Mental effects of being a first responder spouse
By Colette Benoit
By Colette Benoit
May 3, 2021 – I woke to what I thought was a doorbell. Glancing at my my clock, I realized it was midnight and it must have been a dream. Who would ring my doorbell at midnight? My husband was working night shifts, my son sleeping in the next room and my dog curled up under the covers fast asleep. I rolled over to go back to sleep, when I heard it again. My heart started pounding, I started sweating and felt like I couldn’t breathe.
I remember thinking if I just ignore it, it would go away. I lay still as another ring sounded. I finally found the courage to roll out of bed and slowly headed toward the door. The house lived in at the time had a ledge where you could look over outside my room and you could see the front door. Our front door had a long vertical window beside it, the blinds half up. I hesitated to look and overthinking the dialogue repeated in my head, “please don’t be black boots, please don’t be black boots.” When I finally looked, I saw sandals and immediately drew a breath of relief.
One month prior, Cst. Dan Woodall was fatally injured in the line of duty while attempting to arrest a suspect for a hate crime complaint. I remember that day like it was yesterday. When we received the news as to what had happened, I felt angry, sad, scared and anxious. My heart was broken for his family and friends. I remember going to do a load of laundry and broke down crying. Embarrassed and ashamed, I hid it from my husband because I had never even met Cst. Woodall.
Eight years prior, in 2007, my husband was involved in an officer shooting. Fortunately, he was not physically injured but we had never (individually or as a couple) really dealt with the emotions that came with that incident. At that point it became real to me that, eight years ago, this could have been me. I could have been the one losing my spouse, my best friend and could have had to raise my boy myself. My heart ached for this family and the tears continued to flood for days. Mixed emotions of sadness and relief all at the same time. And, although I didn’t know Cst. Woodall or his family personally, they were our family in blue and I empathized.
You see, when you become part of the family in blue it doesn’t matter that you may not know each and every person in the service, what matters is that we know we have each other. There’s a bond that forms amongst members and amongst spouses and it is hard for those not in this family to truly know what it is like.
You may still be wondering about why I was so relieved to see sandals. Well, because I knew if I looked over that railing and saw black boots, it wasn’t going to be good news and, with my husband working patrol that night and with this incident being so close to the death of a fellow officer, my mind immediately went to the worse possible scenario. I opened the door to see my smiling neighbor saying, “I am so sorry to wake you but you left your garage door open and there was no button to close it. I just wanted to let you know.”
We know the job can be physically, emotionally and mentally exhausting on our spouses with everyday shift work, demands of the job and political stress. As spouses, we too are affected by this job mentally, emotionally and physically.
From drying the tears of our children who are scared for their mom or dads to go to work, to having to explain to our kids why the family vacation got cancelled last minute. From the birthdays and holidays that we experience alone, to the cold dinner plates that get wrapped and put in the fridge because they are now working late. From the mandatory Court appearances on their days off, to the overtime to finish a file because criminals don’t go home at the end of a shift.From the physical exhaustion you see in your spouse when they get home and tell you that they just chased a man for hours who assaulted an elderly woman to watching the emotions flood from your spouse as he tells you that he just watched a woman jump off the high-level bridge to her death, and if only he had been a few seconds faster maybe, just maybe he could have stopped her. But, we persist.
As a spouse, I give him a kiss, tell him to have a good shift and to be safe. However, as he walks out the door, I would be lying if I said that the thought that he might not come home doesn’t cross my mind.
This year will mark thirteen years since my husband had to shoot someone to save his life, this year marks five years since the death of Cst. Woodall and my doorbell incident but the lasting emotional and mental effects of these experiences are still as real to me today as they were then.
Colette Benoit is the founder of Benoit Wellness Consulting: Frontline Resiliency Project in Edmonton, which aims to provide education, tools and guidance to support frontline workers and their families to help meet their emotional and mental health needs through individual and group coaching, events and workshops, and through organizational consulting and program development. You can learn more by visiting benoitwellnessconsulting.com.