The Ripple Effect of First Responder Stress – Anger in Relationships


by Veronique Moseley

Please read the whole post. Often relationship issues are discussed by one partner only, this is from BOTH Ross Beckley and I reflecting on the tough times. We suggest you watch the two-minute film clip we created a few years ago, then read the story.

Keep in mind that when we made the clip it was a pivotal time in Ross’s recovery. He was somewhere between denial, and acceptance of his post traumatic stress disorder. He had some incredibly insightful moments during this period.

Before we begin, we just need to say one more thing. To create the film clip is one thing. To share the story behind it is another. Here we are, almost 3 years later and life is very different. Why bring up the past? Especially when talking about it risks judgement?

Some will judge me as being too weak and putting up with crap for too long. Some will judge Ross for being cruel or selfish. But as a couple, we decided today that we are willing to take that risk because that FEAR of judgement is exactly the reason a lot of those suffering do not speak out.

Behind The Seen is about breaking down barriers and opening the door to honest conversations amongst first responders and their families. We’re breaking the silence with our own story in the hope that others going through tough times may also be inspired to put their hand up and get help. Whether you are a first responder who feels angry a lot of the time, or a partner walking on eggshells – please speak out.

VERONIQUE’S STORY

Veronique Moseley
Veronique Moseley

Shortly after we created the eggshells clip, Ross disappeared yet again. Just before Christmas, I came home to find him gone. No arguments, no note, no text, no explanation. Just …gone. He did not reappear as expected on Christmas day. I could not, for the life of me, make sense of his intermittent belief that I was the enemy – and that was the hardest part – there was simply no logical explanation. In my mind, I had tried everything to make this relationship work. I took Christmas day one hour at a time, hoping he would turn up. He did not. I spent lunchtime with dear friends who tried their best to cheer me up. But I was devastated and I was worn out.

I had walked on eggshells for over two years. PTSD involves unpredictable episodes so life could be wonderfully peaceful and loving for a few days – sometimes weeks – and then with the flick of an unseen switch, sink into a hell hole, as the man I loved suddenly and inexplicably viewed – and treated – me as the enemy. During those periods his behaviours included uncontrollable rage, verbal abuse, emotional blackmail, emotional distancing and frequent unpredictable abandonment of family and business commitments.

I made excuses for him – after all, he was so stressed, his responsibilities to the fire brigade were huge, politics at the station were at an all time high, and he was trying to seek help. By nature, I am a rescuer. I found every bit of information I could about PTSD to try to help him come back to his old self. I was convinced I would find the solution that would “fix” him. The intermittent times when things were calm and loving supported my notion that putting up with the bad would eventually lead to good.

Isn’t that what you do when you love someone? Support them? The answer is yes. But I went where a lot of partners go – I extended that support to the point where it harmed ME. I sacrificed my wellbeing and my sense of self for the sake of his. And ironically, this does not work.

I was “enabling”. And by enabling I was perpetuating the destructive relationship behaviours. I had viewed Ross as a “victim” because of the PTSD. I thought that as his partner I could (and should) “fix” him. The more my emotions became confused by his irrational behaviours, the more I focussed on his issues.

I’d totally forgotten that old quote: “you can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink”. Ross’s recovery was not my responsibility. It had to be his responsibility, his motivation, his actions. And I had to recognise my responsibilities – to support him, I needed to be strong. To be strong, I needed to work on ME. That started with setting very clear boundaries when it came to relationship behaviours. Then I had to find ways to focus on self. My life had consisted of attempted rescue for over two years – trying to rescue Ross, trying to rescue the photography business, trying to rescue our finances, trying to rescue our reputation as a personal and business relationship.

This was Ross’s fire, and he had to work towards putting it out. And I had to let him. To let him, was to let go. In the same way that all of us first responder partners watch them go out the door to unknown dangers, confident that they will manage and come home safely. This was really not that different – provide all the support we can muster when they get home – but don’t interfere with the job. The job, in this instance, was Ross’s own wellbeing. I finally realized I had to leave it to him to work out.

It takes a leap of faith – but all of us first responder partners are quite used to that – we take that leap of faith every day when they go out on the job.

In January of 2012, Ross finally met the counsellor that was to successfully guide him through the recovery process. Anger management was one of many skills he learnt.

We rebuilt the relationship. PTSD lives with our family, that is inevitable. But it no longer controls our relationship. Managing PTSD is a family affair. We are clear on boundaries. Ross monitors his own stress levels. He speaks out when things feel tense, or when something has triggered him.

  • I learnt that you cannot rationalize that which is irrational.
  • I learnt that you can support but NOT fix someone else’s mental health problems
  • I learnt that relationships need clear boundaries
  • I learnt that I had enabled rather than supported
  • I learnt to maintain my sense of self regardless of circumstance
  • I learnt that sometimes to show love – is to let go

ROSS’S STORY
Unlike a lot of other forms of psychological disorders, PTSD involves traumatic incidents that continue to replay and invade your reality.

Why did my behaviours change towards someone I loved? In hindsight, my personal reality of past incidents played havoc with my mental health 24 hours a day. Flashbacks, nightmares, lack of sleep, avoidance of certain roads for fear of triggers – all this was part of my day, EVERY day and night. This was my personal reality. Chaos. Anger. Frustration. All the emotions that belonged to the traumas I had attended re-playing in my mind like a movie set to repeat.

As first responders we are all trained to “switch off “ from the emotional side of tragedy. At some point (as I know now), things need to be processed. I processed nothing. I thought I was bulletproof. After years of being switched off, those emotions found their own “on” switch at unpredictable times. At those times, dealing with the real world just became too hard.

I was on high alert 24 hours a day, not only at work but also at home. My fuse was lit constantly – often all it would take was a wrong look or a sentence said the wrong way. The smallest things would set me off. My moods would continue for hours, sometimes days.

In my world, at the time, it was not me who had a problem – it was everyone around me. I know some of you will wonder how it felt to be irrational. The thing is, it all seemed perfectly rational to me at the time. Through the fog of emotions I was experiencing, I thought I just happened to have a lot of people round me who were making my life miserable. And I wanted them to stop making me feel that way.

I also couldn’t fit any more emotion into my life. A relationship means emotion. A good relationship means honesty around expressing emotions. Are you kidding me? Why would I want to talk about all this stuff in my head and open more wounds? Do you realize how much it HURTS? How hard it is to put the lid on all this ANGER? Do you know how many times I’ve tried to explain how it feels to professionals who just don’t get it? I was better off in places where I felt nothing. That would keep the lid on tight. It was easier to ignore that I had a problem. It was everyone else in my life that was a problem. It was THEY who pushed my buttons, threatened to undo that tight lid. I felt like I was in survival mode.

I left Ronnie shortly after this film clip was made. Don’t ask me to explain more than what I already have. I probably don’t have the answers. All I can say is this –the moment I started to CONSIDER that perhaps it was ME who had some issues, and the moment I found the right counsellor who helped me work on those issues – my life changed.

It isn’t easy to look at your own behaviours, especially as a male in emergency services. We’re tough. I forgot to allow myself to be human. I didn’t want to appear weak by admitting I wasn’t coping. I didn’t want to be judged. That fear of being judged, being looked upon as a fruit loop or being thrown out of the job – none of those fears came to fruition. Once I PUT MY HAND UP and accepted I needed help, all the love and support around me that had always been there SUDDENLY WAS my reality.

I learnt a lot, too much to write here, hence our Behind The Seen sessions. In terms of relationships, I learnt:

• To work out where my anger is coming from and to direct that energy to something productive rather than destructive
• To listen to my partner when a comment is made about my behaviour such as “you don’t seem okay today”
• Relationships are never perfect. They take a lot of work from both partners. But it’s worth it.
• No one is responsible for ME. I am responsible for me.
• Always put your hand up for help.

That perception of “weakness” when you ask for help is old school. Check out the Behind The Seen Facebook page. EVERY person that puts their hand up is not only supported, but applauded for having the strength to speak out. You’re human. Humans need each other. Reach out.

Are you causing your family to walk on eggshells?
Are you walking on eggshells?
Move Forward. Speak Out. Get Help.

About the Author: Veronique Moseley has 20 years of experience as an AASW accredited social worker, and as Ross’s partner spent many years photographing and interviewing crews at incidents to promote them to media and the community. This gave her a unique dual insight as an emergency services partner and as an observer of what actually happens among crew before, during and after  incidents.

Ross Beckley has 20 years of front line emergency service experience including training new recruits. He has received two meritorious service awards and a State Medal for Emergency and Recovery Response. He knows first hand what effects traumatic incidents can have, especially when cumulative. His honest discussions of what can happen when early warning signs of incident stress are ignored led to the launch of Behind The Seen, presentations specifically aimed at emergency services workers and their families. Read his article, You Don’t Know Me,  about surviving PTSD.