How cops heal – talk it out, unwind, get perspective and support

Lisa Garmezy

The Houston Police Department generously sent Dr. Maren Jones and me to support the Dallas Police Department after the July 7 murders. At the time, officers weren’t grieving so much as gearing up for battle.

Now, as police forces across the nation cautiously exhale, the bereaved can begin to heal. But how?

Faith is a lifeline for many officers, but not for all. Certainly nature brings healing. Fifteen minutes a day outdoors, off-duty, is a natural antidepressant. Time helps, whether because our memories blur and soften, because we gain wisdom and perspective, or because our attention shifts to fresh horrors.

Unwind

When a colleague—or five—dies, we mourn, we show respect, and then we try to return to the business of living. Today’s constantly challenged police force must do so in a way that strengthens its readiness to act instead of eroding it. Your lives depend on your vigilance.

When a loss is deep and fresh, it feels odd to put it aside, but doing something upbeat makes coping easier. As you know, healthy distractions include working out, spending time with friends and family, and hobbies.

Unhealthy distractions wreak havoc in police officers’ lives. Over-spending, over-eating, workaholic habits and a world of bad behavior provide temporary amnesia. Two activities are particularly dangerous.

An applicant I once interviewed told me that after the death of a battle buddy, the commanding officer’s sole words of comfort were, “Don’t drink alone.” Weak consolation, but good advice.

The welcome numbness that alcohol brings is never true healing. For men, at-risk heavy drinking is more than four drinks on any day or 14 per week. For women it’s more than three drinks on any day or seven per week. See rethinkingdrinking.gov for more information.

And the other trap? Cops too often “exchange love’s bright and fragile glow for the glitter and the rouge,” in the words of a folk song. A minor fling can mean someone else wakes up with your kids on Christmas morning. Don’t go there.

There is a difference between distracting yourself from a problem and embracing something that makes you feel nourished and centered and truly more whole. Spiritual practices, exercise, meditation, and yoga can all fill this need. When you have soothed your body and soul, it is difficult, in the short term, to experience anxiety.

If the gym scares you and church isn’t your thing, learn to calm your body by other means. Take advantage of “breathe2relax” or “PTSD Coach,” free phone apps developed by the government for returning veterans. Both will teach you how to discipline and structure your breathing to ease the tension you feel. The more you practice, the better it works.

Get some rest. Sleep is not optional. Stay hydrated and don’t eat all your meals from paper bags. Take any meds you need but skip the addictive stuff.

Put Things in Perspective

    Keeping your head on a swivel is exhausting. Recognize that a little anxiety improves performance—like when you buckle down to study. A lot of anxiety interferes with focus, memory, and concentration. Situational awareness gets worse, not better.

But don’t kid yourself that there is nothing you can do to lower your stress level. You can replace thoughts that cause you anxiety with calmer thoughts. Thinking, “It’s war out there,” winds you up. You’re saying to yourself exactly what you would say if you wanted to get upset.

Tone down the negative thinking. It is probably healthier to tell yourself, as one officer told me, “People have always been trying to kill us.”

Also, police tend to be responsible people who expect accountability. After a tragedy, this can backfire if cops blame themselves for events outside their control. Whether you believe God directs our lives or random crap happens, remind yourself that you did not cause the tragedy. No one appointed you General Manager of the universe.

 Seek Support

    It’s just as critical to avoid isolating yourself. Solitude leads to feeling burdened and alone, which creates fertile ground for anger and depression.

Some of you, when life hurts, become Neanderthals, crawling into imaginary caves to lick your wounds until they heal. Recognize that your partner will experience that as rejection. Come out and connect with your loved ones from time to time.

Keep in mind that your family members are scared and hurting too. Make the pain and fear of these traumatic events something you share instead of something that separates you.

Check on your coworkers, or open up to the ones who are checking on you. There are cynical officers out there who claim officers don’t care about each other and the “brotherhood of blue” is a myth—but it doesn’t have to be. Don’t complacently watch a fellow officer self-destruct.

Allow yourself to feel the love from the other side of the thin blue line. In Dallas roll call rooms, row after row of cafeteria tables were covered with foil pans of food and costly baskets wrapped in blue and black ribbons. Citizens were expressing heartfelt thanks.

Chief Ed Flynn of Milwaukee told President Obama in a July meeting that in the neighborhoods hit hardest by violence, folks should realize that “All there is is the police—there’s no cavalry coming.” The public is starting to get that.

Feeling valued is part of staying truly well. Happy people are happy because they do fun things, but more importantly, because they have a sense of purpose. Making people safer adds meaning to your lives. If the community feels preyed upon rather than protected, you have lost something precious.

On the other hand, meaning doesn’t always come from work. It can come from serving God, nurturing the next generation, preserving a craft or working the land. If law enforcement used to be fulfilling but no longer is, find something else that gives you a sense of purpose, and do more of it.

Can the public support last? I like to think so. If we contrast how Vietnam veterans were “welcomed” home—they weren’t—with attitudes toward veterans today, we see some progress. Perhaps greater appreciation for the sacrifices made by police officers and their families will be the legacy of this crisis.

Lately, I have offered couples struggling in marital therapy a Song of Solomon quote to reflect on: “Love is strong as death . . . vast floods cannot quench love, nor rivers drown it.“ May it be true for your personal relationships, for your bonds to fellow officers, and for the gratitude the community recently discovered.

Talk to Someone Who Can Help

At this point, two months after the murders, the flow of cakes and free meals is slowing. An adrenaline rush was followed by “running on fumes,” in Chief Brown’s words, and for most, a gradual return to a more balanced life. If you still can’t eat, can’t sleep, or can’t concentrate, or if you’re constantly rerunning the footage in your head, it’s a problem.

Dr. Jones and I noticed in Dallas that the tragedy triggered memories of past traumas for officers who lost friends in war or the line of duty. Horrible events tend to rip open barely healed wounds. You or your colleagues may be re-experiencing grisly nightmares, or feel unable to relax even for a moment.

If the stress and the memories and the pain are haunting you, please talk to someone who can help. Psychologists’ services are confidential. Really. We don’t want to lose our professional licenses any more than you do. Your insurance benefits include mental health support, if you prefer. Peer assistance programs, clergy, and veterans’ self-help groups can also help you find a path out of the misery.

You are not Ironman. It’s okay to be vulnerable, to need a break, a rest, even a therapist.

Above all, it is not a betrayal of fallen friends to go on living. Don’t feel guilty as you laugh and get back to normal. Please do what keeps you alert and strong and well so that you can carry on the mission your brothers died for. Thank you for your service.