Spotlight: Steph Rubel, Fire Captain’s Wife

The Spotlight series highlights individuals in first responder life who have felt an impact, made an impact, and shared an impact with others. We need to share our stories to know we’re not alone and we can do this… together!

Caroline: Welcome to another Spotlight! Today, I’m talking with Steph Rubel, wife of retired fire captain on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. Steph is a clinician for emergency mental health services and received her master’s degree in forensic psychology with a focus on law enforcement and trauma. They have two rescued fur-babies who are a handful, and she loves reading, puzzles, and the beach. She’s also a coach with First Responder Coaching and will be attending some conferences to represent FRC and share her story.

Thanks for joining me, Steph!

Steph: Thank you!

Caroline: Now, you and your husband have been together nine and a half years and he’s retired due to multiple back injuries. In that time, you’ve had lots of experience with first responder life. Today, we’re going to focus on secondary trauma and breaking that mindset of not wanting to reach out for help. Talk about secondary trauma for a moment. What is that and how does it affect families and spouses of first responders?

Steph: I could talk about this all day. Secondary trauma is something that affects the spouse and family. Say your spouse comes home and you can tell that they have had a really hard day. Their trauma or stress and experience is going to affect you in a trickle effect. If they’re irritated or if they start having signs or symptoms of their post-trauma stress you can start picking up on that to where the symptoms are going to start affecting you in the same way.

That might look like avoidance, increase in drinking, isolating can be a really big one, or if you know that your first responder went to a bad car accident or really bad fire or if one of their team members were injured… That can be a secondary trauma. It’s affecting them primarily but you’re also witnessing it too. And what I’ve seen with my secondary trauma with Pete, is that it’s that avoidance. “Oh, he’s having a bad day. I’m not going to step on his toes. I’m going to kind of avoid him so that I don’t increase his stress even more.”

What does that do to you? It’s going to stress you out even more too. And then it can get even more complicated than that. But those are some of the primary examples of what I’ve seen. Your husband or spouse or mom or dad coming home, and they’re affected by their day which is going to affect you.

Caroline: Right, and that’s why it’s called spillover trauma as well, secondary or spillover trauma, because it does that. It spills over to the family members.

Steph: And you get into this cycle where you don’t want to step on their toes. You’re walking on eggshells. That’s going to start affecting you, that secondary or spillover trauma. Then, all of a sudden, weeks, months, years down the road, you’re coming to a head with each other, and they don’t understand because you don’t tell them (because you don’t want to affect them even more) how they’re coming home and how it affects the family. You get into this lack of communication which I’ve seen as really difficult for first responders. They don’t talk about their trauma. They come home and they don’t talk about it.

Caroline: What would be the healthy alternative to that. If you have a spouse or family member who’s bringing home all of those things that they experience and they don’t want to talk about it, what would your advice be to the family member that’s experiencing that?

Steph: Everyone’s different, but there could be a few options. One is getting your own therapist or clinging on to your support system. Sometimes that can be helpful. Other times it’s the family member also talking about it with other people that don’t understand it, right? And then even if you talk about it with another first responder friend, you still don’t [deal with] it. So that can be kind of difficult. So, your own therapist or support groups can be really helpful.

I know that when Pete was going through some of his difficulties, I told him, “You need to go see someone. You need to go see a therapist.” He had never seen one before. I said, “This is affecting you; it’s affecting us… You’ve got to do it even though you don’t want to.” And so, he went through EMDR [Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing] and, from a trauma-based perspective, it was really helpful. I told him, “If you don’t want to talk to me about what’s been going on, that’s fine, but you have to talk to someone.”

Caroline: Please explain for everyone what EMDR is?

Steph: Eye Movement Desensitization processing therapy. It’s a trauma-based therapy that’s supposed to be really helpful for people who have PTSD. What I’ve noticed with EMDR, and it can be super beneficial, is the trauma that is brought up in the therapy is more recent trauma. So, when Pete did it, it was the traumatic events through his job and some of what he’s seen. He didn’t even think about, and it started coming up. If people have complex trauma stemming from childhood, it’s so much more complicated that it doesn’t get solved just with EMDR.

So anyway, I told him again, going back on what would be helpful if you’re not communicating, I said, “If you don’t want to actually tell me, write it down.” I know I do a lot of journaling with even just thoughts, and I just type it up or I just write it down in a journal. He won’t do that. I think it’s a man thing.

Caroline: I does help with the processing.

Steph: One hundred percent. It gets it out of your head on to paper. I’ve told my clients this. If you don’t ever want to read it again, throw it away, but at least it’s down.

Caroline: Yup, that does have an effect. It seems like it’s not doing anything for someone who’s not tried it before, but, yes, writing something down really does get it out of your head. Then, even if you throw it away or burn it or delete the file, you’ve still gotten it down.

Steph: There’s been studies with journaling that even if you don’t go back and reread it, it’s actually proven to be helpful.

Caroline: Yes. So, what do you think is the number one barrier for people wanting to reach out for help? Is it pride, is it fear of judgment, is it not knowing how to reach out for help? What are the obstacles?

Steph: There’s a lot. The stigma is a big one. If you reach out for help, you’re not good at your job. You can’t do it. You’re weak. Right? That has been so ingrained into the first responder world (it’s getting better), but it’s going to take a very long time for first responders really to open up. And it’s trickle-down effect from the chiefs, deputies, whatever. It’s got to come from the top too. I’ve seen it with police departments doing better about increasing mental health services in their EAPs (Employee Assistance programs). A lot of the bigger cities have their own clinicians or their own EAPs within the departments trying to really break down that stigma. “Oh, I just go to whoever it is within my department” instead of picking up the phone and talking to someone you don’t even know.

Caroline: Or searching for someone. There’s a lot of difficulty finding a therapist that’s available now. So, if people are going for the therapy route, there’s a long wait list.

Steph: And someone who specializes in first responders that will get it and understand it. There’s really not that many. So, it’s a whole combination, right? It’s the stigma, it’s the resources that’s available for them, it’s the lack of availability. All that stuff comes into play. I know that with Pete, he did the EMDR with a therapist who wasn’t in the first responder world. But then he had another therapist who was a retired police officer. They were able to have that relationship and comradery. They know what each other had been through without having to say it.

So, kind of going back with the resources, the newer police officers (at least on the Cape), the younger guys are doing a lot better in going to their peer support and saying, “Hey, that was a rough call. I need a day.” They can talk it out. I’ve seen that increase in police departments. For fire departments, there isn’t [the same improvement.] They’re increasing peer support programs for fire departments (not as much on the Cape but in general.) But that stigma is still super high. And fire fighters have that dark humor that no one understands and that’s their way to cope. They make light of a situation sometimes, but the fire fighters that I’ve seen down the Cape still have this persona that they can’t tell anyone what’s going on.

Caroline: The “I’m fine” lie. We see that a lot.

Steph: Yeah, and it’s unfortunate. This is just my thought but, you see on the news that for instance another officer was shot in the line of duty or there’s more talk of police officers having PTSD symptoms and it’s in the limelight and a lot of it is focused on just that. But what you don’t really see is with the fire fighters and what their trauma looks like. We had recently, two years ago, two Boston fire fighters died. It was in the news, but what is that doing for not just the Boston Fire Department but every other fire fighter.

Then you talk about that secondary trauma with families. “That could have been my husband, my wife, my dad…” That’s also where that secondary trauma comes in. I know I’ve experienced it. I’ve talked with other people who have experienced it. “That could’ve been you.” Then you get into all these post-traumatic stress symptoms of hyper vigilance.

Same with occupational cancer right now, especially on the Cape. It’s huge. We’ve had at least five, maybe six, fire fighters within the last eight years who have died of occupational cancer. I’ve talked to Pete about it. He says, “Well, after we would put out a fire, we go around poking stuff and make sure the whole fire is out.” They wouldn’t wear their masks, but they’re still consuming all of those chemicals and all the smoke. The most recent death we had was last year and one of the people that we knew died of occupational brain cancer.

I turned to Pete and since I’d never said this to him, it was kind of an eye opener for him. I said, “That could’ve been you.” And the thought is, “Oh yeah, it’s not going to be me.” But I said, “Pete, we as wives” (or partners or whatever) “that’s what goes through our heads. And we don’t tell you that because we don’t want you to worry about us. We don’t want to increase your stress, but that’s what goes through our heads and you’re not going to know about it until years later. And that scares us.” And he said, “I never knew that. I never even thought about it.” So, we’ve got to start communicating.

Caroline: Yes, you’ve got to use that communication to bring the other to light of what’s going on in your head. They want to dismiss, dismiss, dismiss, until they realize the other person is being affected by it. When they realize that, they say, “Oh, I thought if I just didn’t talk about it, it wasn’t happening at home.” Nope, it’s still happening at home; there’s still things happening. You have to be open about that.

Steph: Right, it’s still there. I think as women we’re generally a little more communicative. I grew up in an Italian family where we talk about it, and it’s done, it’s over. Pete has always been one to not say anything because he doesn’t want me to be disappointed or disappoint anyone else. I think that being a firefighter, it just gets put in a bucket.

So, what happens with first responders, that bucket or boot or whatever you want to describe it as starts filling. And what’s going to happen when it over fills. So, that’s where one of our biggest barriers comes in. If I talk about something even though you’re not mad at the person and you just want to have a conversation about what’s going on, they shut down. It becomes this battle.

Caroline: Yes, true. Talk for a minute about what might be the flip side. What does the other side look like in case anyone reading this says, “Yup, but what can I do about it?” What does the other side look like when you go out and get help either through therapy or coaching and all of a sudden you have better communication?

Steph: From a wife’s perspective, I feel like when that happens, and it can take a long time (Pete and I took a long time for that to happen), but it’s like a huge weight lifts off your shoulders. Whenever you want to figure out a plan for communicating better, whatever works for you does help. It’s not going to make you feel so tense or stressed or make your first responder as stressed. They realize they can talk about it.

I always say go see a therapist or counselor or coach. I get that some families and some spouses and some partners don’t want to know what their first responder does on their job. It is scary; I totally get that. But if your first responder comes home and they want to talk about what happened that day, my recommendation is to let them talk about it. If you don’t let them talk about it, they’re going to shut down and your communication is going to shut down with it.

If you’re having trouble with what your first responder said to you, that’s where your coping skills come in. Write it down, journal, talk to a friend, go to therapy, talk to your coach, whatever it is. You can only control your reaction and how you’re going to respond to what’s going on. If you don’t let your first responder open up to you, it’s not going to be beneficial. It’s going to take so much longer to get to where you want to be. I used to work as a tech in the emergency room. I’ve seen a lot of things too which is where a lot of my trauma and stress comes from. It’s been helpful for Pete and me to tell stories with each other. Again, it’s that mutual understanding.

Caroline: That’s huge.

Steph: Yeah, and if someone hasn’t been in that situation, that’s fine, but that’s where coaching comes in. Say you’re just in sales and you’ve never seen any of that stuff. Talk to your coach or friends who are in coaching and say, “Hey my husband/wife/etc. told me this. I don’t know what to do. How do I help myself get over that?” Secondary trauma, right?

Caroline: Yes! So, you said that you’re also coaching with First Responder Coaching and you’re going to head to some of the conferences. Do you have any that are in the lineup for yourself yet?

Steph: Yes, we went to Jacksonville in January for one of the first responder conferences. It was really eye-opening in a good way. With First Responder Coaching, we definitely noticed some things. They talked about basic post-traumatic symptoms like fight-flight-freeze and so on but what’s behind all of that?

It can get complicated because of the brain and brain chemicals and stuff but what actually goes on in the mind when fight-flight-freeze happen? What are the chemicals of the reaction? Your brain, to go into my psychology here, it starts from your reptilian brain. That’s your basic instinct. Then it starts moving up to your executive function. Which, even if it’s within a few seconds, it’s actually kind of a long time especially if you’re talking about a fight-flight-freeze.

What I think would help first responders (and spouses and families) to understand is what goes through a first responder’s head when a traumatic event happens. What prolonged stress looks like or what brain chemicals actually change in your brain that affects your overall physical body. Stuff like that would be really helpful for people to understand.

So, we did that in January in Jacksonville. The last week in April we’re going out to Indianapolis for a firefighter expo. It’s supposed to be huge, like tens of thousands of people. We’re setting up a booth there. It’s me, Jen, Keith, and a couple others that help make FRC happen. In having conversations with Jen and Keith (a retired firefighter), our hope is that the firefighters or whoever else is connected with that world is able to see that [coaching] is not therapy; it’s how to move you forward. For firefighters, there’s not that many resources or maybe they’re not as open to it. The hope is that us being there will really raise some awareness for them and help them get into coaching. We’re excited. It’s a big event.

Caroline: That’s great. Hopefully, you can start opening some more channels as far as getting more fire departments aware of this particular avenue of coaching. Especially if they’re maybe hesitant on therapy, maybe they’ll think, “Well, coaching sounds different. Maybe I’ll do that.” Guys are often like, “Nah, I don’t want therapy.”

Steph: I don’t know if wives or families would go to that. I hope so because I think that’s important too. With coaching, you hold them accountable. You say, “All right, what’s your plan? You’re the one in control. I’m not going to do it for you.” I feel like for first responders, that can be really helpful. Almost like calling them out but with accountability. They realize they actually have to do something about this.

Coaches are honest with them, because, especially with first responders, they pick up on your bull regardless of who it is. And that’s where you get, “You don’t know what I’m talking about. You’re not a first responder. You’re not within our family.” So, when you have first responder as your coach that gets it and is going to call you out and hold you accountable, they’re going to be honest with you. It helps to move forward and open up more too.

Caroline: Yeah, it’s a big difference when you have a coach or someone that you’re talking to that gets it and knows the world. You tell them something and they’re not shocked. They hear it but they’re still able to intently listen to you. They’re not shocked by the details of what you tell them. They’re still able to pay attention to the person they’re there to listen to. It’s almost eye-opening to some of them and refreshing. They realize they’re not going to shock you or blow your mind. You can still take care of them and hear them. That’s a nice thing for a lot of first responders and their families.

Steph: Yeah, it’s that mutual understanding.

Caroline: Was there anything else that you want to mention today?

Steph: It is not easy being a first responder spouse. I can tell you that. Plain and simple, it’s not. Did I know what I was really getting into when I first met Pete or when we got married? No and on one does. That’s kind of every marriage. But if you start seeing a difference with you or your first responder, nip it in the bud before it gets even worse. Reach out to support even if you think no one is there or no one is going to understand, because we do. Especially as first responders and families doing coaching, we get it.

I tell this to people who have been depressed or anxious or have post-traumatic stress. We haven’t been in your situation before, but the feelings are still there. We feel you. I’ve felt that before. I get it. I like to say, “I see you and I see it.” It sucks sometimes, but talk to me or talk to someone who you think does understand.” The feelings are there.

Caroline: Steph, thank you for doing this interview with me and speaking about secondary or spillover trauma and breaking that stigma. We want to smash the stigma. It’s going to take some time and some generations. This has been built up for probably over one hundred years of “nope, I’m fine, I’m a helper, I don’t need help.” So, breaking down that barrier in our society is going to take a lot of time. I appreciate all that you do in and outside of First Responder Coaching.

Steph: I appreciate it, thank you.

Caroline: Folks, the event at the end of April is the JEMS Conference & Expo. They’re working alongside FDIC International to put on this major event! Watch the FRC Facebook page for event updates or to wish our team the best in getting more first responders involved in coaching!