Healthy Relationships in First Responders
The Work, Life, Love Balance
Having been a First Responder and a girlfriend of First Responders I can write this from experience along with the psychology degree. I have dated and been a fiancee to an Air force Flight engineer, an ICE Supervisor, a firefighter, a deputy sheriff, a patrol officer, an ATF Agent and a FBI Agent. Everyone of these came with a a second family and a second job. It doesn't matter what branch, agency or uniform they wear, there is still an unwritten responsibility that comes with it. I have raised an entire dorm full of Air force guys while getting a college degree and managed to keep them all alive and had to throw in getting their performance apprasisals fixed so they can be promoted for free- not a small feat, added in with raising a USAF K-9 officer's daughter because she did not have a mom- and she was the light of my life even though she would steal my Starbucks on a regular basis.
With First Responders you inherit a new set of responsibilities and worries. When the phone rings or the doorbell dings, there is always a moment of "Please, No" before you answer the call or the door. There is always the moment you are sitting in a gang conference and 6 hours away there is a shooting the vicinity of where your boyfriend is a cop, and the heart stopping moment until you get the "I am okay" text.
Responsibilities turn from dinner and hair appointments to readying for deployments, long distances, insane work schedules, the worry of if he/she is coming home at the end of every shift, every middle of the night crisis, and the understanding of the amount of stress they are under. Understand this- if they showing they are stressed it is a million times worse. We think one thing and say the short glossed over version.
Most people call home about a blown out tire.. military and first Responder wives and girlfriends stand and deal. There is no other choice. There is no calling for help if your husband is on the range or testifying in court against the guy who tried to kill him in the line of duty or on a deployment. I am not leaving you out guys, when it is your wife, girlfriend you get the same feeling.
I remember clearly being told by a Federal Agent I dated "You are going to get yourself shot protecting your work kids" because he knew I would throw myself in front of a bullet for them because I had kevlar- that is a whole other story.
That bottle of scotch- Is either the sigh of relief after making it through so horrible day intact or the thing that puts us to sleep when the nightmares, and flashbacks start.
The baby picture in a squad car is how we remember why we are out there, what we are protecting. Birthdays, holidays and everything else that most people make their calendars with are littered with the day we almost died or someone else did, departmental meetings telling us that people who hate us have decided we shouldn't be able to stop them from hurting other people and the day we lost a friend and years later still think it is our fault that we survived when he or she didn't.
The biggest contributor to First Responder stress is a work vs. life pull. We don't really understand balance- we understand what needs to be done, how to do it and how on 4 hours of sleep, 4 Energy drinks, a half a doughnut trying to fit 90 hours of work into 24 on 4 hours of sleep while trying to find time to just be a person while we are doing a job that someone's life depends on. Throw in the fact we are working three jobs, paying our own salary and having the world literally watch our every move without any understanding of what we are supposed to do.
However, we are people to0. We have hopes and dreams, we want our kids to be safe, we fall in love..but all of that exists in brief moments between jobs, calls, and reports and it is what pulls us through the other 23 and a half hours of the day we aren't "on duty" somehow. We are wives, husbands, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers,aunts, uncles, friends..it is like living at warp speed all in one day, every day...and then there is trying to have any time for ourselves, much less anyone else even when we want and need it so badly. We have "normalized" chaos in our lives.
For instance take a law enforcement officer. During a normal day they are trying to deal with every version of insanity. Dividing attention that is required to maintain situational awareness, personal safety in the field, multiple streams of interaction between dispatch, subjects and victims is in itself a skill few can master. I remember days spent eating while driving to see probationers, having dispatch on Channel One running what could be traffic for 200 officers ( Manny managed it well, and as a sole dispatcher on a shift) , My radio on my hip, on Channel Two with personal radio traffic (until I had to switch to Channel One to do a home visit), listening to dispatch while doing a home visit in the event we had an officer down call, I had had to put a flag on my location because there was a solid indicator of a safety risk to me or dispatch needed me because a supervisor was looking for me about some likely trivial complaint some parent was making, with h the car radio on..add in a work pager, my personal cell phone, half the force had making me the unofficial and unpaid liasion to a police department and maintaining my personal safety with violent parents pulling firearms out to intimidate me who kicked dogs and prostituted their wives..and that was just one home visit. Throw in showing up to do a home visit to be greeted by the FBI or ATF serving search warrants or being asked to assist with a search because an officer didn't want to go through a girl's underwear drawer or having to do a room search only to flip over a mattress to find firearms in a kids room ( which made the porn not even an issue unless you were dealing with sex offenders)..a call from a significant other about something trivial like not wanting to walk a rent check from the house to the mailbox, or reminding you to pay the water bill when they don't work, or sending the landlord to the PD because they broke something and even not together expect you to fix it or pay for tires while they watch The Real Housewives on their cell phones.. doesn't do much to keep the constant concentration required to handle violent felons who end up dragging you because you made a mistake because of a nonsense non emergent issue from the family. It spills over into the job, it breaks LEO/First Responder zone- which is what saves your life.
Add in kids who can't take care of eye appointments or themselves that you miss because you work too much, and unless you have a girlfriend who despite having 30 work kids, and a police department who calls you when they can't get ahold of the JPO that won't answer her phone, or calls when intake won't detain a violent juvenile and they are looking for direction on what to do..but will still find the time to make your daughters eye appointment, while sending them expensive body wash and nail polish home during a rare weekend visit after finding sugar cookie recipes for you to make with them..you are kinda screwed.
Trying to balance everything is hard ..but there are a few things we have to remember..Equal parts. First Responders tend to put everyone ahead of ourselves - we have to. We forget we have to make ourselves a priority as well as healthy relationships.
The key is not to channel our energy on only one thing. You have to find time for ourselves, family, friends and other social relationships. That is how we survive because there is no other way to thrive and maintain your sense of self.
Divorce is a huge part of first responders lives.. this comes from many things. That just adds another layer to whose weekend is it, how am I going to pay for extra activities between the off duty shifts in the heat and the cold.
Another contributor schedules..our schedules seem like we would have off duty time. I would ask you to define off duty ..
We are never really off duty. You can't turn off the training we get. I have run across streets to tend to a accidents on the opposite side of the street heading out for a date night when my military boyfriend sat in his truck, run across freeways when a car was clipped by a semi on my way to get my lashes done, helped put 13 yr olds hit by a car in an ambulance when pulling up to my house, tended to wounds of a man stabbed by a girlfriend, when he was just asking for me to call law enforcement. I can't see a traffic stop without waiting to see if the officer is okay unless I see a second unit. I still can't stand to carry a purse on my gun side, even without it, if I hear anything I stop and start either determining if it is back fire, fireworks or gun fire- how many shots, and what direction they are coming from. When I hear sirens, I am determining direction on a clock from my location, whether it is fire, EMS or law enforcement. I can't stand to sit in a restaurant without my back to the wall in less I am with another officer- in their jurisdiction they get to see the door. None of this I am particularly happy about. It would be nice to not have these things be my normal, but it is ingrained in me- not just muscle memory but brain memory. I grid map literally every thing from interiors of buildings to entire towns - simply because I was taught to always know where I am- cross streets, 100 block in case I was ever shot while driving (Love you, Gus).
Carrie Wells in Unforgettable literally is the only person who could out do me- but I could tell you the location of everything from what was in the trunk of my car, to the set up of an ex boyfriends apartment from over 6 years ago. I could describe a hotel I did training in 18 years ago, including what room I was in, doing what task and where we found the contraband, what pictures were on a former Chief of Police turned Juvenile Probation Officer from 16 years ago wall, to who sat in what office, did what job, who broke what during what training and who their celebrity crush was, which high school probation officers were assigned to, which car had the best A/C, color, make and model.. Barney the purple Dodge Neon..who attorney where on cases I wasn't even assigned to, and that the Charge Nurse at the psych hospital I worked at 20 years ago, was former Airforce, and had a golden retriever who was insulin dependent ( Hi Andrea) , the medication a child was on ..so it isn't just autobiographical- People I saw once, 2 years ago and never spoke to, that they chew tobacco without even having had my glasses or contact lenses during a hurricane evacuation (Yes Deputy Doyle- I still remember you leaning with your back against your squad car) I can tell you the color, make and model of my Primary Care Physician from over 10 years ago- Black Toyota Sequoia. I can do a cross racial , cross gender ID and tell you the names of a Doctor's daughter who I met when I had a gallbladder surgery in extreme pain. The names of a Corrections Officer who was sitting across the hall from my room on a prisoner after that surgery..(Hi Travers) what TV show I was watching stuck in a hospital bed -CNN Anderson Cooper interviewing Tara Westover discussing Educated, the names of the nurses and which floor they were assigned to, the name of the Head of Nuclear Radiology who talked me through a HIDA Scan and the type of necklace the nurse who helped him with my IV ( a long silver heart locket) (Hi Steve) , and the name of the MRI tech , where he is from , and where he didn't want to move (Hi Scott) from 2 years ago..so trust me I would love to not be able to but thank you I do. We can't turn it off. However, burying ourselves in work, to ignore personal discomfort, to hide behind a wall isn't the answer either. Someone needs to speak our mindset, we need to be reminded that life doesn't run on Monster and McDonald's.
We have to find a way to integrate, not only family life, but a personal one into a mindset of First Responder normal. Sounds easy but toss in fatigue from shift rotations, a diet that is more like "what is open" and can be either taken with us or left to be eaten while writing reports and listening to dispatch and it gets a little crazy. That is the reality of the job. Some thing has to give and usually it is our relationships, and ourselves. That needs to be where we take time from something else being perfect and make sure we aren't becoming the job. It is easy to hide emotions (yes we have them, at least the good ones do, buried often underneath the stone facade and when someone sees underneath it or through it we put that wall up higher and thicker- not the best thing to do, but we do. Ask us if we are okay- and if we are still breathing we consider that okay (by the way, we probably aren't but unless you know us you won't ever know what is actually going on. It can be like pulling teeth from a crocodile who smells blood to get us to talk) Send us to a shrink and it becomes a match of wills no therapist is ever going to actually win. We give them the least amount of detail possible, a blow by blow like we are testifying in court and set there waiting for them to attempt to break through the wall while snickering in our internal monologue "Good Luck", only to be eating in a restaurant fighting back tears, our head buried in our hands not in prayer but a heart breaking moment of reality when something we saw has out raced the adrenaline, and we simply are hoping to get through the rest of the shift without breaking down. That is our world..we fiercely love our children - because they are why we put our lives on the line and want it safe, our coworkers become family because no one else "gets" our normal.
The lucky ones of us manage some semblance of normal, but there is no training course in how to sleep when you had to tell someone their loved one didn't make it, or someone literally comes after us not because of who we are but what we do.
It's a little different in EMS and Fire..but the basics are the same. One accident after another, a person who was trying to hurt someone else and succeeded, training for the worst and hoping you won't need it but if you are training for it ..it has happened to someone. Throw in policies that have no reason being in existence and in the pandemic post George Floyd era make wearing a badge a death penalty offense from people who have rap sheets longer than our certifications. We don't get the luxury of being able to shift through one scenario, it is always a Plan A, but if this then Plan C, but if that Plan X which is contingent on if W occurs and to what degree. That is multi tasking on a level even trying to cook dinner, run laundry and plan 3 kids schedules makes look like a walk in the park.
I am not knocking housewives, but what is our normal is whole new level of chaos. When you date/marry a first responder- you date/marry their job.
Need to cuddle because the whole world feels like it is crashing- he or she still has to jump in the truck for the fire, they still have court, they are likely hiding every trauma they saw not because they don't want to talk about it but because they don't know how to explain to themselves why someone would pour boiling water on a child, or why they are still trying to figure out why the bullet hit someone else and not them when someone started shooting- and now they have to live with a ghost of "what could I have dones," "why did its" and the images behind our eyelids when we can close our eyes of what we have seen.
We don't want people to live with what we put ourselves in the line of fire for everyday, it is not a choice but a calling but underneath the kevlar or turnout gear - we the same as everyone else. We bleed red, we bruise black and blue, we cry in our squad cars or showers so no one will see us hurting because it is considered a weakness, it is considered "not tough enough for the job." We have to build this wall between what we see at work, who we are and who our family gets to see. Compartmentalization doesn't begin to cover it. Most people you ask How was your day?" and you will get an "oh it's great because... or a list of annoyances like Starbucks was out of their favorite coffee, the kids wouldn't wear matching clothes and the washer tub is unbalanced." Ask one of us and you get " Still above ground, still breathing, I'm okay- which could mean anything from "I got to actually eat a meal that wasn't from a drive thru or a gas station, no one got shot, I managed to get all my reports done and no one tried to kill me today" to "I have been a police officer for years and never had to pull my firearm but today I had to but I was able to talk the guy who beat his wife and had a gun pointed at me while I waited for back up down and the lady who was driving her Kia the wrong side and wrong direction because she wouldn't stop for miles requiring me to PIT her car, and I had to deal with a guy who had his arm sliced off in a car accident because I got there before fire or EMS."
There are a few perks - you get an entire crew of family, however that means you will be feeding them, so thinking you are cooking for two and the kids- is more like 5 adults because there is a good chance that someone is coming home with him or her, could be stopping by at some weird time- imagine being the house all the kids come over to but for a bunch of adults.
What looks like chaos to someone else..that is our normal. Not really normal but we don't know anything else. Take it us away from it and we literally cease to know how to function. Those are the realities. I would call them challenges but remember I was one for a lot of years, and it has shaped every thing about me. We may thrive in what is chaos to everyone else but it takes a piece of out heart and soul. We literally have to learn how to see what everyone else considers normal as normal as normal and good luck trying. The point being this.. you can't change us. We come with a different set of wiring. We are always and forever dedicated to our jobs..we stand by each other, we stand up for each other. If you don't understand this, nothing you try to make us is going to be who we are. We slay monsters and dragons, and we need that as much as we need air. We don't want to become the monsters we see, and the moment we have we are not part of that family. We still need everything everyone else does just understand when it takes time for us to set that aside.
We need to normalize not chaos, and distraction, but well being. We have to find a place where there is a moment to breathe that doesn't include hiding out back at work just trying to piece together all the pieces that we have been torn into.
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"Justice delayed, is justice denied" "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Tattooed, Employed and has a Psych degree..Always on the look out for a group of Avengers.