Before and after Shifts
Many times this hypervigilance rollercoaster will begin just before he leaves for work. He’s putting on his game face. For Brent and I, the time before his shift wasn’t pretty for years. Sometimes I’d be upset half the shift after he’d leave. He was intensely focused. There were a few hurt feelings here and there. I finally learned he needed his space to gear up for the day. It wasn’t directed at me. He was inwardly focused to be on his game.
I also needed to be careful about the demands I placed on him right before work. A half hour before he was to leave was not a good time to talk about bills or problems with the kids or scheduling conflicts. I learned to make a list for later. A little patience and everyone benefits.
For many officers, coming home is a lot of the same. In addition to that coming down from hypervigilance, a bad accident, a supervisor’s comment, or an incident involving children will sometimes bother your officer, and he needs down time to think it through. Your questions or requests may conflict with his thinking time and his comfort in bringing up something so raw. You never know what he’s dealt with that day. How do we handle their responses like strong, mature women?
Faye has implemented the pause moment. She’ll ask her husband how his day was and pause for the signs she’s come to recognize after thirteen years on the force. Sometimes he’ll be fine. Other times she’ll hear a heavy sigh, and so she’ll remain silent. She knows that if he needs to call one of two fellow officers that something is bugging him and that he’ll let her know in his time. She then adjusts to his response as appropriate.
Communication comes first—verbal and non-verbal. If he’s bothered about something, maybe he needs a trip to the gym. Maybe he just needs to hold his baby daughter for a while in silence or wrestle loudly with his boys. Maybe he needs to watch TV for a couple of hours and relax. The rub comes when you have plans for the evening. Or it’s tag-team time and it’s your turn to go to work. This happens over and over through the year and beyond. It’s learning to ebb and flow with the moment and having the awareness and self-control to deal with this process positively.
I want him to be on his game when he needs to be and, if he isn’t to let me know so I can deal with it and move on. But nine times out of ten, it’s difficult to do. He doesn’t know what’s on his mind; he’s just irritable. Or he doesn’t have the energy to articulate his needs. Sometimes he just lies on the bed and falls asleep. So much for dinner!
Brent has learned to be good about telling me when he is so spent he can’t meet my expectations (at least the majority of the time). I have had to learn to be patient, and that right there is tough. Sometimes it just stinks! And I’ve decided that it’s okay. When we understand that it isn’t us, fight the temptation to panic or worry, and communicate like mature people, that’s when it gets better. We develop thick skin. But it’s keeping our hearts soft and bitterness-free over time that takes a bit more energy and focus.
I’ve been talking a lot about flexibility and allowing your man to decompress from his job. But by no means am I suggesting you take a doormat mentality. You are an equal part of your marriage and have equal value. As cop wives, we tend to be strong and sometimes outspoken, but not all of us. I’m suggesting ways to come alongside and support, but in the context of mutual love and respect for one another. There is a difference between being interdependent (the goal) and co-dependent.
In the long term, we need to find ways to achieve balance. When Brent took over command of the CHP Academy, we were mentally prepared that it would take a lot of out of us. He worked long hours and maneuvered a large staff through some seemingly impossible demands. At times it was downright overwhelming. During these times he’d come home, share a bit with me, and we’d sit together, shaking our heads.
I wish I could share that we took advantage of his vacation time and gave him the down time he needed. But that wasn’t the case. He actually built so much time up that he exceeded his vacation time limits. And we suffered as a couple and as a family. It has been the hardest season to go through in his career.
After two years of long days and many weekends, he wanted to umpire baseball games. I reluctantly agreed. It seemed at first like it was just more time away from our family. But when I saw the camaraderie he built with other guys and how happy he was when he returned, I didn’t mind that he was gone the extra hours. I finally saw him relax. It became a replenishment, something he desperately needed.
During this time at the academy, my life was busy as well. He was busy with his job, and I was busy with my own pursuits. But one thing I did during this time was be available to listen when he came home. For much of our marriage, my guy didn’t talk much about work. He usually had a lengthy commute to calm down. But as the academy commander, he entered the house, still talking on his phone. Because he couldn’t talk with others about his frustrations, he vented to me. I was safe, I listened. I didn’t say much, didn’t need to. Sometimes I offered my female intuition, and he was pleasantly surprised that I could be so business smart. I liked that. It brought a new level of trust and respect to our relationship. All I had to do was be ready to close my mouth and open my ears.
Victoria Newman - "A CHiP on My Shoulder" March 26th, 2013
Posted In: Uncategorized
In his book Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement Officers, Dr. Kevin Gilmartin describes the highs and lows of what he calls the hypervigilance rollercoaster. To be vigilant is to stay watchful and alert to danger or trouble. But because our men never know what will come at them on any given call, they maintain a state of hypervigilance throughout their shift. They are programmed for survival to overcome whatever they deal with while on duty, and that requires much more than just a pep talk to themselves as they go out the door.
Their bodies and minds sustain this level of hypervigilance throughout the shift. But what goes up must come down, even physiologically. After his shift is over, he retreats home to you and your family, but his mind and body are exhausted from maintaining a high level of watchful intensity. Rather than returning to a normal level, his mind and body go to a place below normal to recuperate. The next day it’s repeated. And the next. Eventually, this wears him (and you!) down. If you ignore this rollercoaster, it can lead to a breakdown in his emotional health, which will have a huge impact on you and your marriage.
If you have an understanding of what is going on inside his body and mind, the good news is you are a big component of helping him through it. Dr. Gilmartin says,
…[T]he rollercoaster sets up officers to think, act, and live like victims, to not invest their energy, emotions, and sense of self in the phase of the rollercoaster that they do in fact control, the bottom or off-duty phase. It’s a clear catch-22: Officers must maintain hypervigilance to perform and survive on the streets and practice good officer safety, yet it is this same hypervigilance that can cause officers to relinquish control of their personal lives. They cannot lower the upper phase of the rollercoaster. They must maintain the elevated physical state of heightened awareness of potential risk while functioning as officers. Without training and awareness of the rollercoaster, officers return home and experience the pendulum effect… Ironically, it is the nonpolice support systems that, when they remain intact, determine if the officers remain good cops for the duration of the entire police career… (emphasis mine)[i]
You are the first and foremost non-police support system. Understanding this process gives you a chance to deal with it. You can help him maintain balance by creating balance. Things like exercise, vacations, hobbies, and activities will pull him out of that below normal level his body wants to retreat to. Take time to rejuvenate as a couple and as a family during his off-duty time, keeping this phenomenon in mind.
[i] Kevin Gilmartin, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, (Tuscon, Arizona: E-S Press, 2002) pages 89-90.
Victoria Newman - "A CHiP on My Shoulder" March 18th, 2013
Posted In: Uncategorized
Understanding His Motivation
War is seductive. There’s something inside me that lures me to the mission. I look at what’s goin’ down and know that I have to do what it takes to rescue these men… It’s almost like I have this need, deep inside of me…” The soldier’s eyes were moist and serious like he was reliving his combat experience again. I could see the pain on his face as images flashed through his mind’s eye.
“And then, as I heard the bullets whiz by my head, I came to my senses. What am I doing? I have kids… I have a job at home… why am I taking these risks?”
It was a crowded room, but I didn’t notice anything else. It was the closest thing I’d heard yet that describes the warrior mentality. Although I couldn’t step into his shoes, it resonated within me. Duty. Compassion. Laying down one life for another. Courage that comes from deep within. I’d seen glimpses of this before in my husband and his co-workers. This is the mind of a man in uniform.
Some are born with it. Some learn it really young when they’re watching Daddy put on his badge. Some are enticed by the honor and respect that goes with the shield and gun. No matter where they got it, it’s there. It’s a powerful, inner force that drives them on.
Only 3 percent of the general population can do what our husbands do.[i] They are willing to complete what’s necessary in each situation. They may even lay down their lives to stop a criminal from producing chaos and death, and that willingness commands respect. Do you respect your husband for who he is? For what he values?
My friend Deidra has had a difficult time with this in her twenty-year marriage. He may be a hero out on the road, but it wasn’t always the case at home. She and I had a conversation recently and this is what she said:
“In their line of work, they get respect. When people see a cop, they definitely clean up their act a little. Then he comes home, and I don’t give him that respect. Why don’t I give him that respect? Because some of the things he says are not respectful! When you’re acting like a jerk, why should I respect you?”
One of my biggest failures has been that I haven’t valued him. I haven’t valued his accomplishments, the fact that he is putting his life on the line for other people, that he’s a great provider, a great husband, and a great father. When I don’t respect him, he feels really bad about himself. And that affects a lot of things, like our relationship. He feels like a failure because he thinks I don’t believe in him. They get this level of respect on the road, and then when they get home, we don’t give it. I think it’s degrading. I wish I could go back and do it over again… to be more proud of him. I am proud of him.
Diedra and her cop have been married a long time and have a good marriage. But she is realizing now that the way she treats him affects him as a man and as a police officer. Respect is to a man what love is to a woman. It’s their greatest need. We as wives can remember that there is always something to value within our husbands even when they’re not faring well in other areas. It helps to remember him as a whole rather than honing in on his weaknesses.
[i] This statistic is based on population calculations.
Victoria Newman - "A CHiP on My Shoulder" March 11th, 2013
Posted In: Uncategorized
Two extremes exist every day in the life of a police officer. The problem is, if the officer and family are not aware of the hypervigilance cycle and its potential destruction, they can’t be expected to take the appropriate corrective action and avoid the devastating effects on both their personal and professional lives.
Dr. Kevin Gilmartin[i], former cop and behavioral scientist
Michelle sat on the bed, watching Greg dress. She chattered away, recounting a conversation from dinner with girlfriends the night before. Irritated, Greg looked at her with that cop-look in his eye and scolded, “Not the time.” He shoved his gun in the holster and walked out.
How many times have we witnessed a form of this scenario? They’re getting ready for work, and we’re enjoying their last few minutes at home. But somehow we innocently manage to irritate them. It took years for me to understand that when my husband puts on his uniform and weaponry, he has to put on his mind armor as well.
What he does requires body and mind, even a little of his soul. It’s a war mentality to steel his mind to deal with whatever will come his way that shift. Even harmless chit-chat can be irritating as he’s putting on his game face. He must be on his game mentally.
Understanding His Mentality
To be a cop is to be many different occupations all at once. He has to be an athlete, a soldier, a scientist, a researcher, a paramedic, a NASCAR driver, a gun expert and marksman, a counselor, a chemist, a diplomat, a wrestler, a runner, a mechanic, a writer, and a lawyer. He must have a mother’s intuition, the nose of a bloodhound, the patience of a farmer, the compassion of Mother Teresa, and the tenacity of a 2-year-old. He must make peace out of chaos, comfort the anguished, discern criminal behavior from stupidity, and make split second decisions that may have life-altering consequences. He’s expected to be polite when verbally abused, keep people safe in dangerous situations, respect those who disrespect him, and understand the intentions of those who are misbehaving. He must constantly confront evil, and remain unsullied. He must be quick to respond, though sometimes the calls stack up. He must be able to speak police shorthand on radios that may be difficult to hear, especially when in heavy or fast-moving traffic. He is constantly second guessed on his actions, criticized for his demeanor, mocked for his diet and feared for his authority. He’s a threat, a target, a punisher, yet is a rescuer, a protector, and in some cases, a savior.
Given these considerations, society’s expectations on our law enforcement are just short of impossible. But day to day, they report for duty, not knowing what the shift will offer. They put on their badges and try to do the best they can to fulfill the expectations of those they serve. With these pressures in mind, it’s our privilege to be not-so-silent partners behind the badge. Our influence backs them up where they tank up, gear up, and man up to be who they need to be and to do what they’re expected to do.
[i] Kevin M. Gilmartin, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, (Tuscon, Arizona: E-S Press, 2002) page 50.
Victoria Newman - "A CHiP on My Shoulder" March 4th, 2013
Posted In: A CHiP on My Shoulder