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Living with a Firefighter’s PTSD – A Wife’s Story

The following story was shared with the permission of Lori Moore, wife of Captain Chris Moore of the Chesapeake Fire Department:

“So where do I begin.  How much should be said, 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 because not only are you reading this, but my spouse is too and some of these feelings he is not aware of until now.

PTSD in the First Responder world is real and the life stories should be told. It may help another spouse/family see the signs earlier and get the help sooner.  Stay strong, be the support they need, even if they don’t say they need it because they do need you.

I guess I should start at the beginning.  My name is Lori Moore and I have been with my Firefighter Husband, Captain Christopher Moore for 18 years – 15 of it married.  We have one son who is 14 and yes, this has affected him also.

My life with Chris has always been the firefighting world.  When I met him he was in paramedic school and getting ready to graduate the fire academy.  Together we know no other life. 

A nice offering that the Fire Department family we are a part of had at that time was a “class” for new spouses/significant others to let you know what to expect in this line of work.  This was done by the spouses on their own time.  Anything that can go wrong at home will go wrong and will happen when they are at the station.  The kids will get sick, something will break; there will be a family emergency, etc.  You are on your own; you have to deal with the situation yourself.  Your firefighter can’t just leave work like the regular 9-5 world to come home.  You have to be the independent person who can handle these situations.

What they didn’t tell us was what can happen to your firefighter the longer they are in the department.  They don’t tell you what their spouses see and deal with; how it affects them and the family.  Because who wants to admit there are problems at home?  There is no blame or fingers pointed 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.  But 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.

Superman/Superwoman – the stigma that 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% of the time was “It was busy”.   No details and after this many years together, I know I won’t get any other answer.  But I could and can still see it in his eyes that it was more than just “busy”.

The stigma needs to change.  Yes, to me and many others you are a Super Hero but you are also human with a caring compassionate heart that has feelings and does break 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 other ways so you need your brothers when emotions break.  They understand it better than anyone else as they live the same life.

I have to say again, PTSD in the First Responder world is real and I’m living with a spouse who has it.  I can’t pinpoint when it exactly started but there are incidents that go sometime back that probably were the very beginnings of the tangled web starting to weave.

November 2005, my husband went to Cameron Parish, Louisiana to help with recovery after Hurricane Rita hit.  He was gone for two weeks.  I was home with a 6 month old and the day after he left I got sick as a dog (perfect example of what I mentioned above about it all goes wrong when they aren’t home).  Thankfully my in-laws live 10 minutes away and helped 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; bad news – his father passed away.  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.  His father passed in his sleep.  The web has started.

Fast forward about 8 years after that up to about a year or so ago and the mood has changed in the house.  You think it’s just everyday life of being busy with work, a child who plays sports almost non-stop, 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 start again and they are just nit-picky fights over nothing at all.  Divorce came up a few times and once was very close to having a separation and 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 on going to make it work.  In sickness and health has a strong meaning to us as we’ve been through numerous health issues over the years….this by far being the hardest.

The “walking on egg shells” started a few years ago and you tell them about it over numerous conversations/arguments…doesn’t go over well either.  It gets turned around on you and it’s your fault.  They hear it but don’t “listen” because I don’t think they are 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 really don’t 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 and the only time you feel relaxed is when they are at work.  You pray for overtime or maybe a conference they could attend so they will be gone for a few days.  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 but 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.

About 8 months ago, Chris finally realized he needed to get help. He reached out to his former Battalion Chief to inquire about 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 really knowing what is going on with him, I’m glad he is getting help but still have a somewhat high stress level.   I see his mood at times and the wheels are turning of old memories of calls that have affected him.  You wonder will it ever stop and can they 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 getting a Peer Support Group better established in his department and it’s accepted with open arms to have this program.  He wants to help others since he knows what it’s like.  A few close friends know his issue but he has yet to share within the department.  He is working on an article himself that he hopes to have 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 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 that others take this seriously and are helping each other out…..trying to lose the stigma, fighting for each other to survive this.  Slow and steady wins the race. 

I wrote this so that spouses can understand and see they are not alone.  It could be the help that you needed to see to slow down or stop the spiral that has started.  I also think it’s 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.

I purposely did not go into a lot of detail on the home life because it’s not necessary to divulge all the dirty laundry and there really isn’t much that was that bad.  It was more the moods in the house.  I think the point has gotten 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 is on the inside.  Chris and I have a very good marriage and I’m sure some that know us would be shocked to read this.  They probably figure we all have the same marriage issues and I’m sure we do to some extent but they don’t see this; they don’t see the PTSD.  They don’t see what goes on behind closed doors; they only see the surface and see that “Chris and Lori are good”.  It’s not always the case but 99% 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 my 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 marriage will thank you for it in the end.”

Lori was also a guest in Episode 43 of Jon Sanders’ The Fire Inside Podcast.

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