By Anne Gagliano
Most married couples who desire to stay married have to do one thing: get along with each other during the day. But for the firefighter couple, our task is twice as difficult, as we have to get along both day and night. My firefighter works a 24-hour shift, and it is a blessing for many reasons: lots of time off, less time commuting, and consolidated bonding time with the crew. But the price we pay for these perks is some pretty quirky sleep issues that both he and I have to live with. It’s the best job on earth, and he’s worth the extra effort, no question. But to survive his peculiar nocturnal habits, I’ve had to adapt. Hopefully the following tips will help other spouses out there who are struggling a bit to actually sleep with their firefighter.
Firefighters are just as tough to get to sleep as the average two-year-old, so be patient. Why are small children so difficult when it comes time to sleep? Two words—they’re wired and they’re tired. They’re wired because their little minds are in hyperarousal as they learn and absorb at lightning speed, and they’re tired because their little bodies are still growing. It takes a very strong parent to help them relax without losing patience. How is a firefighter like a two-year-old? Firefighters, too, are in perpetual hyperarousal because of the fight-or-flight response.
Exposure to danger, as we all know, triggers a stress response that causes the nervous system to go into a state of high alert, which is triggered every time the station bells ring, day or night. For firefighters, this results in a chronic condition whether they realize it or not. Hyperarousal leads to hypervigilance, which is the body’s way of detecting threats. The senses are heightened for quick responses, making the firefighter sensitive to light and sound. Hyperarousal is necessary for survival in dangerous situations, but it comes at a great price; it is extremely exhausting. Thus the firefighter is both wired and tired at the same time. The brain and the body conspire against the firefighter, impeding sleep.
As a firefighter spouse, I have to remember this when I find myself becoming irritated with my grouchy husband who obviously needs to go to sleep but can’t. With the patience of Job, I offer hot milk and encourage warm baths as I try to get him to relax. Eventually he does sleep and is restored to the sweet man I married. So hang in there, firefighter spouse, and remember this—just as with a two-year-old, so does your hyperaroused firefighter sometimes need a little patience and understanding when he has difficulty sleeping.
You may have to forgo those thin, frilly curtains and those helpful night lights. Again, because firefighters are hypervigilant (the busier the station, the more heightened the senses), they are sensitive to light. Light means action for firefighters; thus, any light in the bedroom will cause them to be alert. Everyone wakens with light (this is nature’s alarm clock), but with firefighters, especially so. Therefore, we have to fool Mother Nature and make our bedroom extremely dark with light-blocking curtains if firefighters are to sleep at all. And night lights, though helpful for the average person, are not a good idea in the firefighter home. It is better to risk stubbing your toe in the dark than to awaken a firefighter once he is asleep; he may end up running to your aid if you accidently turn on a light!
You may hear strange sounds in the night. Because of nightly disruptions at the station, most firefighters have a tough time reaching the deepest restorative sleep stage when the body reaches a type of paralysis. A sleep study doctor told my husband this when his tests revealed that he’d only reached this stage for one minute. People who stay in the lighter stages tend to walk and talk in their sleep. My firefighter talks a lot. He barks orders, argues, and makes derogatory remarks. I am no longer alarmed by this, as he is not directing them at me. He also laughs—laughter is common among firefighters and is quite charming most of the time, but in the stillness of the night it is rather eerie. So be aware of this side effect of shift work and don’t be afraid: Your firefighter is not insane; he just doesn’t sleep as deeply as most people do!
Your firefighter may start snoring when you’re telling him about your day. This is a good thing; do not be offended. Research shows that one of the most helpful tips for inducing sleep is to recite the mundane, as it distracts a worried mind. Nothing puts one to sleep more quickly than a monotone, uninspiring classroom lecture, so view it as such. I deliberately try to be as boring as possible; the more I ramble on about unnecessary details, the quicker my firefighter falls asleep. For this, I’ll talk all night—his sleep is even more precious to me than it is to him.
You may find incoherent scribblings on the bedside table. This is especially true if your firefighter is the senior officer of a busy, double house. Be not afraid; these are not signs of delusional schizophrenia but of one laden with heavy responsibility. Research shows that the number-one cause of insomnia in this country for any profession is worry over “to do” lists. As people try to sleep, they mistakenly go over all that must be done the following day. This is the last thing any of us should do, as it automatically triggers a stress response that physiologically impedes sleep. The greater the importance, the bigger the stress response, and no work is more essential than a firefighter’s. Lives are at stake; details must not be forgotten. We keep a pad of paper by the bed explicitly for this purpose because sometimes things come to my firefighter just as he’s beginning to fall asleep. It is less disruptive to stay in bed and jot it down than to get up to do so. Once the idea is safely noted, he can let it go and drift off to sleep.
Sleeping with a firefighter is challenging business—one that is not for the faint of heart. But hang in there, firefighter spouses, for I have been told that firefighters do eventually sleep like normal people—about three months after they retire.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 29 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.