In 1994, as a newly commissioned firefighter, I thought I was going to save the world and immediately immersed myself into this new career. Around that same time, I became engaged to (my now wife) Judy who in her own right started a career as a 3rd grade teacher. She was supportive in all I did (and I, her) to educate myself in all things firefighting. I took as many classes as I could and was going Mach II (no pun intended) with my hair on fire. We married in October of 1996.
Fast forward to that period, and I now recall an early anecdotal story from our marriage. Our first “home” was a 2-bedroom apartment in Alsip where Judy had just prepared this wonderful dinner that was about to be set on the table- suddenly, the phone rang. I picked it up and the conversation went something like this: “Hello. Okay, I will be right there” (now Judy was busy in the kitchen and did not hear the I’ll be right there part of my conversation). When I hung up, I told her that the firehouse called for a standby, and I proceeded to put my shoes on. She asked me “Where are you going?”, and I said- “the firehouse”. Judy was under the impression that a standby meant I would do this from home. I grabbed my coat and headed out the door. I vividly remember the disappointment in her face as I left- only to return 4 hours later.
What I realized in that moment was that during the first 2 years of my career, I had educated myself in firefighting, but failed to teach Judy the jargon/lingo. She knew what a general alarm signified each time the pager and community sirens activated, but not the standby. Ugh! She is the one who lifts me up, and I left her behind. As the years passed, Judy became a crafty veteran firefighter’s wife.
However, there was one thing neither of us had anticipated- what this job would do to my psyche. Every 1st responder knows that he/she is going to see bad things when they raise their right hand and pledge to serve and protect- it is something that comes with the weight of this oath. Everyone will respond differently to the cumulative traumas to which they are exposed, as some are more grounded than others. Me- I suffered for over 16+ years with undiagnosed PTSD after bearing witness to the suicide of a colleague. Judy had to deal with the ups and downs of mood swings, road rage, family feuds, etc. I am forever grateful that she is still with me, because a less resilient person may have walked away. I know in my heart there had to be times she wished for someone to talk to that could relate (be her peer support). During that time in our lives such support did not exist. Judy is my best friend in the whole, wide, world- and it is because of her selfless love that I am still in the fire service today.
My point here is that not only do we commit to a 20-30-year career when we swear an oath, but also our spouses, children, significant others, and even pets. They know that by the very nature of our chosen vocation, we are going to miss many a milestone event (along with holidays, barbeques, soccer games, etc.) because we cannot always switch days to attend these outings. This comes with the territory, and the families gain acceptance to that fact. It doesn’t make it any easier, but it does happen. Unfortunately, there are many relationships that will not survive this lifestyle commitment. If we work a 24/48-hour schedule, we will spend just less than 1/3 of our lives apart, and this doesn’t include overtime, training, pub ed opportunities . . . Now add the stress of behavioral health issues that insert themselves into the relationship. So, what can we do to ensure that those we love are not left behind? Education.
Here at ILFFPS, we have the spousal/significant other program that is headed by Colleen Murphy. Colleen is a firefighter’s wife who offers that perspective, along with Matt Olson who contributes to the firefighter side of this presentation. I encourage departments (who haven’t already done so) to offer this program to their newly engaged, newly married, and even veteran couples of their membership- as all attendees will take some nugget of wisdom home with them.
The one statement that Colleen made that I will always remember went something like this: “You have to be very careful how you deal/speak with one another (as colleagues/couples), because each person brings a history with them to the fire service. It is this history that will determine how an individual may react on a call for service.” Here is an example: A firefighter grew up in an abusive, alcoholic home. He/she reacts inappropriately at this scene because it was an all too familiar childhood scenario. In years past, we would give that person “their space” or even gossip about this behavior. Today, we must make a commitment to having an honest conversation by asking questions not only of the first responder, but also those that lift them up.
Back to Judy’s disappointment about the standby. I now realize that it was my duty to immerse her in the culture/jargon of the fire service way before she was left to eat this awesome meal that she created out of love- all by herself. Communication is the key to ensure a healthy 1st responder relationship, marriage, etc. It is especially important to talk about the tough issues such as behavioral health. The firehouse gets us for 2-3 days a week, the rest is spent with those who are closely invested in our welfare. If you don’t feel right- share that with your best friend(s).
The Zac Brown Band penned a song titled Last But Not Least which tells the story about someone who re-commits to a relationship after realizing he/she left a significant other behind. Listen and follow along with the lyrics I provided. If this resonates with you- challenge yourself to take a step back and reflect on what is most important in this world to you. If you need further assistance, don’t hesitate to contact Colleen. Most assuredly she can give you a nudge in the right direction. Until next time-
“Last But Not Least”
There ain’t enough of me to go around Got all kinds of reasons To be all over town Spread thin and broken down Everybody wants a piece Oh darlin I’m afraid You’ve been last but not least Everyone I love the most Has to take what’s left of me I put it all together But I left out one big piece I put you last But you’re not least Nothing ever takes the place of you Sometimes things that may not matter Jump in front of things that do And your fine to stand in line While history repeats But oh darlin not this time Last but not least Everyone I love the most They deserve the best from me I put it all together When I found that missing piece You were the last But you’re not least I go left when I should go right I chase the dark when I see light I trip and fall down every time I try To walk that line
The sun comes up I look for rain I search for joy and I find the pain I swear I will not forget again Last but not least Last but not least Everyone I love the most Is gonna see the best of me I put it all together When I found the missing piece You were the last You were the last But you’re not least