Before I get to Hurricane Harvey, I would like to review some feedback about a recent column on adolescent suicide. Readers brought “detergent suicide” to my attention. An internet search and common household chemicals are all that a troubled individual needs to produce gas that is very lethal in a small space such as a car or bathroom.
Horribly, there have been first responder deaths when EMTS or officers, not recognizing these hazmat scenes, open a door and inhale the still toxic gas.
Warning signs include tape or plastic used to seal windows, plus empty cleaning supply, pesticide or paint containers. Learn more by Googling “Chemical Suicides: The Risk to Emergency Responders,” and please, be careful. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org: your input is always welcome.
John Wayne Syndrome
Fighting men and women crave “the idea of home as a place of utter safety–the conviction that all was well there kept them in good heart and on their feet.” The author of Outlander wrote about the rebels of the American revolution, but the desire is timeless.
While you fought to maintain order during Harvey, were your spouses in safe homes untouched by chaos? Even if the flooding spared you, no one was unaffected by this storm.
It’s often said that police officers try to be stereotypical superheroes: always successful, never vulnerable, never getting sick, and never admitting that running around saving lives can be difficult. Back in the day we called it the John Wayne or Marlboro Man syndrome, although today’s readers may not know those names.
Like co-conspirators, police spouses play the strong silent type, too. Many try to carry on bravely without complaint while things go haywire around them. When HPD is challenged, their goal is to quietly support the husbands and wives who are fighting for us all.
Meanwhile, phone lines are buzzing as the luckier ones share their misery with friends in the same boat. Together they worry about the lack of sleep, the clogged arteries and how aging bodies will manage a quick shift from routine to unprecedented emergency. They worry about what lurks in the “toxic stew” of Houston floodwaters and the hard truths about safe evacuations revealed by the Dickinson nursing home photo.
During the storm, the spouses of first responders vented about facing catastrophe alone—again. Then, if their own homes were dry, they volunteered, cooked, mucked and donated, lending assistance to neighbors and strangers. We civilians didn’t have 24-hour shifts, but Harvey still exhausted us.
As all this is going on, the officer doesn’t want to worry his or her spouse, so he stays quiet about what he faces. The officer’s spouse doesn’t want to worry him, so she hides what she endures. Occasionally, emotions, like tears at a funeral, seep out. But over the years, the swirling currents of separate lives can push two people further and further apart.
Calling on the Family
We know that families are an essential tool for reducing police stress. For example, “family nights” at academies are a best practice. If we orient your loved ones to what to expect, they will freak out a little less, which makes that grueling six months somewhat easier for you.
Real family night remarks blend congratulations with a gentle warning. A completely uncensored statement would be very different. Imagine the audience hearing, “You are going to be afraid. To keep from upsetting your officer, you will cover it up. You may feel guilty when you can’t.”
“Of course you’re afraid,” the talk would continue. “Some police families make the ultimate sacrifice. How could you not be afraid?”
Sharing the Headlines
No matter how real their messages get, police departments have limited communication with officers’ families. You have to involve your family. You probably shared what amused or frustrated you as you dealt with the hurricane. Did you share what scared you or moved you or aroused you?
Like the eighteenth-century hunks of Outlander, officers don’t talk about work off-duty because they want home to feel clean and unspoiled by the nastiness of the job. The desire to protect families from anxiety about officer safety is strong. And a lot of you are more comfortable dealing with practical action than abstract concepts.
It’s also true that some officers stay silent because they like the pedestals their spouses put them on. Real reactions—real fear, real fatigue, real grief—don’t fit the superhero image. You know, you can hop down from a pedestal or you can fall off, but you can’t stay there forever.
People who believe they married superheroes are bound to be disappointed. When each spouse has a positive vision of the other that is only slightly rosier than reality, but not too skewed, a couple hits the “sweet spot” that stabilizes a relationship.
(How do you get there? Take to heart the fable that says we should recall good deeds as if carving them in stone and bad deeds as if scratching them in the sand at the ocean’s edge.)
Every couple has to decide how much information about hardships and danger is too much. The usual advice is “Share the headlines, skip the nitty-gritty details.” A storm like Harvey becomes an opportunity to question assumptions. Ask.
Truly, you need your family members’ back-up. It makes you happier, it strengthens marriages, and there is a clear and causal link between feeling emotional support and being physically healthy. When you and your spouse don’t talk about experiences, this is compromised.
Cleaning Up from the Storm
Psychologist John Violanti can confirm this. His book Dying for the Job reports that officers who went to counseling after critical incidents functioned better. But at least in one study, a close look at exactly when and how they improved showed it wasn’t the chats with the counselors that cured them. In the sessions, officers learned how to express their feelings, and that it wasn’t so horrible. After that, their more honest talks with their spouses had a healing power.
Violanti, who was a New York state trooper for 23 before becoming a shrink, feels female officers have an easier time opening up than their male counterparts. He cites research showing women are better at leaning on family and friends, making a plan to deal with stressful events, and finding strength and comfort through religious faith.
Don’t shoot the messenger. But do take the message in—and get any storm debris that piled up inside you cleared out.