by Emily Arguss
We need to start doing better. We need to learn how to support one another instead of tearing each other down. In a world where the only way out is through, it’s important to back up our brothers and sisters instead of pushing them out of the way to reach the top.
My name is Emily Agruss. I am a former military and fire wife. On September 9, 2016, my husband, Joshua Agruss, passed away following a fatal relapse of his addiction to prescription pain medication. Josh experienced a lot of trauma in his 33 years of life – much of it related to his time serving our country in Iraq and working as a firefighter and paramedic. The cultural norms of our society are currently placing a mostly negative stigma on the heroes of our nation not to seek help when they are struggling. As a direct result of this, my husband suffered in silence with symptoms of severe post-traumatic stress for many years. He never felt safe enough to ask for help. He lived in constant fear of being determined unfit for duty, being harassed for not being able to “suck it up” and from losing his job and the ability to help others – the one thing that got him out of bed each morning. This mentality is what is destroying the lives of countless individuals. It’s what is leaving thousands of spouses and children without a husband/wife and father/mother.
I met Josh in July of 2011. I was fresh out of graduate school while he was completing paramedic school. Our first date lasted around four hours and only ended when we realized that the restaurant was closed and we were the only patrons left. From that day forward, we knew that we were meant to be in each other’s lives. Josh always used to say that he fell in love with me that first day. That is a memory I will treasure forever. He finished school and got a job as a firefighter/paramedic, and we moved to a new town to start our life together. Eventually, we built a house, got engaged and in September 2015 we married.
From the outside, everything looked normal. We had a great life, good friends, and a beautiful home. Throughout all of this, however, Josh was fighting constant internal battles that he struggled to keep others from seeing. I could tell that he had unresolved problems from his past, but he never wanted to unload them. He preferred to suffer in silence so as not to burden anyone else. Not knowing any better, I followed his lead and ignored the signs too. I guess I always secretly hoped that over time everything would be okay.
In May of 2015, I witnessed as he experienced a flashback event. I tried my best to ground him, to remind him of where he was and that I was there with and for him. He ran off and away from our group, and he went missing for a few hours. At the time, it was one of the most challenging and painful things I had ever seen. I cannot begin to imagine how it felt for him. The next day he joked about it but refused to talk it over. We never spoke of it again.
In December of 2015, Josh did the bravest thing I have ever seen, he asked for help. He admitted to himself that he was not going to be able to beat his addiction on his own and reached out. During the five years that I knew him, Josh had asked for help a few times from various outlets but was frequently brushed off or only given the phone number for an employee assistance program. Each time he asked for help only to be disregarded sent him spiraling into a state of depression.
Knowing what I know now, I can correlate all of these times with a period when he seemed particularly distressed. This time, however, somebody finally took the time to listen. He was referred to an inpatient treatment program designed specifically for first responders and military veterans. It was the first time that he felt hope for his future and for taming the beasts fighting within his mind.
Joshua made it through treatment and left the facility with a renewed hope for a positive future. I saw a new man, someone who was comfortable in his skin and confident in his ability to keep fighting for his sobriety. His journey would not be easy, however, as we encountered just about every setback imaginable. Within a week of leaving the treatment center, Josh had to resign from the fire department because he was arrested on felony charges for alleged theft from a hospital where he was once employed.
Somehow, he found the strength to keep fighting. Josh continued with outpatient treatment and enrolled in school to earn an Associate’s Degree. He found employment, and we tried to keep living as normally as possible despite the monthly court dates and constant scrutiny from outsiders. Just when things started to look up – we were selling our house and moving closer to a good job that he started – the military began to give Josh trouble regarding his upcoming discharge. He was arrested again for felony charges from a different hospital that he hadn’t worked for in two years.
That was the lowest point that I saw him in the five years that I had known him. He lost all hope for his and our future. He could not see a way out of any of this. Thankfully, the military issue was resolved. I did my best to fight for him and keep his spirits up about the future, but he was in a dangerous mental place. His best release was fishing, so he spent a lot of time doing that. Unfortunately, the life stress and continued post-traumatic disturbances were too much, and he relapsed. The relapse proved to be fatal.
Since Joshua’s death, I have met some widows and widowers. I have encountered too many wives who have
lost their husbands to PTS (post-traumatic stress) because they were too afraid to acknowledge what was happening inside of them. The mental anguish feels insurmountable, and they often turn to medication and alcohol – anything to minimize or numb the pain.
As a nation, we need to come together and start talking about mental health issues. We need to embrace our warriors who dedicate their time to fighting for and saving others. It needs to be okay to admit that we are not always okay. These changes need to happen. For the sake of all of our nation’s heroes, let us open our minds and our hearts to providing the compassion necessary to keep them fighting another day.
About the Author: Emily Agruss is a certified athletic trainer for Advocate Medical Group in Batavia, IL. She is an advocate for better mental health care for military veterans and first responders. When not working, she spends her time working on her journey through grief and enjoys being outdoors where she can best connect with her late husband.