That topic we’re not supposed to talk about. No one wants to label it, it’s taboo. PTSD. We all know about it but we bury our heads in the sand hoping it will go away. It doesn’t. My husband won’t talk about it. He won’t allow me to talk about it. It’s taboo. It doesn’t happen to First Responders. It doesn’t have an impact on our home lives. We are strong, we can handle the emotions that flood us after those bad calls.
Well, this wife is here to say it does exist in First Responders, it does need to be talked about, there is help. I won’t share my Husband’s journey. We agreed when I started this blog that I wouldn’t talk about THAT call. I respect that and hope that someday he’ll be willing to write about his journey. My heart tells me it’s a journey, that if told, will help others realize it’s OK to talk about it. It’s OK to reach out when you need to. They need to know that the topic is no longer taboo. It’s OK to get help. As one of our Chief’s, one of our Leaders, I believe this is important for him to do. Last night was a good first step (I’ll discuss that in a bit).
So for now, I’ll write about my journey through my Husband’s memories of April 2007 and how those memories impacted my life.
I remember the night like it was yesterday. I remember making sandwiches with the Auxiliary. I remember the phone call from the station with my husband on the other end telling me he was OK. I remember that huge sense of relief when I heard his voice. I remember him walking into the fire hall after he had been released from re-hab. I remember other firefighters telling me he was going to need me. He was going to need me to listen, to be there. I remember thinking, “I got this. I’m his wife.” Of course I’m going to be there, of course I’m going to listen. I’m going to be his soft place to land. If I only knew then what I know now the next year would have been dramatically different.
That night was a life changer for us. That was the beginning of sleepless nights, it was the beginning of a lot of frustration, anger: on my part, not on his. I remember waking to the sound of him being awake, laying there wondering why he couldn’t fall back to sleep, angry that the talk radio he had on was keeping me awake. I remember thinking, “If I just hold him he will go back to sleep. That will be the calm that he needs.” I remember being angry that I wasn’t able to be that calm. My holding him didn’t work. I was supposed to be his soft place. Why wasn’t that soft place his place of peace?
Instead of peace, I laid awake listening. Listening for the sounds that showed he had drifted back to sleep. That he was no longer lying quietly hoping I would drift back into sleep. That he was no longer listening to the radio hoping it would drown out the thoughts, images that were going through his mind. Hoping that the radio would help calm the pounding of his heart so that he could sleep peacefully again.
The drawers that he had been able to keep shut through most of his fire career were no longer shut. The memories tumbled out like rumpled laundry, not properly stored, no longer neat, no longer contained. Those memories floated through our marriage, not just his mind. I could feel them. I could feel them tense his muscles, they blocked the softness that, I as his wife, should provide. They prevented me from helping. They prevented me from being that soft place to land. They kept me awake, as they kept him awake.
I couldn’t fix it. I was angry that I couldn’t fix it. I couldn’t neatly fold those memories and place them back in the drawers, safely tucked away. Tucked away where they wouldn’t become nightmares in sleep. Where they wouldn’t refocus his thoughts to a place he didn’t want to go. To a place that took him away from us.
I couldn’t fix the physical symptoms. The tenseness, the rapid heart beat. I couldn’t fix any of it. And that made me angry. I was mad at the fire service. If he hadn’t been a firefighter on that rainy day in April, he wouldn’t have these memories invading his dreams, invading my dreams. I was mad at him because he couldn’t fix it. Just stop thinking about it. Why can’t you just think about something else and turn it off? Why?
I was angry that he wouldn’t talk about the memories keeping him awake. He laid there. No words, no communication, just a log in our bed. I wondered, “if he would just talk, would it make it better?”
I’m not sure what turned the memories off. I’m not sure if they are turned off. 10 years later and I, his wife, am not sure if they keep him awake any longer. I do know the sleepless nights have lessened. I do know he still wakes in the middle of the night, turns on the radio and lies there quietly, trying not to disturb me. I also know that happens to all of us occasionally, that it’s a normal part of life. I pray it’s not those memories coming unfolded. Tumbling out of the drawers he has been able to stuff them back in to. Hopefully for good.
I feel he has been able to store them. The physical symptoms are gone. I pray the emotional ones are as well. I wonder what will be the next trigger that opens those drawers and unfolds the neatly folded memories that we have so carefully stored away in the drawers of his mind.
I believe we as a couple, and as firefighters, took a step last night towards admitting that PTSD exists for First Responders. We attended an amazing seminar on Traumatic Stress: The Responder and the Family. The speaker taught from the heart. He has been down the same road. He stepped out of the box and is there to tell those who will listen that there is help, it’s OK to admit there is a problem, to reach out. When he was done, there was not a sound in the room. It was quiet. A room of Fire Service personnel who realized the step they had all taken.
Last night, as I sat next to my husband, I could feel that body language change. I felt him silently say he’s been there, I felt him admit to a room of Brother’s and Sister’s that this is a problem in the fire service. That it needs to be discussed. That we need to be open to each other, we need to listen. We can no longer continue sticking our heads in the sand……pretending.