The disease . . . and the Cure

By guest author Jonathan Hickory

I glance over at the clock, but my vision is so blurred that I can barely read the time because I’m so drunk.  In less than an hour, I have consumed an entire bottle of wine and I am now working on my second beer.  That familiar feeling, that numbness, is one that I welcome every night.  I can forget about all the pain, all the hurt, all the worries for a while.  When I sober up, I’ll wish I wasn’t such a slave to alcohol.  I’ve tried to quit so many times and I cannot.  Alcohol has me trapped in a timeless prison.  I finally drag myself to bed, unsteady and still feeling a bit sick.  I don’t usually throw up, but I overdid it tonight.  I hope my wife didn’t hear me as I vomited in the toilet.  I am breathing so hard as I lie in bed, I feel like my heart might stop.  Oh well, maybe I won’t ever wake up…and maybe that’s not a bad thing.

The paragraph you just read is a glimpse into my life.  Four years ago, I was drowning my demons in an ocean of alcohol.  I had been an alcoholic for over ten years, and a police officer for twelve.  Alcohol, anger, depression, darkness, and brokenness were destroying me and, worse, my family.  I felt there was no way out, and I had nowhere to turn.

One dark afternoon, the battle for my soul was raging as I seriously considered killing myself for the first time.  And at that moment, I was fortunate enough to recognize the existence of one of the darkest, evil spirits in the room with me.  I shudder to think of that presence, even now.  The ominous, silent, cold presence of eternal death lay in the shadows.  I cried out.  God, help me.  I cannot do it anymore.

As police officers, it is in our very nature to be the one to fix any problem that comes our way.  We can take any situation, handle it, and be home in time for supper—well, most of the time.  We often don’t think twice about the suicide scene with the pooled, sticky blood as thick as paint mixed with molasses, still dripping from the cavernous hole in the victim’s head.  As a coping mechanism in the moment, we may even have a nervous laugh about that piece of brain matter we almost stepped on—that was a close one!

When we get home, when all the action is over, and the next shift has taken over the street, we collapse at the end of the day like a sack of potatoes in zero gravity.  As we grasp the transition back into “normal human” mode, we can’t help but re-process all of those graphic images.  We wonder whatever will become of the suicide victim’s wife and children, and will they ever recover from this?  Why can’t we just shut it out?  Why can’t we just move on with more important things, like what’s new and trending on Netflix?

As tough, seasoned, or strong as you may think yourself to be, you are still a human being.  And as a human being, you cannot turn off the way you were created.  You know these traumatic incidents are taking a toll on your soul and on your ever-hardening heart.  But that’s just the job, and there’s nothing you can do about it, right?  Besides, if you even tried talking to someone about it, they’d laugh at you, or maybe just stare.  “You’re a cop.  Suck it up, tough it out.  You gotta let that stuff roll off your back like water off a duck’s back.”

As much as you try, you can’t ignore how much you hurt inside.  If you continue to try to fix yourself like you do every other problem, you will fail.  And when you do, it’s going to be ugly.  You may not wind up dead, but I guarantee stuff won’t be pretty.  Failed marriages, children’s behavioral problems, substance abuse, and general dysfunction soon follow.  Heroes don’t deserve to live like that.

So, what’s the answer?  How do you treat this sickness inside?  How do you survive?  Turning to the world will only lead to self-destruction and dysfunction. The only place we can turn is to Him who made us; who knows our hearts, our sorrow and struggle.

To learn more about how Jonathan was freed from alcohol and suicidal thinking, check out his book Break Every Chain on Amazon.

If you are struggling with the stress of the job, reach out to us at Call for Backup.  Our team of peer support specialists is ready to help.  Or you can text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.  It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7.  It’s time to call for backup.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jonathan Hickory is a Master Police Officer with the Albemarle County Police in Charlottesville, Virginia.  With over 15 years of police experience, Jonathan is a Field Training Officer, as well as a member of the department’s peer support team.  Jonathan has been married to his wife Stacy for over 14 years and has two children.

We are in a crisis . . .

by guest author Kate

I’m absolutely heartbroken over the loss of a local hero. The pain is far reaching, from family and friends to students and scouts and everyone in between. My heart hurts for all the loss they are sitting in tonight.

Our job is to love and support. It’s sickening the comments being made on social media- If you weren’t there in the trenches with this hero and his family, you don’t get to pass an ounce of judgment or question his choice. Unfortunately, these demons are exceptionally talented at making everything look “normal” to those of us just glancing over someone’s life. The weight is often unseen and immeasurable for the tired soul.

I don’t normally go here online; I’m private about the weight that we carry being a police family…but it doesn’t mean we don’t have daily awareness about the life he chose, the risks involved and the support we give. Growing up as a granddaughter and niece of police officers I knew the risk and the demands of the job. Our respect for them and their blue family was always high. As a wife, the weight of the badge is so much heavier than I imagined.

We have failed our law enforcement. Period. We have been reckless as a community to write them all off and label them the bad guys in every story in every street in every incident the news reports.

Every group of professionals has bad apples- we don’t stop taking our kids to schools or going to doctors or gymnastics or or or…! We have turned on them and then expect the good guys of the bunch to keep going the extra mile and carrying the weight of our protection while being judged and taunted and disrespected at every turn. The roads they travel, the stories they relive, the losses they’ve experienced. The toll it has taken on their body, mind, lifestyle, family and future is one we will never be able to compensate them for.

We wouldn’t expect someone to continue to function in life without treatment and support if they had a broken limb or a gaping wound. Although we don’t see the breaks and wounds of mental health pain it doesn’t mean it’s not there.

I don’t care who you voted for or what your take on law enforcement is. This isn’t a problem we can afford to ignore. These are our neighbors, our friends, our mentors, our coaches, our protectors, our husbands/wives and fathers/mothers. We need to support them and love them and truly see them. The stigma has to be changed. We can’t stay quiet. Who will we call when we need help? If they don’t get help there will be no officers to dispatch.

They see the unspeakable and are never given the opportunity to process and find healing. They’d rather risk their sanity before risking their job by breaking the silence and finding some freedom and peace. They hunt down the bad guys, they flash on their lights and race to the enemy without hesitation, they comfort you, they make the tough calls, they care about their community and their families and their coworkers just like you and I. They deserve better. We can do better.

Our 8-year-old is wise beyond her years. When told about the loss of a hero she was moved to tears and immediately thought of her daddy and how brave he is and wanted to make sure he knew he was loved and cared for. She related it to her school guidance counselor and said “the police bosses need to schedule everyone appointments even if they just talk about what they ate at Chipotle; at least they will learn to feel safe to share with someone. We need to post something on Facebook so this gets fixed and we get to helping all the others and reminding them they can keep going and lean on us!”

She had lots of questions after school about this-

*What staff member first found him?

*Who told his wife?

*Will they take guns away from school resource officers?

*Will they board up his office and never use it?

*Who will be there to talk to the people at school and other officers, like do they have a degree in tragedy? (My sweet girl and her old soul…Degree in tragedy. Wow!)

I asked if people talked about it at school, if that’s why it was on her mind and she said no, “it’s just horrible and doesn’t leave my brain.” Me too sweetheart, me too.

I don’t have the answers. Just a tremendous amount of pain for a hero who ran out of options, a blue family forever changed. And fear for what the landscape of law enforcement will look like in the years ahead if we don’t support them now.

Tonight as my husband heads to work, I’ll remind him for the millionth time today he can talk to me and that we are proud of him and appreciate him and are always here for him. If you have a LEO in your life, please do the same. Give them a safe place. Some hope in a dark world tonight. Maybe when they are in a dark place your support will spark something in them to look again before saying goodbye.

Signed,

A tired, scared, sad LEO wife who is standing behind him as he stands behind a very, very thin blue line.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Kate is your average East Coast girl in her 30’s navigating life as a police wife to a major metro city police officer (her husband has been on the force for 13 years). Supporting and advocating for law enforcement is not new for Kate as she is the granddaughter and niece of retired Baltimore City Police Officers, each serving over 30 years.

Photo credit: The Baltimore Sun

 

 

The Reality of Tragedy and Crisis

Sadly, first responders, especially in some of America’s most populated metropolitan areas, are no strangers to tragedies and crisis events.  These events may include individual or mass violence, medical emergencies, challenges to law and order, large-scale disasters that are natural or human induced, terrorism, and even warfare.  Communities may experience emergencies that result in either 1) physical destruction, or 2) injury to, and/or loss of, human life.  Of course, emergencies may involve both defining characteristics.  They may serve to challenge, but do not exceed local emergency response capabilities (e.g., fire, emergency medical services, or law enforcement).  Communities may also experience larger scale disasters, differentiated from emergencies largely by the magnitude of their impact; and typically, may be thought of as events that result in a high magnitude of either physical destruction, and/or injury to, and/or loss of, human life.  Disasters cause disruption to social cohesion or community function, and by definition, exceed local emergency response capabilities.

A complete and effective response to emergencies or disasters must include some type of mental health component.  It has been estimated that about 60% of men and 50% of women experience at least one trauma in their lives, according to the National PTSD Center.  Women are more likely to experience sexual assault and child sexual abuse.  Men are more likely to experience accidents, physical assault, combat, disaster, or to witness death or injury.  Of course, in the various professions of first responders, exposure to these types of traumatic incidents are certainly not gender-specific, and the percentage of individuals in those professions who are exposed to a traumatic event is well over the 50-60% national average.

Here is one point that must be made at the onset:  Exposure to a traumatic event does not mean that one must develop PTSD.  Acute reactions to traumatic stress are absolutely normal, but the fact is that even among combat veterans, and even among those living closest to Ground Zero on September 11, 2001, the number who can be officially diagnosed as having PTSD is perhaps as low as 12-15%.  That does not mean, however, that individuals exposed to trauma are not at risk for suffering from symptoms of post-traumatic stress.

One of the reasons our #CallForBackup program exists is to explain the normal reactions that we have to both chronic and traumatic stress, and to provide some words of advice, encouragement, aid in the recovery of anyone recently exposed to a crisis event, and to offer some tips on building resilience in preparation for some future, as yet unforeseen event.

Please feel free to contact us with any questions you may have, whether you are struggling with the stresses of the job, or want to find out about bringing any of our training programs to your area.  If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK, or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.  It’s free, confidential, and available 24/7.

It’s time to call for backup.

“It’s Just Stress”

I often say that these 2 words should never be used together in the same sentence: “just stress.”  Every major organization of medical and mental health professionals will tell you that the effects of stress can be damaging to both your mind and to your body.  Adrenaline, cortisol, and other stress response hormones certainly serve a useful purpose (like keep us alive when confronted by danger), but they can also do a great deal of harm if we allow ourselves to remain in a state of stress arousal for too long, or if it is happening too often.  According to the American Psychological Association, if our “fight or flight” response gets stuck in the “on” position, that can have serious consequences for our health.

Sudden emotional stresses, whether caused by a major trigger event like a natural disaster or terrorism, or a fight with a spouse or the sudden news of the loss of a loved one, can trigger something as significant as a heart attack.  Even chronic stress is dangerous because of the wear and tear it places on our bodies.  Persistent headaches, high blood pressure, overeating, smoking, excessive alcohol consumption – all of these are signs that we are not doing very well controlling our responses to our daily stresses.  Problems associated with stress often lead to depression, deterioration of personal relationships, and even more significantly, to suicidal thinking.

What can you do to reduce your stress levels or to improve your ability to return to a more healthy range of stress hormones following a period of stress arousal?  The number one antidote for the things that cause us stress, anxiety, and worry is the ability to focus on things that give us positive feelings like happiness, joy, contentment, and enthusiasm.  Other strategies include:

  • Identify what is cause your stress.  Know what is bothering you, and develop a plan for addressing it.
  • Build strong relationships.  Negative experiences in relationships can be a huge source of stress, but relationships with people who lift you up and encourage you can be a tremendous stress buffer.
  • Walk away when you’re angry.  Literally – walk.  Walking is a simple form of exercise that can increase the production of endorphins, the chemicals that act as a “mood booster” to take the place of the chemicals that act as a “mood buster.”
  • Rest your mind.  Stress keeps people awake at night, and your body and mind need at least five to six 90-minute sleep cycles each night to get recharged and ready for the next day.  Cut down on eating and drinking before going to bed, remove electronic devices from your bedroom, make the room completely dark, and go to bed at the same time each night.  These are some of the tips that will help you get better sleep.
  • Get help.  If you are overwhelmed and are feeling “stuck” in a negative pattern, talk to someone you know and trust about how you are feeling.  We always encourage first responders to talk to someone on the peer support team if their department or agency has one.  But seek professional help, if necessary, if you need help identifying situations or behaviors that contribute to your chronic stress and then develop an action plan for changing them.

I would encourage you to send a message to our Call for Backup program if you’d like some help figuring out an action plan.  If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-TALK, or text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.  The service is free, confidential, and available 24/7/365.

It’s never good to stay stuck with “just stress” – it’s time to call for backup.

This Job Will Change You

By Guest Author “The Officer Next Door”

When you are a new police officer you get told many things.  You learn the laws, how to answer calls, what to do in case this happens or that happens.  But one thing they don’t cover enough is the mental health aspect of the job.  Oddly enough, one of the first things I remember being told as a new police officer is, “This job will change you.”

Multiple times over and over I was told that eventually I would look at the world differently and I would change as a person.  They were right.  To be honest, if you didn’t change as a person after becoming a police officer, that would be concerning.  Let me explain.

Once you become a police officer your entire purpose in life is helping people fix their problems.  You respond to situations that are complete and utter chaos.  No one calls the police just to say hello or say thank you.  Furthermore, police officers are called to each and every horrific tragedy that takes place in your community from fatality car accidents, suicides, homicides, sex assaults, child abuse, you name it, they handle it all.  Every.  Single.  Day.

Not every day is horrible.  In fact, every once in a while, things seem to go really well, and no one fights you, hates you, spits on you, or hurls insults at you as you drive down the road.  But then there are “those” days, those days every police officer has that honestly make you question whether the job is really worth doing.  The days you respond to the most horrific scene that makes you sick to your stomach, want to cry, or make you so angry you can’t believe what you are seeing.  Images of dead bodies or abused children that will be forever burned into your mind. But while you are there, you can’t show these emotions.  You can’t cry or shout in anger.  You have to be professional and treat it as a crime scene, or just objects if you will.  This isn’t done out of disrespect to the people hurt or dead, it is done out of self-preservation as a human.

Police officers are human.  They are fathers, sons, mothers, and daughters, just like everyone else.  The emotions they feel while at these crime scenes are real but must be stifled while on-duty.  They must remain professional and appear to be “strong” in order to get the job done or console a witness or victim of a crime.  However, seeing the tragedy and horrific crime scenes take a toll and eventually you change as a person.  You start to think everyone is a potential suspect or a bad person.  You feel like there is only negative in the world.  You become upset more easily or irritable and you aren’t sure why.

Add shift work, long days, and the overall stress of what is called “hyper awareness” during a shift to the mix and you have quite the recipe for changes in a person.  Especially for someone who, before becoming a police officer, didn’t deal with dead bodies and irregular working conditions on a daily basis.

Ultimately, the fact that the people in the profession or in the academy have the foresight to warn you that “this job will change you” is great.  The problem is, they fail to tell you how to deal with the changes in a healthy way.  As I’ve said before, seeing and doing what police officers do on a regular basis is far from normal.  Often times, it is downright awful and tragic.  Those pent-up feelings or emotions have to go somewhere and unfortunately they don’t just fade away with time.

There is a reason that police officers are known for what I call “the big three” – alcohol abuse, divorce, and suicide.  When there is a running joke in your profession that you aren’t a “real cop” until you’ve gone through your first divorce, I think it is safe to say that the issue is an epidemic within the profession.  Unfortunately, due to the type of person it takes to be a police officer, most shrug it off and say, “It’s part of the job.”

So, what’s the solution?  How do we do better?  These are the important questions that need answering.  I would start by saying we need to end the stigma of talking about the negative effects of being a police officer.  Simply telling a recruit, “This job will change you,” isn’t enough.  It is frustrating that police officers are aware of the mental health hazards that come with the job, yet only acknowledge them and don’t take any action on how to manage them.

Reach out.  Talk.  Discuss.  Find hobbies or hang out with friends that are not police officers.  Do ANYTHING but ignore the fact that as police officers, we deal with very difficult things on a daily basis, physically, mentally, and visually.  It would take a toll on anyone, so don’t think you’re immune or weak for admitting the truth.  The job WILL change you. Be prepared, have a plan, and be safe.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The Officer Next Door draws from personal experiences as a police officer with the Dallas Police Department. Over a span of 12 years, he worked in patrol, auto theft, narcotics, and vice. The Officer Next Door’s articles are focused on sharing the police officer’s perspective, giving the reader a firsthand point of view of what police officers experience on-duty and off.  You can read more of his work at www.theofficernextdoor.com.

EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are struggling with the stresses of the job, you can reach a peer support specialist by sending a message to m.me/callforbackup.org/.  If you are in crisis now and need immediate help, text the keyword BADGE to 741741 to be connected to a trained crisis counselor.