It wasn’t until his eighth therapy session that he and his psychologist started talking about the overtime. He was on SWAT, did peer support and was a major crimes detective. He had considered putting in for the dive team, and that’s when his wife had had enough: “It’s your job or this family.”
It wasn’t a fair statement (it never is), and what she could have said was “You spend all your time working; we don’t feel like we matter.” But women have a way with words sometimes, so that was all she gave him. Frankly, he liked working this way, 50 to 60 hours a week and needing to be ready for anything at any time with two collateral assignments subject to callouts. He felt competent at work; he was an asset to the agency, to his colleagues and to the community. Not only did his wife’s statement surprise and anger him, but he came to the preliminary decision that he wasn’t ready to give up his family for the job … hence the phone call to the psychologist.
When we go home, there is no structure, rules or chain of command. Home starts to feel unhinged, untethered, unsafe, and we want out.
What he didn’t realize, until session eight, was that somewhere between the running, the gunning, the callouts and the overtime, it had become easier to be at work than to be at home. What was easy became what was desired. What was desired became what was sought after, what was sought after became habit and then that habit became his reality — and his family’s reality: He would rather be at work than be at home.
Most cops will experience a period of time during their career when life outside of work seems hard. This is normal. This is OK — until it’s not (or until retirement). If you find that you are in this boat, and you want to be on a different boat, there is value in understanding why you might feel this way and what to do about it.
Work is safe, home is not
Regardless of the call type, whether you are on an OAA with fire (another overdose?!), navigating a civil dispute (the same dispute with the same people for the sixth time in two weeks) or responding to an active shooter situation (game time … LFG), you rely on chain of command, protocols, procedures and training to get through your shift. Not only does this structure keep officers alive and out of unnecessary precarious legal situations, it is by design and serves you when shit hits the fan, when your emotional brain tries to override your logical brain and when you need to proceed with the mission under the most dire of circumstances.
Our brain likes structure, consistency and dependability. We tend to feel a sense of safety when we know what we are doing, who has our back, what comes next and what might come after that. Not only does our brain like dependability, but because of neuroplasticity (the brain’s capacity to continue growing and evolving in response to life experiences), our brain structure changes to accommodate these experiences we have. Structure, discipline and chain of command equal safety. When we go home, there is no structure, rules or chain of command. (Insert joke about “Happy wife, happy life” here.) Home starts to feel unhinged, untethered, unsafe, and we want out.
What to do about it: You can’t run your household like a paramilitary organization (unless you live alone, in which case more power to you). So trying to have your home life bend to the ways of your work life isn’t entirely reasonable. That being said, implementing some structure and having conversations with the people who live with you about what you need is not only reasonable but may help you feel safe. Perhaps on your days off you start every morning with a workout and a cup of coffee. Or before you go to bed at night you work in the garage for 30 minutes. The hope is that you can do these activities at the same time every day to the extent that it’s feasible, and get your family on board. This way, no matter what else happens during your days off, you have some sort of anchor. Have the conversation with your spouse ahead of time about what might be helpful so that there are no surprises or last-minute honey-dos during your 30-minute garage time. Your brain will thank you for it.
Trauma bothers us when it gets quiet
Have you ever walked through the door after a good day at work and as soon as you lay your head down, try to take a shower, attempt to do laundry or just sit in silence, you start feeling anxious? Or you start thinking about that call that bothered you, whether it happened that day or years prior? Or you see that face, the barrette, smell the iron, hear the crash….?
These recollections and sensations don’t usually come at you when you’re at work. When you are working, you have to be laser-focused on the task at hand. Whether you are picking up the 9-1-1 calls or responding to them, your job is to be present, be aware and solve the problem. You cannot do any of those things if you are hijacked by your memories or emotions. It’s ritual and habitual for you to be able to put all those distractions aside so you can do your job. You become so good at it, in fact, that you hardly even notice you’ve tuned the rest of the world out to focus on the task in front of you, and then the next one and the next one — until you get home, when the task isn’t as demanding (sure, you’re focused on making lunches for school the next day, but not as focused as you are when responding to a call). Your mind has space and time to wander. So, naturally, what it does is start to process shit you dealt with throughout the day. This is why as soon as you start to “relax,” your brain tells you, “Nope, not now, bro, we have trauma to process.”
You’ll find over time that trying to avoid emotions is like running on the treadmill while eating Twinkies: pointless.
What to do about it: First, recognize that it’s normal. It’s normal that the emotions come up at what may seem like weird times. I remember, after doing a critical incident debrief that involved two dead children who were similar ages to my own children, it wasn’t until I heard the first Christmas song on the radio months later that I felt my feelings related to that incident. It was like my brain was a rubber band and snapped right back to the moment of impact. What I felt was sadness for the family — and it was intense. What I wanted to do was jump on a “really important phone call,” something to distract myself from my drive and my thoughts. What I did, instead, was acknowledge I felt like shit, breathe it out doing four-count breathing and let the feelings go.
You’ll find over time that trying to avoid emotions is like running on the treadmill while eating Twinkies: pointless. Over time, unprocessed emotions turn into things like anxiety, depression and anger that we can’t put our finger on and eventually lose control over … so might as well work the OT, right? Wrong. OT shouldn’t be the answer to your unprocessed “stuff.” Processing it is. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go to therapy and talk about it — some people surf, some do woodwork, some let the tears come and go while they’re driving, others find peace in therapy. The key is acknowledging it, letting it be there and then letting it go in a way that works for you.
The transition out of working all the overtime wasn’t easy. He and his wife completed a few therapy sessions together and were able to develop the “days off plan,” which included 15 minutes in the morning to meditate and 30 minutes in the evening to work on his projects. Both periods of time were sacred, and it was her job to keep the kids at bay. The tradeoff was that by the next summer he would only pick up one OT shift per pay period, and he would continue therapy to navigate some of the deeper trauma. It wasn’t going to happen overnight, but it was going to happen because they were committed, to each other as well as the job — just in that order.