Most of you only know me as the BossBabe at The ZigZag Stripe, but back in March of 2001, I became the wife to a brand-spankin' new firefighter. I married my high school sweetheart at the ripe young age of 18 years old. Joel and I had no idea what our life together would be like. Many people assumed we were getting married because they thought I was pregnant. Nope, wasn't the case, sometimes people get married because they just love each other. We were young, dumb, broke, but in love! Joel started the fire department at 19 years old; we were 18 and 21 when we married. Nobody prepared me for what it would be like to be the wife of a firefighter. Six months after we were married, 9/11 happened, and I sat on the floor in tears watching 343 firefighters fall to their death because that's just what they do. They are always the ones running into the building when everyone else is running out. That day of 9/11, Joel was at the fire station. It was one of those moments that I stopped and said, "Oh shit, he's really one of those heroes that people talk about."
As our marriage went on, about 4 years later, we started to grow our family. Quickly too. With several miscarriages and the struggle to stay pregnant, we were able to add three sons to our family in a mere 4 years. Cade is our oldest, who is now nearly 16. Then we have Nash, our middle son, and Reid is the baby. Nobody ever told me how much it would affect our lives, with Joel being a firefighter. We had numerous holidays with him gone to the station because you know, they work 24 hours on, 48 hours off. You don't get to pick your schedule; that schedule is made for you when you sign up for that profession. There were many holidays I cried not having my husband there with our children, lots of school events he had to miss, lots of "firsts" he wasn't a part of because he was gone serving and saving someone else's family. Our kids have grown up knowing that dad is gone every 3rd day. We've spent thanksgivings and Christmas' at the station eating huge meals, but when those tones go off, out the door they go to then return to cold meals.
Needless to say, though, I've always been so proud of him. He always put 110% into his career. Through the years, though, he changed. He became colder, less compassionate when it came to the kids and me. Most of the time, I didn't dwell on it; I just figured it was part of the life of being married to a firefighter, right? In the last 6 years, Joel has been part of the squad -- which means all he saw was literally death every day he was on shift. These are the guys that show up and handle all the really bad things ... heart attacks, suicides, major car accidents, you name it. What Joel has seen in 6 years is more than what most see in their careers in the fire service. If one of us, a normal everyday person, experienced just one of these instances, we'd be rocked to our core for life. So how do they deal with this?
In the fall of 2019, one of the members of Joel's crew passed away. It was unexpected and really shook them all up pretty bad. I mean, his crew is his second family. He spends nearly as much time with them as he does his family at home. This was the first time I'd attended the funeral of a firefighter, and I want it to be the last. Talk about a brotherhood. I really think that was the moment that I realized that I also had another family. To see how the guys (and gals) of the fire department stood with Brent's family was absolutely remarkable. It was the most gut-wrenching funeral I've ever attended. Have you ever been in a building with hundreds of grown men sobbing? Talk about ugly crying; all the wives worked hard to keep it together and support our husbands, man, that was hard. As days passed, though, the guys just had to go back to work. Back at the station where they would all be together, just minus one. How in the world did they do that? It's because they have this mechanism inside them to just bury it deep inside them and keep going.
At this same time of fall/winter 2019, Joel's mom was suffering from the end stages of Alzheimer's. For several years we had been watching her dwindle away and not recognize any of us. In December of last year, we lost his mom to that awful disease. I wouldn't wish that upon my darkest enemy. But, during this time, Joel had not really "dealt" with the passing of his mom. I really think he saw her as another "patient" like he would see at work and just buried it in his box of shit and moved on. I don't think I ever really saw him grieve her.
In January of 2020, Joel was out on workers comp due to a shoulder injury at work and had surgery. We knew he was going to be out for a while, and we had talked about him retiring and that this would give us a little insight into if he was ready for that. As the weeks/months went on, he was having some flashbacks of calls he had gone on throughout his career and had severe anxiety with it. To the point that he was concerned. He reached out to some guys at work that put him in touch with a group that handles these situations with other firefighters, police, etc. What we found out is that he was suffering from PTSD. What the what?! I was shocked. Really, PTSD? I mean, yeah, I'd noticed a difference in him, but I just thought it was "part of it." He would yell at the kids for no reason, we would argue over the stupidest things; we were just disconnected more than I had ever wanted to be. I wish I would have known what to look for sooner.
Joel went through months of therapy and medications to learn how to deal with what he was experiencing. What an eye-opener. I started to see the man that I had known 20 years ago. One that loved life would laugh and joke, spend time with the boys and love me as he used to.
As he finished up his treatments, he had decided that it was time. Time to turn in his badge and retire from the fire department. As of this coming November 1st, he will officially be a retiree. I didn't realize how excited I would be. The idea of knowing that he will be home with us EVERY. SINGLE. DAY. He won't miss any holidays, birthdays, special programs at school ... you name it. What a breath of fresh air!
I'm also excited to say that he is now be transitioning into FULL TIME at The ZigZag Stripe. My partner in crime, here to deal with all the crap I don't want to do! HAHA! Talk about fun. We are moving into the next phase of our life to really make something out of this "little business" we started 7 years ago. And can I tell you how happy our boys are? They are doing things with their dad they've never done before, and it warms my heart. After all that we've been through together in nearly 20 years of marriage, I love that man more now than ever before. I can't wait to see what the rest of our life together looks like ... I at least know that he's with me every day now, and I love it.
I've pasted below the retirement letter Joel wrote to send to the fire department. If you or anyone you know is in EMS or military, know that PTSD is a real thing, and don't be afraid to talk about it. Because if talking about it can help just one person, then it's worth it. Feel free to share this as well!