The Hard Conversations: Handling the Tough Runs, Part 1

By Anne Gagliano

It happened pretty recently—around Christmas time of this last year—one of the toughest runs Mike’s been on, ever.  I could hear it in his voice that night when he called me from the station; he was quite animated, his voice a bit louder than normal.  Usually on the phone he is calm and soft-spoken, saying that he’d had a few runs that day but they were “no big deal.”  But not this night.  He was agitated, amped full of adrenaline, and wide awake though it was late.  I knew it before he even spoke the words; he’d had a tough run that day.

“It was pretty bad,” Mike said to me on the phone, which is saying a lot, for he always tones everything way down.

“What happened?” I asked.

“Car fire,” he answered.  “A young couple was inside.  It was near where Michael and Sammy live” (our son and daughter-in-law).

“Is the couple all right?”  I dared to ask, though I could tell they weren’t.

“No,” he said, “they burned to death.”

Being burned alive is every firefighter’s worst nightmare.  The only thing worse would be to have it happen to one of your children.  Mike had to face both of these horrors that day; he was so shaken as to call our son, just to make sure it was not him or his wife in that unrecognizable car.  Those young people were somebody else’s children, but Mike is one to still feel the weight of their loss.

His crew spent the rest of the evening in a “defusing” meeting—a mandatory protocol after a particularly traumatic event.  This helps immensely, for it gives firefighters a chance to blow off some steam within a supportive structure.  But the lingering emotions still come home with them the next day, especially if they have a tender heart, as my husband most certainly does.

Mike sees horrible stuff all the time, but I rarely hear of it because not all of it affects him as deeply as this one did.  This time, however, I knew; how did I know? Because he told me.  Over the 20-plus years of our firefighter marriage, we’ve developed a healthy mode of communication for handling the tough runs.  It took us awhile to iron out the kinks of dealing with trauma, but we’ve got it pretty well down pat.  Rule number one is this: Firefighters must tell their spouse when they’ve had a particularly upsetting shift; if they do not, the spouse can and usually will misinterpret their mood on arrival at home.   Spouses, though close, are not mind readers.  We can, however, pick up on negative moods and behaviors and often mistake them for something personal. The typical firefighter desires to protect, to save, and to rescue, so it is only natural for them to wish to keep the ugly truths of death and suffering from their mate.  This is a noble intention but a misguided one, for misunderstandings can result.  We spouses would rather know what’s really bothering you than not know.

Exposure to trauma and death causes emotional reactions; this is totally normal.  The only time one does not respond with sorrow to human suffering and tragedy is if one has no heart.  Most firefighters are all heart—that’s what led them to serve humanity in the first place.  But caring comes with a price, and that price is pain.

Typical reactions to trauma include anxiety, irritability or anger, moodiness, sadness, and depression.  One can become distracted, become withdrawn, and have trouble making even simple decisions, like choosing what you want for dinner.  (Dinner choice is a common problem in our house.)  Sleeplessness and fatigue can also be a result of trauma, as grief is exhausting and sleep does not come easily to a troubled mind.  All of these behaviors have a direct impact on family life; if ignored, the effects can be long-term and quite damaging.

It is not uncommon for firefighters (and cops) to suppress emotional pain by turning to alcohol or drugs for comfort.  This is an unhealthy outlet for stress and can lead to divorce or even job loss.  The much better option is to simply tell your spouse what’s going on with you—talk about it, let it out, for it is no secret to them that something’s wrong anyway. 

Tom Kenney of the Providence Fire Department wrote in his article “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder: A Spouse’s Role”: “Once you begin to share your real feelings and fears with your spouse, it relieves you of the burden of always having to seem undaunted by the traumatic things we are exposed to from time to time.  It allows you to strip down that wall of invulnerability at home while still maintaining control at work.”

Your spouse is your best source of support but only if you let him or her be.  Experts report that human beings can endure incredible amounts of stress if they have just one person in their life who truly sees and understands and supports them in what they’re going through–just one.  If you let your spouse be that one, not only will your marriage and family life be better, but so will your job performance.  Within the nurturing oasis of home, you can recharge your batteries, giving you strength to get up and do it again.  But the first step begins with you, the firefighter, in opening up to your mate.

What’s the next step?  This one’s on you, the spouse of a firefighter.  They’ve dared to tell you they’ve had a tough run—they’ve trusted you with that sensitive information.  So what do you do about it?  Communication is, after all, a two-way street, and it is not always the firefighter’s fault when it goes awry.  Perhaps they’ve attempted to share their painful feelings with you in the past and you didn’t handle it very well, so now they’re reluctant to do so again. 

In my next column, I will address the spouse’s role in this hard conversation and share what actually helps my firefighter handle trauma and what does not.

 

Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 26 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.

The Hard Conversations: Dealing with the Fix-It Mentality

By Anne Gagliano

I was picking up my husband Mike’s discarded robe when I stumbled across his slippers, which lay underneath—his favorite expensive, soft, comfortable, lamb’s wool slippers from Australia.  We have laminate floors, which can get quite cold on bare feet; Mike wears his beloved slippers nearly year-round.  In the half-light, I noticed something odd about them—one toe seemed to shine.  I turned on the overhead light.  My eyes widened in surprise and I laughed out loud.  Slapped piecemeal across the toe of one slipper were layers of duct tape!  He’d had a small tear that caused the sole to flap, hence the duct tape.  If this doesn’t truly embody the fix-it mentality, I don’t know what does.

Firefighters fix things.  If a building is on fire, they put it out.  If someone’s hurt or stuck, they pull them out.  If a tool breaks, they fix that too.  If the rig gets damaged, they repair it.  They fix things, they fix people.  It’s their job.  They’re hired because they’re good at it.  If they see a problem, they must solve the problem, anyway, anyhow, and often without proper resources or much training.  They simply get it done.  They bring this mentality home with them, because it’s part of who they are. 

What happens when they try to “fix” their spouse?  I’ll tell you: an explosion of rage and offense.  Instead of putting the fire out, they’ve just poured gasoline on it.

Women like to vent.  We have powerful emotions that boil and churn within us day in, day out.  We feel deeply, we love deeply; we are extremely empathetic and sympathetic.  We care—about everything.  That’s why men love us, because of our strong loyalties and deep affections.  But these powerful emotions sometimes can turn negative, and we need to let them out.  How do we generally do this?  We like to talk them out—vent.   We feel strongly, and we like to talk about it.

Men don’t quite understand this.  I’ll be chatting away about something, and I’ll glance at Mike and catch a blank stare.  He’ll quickly rearrange his face into a look that implies interest.  But I caught him. I now know he’s not getting it; however, I do appreciate the effort.  Mike has learned, as all men who’ve been successfully married for long periods of time have, to just let me vent, to talk it out, whatever “it” is.  He has learned to suppress his “fix-it” mentality and to just give me an ear, a kind word, and maybe even a hug.  How did he learn this?  From having the hard conversation on this topic–and it is a hard one, especially for fix-it firefighters.

In the past when I’d vent, Mike would, point by point, try to “fix” whatever was ailing me.  For example, looking for reassurance about my appearance, I’d say something like, “I feel fat. Do I look fat to you?”  Mr. Fix-It would reply, “If you feel fat, get on the treadmill.”  Small explosion.  I’d say, “So-and-So hurt my feelings when they said such-and-such.”  Mr. Fix-It would reply, “You’re too sensitive; you need to not overreact.”  Small explosion.

Through our conversations that resulted from these exchanges, Mike has learned that I am not a project—I don’t want him to fix me.  I am merely looking for comfort and understanding.  When does the offense occur? When he crosses the line from fixing the problem to fixing me, as no one likes to be made to feel inadequate, especially by the person who is supposed to think you’re wonderful.  Mike has learned that my feeling deeply causes me to wound easily, so he must tread lightly.  And some things cannot be fixed; it just helps to talk them out, then let them go.

There are occasions, however, when I do want his advice.  These are entirely different, and he has learned to differentiate.  I’ll say, quite clearly, “What should I do?”  That’s the green light for his explicit opinion.   Mike is very wise, and I do value his guidance when it’s geared toward fixing problems, not me.

On the flip side of this hard conversation is Mr. Fix-It’s point of view.  Mr. Fix-It can, on occasion, be right and fair in his attempts to “fix me.”  I’ve learned that sometimes I am overreacting; I can be too sensitive and I’ve had to face this.  And I do need to get on a treadmill if I want to feel better about my appearance.  Mr. Fix-It doesn’t intend to offend me; he’s genuinely trying to help, however insensitively his suggestions may come out.  He’ll point out that I often try to fix him, and he doesn’t get offended, and he’s right, I do.  As a result of our combined experiences and perspectives, I’ve become stronger and he’s become more tactful.  By communicating his help in loving ways and listening without fixing, Mike has allowed me to grow without crushing my tender heart.  And my patience with him has helped him to become an incredibly empathetic partner at home and leader at work.

Just as lamb’s wool slippers are the softest, so is a woman’s heart.  A caring, gentle woman is a tremendous source of warmth and comfort to a man who must face a dangerous, cold, cruel world.  Men, don’t slap duct tape on your wife.  It is an ugly, inappropriate fix.  It can cause scars.  It can result in hardness.  A woman requires tenderness, understanding, and support.  Instead, gently sew from within, from the heart, with words that are reassuring of your unfailing love for her.  This will help keep her beautiful from within and without.   And women, give your firefighter a little slack when he unwittingly brings out the duct tape. He is, after all, just trying to help.

 Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 26 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.