Welcome to the 911 Shift Ready podcast where we are going to be diving into first responder’s families and how they can beat the statistics. Now we ultimately have no choice. First responders, families, we really do need to stay strong. When you are a first responder family, shit gets hard.
And my husband he’s been to calls horrible calls where kids have died. Every time he comes home, grateful to have us and our life. And if he didn’t have that ability to come home to a house where I’m calm, where I’m not burnt out, where I’m not short fused and where he is calm and the kids we all get along, we all support one another and know what each other needs then we are able to make the decisions that we can make in our home to not have situations pop up where there is so much friction that home does not become your safe place.
My husband and I, we talk through calls. We decide how we want to parent. What role models we want to be for our kids but if you’ve heard episode number two, you know that this wasn’t always the case. There was a time where my anger reared its ugly head at home. The spouse, the spouse of the responder is the one who was short fused, short with the kids. My husband didn’t know when he’d be walking into a room, if he’d be getting the happy kindhearted me or this other person that my husband and kids were walking on eggshells around me wondering what mood I would be in or when I would snap.
And this was all due to burnout. It was not a trauma. It was from burnout. I don’t have the calls that he has. That in your house a lot of what is happening does not necessarily come from traumas. The traumas can definitely affect us, but there is a lot more that we do need to be aware of. Burnout is a beast.
And when you are giving your all to your job, working crazy hours, pushing hard without understanding what tools you need to support you in your career beyond exercise and nutrition then you can go from a loving, caring spouse and parent to somebody totally different. And this goes for your spouse as well at home when they’re always having a plan B. When you are working crazy shifts, they’re home trying to keep the house together, trying to give the kids what they need and get their needs as well as often working full time, then they get totally burnt out as well.
And that becomes somebody that is short with their loved ones. Who gets upset about the small things. How the dishwasher is loaded, if toys are not picked up, how the yard looks, what your neighbors are doing. And you often do not have the energy to play and be fun with your kids or to have that relationship with your spouse.
And the thing is, is that being a first responder is that the life does take a toll on both the responder and the partner who’s holding up the fort at home. And that ends up in those more explosive arguments and just over smaller and smaller things from both of you. The exhaustion kicks in and it becomes harder to put in that effort into your relationship with your partner. To hang out from the kids to do things around the house and slowly things fall apart as burnout sets in for the both of you.
Now, the statistics for first responder families are not good. Not everyone is cut out to be the spouse or the partner of a first responder. And I also know of other responders whose marriages have not lasted, where they got married very, very young, and they did grow apart because they were such different people not because of the job. But in the life of a responder, it is not uncommon to hear how the job changes you. Which makes relationships and family hard. And it’s true.
Divorce rates are high for first responders, but I struggle with the justification that that’s just how it is and how it has to be. I mean, if it really is just how it is or how it has to be, then every single first responder would be divorced, right? When in fact, every single one of us know of a first responder family that is strong and one that we look up to. I wouldn’t change being a police family for anything.
I believe it is a calling for our spouses just as it is for the responder themselves, but the old ways aren’t working anymore. And the divorce statistics, they will continue to rise if we do not start taking action now and make the changes necessary in order to stop breaking down families and instead build stronger family units that strengthen over time.
I am done watching my husband’s colleagues’ relationships break apart. Relationships that I really thought would last the test of time. I’m done with getting calls from spouses who are about to walk away because of what’s going on in their homes and with their partners. This doesn’t have to be. It’s time to change the statistics on first responder relationships’ success.
There’s a quote actually by Brad Pit that is awesome. That is “A family is a risky venture because the greater the love, the greater the loss, and that’s the trade off, but I’ll take it.” And I can’t disagree with them more. Being a first responder family is tough. And there is a trade off, but I will definitely take it. We have to be real of the situation though in order to figure out how to make first responder families work. And that starts with being real about how the job has changed and what it entails for both you as the responder and your family.
Not that it’s ever been light, but call volumes have increased. The call volumes from when my husband started on the job and over 13, 14 years ago. And there’s less and less downtime now. There’s less time to train or sleep when working a 24 hour. They’re now filled with calls. So there’s also with all of this, there’s more understaffing.
So you’re asked to do more OT. You’re asked to step in a lot more than you used to step in with all of the call volume. And this goes for North America and the UK. I speak with officers all over. This is not on one service. It is very, very rare for me to hear about a service that is closer to capacity. It’s very rare if ever that I hear that most are under staffed. And the hours are unlike any profession where eight hours really does seem like a day off 12, 24 hours is a minimum. We’ve got days, nights, all of the OT it really makes it hard to see your family when they’re awake.
And then the last three years with COVID that was definitely a test. There were stations out everywhere in quarantine. Neighboring stations, having to pick up the call load when they were already short staffed. So they’re moving from, I was hearing of some moving from 24 hour shifts to 48 and 96 hour shifts. With maybe one day off and going back into a 96 to cover. Then there was the risk to families with you working front lines during COVID was also an added stress.
I know families with immunocompromised kids and it became so stressful how to navigate and how to even see one another, how to support one another, where do you stay. Working holidays and feeling the guilt of missing out on milestones with your kids while your partner is taking on all of the responsibilities at home and possibly managing a job themself. It’s not fair to either one of you. And I know for myself definitely, but your partner always needs a plan B just in case you get called in. You’re stuck on OT. The kids need to be somewhere and quite often as the spouse, we are left to explain to family and friends why you’re not there. And yes, things are okay at home. Things are good with us. He’s just working. It’s tough. It gets tiring, but the hardest is trying to get the kids to understand and accept it without negative feelings, without backlash for them.
I find that becoming a first responder family is pretty much like becoming a parent for the first time. Where you get so excited about this and it becomes they think about this adventure of, “Yeah, we’re gonna have a baby.” I mean, you have no idea what you’re in for, but when the baby comes, the baby doesn’t know the difference between night and day, right from wrong.
With responders, we’re learning shifts how to sleep, how to eat. And then our spouse gets moved to another division and the shift changes or the demands change and we’re constantly on edge. It’s almost like every gross birth that this child has is like every transition for the responder or there’s something socially going on where we have to be more on alert and adapt to in our home.
As the wife, there are many times where I did wish that my husband could work a Monday to Friday, predictable nine to five. Less stress job, where he could be at more of the kids’ activities. And I didn’t have to worry about his safety or the safety of our family, but that’s not the life I signed up for. And it’s not the life I want being the wife of a responder is not easy, but I’m proud of my husband and what he does each and every day to keep our streets safe. Something needs to change though, but what do we change? And that’s where I get to a lesson that I do teach in my 911 Elite Performance Program about what is in your control.
Call this the win principle. Now, depending on who’s teaching this, you’ll hear when being what is necessary or what is next. The one thing that you are always in control of in your relationship and in your career is you. So understanding this win principle is when we think about best is thinking about a relationship, thinking about home, thinking about our life, what is necessary. So imagine with this principle, when we teach it, we imagine that this is a firefighter who’s on a call and is separated from their team. Now, there are literally fires going on around them and they have to stop, take a breath and look around and figure out what is my top priority. What is necessary? What is next to help solve this problem?
And so when we’re diving into this with you, the one thing that you are always in control of in your relationship and in your career is you. So we need to focus on what you can control. And you can totally blame the hours. The admin stress, the politics, the dangers of the job, the traumas, social media, people having cameras. So much we could blame so many things, but as soon as you do, you are giving up control of this situation.
And when it gets to the point where workouts don’t relieve your stress anymore, eventually it becomes tough to get the energy needed to work out or injuries take you out. And the hours you and your partner struggle to find time to do things that used to relieve your stress. I didn’t intend for this to go there, but at the start of the career, your libido may have actually risen, but eventually the testosterone struggles to rear its head and your libido lowers. So that connection with your spouse, as you are burnt out, that’s a sign of burnout and it can be reversed. So don’t think that there’s something wrong with your sex drive. It is a sign telling you that you are burnt out. And when you’re not able to work out, when you’re not able to relieve your stress through sex, you don’t have that stress relief.
Your family starts walking on eggshells because they don’t know what mood you’re going to come home in, or when their good mood will actually turn instantly into anger and frustration at everyone in the house. And when your energy starts decreasing, you start disengaging from the family. I have responders telling me that they are so exhausted and struggled to get anything done around their house or their family, that family tasks used to be like how they used to be active and play with their kids and now they can’t. They can’t get any of these tasks done. They’re pretty much just sitting on the couch. If they are home alone during the day on a day off, it’s a struggle to make a frigging sandwich, to open the fridge and figure out what is inside. Let alone, you know, actually get your honey do list done and that starts decreasing communication and arguments start increasing in the home. And then it starts creeping in at work.
You may be okay on a call, but when you’re not on a call, your energy, has you sucking back caffeine to get barely enough energy to make it through your shift. You’re so exhausted in your reaction times. They aren’t what they used to be, which puts you at risk on the job. You can start making mistakes on the job, which for EMS, that can be crucial for all of you. That can be a matter of life or death. And eventually calls they stop giving you an adrenaline rush that they used to. So I don’t know where you are in this, but know that all of these things start affecting your family. Start affecting relationships, start affecting the dynamics in your family home in your family life. And these are burnout. And burnout can be reversed. Your paperwork becomes tougher. You stop remembering details, which you need those details to uphold information in court. More and more stress to frustrate you that never used to. And it becomes tougher to keep your cool at the station and on calls.
And then it just becomes really tough to manage all of the day to day of the job. And now it is time for you to make a decision. I’m pretty sure your intention is to make a difference in people’s lives, at work, and to set in a solid example for your kids of what a healthy relationship is. And if you’re saying, but the job has changed me, you are correct. The job has changed you. The thing is, is you have more power than you may realize about how the job changes. You will never ever be the person that you were 5 years, 10 years, 15 years ago, life is always gonna happen. It’s always gonna happen regardless of your career, regardless of traumas. If you have traumas or don’t in the job, small traumas, there’s all of these other factors that are playing a part in what is shaping you as to who you are today. And you have a choice as to how that shapes you. Jocko Willink, he wrote an article, Thank You For Your Struggles. And this is a part of what he said
“It’s pretty easy sometimes to feel beaten. That doesn’t mean give up. In fact it means the opposite. It means it’s time for you to fight harder to dig in. It means it’s time for you to go on the war path. That starts with one of the fundamental laws of combat leadership, prioritize and execute. What’s the biggest problem? What’s causing the most stress? Family? Okay. Sit them down. Explain where you’re at. Be blunt, be upfront, and then give them the simple plan of how you are going to get things back on track.
Don’t sugarcoat it. You give it to them straight. Let me tell you right now, it won’t be easy. It will be hard because life is hard. That’s what life is these challenges, these challenges that you face, they’re going to do their best to take you down. Don’t let them. Stand up, dig in, line up those problems and confront them.
Face them. Fight them. Do not let them bring you down. In fact let those challenges raise you up. Let them elevate you. Let their demands and their trials make you stronger. Let the adversity you face today turn you into a better person tomorrow. So in the future, you look back at these struggles and you say to them, thank you.
You made me better.”
Again that was Jocko Willink in an article that he wrote, Thank You For The Struggles. It is a hundred percent your choice as to how you change because of the job. You get to choose how to react to every bad thing, struggles and failures. And if the job is taking its toll, causing you to not be calm, fun, and have energy then start to ask yourself, what specifically do I need to work on in order to get back to being me? Which leads us back to win.
For you, the win principle, what is necessary for you? Not your spouse, even if they are burnt out. You can only control yourself and your actions. Lead by example. Here are things to try, talk to your spouse and tell them what’s going on just as Jocko suggest. A lot of struggles happen because we tell ourselves stories and the less you tell your partner about what’s going on, the more they’re going to come up with their own conclusions.
And often the stories that someone makes up in their head are worse than reality. This doesn’t mean that you have to unload everything on them, but from my experience, spouses are aware of more than you may realize. And we are strong and honestly, as a spouse, I would much rather you be honest that, you know, there is an issue and you have a plan or even that you don’t know what to do to fix it. Which is where you may get bonus points for actually trusting your spouse to help you search for ideas and directions. So if you were drinking too much, talk about. Assuming both of, you know, it’s happening is not the same as having the actual conversation that you both know it’s happening. If you are booking more OT because you don’t want to be at home, talk about it. Dive into it, figure out why. If you are yelling at your kids and short with your partner, talk about it. How does ignoring what’s right in front of you, even if you both know, even if you both don’t know what is needed to work towards the situation, how is ignoring it going to help you find a solution?
You guys see this all the time at work, you go to calls where one person is trying to hide or play off that their anger, health issues, alcohol, drug addictions are not causing as many problems as they truly are in the house and in the life. But the partner and the kids, they know what’s going on and their version is often quite different of what’s going on in the home than the person who is trying to hide it. The faster you own your part, your own part, the faster you can start working on solutions. No partner is perfect. And it’s possible that your partner is struggling just as bad or worse than you are.
In our house, it was me who had burnout symptoms, not my husband, who is a police officer. I am the one who had a short fuse, disengaged with the family, not able to help run the house due to absolute exhaustion. And if I’m being absolutely honest, I was depressed. Was my husband perfect? Absolutely not. There were times he was short too. Often closer to the end of a block of shifts or when too much was on his plate because I wasn’t picking up on my end.
It’s also hard to be calm when the other person is picking a fight with you, which I did. I used to purposely pick fights with my husband. It’s a vicious circle and it only starts when one person makes different choices. Now you can only control yourself in your actions. So I worked on my burnout first and my husband started seeing some of the things that were happening from it. And he started to work on some things for himself after.
It took time. I couldn’t expect him to do it because if I did, I’d be resentful. If he didn’t, I had to work on myself and see where it went. You can only control yourself and your actions. Hopefully the other person will follow your lead, but going in expecting them to do it and that being the reason why you are making the changes may only backfire on you. Will this save your marriage? Not necessarily as both parties do need to step up and make the changes necessary. But if you don’t make the changes, does your marriage even have a chance?
I’m gonna say that again. If you don’t make the changes, then does your marriage have a chance? Now, my husband and I were actually talking about this last night, where. I talk to guys, I’ve been doing this since 2018 and there’s been guys I’ve been speaking with for years where they will come to me where I’m on the phone with them and they’ve got these struggles, but they wanna keep trying it on their own. They want to keep trying it on their own, even though I’ve got the resources right here that I can go, boom, boom, boom these are the steps. It’s not gonna be easy. It’s not actually boom, boom, boom. It takes time. It takes effort on your part, but the changes will happen because we’ve proven the success in my program.
But I mean, yesterday I got an email from somebody who has now been retired out of the job and is divorced. We were talking while he still had a job and we were talking well, he still had his family together. But he thought he could still do it on his own. And now he’s lost everything. So I’m gonna ask the question again. If you don’t make the changes, does your marriage have a chance? There’s no guarantee that your marriage will stay together if you make the changes, but if you don’t make the changes, if you don’t seek the help professional help from somebody who has helped others with anger, with short fuse, with anxiety, get their sleep on track, get their energy on track so that they can be calmer around their family then does your marriage have a chance?
The second thing then is to go to a professional, which I was leading into with that as well. The thing is by professional, it can mean all different things. It could be a sleep consultant. Somebody specializes in hormones for testosterone and other hormones. I won’t dive into a geeky, a geeky, science thing for you guys right now, but we can get into gut specialists. You can get a stress system specialist, which is what I am, where I specialize in burnout and first responders. And we actually deal with sleep hormones and gut, but you can go to a specialist that deals with just one of these things. Essentially going to somebody who understands your stress system and your life as a first responder. Now that’s a big one.
If you’re going to seek out any professional therapist even make sure that they have a lot of experience with first responders because going to a sleep specialist, they’re not going to understand unless they work with a lot of first responders. They’re not going to understand the shifts. Going to a relationship specialist if they don’t work with first responders, if they don’t intimately know the life, they’re gonna be suggesting things like weekly date nights and things that are absolutely unrealistic for you. They’re not going to understand all of the stressors that are part of your job and your life. So make sure that you are going to a professional that specializes with first responders in what you need.
Now, therapy is the one that you guys hear about the most, and I’m going to say something that’s against the grain, but this is my experience is that therapy is not necessarily the starting professional to seek out. Now, if you are suicidal, there’s a lot of shit going on in your head, then absolutely go for it. But in my experience of working with first responders since 2018 is that therapy is not always the first step. I’ve worked with guys who have struggled with therapy because they cannot switch out of their stressed state. Now there’s reasons that they can’t switch out of a stressed state the quick and dirty is that on the job they’re living in their stress state all the time. It’s become so strong and overpowered their resting system, so I go in and teach them how to switch out of that stress state. How to start strengthening their resting system so stops, overpowering their stress system. And then they can actually start making headways in therapy.
There are scientific studies out there that show that when you can switch out of that stress state, into that resting state, you make headway tons of headway in therapy, but when you are stuck in that stress state, the more of a stress state you go into therapy, the harder it is to make headway in therapy. So why make it harder for yourself? Why not work on that stress system first and then go to therapy? Cuz therapy already is tough as it is. And this also goes for couples therapy.
If your stress system’s over firing. If it’s making you angry or on edge, and you have increased anxiety, if everything is frustrating, you and ignoring you, annoying you and you need to control everything, it’s messing up your sleep then getting the tools that you’ll learn in couple’s therapy to start communicating and start really working through the therapy part of things is going to be hard or next to impossible to implement until you can actually slow down your stress system so that it’s not ruling you and you’re not living in a frustrated “I need to control anger state”. You’re actually able to work through the differences that you and your spouse have because you’re calmer and you’re able to, and you have more energy to deal with it. That being said, as mentioned earlier, if you are really in a bad place, considering taking your life, definitely like seek attention right now.
And even if you aren’t struggling, it is always great to have a therapist in your back pocket who already knows you. They know your history. They know what your job entails. They know what you’ve experienced on the job. They know your family and so if or when a big T trauma does come up, you can start diving in with them right away. You already know somebody that you trust. You’ve already built that rapport and you can start dealing with that trauma right away without having to go to somebody and start from the beginning. Then start learning everything about you, how you work, what support systems you have, all of these things that if you actually have a therapist that already knows you, trauma happens you go in, you go and deal with it right away that decreases the mark that it puts on your physical stress system which actually makes my job easier. Because the longer that you have been struggling with traumas the longer it has been, since you did have a large T trauma, the longer it does take for me to be able to get to where you can shift in and out of a stressed state so that you can make headways in your therapies.
So what happens as well is that with these traumas, the longer that you push it out of your mind, the longer your body is staying in this continual stress system and pushing your body and taxing your body. Then we’re adding in all of your long hours, your OT, your admin stress, all of the other things that are putting you into burnout, PTSD, if you have PTSD is a stress disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder. So that’s adding to the burnout. Those are very similar symptoms to burnout symptoms, and it starts causing you to experience tired of wired, waking mid sleep, absolute exhaustion, short fuse, easily frustrated, needing to control everything around you, how the laundry’s folded, how the dishes are done, how the dishwashers loaded, what you’re doing and not doing with the kids. There’s anxiety, depression, no motivational drive, gut issues, constant injuries, colds and flus and more.
Now, if you’re saying that you don’t have time, or there are so many things that are more important at home then you stopping to take care of these symptoms that are wreaking havoc on your relationship. Then I’d be really curious to know how much time will you get with your family if you end up divorced? How much money will it cost you? Say you can’t afford right now, or you don’t want to spend the money. And I’m saying don’t want to spend the money because I see so many guys with all the top fishing gear, hunting licenses, all the top hunting gear, iPhones, really nice trucks, all of these things, they can afford their toys, but when it comes to spending money on a professional to help them to not be angry, to squash the anxiety, they tell me that they don’t have the money. And then I’m hearing in hindsight from some of them shit, I should have come and worked with you because now I really can’t afford to because of the divorce costs because of how much I’m paying out in alimony and support for the kids.
And now I have to buy another home and all of these things cost so much money then they have less time with their family, less time with your kids. That I really am curious to know if you are saying that you don’t have the time right now, or you don’t have the finances, how much time will you be able to see your kids if you get divorced? How much money will you have if you get divorced? Where do you want to invest your time and your money? Do you wanna invest it now on getting yourself back, getting your relationship back, getting your family back, or do you wanna invest it on costs of a divorce? If you don’t start taking action now, where will your relationship be in one year? If you continue to be short at home and disengaged, what about five years from now? And what will you be teaching your kids? Think about that.
If you don’t put the time and the money into decreasing your burnout, reversing your burnout, getting the anger, the anxiety, the short fuse gone and your kids are constantly seeing that version of you at home. What will you be teaching them? What are they gonna learn as they’re growing up? Here is where many first responders do get stuck. Being a first responder often your instinct is to put everyone else’s needs above your own. And over time you feel selfish putting your needs first. We’ve already looked at it from some angles, but let’s look at it from another.
You’re on a call again, with that couple arguing, you learn that one of them is working two jobs. Trying to make ends meet and is barely sleeping. Their partner is doing all of the things with the kids at home and while working themselves and is just as exhausted and spent. Would you consider either of them to be selfish if they made themselves a bit of more of a priority to make the changes necessary to teach them how to handle their stress? Even if making themselves a priority meant that they were bringing in a bit less money per month into the home. They were doing less overtime. What if they had to go to appointments or stop doing something in order to do something for themselves in order to not have the police called for domestic? In order to have a healthier, happier home.
I really can’t think of one paramedic, police officer, firefighter, corrections officer, that I know of who would not be proud of the person who made changes for the betterment of their life and their family. Can you? What if it was one of your colleagues and they were taking a few less OT shifts and working on themselves? Would you think that they were being selfish? Then why is it selfish for you to say no to an OT shift and to also pay money to a professional who can give you the tools to help you be a better parent and partner?
When is the last time that you put your needs higher on your priority list in order to make sure that the job changes you for the better? You do not have to become one of the statistics. You have control over how the job changes you. This is a harsh reality, but one that we need to face head on in order to squash it. And if you are listening and you are divorced because of how the job changed, you know that your kids are still watching you. They see what you are doing and not doing. It’s not too late to start putting in the work to get yourself back to being the role model that you want to be for them.
Is taking care of your shit and setting an example for your kids of how to handle life when it gets tough, selfish? No, it’s not. It’s time that first responders start taking note of what is happening in their home seriously. And start making the changes necessarily to not only decrease divorce rates, but also increase the strength of the first responder community. It’s time to take back control of how the long hours, shifts, and stressors of the job affect you and your family.
There’s so many ways to do this. I’m not the only one who works with first responders. Find somebody that you can relate to and has a success rate with first responders. You can beat the statistics. I’ve done it with my own marriage. And so many of the responders I’ve worked with have as well. It’s time for you to take action today. Your family is eagerly waiting to get their parent and partner back.