A Focus On The Family: Dealing With The Ones Around Us
"...we tend to relate very well to one another better than we relate to the people around us"
It could be a wife or husband, maybe it’s a sibling, possibly it’s parents or other extended family members, or it could even be our friends. The people around us might not quite understand what’s going on, but they know something is not right. This is the story that far too often gets overlooked. As a community of veterans and first responders, we tend to relate very well to one another better than we relate to the people around us. We understand the strains and sacrifices that we have made over our careers or even volunteer service, often through an unspoken language of nuance and mutual understanding. But with this comes the challenge of trying to quantify our struggles to the people around us: the uninitiated. How do we explain what’s going on in our heads to someone that doesn’t have a base of knowledge or experience in the type of mental trauma that we are accustomed to? How do we relate?
In exploring this topic, I have come across a few experiences and pieces of solid advice that have helped me deal with the balancing act of holding it together with my family, while also taking the time to find some healing for myself.
Holding It In Isn’t Good For Anyone
At one time, I had developed the understanding that I was somehow saving the people around me by holding it all in. I was convinced that I could somehow spare them the effects of my wounds by pretending that they didn’t exist. Unfortunately, I have found, the bill eventually comes due, and the hidden parts of our psyche will surface in one way or another. Even when I didn’t verbally express that something was going on, over time it became obvious through nonverbal cues that something was not right. Unreleased feelings have many different faces. Sometimes it shortens our fuse, so to speak. At least that’s what happened to me. I lived with such a high level of anxiety that overload became a much easier place to end up. What would, on the surface-level, be a small issue that should seemingly be a quick fix or inconvenience became something that would send me over the ledge.
Withdrawal was another symptom. I would find myself uninterested or isolated for no apparent reason, showing a lack of interest in things that used to draw me in, or finding myself being unable to connect on an emotional level. Through some self-discovery, research, and good conversations with people (like the ones here at Project Refit), I learned that I was unable to hold onto the strategy of being the only one that dealt with my mental state.
It made perfect sense when my wife expressed to me that she knew exactly when I was dealing with something on a deep level. I guess a lot of that has to do with cues, or a sense of familiarity that we develop with the people around us. Either way, I learned that the changes in me were a detriment to my family. It wasn’t what I thought, though, when I learned that I didn't have to fix myself before I could communicate.
It's Okay To Keep It Simple
What I learned over time is that my lack of communication was a large part of the problem. I thought that it was something that I needed to have a good handle on before I moved forward in dealing with my relationships. That couldn’t have been farther from the case. What my wife needed was the security of me simply expressing she was not the underlying issue. She needed me to express to her that I wasn’t okay. That's it. She lived in a constant state of thinking that I had some kind of grudge against her, and that's understandable when I think of her perspective.
The anger wasn’t her fault, but she took the blunt end of it in some respects. It was a relief for me to help her gain the understanding that she wasn’t the cause. This sounds like a simple solution, but I must choose my words carefully here, and not give the impression of an easy process. It takes hard work, but I eventually found that a simple “I’m having a bad day” or “there’s some ME stuff going on right now” was enough to at least give her a modicum of comfort.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a learning curve. To get to this point, where my family understood that there were some deep underlying problems going on, took a lot of hard work and some very frank, uncomfortable discussions. What I found, though, is that it alleviated the pressure of coming up with a full explanation for something that I couldn’t fully understand myself. I couldn't come up with the words to explain something that had no words, but I didn't have to. I expressed that, which was humbling in a way. She gained the understanding that it wasn't her fault, and I was (and still am) working on it. This went a long way with us.
Our Vocation Can Strain the People Around Us
With our newfound communications, my wife and I were able to better express some things to each other that we had been holding onto. This gave her a new level of comfort where she was finally able to express the strains that fire/EMS had on her. When I think of her position in the scenario it makes a lot more sense. Leaving at all hours of the night, abruptly, when the tones go off or the call comes in is like putting the pause button on our life.
I would leave in the middle of dinner, or have to take off while we were giving the baby a bath, or miss first steps and first words. This, along with waiting up at night, worried, takes a great emotional toll on a person too. Leaving a wife and young kids at home to fend for themselves puts a burden on them that often gets overlooked. I’m not a vet, but when I think about the emotional toll that particular vocation places on the family, it makes me shutter to think about what these spouses deal with.
The deep nature of this realization would have never occurred if the foundation of communication was not rebuilt in our household. I don’t want to paint a picture that this is completely figured out and built, but I can at least say with great confidence that we now have the blueprints. Honest, frank communication can revolutionize our relationships.
Keep an eye out at www.projectrefit.us or our various social medias for announcements about our regular Fire Side Chats. We can't wait to see you there.
Did you know that Project Refit hosts 2 regular zoom meetings each week for veterans and first responders to talk to each other? Our meetings are every Monday (streamed) and Friday (private) at 9pm. Use the "Let's Chat" feature on our website to get the link.
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Casey Brown is the volunteer Chief Editor for Project Refit, and is a firefighter/EMT in New Jersey. Together with the rest of the PR team, Casey strives to authentically and effectively tell the stories of vets and first responders. Casey believes that a story told is a life extended, and is helping to empower many other vets and first responders to share their stories. Casey is actively seeking volunteers to join our growing writing staff. If you would like to contribute, email firstname.lastname@example.org to find out how YOU can get involved.