Who Needs Help More? The First Responder Or The Spouse?

By Safe Call Now Admin Staff

There is one thing we are seeing more and more. We are seeing families suffering at the hands of our military and first responder related PTSD. When one person in the house isn’t well, it impacts the entire household. One of the biggest obstacles for us has been how the spouse or partner of the person suffering with PTSD has become just as unhealthy, if not more so, than the person with PTSD. Another key factor we must address is how much the partner affects the treatment plan with their spouse.

Vanessa Stapleton, of Armor Up WV, travels the country and speaks about the effects of first responder PTSD on the entire family. Vanessa suffered caregiver PTSD, or as some refer to it, secondary PTSD as a result of living with a first responder with PTSD. Untreated PTSD often leads to substance misuse, drinking too much, and can even lead to domestic violence. What is the impact to the family in these situations? The impact on the entire family is devastating.

Recently, when placing first responders in treatment for their PTSD or substance misuse stemming from PTSD, we have had to overcome huge obstacles with the spouses of these first responders. For example, as Vanessa talks about in her trainings, often the spouse of the first responder becomes so consumed with trying to help the spouse that they can’t function without that purpose. They spend their days making life easier for their partner so their partner doesn’t have triggers, planning all activities and outings around the spouses moods, and handling all things in the household including the children so as not to stress the spouse with PTSD.

The spouses are unknowingly becoming addicted to handling everything for their spouse and even addicted to fixing the spouse. When we are ready to move the first responder somewhere to get the help they need, the spouse will often panic. All they have known for so long is being the caregiver and the thought of the spouse being away from them is too much.

Let me share a few examples of this. We placed a first responder in an excellent first responder treatment program. His plane ticket was purchased. We arranged for someone to pick him up at the airport. When he arrived, his wife was with him. We had spoken to her multiple times on what to expect, what his treatment would be like, when she could speak to him. Yet, she panicked. She bought a plane ticket and came with him.

She wouldn’t even leave the area where the first responder facility was located. This is the perfect example of how dysfunctional the family unit becomes dealing with PTSD. She could not handle the thought of someone else caring for her husband without her being there because she had been his caretaker for so long. Essentially, she needed help as badly as he did.

We often find these spouses will lie. They have learned to lie to protect their spouse from losing their jobs and protecting their reputation. One of the worst cases we have dealt with was when we placed a first responder for treatment, and his wife called the facility with a horrific story of a death in the family. The facility arranged for an emergency trip home only to find out there was no emergency. It was a lie from a spouse who obviously needed help as badly as badly as her spouse. She couldn’t handle him being away.

This is the invisible problem. It is the problem not getting addressed. We are all so focused on first responder suicide (as we should be) that we are missing the bigger picture of the entire family suffering in silence. As Vanessa speaks on when she trains, what is going on behind closed doors in our first responder families is just as catastrophic as the first responder PTSD rates. Families are not only falling apart, but they are very sick and unhealthy. Unfortunately the family often enables the PTSD by lying and covering it up. That pattern of enabling makes for some very sick spouses who need just as much help as the first responder.

Probably one of the biggest issues we see in these PTSD relationships with the spouse is codependency. Codependency is defined as excessive emotional or psychological reliance on a partner, typically one who requires support on account of an illness (PTSD) or addiction. What we find is that the person with PTSD is codependent for sure. They need that spouse to cover up their struggle to the public, and to make life easier for them (which is actually enabling). The invisible problem is the spouse is often just as codependent on their partner’s need of them. They need their partner to stay sick with PTSD because somewhere along the line they got attached to their partner needing them… even if it is in a completely unhealthy way.

When their spouse goes to get help, they often fall apart. How do we help with this? First, education. People like Vanessa Stapleton, bringing awareness to the unhealthy dynamics of the first responder PTSD family. Second, treatment. What does treatment look like for these families? Well, the families who choose to take help need to address not just the first responder and the PTSD, but address the family dysfunction as well. The spouse needs counseling and help sorting out the unhealthy behaviors picked up during the time the family was living in dysfunction. The couple will need counseling together as well as independently. They need to learn to be healthy individually and as a couple. They need someone to walk them through this process.

If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:

Safe Call Now:  24 Hour Confidential Hotline:  206-459-3020

For more information on the First Responders program:  Click here

Or call Shannon Clairemont at 661-466-6352 or Vanessa Stapleton at 304-651-3008