Through my time of using alcohol as a coping tool to get through my PTSD, when I didn’t have an understanding of mental health, my wife, parents, children, God and a few close friends is what got me through the hell, and the hell I was putting them through. At the time, my wife and I were just dating and I believe that God sent her to me just when I needed her the most. She is one who doesn’t sugar coat things or beat around the bush. She tells it as it is. At the same time, she is compassionate and understanding — however will not enable. Both of us grew up in the emergency services, with her finding a career in nursing. Having a spouse who doesn’t enable is so important. I am sure those that enable feel as though they are helping their loved one cope with the devastation they have experienced, however it is causing more damage along the way.
Having a spouse, who is willing to listen, shows compassion and is non-judgmental is so important. It’s impossible for someone to relate to someone else’s experience when they haven’t been in that person’s shoes. One of the generic responses for humans as a whole to a bad event in someone else’s life is: I understand. The fact is no one truly understands someone’s reactions or non-actions to an event other than that individual. With myself, I didn’t even understand my own reactions, feelings and emotions until sometime later. I believe this is so important for everyone to remember, including a spouse.
Another key point to remember for spouses is that someone is not going to talk until they are ready. Communication has always and continues to be one of my weakest links, which I am always striving to improve. A spouse cannot force a firefighter into talking, sometimes you are going to do the opposite and cause them to close up more, from my experiences. However sometimes, a spouse can’t continue to accept the “I don’t want to talk about it” response. Eventually no matter how awkward or uncomfortable it is you need to encourage that communication if it’s not happening. Communicate to the individual that you see that they are struggling with some personal feelings and that you are there for them if anything is needed or they want to talk. This is so important, just knowing that they have someone to fall on or to just be with, without forcing them to talk. They will talk when they are ready.
It is also important not to forget what the spouse and children are going through and the emotions they are enduring while their loved one is going through this very difficult time. They are often times forgotten; however, they endure a lot without having an outlet for these emotions due to feeling they must be strong for their loved one. The first major step that needs to continue and grow in the emergency services is pre-education, not only for the responders but also for their families. If and when a responder and their families experience these normal reactions to an abnormal event, they will have knowledge, resources and signs to look for.
In closing, my children are fully aware of my past experiences, I believe it is a necessity to share our experiences with our children, when the time is right. Then they have an understanding of why mommy or daddy may have been acting the way they were in the past and that it’s OK to say I am not OK. To ensure they understand self-advocacy. They will respect and love you even more for sharing and including them.