold it together forever. That was so naive and wrong of me to think and honestly nearly killed me. And the many first responders trying to fight the good fight, are weary, retiring or even leaving the profession to save their own sanity.

We need to renew the energy in this fight.  First Responders….. we need you to step stronger and own this and hold each other accountable.

This is a call to action: First Responders, How Can We Stop Normalizing the Dysfunctional Violent Behavior?

Here are some practical examples of what could be done:

    • When you are standing around the station and hearing racial slurs slung around, call it out and end it. You know law breakers comes in ALL colors
    • Stop using “dark humor” as your only method for “dealing”. It’s NOT enough. It’s another way to normalize the mess you see on the job every day.
    • Call out a co-worker who isn’t mentally fit to be on a call.
    • Make shorter shifts (or even shorter careers!). I believe there’s a time limit to how long the human soul can bear this kind of tragedy every day.
    • Promote into leadership only those who have passed extensive behavioral health screenings.
    • More frequent mental health screenings, especially on hiring and onboarding.
    • Support healthy relationships at home. (Sometimes a strong wife is the only thing keeping a first responder in check. Suicide statistics show that a marital strife is most often the “last issue” prior to taking their life. Because the only person who was truly close to them and listening to their pain, can no longer handle it.)

(and yes all the other things that are in place – counseling, etc. )

I believe this is heart-to-heart combat needed in the moment with you and your crews.

Do you know how many times I prayed for “wise counsel” to speak into my husband’s ear while he was on shift?

Because I was at the end of my rope and no words I said could make a difference. But I knew there was a man somewhere in his life who could (and often did). Ultimately, most of you signed up for this job to be a good guy. It’s noble and honorable (and harder and harder every single day.)

I know the “good guys” are out there in police and fire trying to do the right thing. We need you now more than ever to demand accountability for your own.

I understand you are short staffed and it’s tough to find quality people who want this job these days. How can we do better?

Healing our first responders mental health solves a root problem in the violence against BIPOC, against spouses in domestic abuse and so much more.

Remember this is NOT an excuse for George Floyd’s needless death but a small (big, I hope) step towards preventing more.

Let me take a second to speak to the “Defunding the Police” movement….

First of all, that name is designed to provoke.  And if it’s a provocative name that’s going to incite change, well, let’s get on with the change.  For those who have only reacted to the name and not listened to the movement….. the premise as I understand is to add funding to services that fix mental health issues in our communities and send police less often into domestic situations.  In theory, I’m totally in agreement for a healthier world and this would also result in a safer job as a First Responder.   Truly I’ve heard so many first responders complain about so many of the ridiculous runs you are called into when you maybe should be doing what your job was more originally intended for.

In practice, this is a multi-generational battle and not an overnight change that’s going to take place with a couple of city council votes.  The movement however, puts the power to make change to first responder leadership, processes and manpower into the hands of the leaders of communities.  Let me be frank…. the mental health topics and challenges in the first responder profession are not new but not improving.  Something needs to change.  I’m not taking any stance on a malformed, emotionally provocative and too quickly emotionally reactive movement like this…. yet I see the intent.  My hope is that everyone with wisdom and care for our communities and community services, comes together to solve this problem in the best way possible.     

First Responders, Leadership and Unions…… this might be your last chance to pull it together and work with your community leaders to run a class act, professional organization.

Will you take a stance against the “bad guys” you’ve hired into the profession or let them continue to represent your entire group as a rogue, out of control entity?


WHAT CAN THE REST OF US DO

Research which non-profit movements you want to support.

I’m DONE with awareness campaigns and research as a non-profit tool. I’m a super pragmatic girl and the mission here has always been around RESULTS. What programs do we develop to journey alongside someone who needs support to CHANGE THE OUTCOME? To stay married and end abusive situations in the family home and on the job.

Posters, flyers, collecting stats and speakers at the department —> Fine. I get it. That’s the official communication mechanism and keeping the message in front of people is important. But to me, it feels like surface level bandaids not addressing the real wounds.

I believe the answer lies in programs that require personal engagement and walking thru a self-discovery and healing process do truly transform lives.

This is why we focus on Commitment Weekend as our signature event to support marriages (registration now open for a special edition Commitment Weekend this July).

Actual words I received in a private message today:  “Honestly, Commitment Weekend in Chicago a few years ago was a good “battery recharge” for our marriage but over the past three years the kids and I have been increasingly dancing around mood swings and walking on egg shells the nights he is home. I used to hate shift nights being alone but now I look forward to theme. Kids and I relax and laugh more when he is away.”

In my own divorce healing, I did a 12 week Transformational Healing program to work THROUGH the healing, not bandaid it.  It was one of the hardest things I ever did and I am so much better for having pushed thru it. As I develop new programs supporting women (working moms in particular), I’m not wanting another free facebook group.  I’m designing a transformational and interactive experience (SisterhoodExperience.com was our first try at this last October).

I have seen first hand results from interactive programs for first responders with PTSD including Save a Warrior and Reboot Recovery.

If you are a first responder wife, we encourage you to find your own strength and healing. And to educate yourself on First Responder Mental Health topics.

Here are some of our best resources for you:

To everyone who has ever faced fear in the presence of an out of control First Responder, especially due to the color of your skin, I’m so sorry.

 

We will keep fighting for justice and healing for our world by healing ourselves one thought, one word, one action at a time.

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On a mission to be and inspire us all to be better humans, to strengthen fire families & marriages, to nurture and encourage fire wives, do "good business" in all areas of my life and of course, love on my 4 kids.