Fire Line: Do Not Cross?

By Anne Gagliano

I’ve been doing this for a while now, 30 years, in fact. I’ve been living in the hazard zone of firefighting and, like my firefighter, I’ve become a little hardened, a little jaded, a little battle-scarred. I realize this during my speaking engagements. Sometimes a young firefighter wife will come up to me afterward in tears and say something like, “I just don’t think I can handle all of this.”  Oops, I did it again; I scared the crap out of some poor new bride. I certainly didn’t mean to. To my surprise, somewhere along the line my skin has become pretty thick.

There was a time when this was not the case. I remember what it was to be a young firefighter wife, new to this rough, tough, hazardous world. And I also remember my knee-jerk reaction: to hold back, to not look too closely, to think to myself—Fire Line Do Not Cross. To do so would be to risk fear and even panic at the thought of my beloved being in dangerous life-threatening situations. So to survive, for many years I lived mostly in denial. I avoided the firehouse because it was so loud and bustling downtown in the noise of the city. I sheltered myself and my small children from this scary place and could hardly dare to imagine what my husband was doing there. It sounds selfish, but a tender heart almost has to withdraw if it is to remain tender. I had to be able to function, to sleep, to be alone when he was gone, and if denial is what it took, then so be it. Fire Line Do Not Cross.

My firefighter was not only complicit in this denial but encouraged it. He would deliberately downplay the horrors of his world for my sake—and his—to keep things easier, safer, and peaceful. This is born of a noble instinct, to protect, which is the heart of chivalry. He did and still does feel that to share all the details of the various horrors of human tragedy would be to somehow sully me. Home is home and work is work, and the two should be separate. Fire Line Do Not Cross.

But here’s the problem: Firefighting is an extreme profession with direct consequences. It is virtually impossible to be a firefighter and not bring some of it home with you. Firefighters have a very high divorce rate; perhaps this “denial” aspect is partially to blame. I myself had to face this a long time ago as I watched my husband change before my very eyes. It was tough for both him and me, but we decided the “fire line” was something we had to cross if our marriage was to survive.

It’s a gradual process. It doesn’t have to be done overnight. Take small steps, but firefighters—share your experiences; and spouses—take a look once in a while to see what’s going on. Marriage is a mysterious magical bonding of heart, soul, and flesh. Two become one; life doesn’t get any more intimate than that. But if two are to remain one, to remain that close, they have to really know one another and be completely open and honest. You can’t hide from the truth or you risk drifting apart. The “line of fire” that you refuse to cross just might end up coming between you.

Here are just a few basic truths that all firefighter couples must look at, together:

  • Firefighting is dangerous.
  • Firefighting is traumatic.
  • Firefighting through the night causes sleep deprivation.

These three things can lead to mood disorders, addictions, illnesses, and even death. If a couple ignores these realities or denies them, that couple will drift apart. Walls will be erected, distance will develop, and the “one flesh” may eventually split apart. The fact that a firefighter can be hurt physically and emotionally, even to the point of death, may cause a spouse to withdraw. Out of fear of future loss, you may harden your heart and even push your spouse away. If this happens, you’re much more likely to lose your firefighter from divorce than death.

I know it’s tough—it was very tough for me—but I was forced to take a hard look into his world when I first attended one of my husband Mike’s classes. I wanted to see what he was teaching to other firefighters; and, in their presence, the gloves came off. I was, quite frankly, shocked. It was then that I realized from the pictures and video clips just how truly dangerous his world really is. It opened my eyes. And I’ve decided to keep them open–to not let the hazards of this job turn me into an ostrich. The more I have looked, the thicker my skin has become. And yes, it has cost me some peace, but I have gained so much more in return.

And yes, I am less sensitive than I used to be, but I am so very much stronger. I’ve become a bit more aware of the ugliness of life and death, but so has he. We have become tougher together, which has kept us close—on the same page. When he speaks of something sad, I can take it; I don’t run away. The more I’ve done this, the more he has learned to trust me with his experiences, and the more he comes to me first. We work things out as much as we can on our own and, when needed, we bring in someone else. And the more we’ve shared our experiences with other firefighter couples, the more we’ve realized that we’re not the only ones. In helping others, we have helped ourselves.

As I look into his world, I see how truly amazing he is. His ability to help people on their darkest days without losing heart inspires me to participate, to help carry the load with my encouragement and my blessing. I risk my heart, matching wound for wound as I urge him to keep on fighting the good fight to the finish line—retirement. And when he does retire, we won’t be strangers as I’ve been there all along, cheering him on. We dared to cross the Fire Line together as a married couple, and it has made all the difference.

 

Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 30 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.

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