In law enforcement, the phrase “choir practice” is attributed to the need for a libation after work. Although I’ve been told the phrase comes from the Joseph Wambaugh book The Choir Boys, I’m guessing the tradition got its name because it would be the only time you could get some of these guys to talk, or “sing,” as they would say about their suspects when they got them to confess. Granted, with the advent of karaoke, I’m guessing there may be some real singing going on in some of these places — I didn’t say it’s good singing, but you never know what hidden talent rests beneath the vest.
For generations of cops, suppressing our emotions and feelings has been a badge of honor, a survival technique and an expectation of the career, unless of course you’d been drinking. Then you could spew out the pain, grief or anger, cry, scream, punch something or someone, and blame the alcohol for the behavior. But far too many of us have died of the effects of alcohol. We have died while driving drunk, we have died by making impulsive and desperate decisions about ending our lives, or we have killed our marriages, destroyed our intact families and bludgeoned our livers as a result of the long-term consequences of its impact. Because along with the generational history of suppressing emotions comes the legacy of using alcohol to release the pain and suppressing the truth about its use.
There is no mistaking the personal history that follows many of us. Being raised in dysfunctional, abusive, alcoholic or drug-addicted environments is a breeding ground for cops. Our ability to know inherently how to handle a crisis, chaos or unpredictable behavior is a hallmark of our skill set — and an unfortunate heritage. Some of us will grow up knowing that we want anything except what we grew up with and will steer as far away as possible from the feeling of being out of control under the influence of drugs or alcohol. But others may be saddled with the same gene as our parents or forefathers and be predisposed to addiction. The buzz of having two or three drinks at a barbecue isn’t enough to satisfy the desire, so we will be compelled to have six or 10 more, and that will be a hallmark of future behavior.
We all know a colleague who takes the drinking too far every time there is a get-together, or shows up with a case of beer to ensure there will be plenty of alcohol available. Most of us are aware when we have had too much to drink, usually about the time our minds get swimmy and our tongues get loose. If not then, definitely the next morning when we wake up so hung over, we can’t make it to work … or in a pool of something unrecognizable … or in someone else’s bed.
When we’re young, we think these are just stories to tell, but it’s no better than describing the symptoms of a patient who is about to die. The signs may not kill them immediately, but the fact that they will die prematurely, or accidentally, because we ignore the indications of a problem is not a sign of support or friendship.
I realize this topic can be a total buzzkill (no pun intended), and I’m not trying to be the morality police, but when we stand by without expressing our concern for a friend or co-worker, we are complicit.
It’s just as easy for us to become addicted to painkillers or prescription drugs these days as to alcohol. Even if we don’t struggle with an addictive personality, medication is tragically easy to come by, and take, to make the “pain” go away — and it can easily turn to abuse. Make no mistake, emotional pain is just as real as physical pain, and, as with a bodily injury, it is best to find out what’s wounded instead of masking the pain with a prescription or a drink. We may see the early warning signs in our own behavior, but if we excuse it or justify it, we may begin to hear it from loved ones concerned about our use or behavior.
Pay attention. The first time someone says they’re worried about your alcohol or substance use, listen. They may not be right, but if they’re concerned, it would serve you well to have the decency and self-respect to consider their comment.
But, if you’ve begun the downhill slide of using and abusing, someone talking to you may simply be an unwanted reminder of what you know is already a problem with self-medicating, and you may be more likely to get rid of them than the item of your affection and addiction. The booze, pill or whatever is the deceiving lover who tries to make us believe that they hold the key to our happiness. Only when we’ve hurt ourselves or someone else, or lost our jobs, will the deception be clear — and by then, the only thing left to do is begin picking up the pieces of a broken life.
It can feel as if we are crossing a personal boundary by expressing concern to a colleague or partner, but that is an absolute lie. Telling someone we care enough to be concerned is a lifeline we throw to a drowning person; those who want to get help will grab the line as if their lives depend on it, because it may.
Which brings me to the more difficult conversation about suicide. Research indicates that first responders have a greater chance of dying by suicide than in the line of duty. This simple fact should set off alarm bells in the heads of everyone reading this statement. We are years into the reactive approach of caring for first responders after they begin to exhibit signs of trouble. After they’ve been arrested for drunk driving, stumbled through a handful of horrifying or fatal calls, or lost friends, family members or colleagues. After they begin to exhibit symptoms of anxiety, depression, bad attitudes or shoddy work ethic.
It is high time we begin doing something before we show signs of being wounded by our careers. This is the chance all of us are given to wake up and take notice. We serve in a capacity few want, and even fewer can. We are the ones running into situations everyone else is running out of. We are the band of brothers and sisters, the tribe of responders, the contingent of colleagues who need each other. We serve in different capacities; some of us protect and serve, others prepare and prevent, and others rescue and repair, but every single one of us is vital to the world we live in.
Only when we’ve hurt ourselves or someone else, or lost our jobs, will the deception be clear — and by then, the only thing left to do is begin picking up the pieces of a broken life.
Dr. Thomas Joiner, Ph.D., began research into suicide after his father took his own life. Joiner established the interpersonal-psychological theory of suicidal behavior (IPTS). According to Joiner, individuals will not commit suicide unless they have both the desire to die and the ability to do so. His three-part theory asserts that when people hold two specific psychological states in their minds simultaneously, and when they do so for long enough, they can develop the desire for death. Two of those states are perceived burdensomeness and sense of low belongingness or social alienation. Joiner asserts that self-preservation is a powerful enough instinct that few can overcome it by force of will. The few who can have developed a fearlessness of pain, injury and death, which, according to the theory, they acquire through a process of repeated accidental injuries, numerous physical fights, and occupations in which exposure to pain and injury, either directly or vicariously, is common. Joiner is not the only one doing research into why these components affect first responders, and while more work needs to be done, we can take this information and be profoundly aware that we are in the line of fire. We must do everything in our power to, first and foremost, protect our own mental well-being by investing in our own proactive self-care as well as help to protect our colleagues and our loved ones from the tragedy of suicide.
When we see a brother or sister suffering, losing a marriage, struggling with a difficult call, mourning the loss of a friend or colleague, we can help. We don’t have to take the pain away, but we can tell them we care, sit beside them and listen to them process the pain, or offer to help them navigate the Employee Assistance Program or find a good therapist.
When a colleague takes off work, injured or out on stress, we can follow up, call, make a schedule to reach out once a week and have coffee or lunch. Without a doubt, one of the greatest sources of pain I’ve heard from other responders is the sense that if they are out injured because of stress or a physical injury, they disappear from the map — and make no mistake, this is a map that needs to stay intact.
If someone is intent on ending their own lives, we may not be able to stop them, but if they are struggling because they feel alone or lost, having someone call and say, “I care,” may be the very thing that changes their mind.
In closing, I would like to offer two thoughts: Without a doubt, two of the greatest contributors to the depression and despondency that can affect first responders are sleep deprivation and substance abuse. The phrase “the bridge between hope and despair is often a good night’s sleep” is an important one to remember. And if our decision-making is impaired by alcohol or drugs, we are not objective about our situation. Please know you are worth any and every effort it takes to be whole and happy. Entire programs have been created inside your department to help if you are struggling. These programs exist because there are those of us who have gone before you into perilous territory, found ourselves at the bottom of the well and then found our way out again. No matter how dark or painful the situation seems, there is hope and healing available to everyone. Had I not sought help in 2016 for my own despondency and suicidal ideation, this article would not exist, my children would have no mother and you would not be given the opportunity to read these words. I am beyond grateful to have survived, and I promise that, if you hold on, seek help, do the work and fight for your own life, you, too, will be a voice of hope one day.
On the cover of the notebook I used to document my research when I began this program is the word “starfish.” It is a reminder of the story I once heard that kept me going in moments when I wasn’t sure what I was doing would work. A grandfather was walking on the beach with his young grandson. With the tide going down, the sand was strewn with starfish stranded from the waves and water they need to survive. The grandfather would lean over every few moments and pick up a starfish and throw it into the ocean. After several minutes of the grandfather doing this, his grandson finally asked, “Grandpa, why are you doing that?”
“Well,” his grandfather answered, “if I don’t throw them back into the ocean, they will die.”
His grandson, looking across the expanse of sand and seeing all the hundreds of starfish, said, “Grandpa, it doesn’t matter, there are too many of them.”
The grandfather, leaning over to grab yet another starfish and tossing it into the ocean, said, “It matters to this one.”
It matters. You matter. Take care of you.