For those of us in law enforcement, the holiday season can be filled with highs and lows and what might best be described as a fierce pit of internal conflict. On the one hand, we feel a sense of joy and relief because we are still here. We made it! We triumphed over the BS. The horrors of 2022 are in the rearview mirror. We have prevailed through the politics and mandatory overtime, and we get to hit restart on some of our goals, both personal and professional. On the other hand, we may also feel a bit despondent. Depressed. Anxious. We made it (but how long can I keep dealing with the BS?). The horrors are in the rearview (but what horrors lie ahead?). The politics and mandos were almost too much (but how much worse could it get in 2023?).
Have you ever been at a holiday gathering with your family and just as the conversation starts to pivot to the latest episode of The Bachelor or the crazy weather we’re having, you thought to yourself, “Yep, now would be a good time for a callout”? You see, what tends to happen in this line of work is we get good at it. Really good at it. I once had a guy in my office ask me, “Doc, how do you sit here day after day and listen to cops bitch and whine and tell you all their problems?” I replied with my own question, “How do you sit on a house for seven hours looking through a scope ready to take out a suspect at any moment?” He smiled, as did I. We do what we do because we like it, and we’re good at it. This is generally a positive thing, except we tend to avoid what we’re not so great at — which can sometimes be everything else. In this profession, we learn to be good at looking through a scope, and it becomes exhausting talking about The Bachelor (I hope I’m not dating myself, it’s still a show, right?) and a waste of breath to talk about the weather (just look at your damn phone, Aunt Susan, if you care so much). We don’t sit around and talk with our families about the call the other night, where that one guy did that one thing again and officer so-and-so had to deal with it and the cleanup crew was an hour out and now officer so-and-so has a new nickname. You know why we don’t talk about it? Because it’s not normal conversation.
“Normal” people talk about the weather and The Bachelor. “Normal” people will only experience one or two traumatic events (if any at all) throughout their entire lifetime. “Normal” people don’t understand that joking about brain matter and body parts is one way we cope with the things we see and hear so that we can shake it off and go to the next call. So where does that leave us? What do those of us in this line of work do when we are faced with the holidays and it feels overwhelming?
- The job can leave us feeling like an outsider, like no one gets it (or us) and we feel alone. Clinical depression, by definition, means “a state of mental being characterized by persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in one’s life.” Depression can be situational (post-partum, holiday blues) or pervasive and persistent (major depression diagnosis, seasonal depression). Regardless of why you’re feeling depressed, it’s important to actively work against what the depression is telling you what you should or shouldn’t do. I’m not suggesting you talk about brain matter on Christmas Eve, I am suggesting you make an effort to show Aunt Susan how to use the weather app on her phone. No, you don’t have to watch The Bachelor, however, being open to conversations that are not public safety related, though exhausting, can be a good distraction. If nothing else, it’ll help you forget about your own problems for a few minutes.
- The job can leave us feeling dirty, damaged or “too effed up” for holiday parties. The job is not who you are — it’s what you do. You had to roll around with the suspect because he created the exigency. You had to put your subordinate on administrative leave because your commander told you to. You had to watch the video to put the child molester away. What you don’t have to do is miss out on memory making with your family because of all those other things. What would be different if you onboarded a routine or ritual that helped separate work from home? One of the tactics I offer my clients is on your way into work, find an onramp or road where you visualize picking up your backpack. This backpack is your work backpack. It has all the cases, reports, department BS, etc., that you carry while you are your work self. On your way home, find an off ramp where you dump your backpack and don’t need to pick it up until your next shift. When you find yourself at the dinner table on Sunday thinking of what you need to do next Wednesday when you go into the office, remind yourself that the backpack is sitting there ready for you when it’s time to go in, and until then (well, unless the stress is paying rent), it has no business being in your head on your days off. This tactic is a bit trickier if you’re on call, but the concept does still translate.
- Sometimes, we’re wishing for a callout. At work, you are mission oriented. You have a directive, an ops plan and a supervisor telling you what, when and how. Regardless of your assignment, there is some structure to your day. We rely on that structure for career survival — the structure of training, policies and procedures, and chain of command. We feel comfortable and safe in a structured environment because it very literally keeps us alive. It is difficult to maneuver from structured days to unstructured days. If you recognize that part of your anxiety is related to structure (or lack thereof), you can navigate a solution without having to pull another OT shift. Make sure you get in your exercise. Set an agreement with your spouse about how long you are staying at a party. Set up a time to decompress, whether that be golfing, watching a game, meditating or going fishing. Have a project or activity that can act as an anchor, so if you start to feel unsafe or anxious, you have something you can rest your mind on and can keep your mind occupied.
In sum, maybe you are looking forward to the holidays — maybe you aren’t. Regardless of what you have going on in your work life or in your home life, you get to choose your mindset going into 2023. Perhaps, in contrast to thoughts presented earlier, there’s an opportunity for a positive reset. We made it (and I am recommitting to staying alive in 2023). The horrors are in the rearview (and so are the suspects I put away). The politics and mandos were almost too much (but I’m still here, and I helped my team). Sometimes the antidote to that fierce pit of internal conflict is just that — a reset on mindset sprinkled with a few stress mitigation tactics. Remember, it’s OK not to be OK. It’s just not OK if you stay that way. Happy holidays and a safe new year!