By Anne Gagliano
It’s August 24th, 2018, and we’re driving to the spot in Idaho where we met, on this very day, 34 years ago. Young and unaware of what the future held for us, Mike and I saw each other for the first time when I walked into our college dorm, and with that one glance, everything changed. We’ve been together ever since. I am a firm believer in love at first sight. Now we’re revisiting our meeting place with our precious granddaughter and her presence fills us with nostalgic, grateful sentiment. Everything she does is magic. Her baby sweet self reminds us of all that was and all we’ve survived and all that still lies ahead.
For firefighters, living to hold a grandchild is a monumental task. We had no idea what we were in for when we signed on as a young married couple so long ago. The fire service is a whirlwind of danger and trauma and massive sleep deprivation. Its is chaos and emergency and adrenaline, 24/7. As an officer, it is weightier still as the battle is no longer just yours but that of your entire crew, shift, and firehouse. Politics collide with necessity, and often, necessity loses. Angst amid exhaustion can be crippling to both the firefighter and the fire spouse. How did we survive all these years? How did our relationship handle the transition from carefree college days to the pressure cooker of the fire department? I often ponder this, especially when revisiting our origins. The answer comes to me as later Mike and I sit raptly watching our granddaughter watching one of her favorite movies, Disney’s Frozen. In her delightful baby voice, she tries to sing along with the song, Let it Go, and the words have stuck in my head ever since:
It’s funny how some distance makes everything seem small
And the fears that once controlled me can’t get to me at all
It’s time to see what I can do…
Let it go
The cold never bothered me anyway
Let it go, let it go
And I’ll rise like the break of dawn
Let it go, let it go
That perfect girl is gone
Here I stand in the light of day
Let the storm rage on…
Part of the human experience is to deal with anxiety, anxiety from the storm. Anxiety is, according to the American Psychological Association, “an emotion characterized by feelings of tension, worried thoughts, and physical changes like increased blood pressure.” It is much like fear, which is derived from an actual threat. Firefighters endure fear and anxiety on steroids, and consequently, so do we firefighter spouses. If you can’t learn to cope with it, you won’t survive the fire service, and neither will your marriage. We try to prevent bad things from happening, to exhibit control, but as both the firefighter and the firefighter spouse quickly learn, there is no such thing. The harder you hold on, the quicker you will break. So you have to let it go.
Letting go of control is done by mindfully choosing to be in the moment, the present, and to make the most of it. To focus on that which you can control and not fret over that which you can’t. Life will be better if you learn to do this. John Brubaker, nationally renowned performance consultant, speaker, and award-winning author says, “Focusing on the conditions is counterproductive. There are plenty of things we can complain about, but it’s a waste of emotional energy to focus on things we cannot control. All you can control is what I call you’re A.P.E.—attitude, process, and effort. These are the only 3 things we each have complete control over.” In other words, we successful fire couples quickly realize there is no way to control what emergencies will fill our days, we can only control how we respond to them. And to respond well to constant flux and change, you must be this: Flexible.
The most successful people in life, in any life, are flexible. Adaptive. Able to handle change. Not limited by circumstances but able to rise above them. If you must have rigid control, neither the firefighter nor the firefighter spouse will mentally handle the fluid, demanding, unpredictable world that is firefighting. “A hallmark of mental health is the ability to be flexible—in behaviors and responses, and in relationship to feelings and thoughts. When you need to have control, you forgo flexibility and place a lower than necessary ceiling on your capacity for engaging in and enjoying life.” – Sandra Sanger, PhD., Psych Central.
If firefighters and their spouses alike will choose to be flexible, they will not only survive but thrive. Flexible people roll with the flow and enjoy every moment of it. They thrive in different settings by adapting behaviors to cope. With an open-mind, one that is receptive to new ideas, they can quickly make the necessary changes to handle those curve-balls. Because let’s face it, the first-responder gets a lot of curve balls thrown their way. The flexible person observes and listens and never believes for one second that they know it all. They are receptive and open in thought and deed and not rigid or resistant to change. Quickly they can think on their feet and make decisions in the midst of an emergency as they absorb information at lightening speed. Those who must have control have difficulty making decisions in a crisis as control refuses to budge; all must be done as it was before.
Flexibility works well at the fire scene and it also works well at home. Flexible couples pause before they react; they think before they speak. This is because they are good listeners and are present in the moment, literally gathering intel as they speak. With this ability, the flexible couple avoids many fights. The controlling, rigid couple must win and be heard at all costs; no time or willingness to adapt. Or to bend. Or to concede the point. It is an unhappy, unforgiving way to live. Let it go.
If you will choose to let go of control and embrace the joys of flexibility, the ceiling is greatly raised. You will soar to new heights in both the firehouse and the home. Rigid control is often likened to ‘wood,’ and flexibility likened to ‘water;’ which should a successful firefighter use when battling the flame?
Mike and I chose flexibility over control long ago, and in my next column I will tell you how.
If you’re interested in my book, check it out here: http://www.pennwellbooks.com/shop-fire-books-videos/new-products/challenges-of-the-firefighter-marriage.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 33 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.