By Lori A. Moore
So, where do I begin? How much should be said, and how much should be unsaid? Do you make it so raw that it hurts, or do you “soften the blow”? How much truth do you put out there? I ask because, not only are you reading this, but my spouse is, too, and he will not be aware of some of these feelings until now.
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the first responder world is real, and the life stories should be told. It may help another spouse or family see the signs earlier and get the help sooner. Stay strong and be the support they need, even if they don’t say they need it because they do need you.
I will start at the beginning. My name is Lori Moore, and I have been with my firefighter husband, Captain Christopher Moore, for 18 years; 16 of which we are married. We have a 14-year-old son and, yes, this has affected him also. My life with Chris has always been in the firefighting world. When I met him, he was in paramedic school, getting ready to graduate the fire academy. Together, we know no other life.
At this time, our fire department family had kindly and graciously offered a class for new spouses and significant others to let them know what to expect in this line of work. This class was conducted by the spouses on their own time. Anything that can go wrong at home will also go wrong at the station. The kids will get sick, or something will break; there WILL be a family emergency. You are on your own and must deal with the situation yourself. Your firefighter can’t just leave work to come home like he would in the regular 9-to-5 world. You must be an independent person who can handle these situations.
No one ever tells us what can happen to your firefighter the longer he is with the department. “They” don’t tell you what their spouses see and deal with; how it affects them and the family. Who wants to admit there are problems at home? There is no blame or fingers to point at anyone for not telling us. It was not a big issue years ago that we could see, and no one gave it a second thought; it’s looked at as that is part of the job. However, looking back at things, would you want someone to tell you that there could be issues down the road and that your marriage will be tested like never before? Would you go running out the door and say, “I’m out”? Brushing the issues under the rug is not part of the job, and it’s time for a change.
The “Superman” Stigma
This stigma is attached to first responders. You run into burning buildings, you save lives every day, but who is there to save you when you need it. No one wants to talk about how you feel after a really bad call, and you certainly don’t want to talk about it at home. When asked how work was, the standard answer I got 99 percent of the time was, “It was busy.” Receiving no details after these many years together, I know I won’t get any other answer. However, I could and can still see in his eyes that work was more than just “busy.”
The stigma needs to change. Yes, to me and many others, you are a superhero, but you are also human with a caring, compassionate heart that has feelings and breaks at times. And, you should be able to break with your peers around you to help put the pieces back together. This world is a brotherhood that supports each other in so many ways that you need your brothers when your emotions break. They understand it better than anyone else because they live the same life.
I have to say it again: PTSD in the first responder world is real, and I’m living with a spouse who has it. I can’t pinpoint exactly when it started, but there are incidents that go way back that probably were the very beginnings of the tangled web that was starting to weave.
The Web Begins to Weave
In November 2005, my husband went to Cameron Parish, Louisiana, to help with recovery in the aftermath of Hurricane Rita. He was gone for two weeks. I was home with a six-month-old baby. The day after he left, I became sick as a dog (the perfect example of how it all goes wrong when they aren’t home). Thankfully, my in-laws lived 10 minutes away and helped out so I could get some rest and get better. The last day my husband was in Louisiana, I had to make the hardest phone call in my life to him; it was bad news: his father passed away in his sleep. It’s been 14 years, and he still carries the guilt of not being here when it happened. There was nothing he could have done had he been home. The web has started.
Fast forward eight years to about one year ago, and the mood in the house has changed. You’d think everyday life is that of being busy with work, a child who plays nonstop sports, a firefighter who is not home every day and not enough time in the day to get it all done. The moodiness is there from both of you. Fights start, fights end, and fights start again; “nitpicky” fights over nothing at all. Divorce came up a few times, and a separation was very close to happening; then, there would have been no turning back. We have worked through many hard times because we love each other and are committed to our relationship, but to what extent do you keep going? I can’t answer that yet since we keep going to make it work. “In sickness and in health” has a strong meaning to us; we’ve been through numerous health issues over the years, this by far being the hardest.
The “walking on eggshells” started a few years ago. You tell them about it over numerous conversations/arguments, but it doesn’t go over well. It eventually gets turned around on you, and it’s your fault. He hears it, but he doesn’t “listen” because I don’t think he is ready to admit or realize there is a problem. The tension in the house is there, and you just go along with that “elephant in the room” because you don’t really know what the issue is yet. The web is growing and spiraling into a deep dark place.
It gets to a point that you are always stressed; the only time you feel relaxed is when he is at work. You pray for overtime or maybe a conference he could attend so he will be gone for a few days. That’s a few days of peace and quiet, a few moments to be relaxed. You become distant and not sure how to make your way back to make it better. Relationships change over the years, and it will never be what it was in the past. However, you hope to keep close to how it used to be. When so much hurt has happened and your heart hardens, it’s hard to get back on that path, and you wonder if it ever can or will. The web is almost complete.
Searching for Help
About eight months ago, Chris finally realized he needed to get help. He reached out to his former battalion chief to inquire about seeing a therapist, one who deals with first responders and understands their line of work. He has been going to counseling, and I have gone to an appointment with him and will go a few more times. Our son wants to go, and the counselor is all for it. He needs that opportunity to talk about how he feels without any judgement. We both need to learn how to help Chris get through this the best he can and know he has the support at home.
Since truly knowing what is going on with him, I’m glad he is getting help, but I still have a somewhat high stress level. At times, I see his mood; the wheels are turning with old memories of calls that have affected him. As a firefighter spouse, you wonder if it will ever stop and if he can handle it long term. Is there something that is going to be the trigger that pushes them over the edge and will they ask for help before that deep dark place shows up again?
Chris is involved in establishing a peer support group in his department. It’s being accepted with open arms. He wants to help others since he knows what these feelings are like. A few close friends know his issue, but he has yet to share it within the department. He is also working on an article that he hopes will be published to shed more light on PTSD in the first responder world. The cat will be out of the bag sooner or later, and it’s not a bad thing. He has also attended several conferences regarding mental health/peer support and seeing what other fire departments are doing, and it’s amazing! It’s wonderful to see others take this seriously and help each other out—trying to lose the stigma, fighting for each other to survive this affliction. Remember, slow and steady wins the race.
I wrote this so spouses can understand and see that they are not alone. This could be the help that you need to see to slow down or stop the spiral that has started. It’s also important to have a spouse’s perspective on how we see it from our side and how we feel. We know it is not intentional, and it can become a very tangled web when we don’t catch it starting to weave.
I did not go into a lot of detail on my home life because it’s not necessary to divulge all the dirty laundry; frankly, there really isn’t much that was THAT bad. It was the mood in the house that was most concerting. However, I believe I have gotten my point across without having to say too much. If you are dealing with similar issues, you’ll get it. Marriage isn’t always “peaches ‘n cream,” but when you throw PTSD in the mix, the peaches can rot a bit quicker. To me, it is also important to state, “Do not judge a book by its cover.” What you see on the outside may not be what it is on the inside.
Chris and I have a very good marriage, and I’m sure that some who know us would be shocked to read this. They probably figure that we all have the same marriage issues. To some extent, we do, but they don’t see this—they don’t see the PTSD. And, they don’t see what goes on behind closed doors. They only see the surface, that “Chris and Lori are good.” It’s not always the case, but 99 percent of the time, things are good. I love my husband very much, more than I express to him or anyone. He is my rock and best friend, and I’d be lost without him (he doesn’t think so, but I would be). A lot of hurt has happened over the past few years on both sides. Healing has begun, and it will take a long time for our world to get back to normal, or what will be our normal. I’m ok with that. We are working on untangling the web and moving forward.
So, know you are not alone. There are many of us out here dealing with what you are dealing with, and there is help out there. The Internet is a wealth of good information for help. Please don’t be afraid to ask for it. Have the hard conversation with your spouse. You, your spouse, your family, and your marriage will thank you for it in the end.
Lori A. Moore lives in Virginia Beach, Virginia, with her husband, Firefighter Christopher Moore, to whom she has been married for 16 years. In addition to her writing, she and her husband have done podcasts with Jon Sanders (“The Fire Inside”) to shed light on post-traumatic stress disorder.