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How To Love Your Cop
How To Love Your Cop

Chp 8: Stuff Happens: Suicide

Fifteen Is Enough!

A few years back, Brent and I were getting ready for bed at the end of the day when he checked his Blackberry one last time. Another suicide. It was number fifteen for our department in a period of four years. I cried out, “Another one?! What are we doing?!” I didn’t know it at the time, but it was quite a prophetic question. I was referring to the department—how will they respond? But actually the more I asked the question, I realized that I might be able to do something as well.

I don’t know what it was about the number fifteen, but it seemed like everyone jumped into action. Number fifteen pushed the panic button, and we awoke. The department began talking about suicide openly. Our officers’ association published a double-page ad in their monthly newsletter: “Call for Backup,” with a picture of a glass of alcohol and a gun. We implemented awareness seminars across the state and set up debriefing sessions with those who knew the suicide victims. We educated ourselves. We decided as a department to hit suicide head on, deal with it as the reality it was, not a deniable secret hovering in the shadows.

In my own research, I learned that almost always the one who commits suicide just ended a significant relationship. When a life is going sideways, others are affected in a big way. Helplessness, blame, an inability to get a handle on problems, and depression (among other things) will push away those who are close. When things are falling apart, and hope seems to have been lost, the natural tendency is to get out quickly. The boat is sinking, and our survival instincts say, “Abandon ship!” Sometimes this is one more reason for those contemplating suicide.

This book is part of my own action against suicide. I care about the mental and emotional health of my husband and those he works alongside. If by sharing my own struggles I can encourage other wives to hang tough through the hard stuff, maybe suicide won’t be such an attractive option to their officers. If educating law enforcement spouses about these realities equips them to deal positively with the negatives, then perhaps marriages will be saved. If our officers know they have backup at home, perhaps they will be more courageous to get the help they need.

Symptoms of Suicide

So how can we discern if our spouse is contemplating suicide? By watching and listening for the symptoms. Sometimes there are signs of PTSD, whether from one specific incident, or a collection of events over time. If they don’t deal with the trauma, they risk depression, which can be a precursor to suicide. If your officer is having trouble reconciling these thoughts, he may be at risk. According to several articles on police suicide, a typical profile of a suicide candidate is a white male, 35 years of age, separated or divorced, using alcohol or drugs, and having recently experienced a loss or disappointment. They may have made out a recent will, bought a weapon, or appear to be getting their affairs in order. There is generally a significant mood change—either better or worse. They may exhibit signs of anxiety, frustration, or confusion.

I once heard suicide referred to as a permanent solution to a temporary problem. But in the midst of it, the problem seems permanent. Sometimes it takes another level head to discern what is going on in the big picture. This is where you come in. Learn to recognize the symptoms. If your officer seems like he’s at risk, don’t abandon him or ignore the symptoms. Fight for him! Find help immediately.

July 29th, 2013

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Hiking Life

Yosemite - Mirror Lake
It was a beautiful day in Yosemite National Park and about fifteen of us decided to take an easy, one-hour hike around Mirror Lake.

Little did we know it would take us most of the day.

We started out, a motley crew of family and friends ranging in age from six weeks to 80 years, conversing along the paved way. We leisurely hiked about two-thirds around the lake when we came to a barricade that said, “Warning! Landslide damage. Trail ends here.” Being the adventurous type and rationalizing it would take twice as long to turn back, we said to each other, “How bad could it be?”

We forged ahead until we came to the actual landslide. White rocks ranging in size from toasters to houses were toppled upon one another, with huge trees laying on their sides at the bottom. The area covered about three acres. To traverse over this seemed a daunting task with the small children and elderly present. Unbelievably, we went for it. Up and down, rock to rock, tree to tree, we got all fifteen of us across the debris with only minor scrapes. We regrouped on the other side, taking swigs of water and eating trail mix, chuckling about our ordeal, and amazed everyone made it intact.

On the journey through life, there will be hazards that show up along the way. They may seem impossible, but the only way to go is through them. I’ve pulled a few principles from our Yosemite hike that I think are very applicable to hard times in our lives.

First, we got through the debris one step at a time. There were rocks upon rocks, and some of them were not steady. We had to test each rock as we moved forward and side to side, taking the most sure and stable route. When life gets tough, maneuvering through pain and consequences can be pretty tricky. You may see where you hope to be at the end, but the path to get there may be riddled with uncertainty. Taking each step slowly and steadily minimizes pitfalls that come with a difficult journey.

Second, some hikers needed help to get across. We took turns carrying the two-year-old and lending extra support to the mom who had the six-week-old baby strapped to her front as well as the grandparents. When things get tough, we need to lean on our support systems to get us safely to the other side. Sharing each other’s loads is not only necessary for survival, but bonding can be a byproduct. By the end of the day we felt a special kinship with each other through what we’d been through.

One of the hikers was really fearful for the children. She was really angry at why we were in this situation. I was a little surprised, because she is usually very level-headed. My husband told me later that just a week earlier her son slipped and fell with his newborn son in his arms and dropped the baby. She saw the whole thing happen. The trauma of that situation carried over into seeing another grandchild in potential danger. The third thing to remember is when we go through tough times, past hurts may ignite anger or fear. Past hurts tend to complicate things. Understanding, acknowledging and communicating this will help you navigate your response.

No sooner did we rejoin the trail, when we heard a huge crack and rumble from above. Thunder and lightening filled the sky, and then the downpour started. We were soaked to the bone by the time we reached our bus stop. Sometimes, when one trial ends, another one begins. And then another. It’s just the way life happens sometimes. We dealt with this by laughing. Most of us kept our sense of humor intact. Just moments before we got soaked, we were all sweaty from climbing over rocks and trees. We joked about not needing showers anymore. When life is one trouble after another, sometimes it’s just good to laugh in the midst of it. Laughter is also contagious.

The last thing is we never gave up. We kept moving forward, helping each other, talking it through. Once we made it to some shelter to escape the downpour, some of the teenagers decided to run all the way back to our campground. We were all exhausted, but they made it fun by going that extra mile.

Don’t give up!

July 25th, 2013

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Chp 8: Stuff Happens – Substance Abuse

Alcohol and drug dependence are coping mechanisms. Something is up, and they have developed a crutch to lean on. Here are some symptoms of a drinking problem, adapted from Alcoholics Anonymous:

1. You have tried to stop drinking for a set amount of time and couldn’t go the distance.
2. You want people to quit telling you to quit drinking.
3. You switched from one kind of alcohol to another to avoid getting drunk.
4. You need a drink to get started on the day or to stop shaking.
5. You envy people who don’t get themselves into trouble while drinking.
6.You’ve had problems related to your drinking in the past year.
7. Your drinking is causing problems at home.
8. You try to get extra drinks at a party because what is served is not enough.
9. You tell yourself you could stop drinking any time you wanted to but keep getting drunk without meaning to.
10. You’ve missed work or school because of your drinking.
11. You have black outs, times when drinking that you don’t remember.
12. You feel like your life would be better if you didn’t drink.

If you suspect that your guy has a drinking problem, talk with him about it when he isn’t drinking. Be ready with specific examples of behavior, not generalized accusations. If he denies it, get others involved who love your husband. Have your resources lined up—phone numbers, locations of meetings and support groups, and people to contact.

PTSD

Brenda’s husband had nightmares and suffered uncontrollable shaking. Rhonda’s husband told her he was sure he was crazy and even acted like it sometimes. Mary’s husband retreated to the fetal position on the couch and whimpered like a baby then later left her for someone else. All of these men were diagnosed with PTSD.

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a condition that results from a critical incident or develops as a result of repeated exposure to trauma, both very frequent in the career of a police officer. In his book CopShock, Second Edition: Surviving Post-traumatic Stress Disorder Allen Kates says that “one in three cops may suffer from PTSD, a condition that could lead to depression, suicidal thoughts, addictions, eating disorders as well as job and family conflict.” Some of the common symptoms include anger, nightmares, flashbacks, concentration problems, emotional detachment, and avoidance of people and places.

The Power of a Good Marriage

It was a perfect day for Clarke and Tracie to chill out in the pool. But Clarke felt like he would sink beneath the weight of dread. He was struggling with the stuff he’d seen on duty. He wasn’t thinking he’d kill himself, but knew he was starting to head down that road, and he needed help. He’d inwardly argued with himself for quite a while before he took the plunge. “This stuff is gettin’ to me, Trace. I’m not okay.” As soon as it left his mouth, the weight lifted. Until she replied in horror, “Are you kidding me?!” It was not the response he was looking for.

On the outside, Clarke was supercop. On the inside, a teen’s suicide triggered a breaking point. “It was one of five suicides that day, and it was my boiling point,” explains Clarke. “Everything began haunting me. Everything came out—calls from the day before, the week before, the year before, ten years before. They all came back and they came back with a vengeance. Everything I thought I had dealt with, but really just disassociated from, came back.”

He’d told himself to get over it, forget it. But when he couldn’t, he decided he was a coward—a loser. But he did have a great relationship with his wife, and he trusted her enough to share his pain. And although initially her response was less than ideal, by the end of the day she understood that he did the most courageous thing he could’ve ever done—ask for help. After doing some research together, they found the assistance he needed.

Clarke and Tracie are now hosting police suicide prevention seminars across the country. As part of his healing, Clarke made a movie called “The Pain Behind the Badge,” and it’s speaking to officers who have suffered silently for years. When Tracie gets up to speak, she imparts these powerful words: “Why did I ever think he was okay after twenty-two years on the job? The Rock of Gibraltar was crumbling, and I never saw it coming. I’m lucky he’s alive.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder can be very serious, but there is help available. Please let me know if you need resources.

July 22nd, 2013

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July 17th

Today is July 17, 2013, or 7-17, simply put.

Maybe this day means nothing to you. It’s just another day. It’s another day to live and breathe and move about. July 17th used to be that for me – not a significant day. None of my loved ones had a birthday (that I know of), nothing of distinction happened to me (that I remember).

But for twenty United States soldiers, this day is significant. July 17th is the anniversary of a miracle – where it seemed they had an appointment with doom, and the Grim Reaper had come to call.

It happened four years ago in the Watapur Valley of Afghanistan. Sixteen men went on a foot patrol, guns at the ready, and unbeknownst to them, they were being watched. Insurgents were hiding behind rocks and boulders above them, waiting patiently for them to enter the valley so they could close in around them. They wanted to capture at least one alive for God-knows-what, and the others would die swiftly. Young men, barely into their twenties, were walking into a death trap.

The first bullet was sent, and the barrage of deadly weapon fire began, quickly wounding three of the sixteen, one hit in the abdomen. Death was near.

The battle touched off the fate of four more men, older soldiers who had been working all night, gathering wounded from other areas in Afghanistan. These men were aboard a Medevac helicopter, and had the choice to intervene. At least one life depended on them, but they faced the reality they may have to give up their own.

July 17th, 2009, will live in the thoughts and minds of all twenty of these men. Though the chances were slim to none because of the circumstances, all twenty survived the battle. The men on the ground, the helicopter crew that flew in SIX times in the middle of unbelievable weapon fire, and the medic who dared to be hoisted down a thin cable into the fire to gather not three, but five men who could’ve perished in that valley.

That medic is wearing a beautiful navy blue Cavalry Stetson today in honor of the memory. If you see him, thank him.

There are many dates that mark the appearing of death: June 6, 1944. December 5, 1941. September 11, 2001. Many succumbed despite the efforts of the brave. But others did not because a brother or sister stepped in, overcoming fear with courage, and in heroic moments, laid it all on the line. They are living proof that from the battlefields from Afghanistan and Iraq to our cities and counties here in the States – there are courageous warriors who are willing to step up, step in, and live to commemorate dates like 7-17.

Note: This story is recounted in detail in Selfish Prayer, a book due to be released in August 2013 through Amazon.com.

July 17th, 2013

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Chp 8: Stuff Happens: The One that Sticks with Him

Rick was the toughest cop in the room. He’d been on the force for a quarter of a century and had earned respect among his peers. He prided himself in the fact that he kept it together. But there was always a picture in the back of his mind of a little girl and her father that burned to death while he was helpless to save them because of the intensity of the fire. For twenty years he kept it inside until my husband asked him the right question.

The tears spilled and made room for relief. He’d never even told his wife that he attended the little girl’s funeral. And for years it ate at him. When he was ready, he let it go in the presence of several of his fellow coworkers. It was a powerful moment for all who were in attendance.

There will be incidents that, for whatever reason, will insert themselves into our husbands’ minds and sear the images on their hearts. There will be pain, maybe even sorrow. And, depending on your husband’s ability to cope with it, they could do some damage. For some officers, stuffing incidents like this will result in PTSD years after the fact.

Anger

I met Connie by chance at a sporting event. We got to talking and learned that we were both married to police officers. When I told her I was writing a book, she shrugged and said she had another book she was supposed to be reading. I recognized the book and thought it was very helpful to me, but she seemed to begrudge it. I asked why.

“I don’t want to read anything that gives him an excuse for bad behavior,” she replied. We plunged into a discussion as to what she was experiencing. She disclosed that her husband had anger issues. He would rant and rave at her and the kids and feel better afterward, so no apology. She and the kids were suffering. She then mentioned that it started when her kids became teenagers.

My educated guess was that her husband was feeling out of control with his teenagers. Younger children are easier to lead into obedience. They are more impressionable and tend to want to please their parents. But teenagers struggle to find their identity and are looking for their own independence.  Some will fight back or disobey altogether. They are much harder to control.

Meanwhile Connie’s husband has been trained to be in control of all situations. If there are people who don’t respond to him, he has been trained to force them to comply. He was bringing home that training. His frustration at not being able to control his teenagers gave way to the explosive anger.

David Augsburger, in his book Caring Enough to Confront says this:

 “Underneath my feelings of anger—there are concealed expectations. (I may not yet be aware of them myself.) Inside my angry statements – there are hidden demands. (I may not yet be able to put them into words.)  Until I deal with the demands, I am doing little about it all.

 

“Anger may be the demand that you hear me or that you recognize my worth, or that you see me as precious and worthy to be loved, or that you respect me, let go of my arm, or quit trying to take control of my life.”

If your husband is dealing with anger, remember that anger is a demand for something. A soft answer from you may help to bring the situation to a calmer level. You can talk out some of his demands/expectations in quieter moments and help him to see what it is that he expects. When you both understand these expectations, you can work toward working through it together.

Augsburger also says, “Explosive anger is powerless to effect change in relationships …Vented anger may ventilate feelings and provide instant though temporary release for tortured emotions, but it does little for relationships.

“Clearly expressed anger, however, is something different. Clear statements of anger feelings and angry demands can slice through emotional barriers or communication tangles to establish contact.”[i]

Anger is a tricky thing. Appropriate anger to express demands is helpful to move along conflict resolution. Explosive anger isn’t helpful; in fact, it could be harmful. Linda and John had been married for several years. When they would have an argument, she would resort to yelling. Over time, her anger escalated into hitting, and it continued for years. One night she hit him several times, and he’d had enough. He called the police, and she was arrested for domestic abuse. Linda spent the next two days in jail. Fortunately, it was the wake up call she needed. “My time in jail was very sobering,” Linda recounts.  “On the ceiling directly above my head were the words, ‘God will make a way.’ It spoke to me like nothing ever has. It took years and was very difficult to reconcile the events of that evening. But not only have we resumed our relationship more peacefully, we are incredibly close and our relationship has grown leaps and bounds. It truly took this all to happen to find peace and to be grateful for the trials that make us stronger. The anger I was feeling toward John had nothing to do with him…it was all me and what I needed to deal with. He was just a safe target, or so it seemed.”

While this story has had a productive outcome, many cases of spousal abuse do not. Don’t let your or your spouse’s anger escalate to the point of harm. And if it happens, get help immediately.



[i]     David Augsburger, Caring Enough to Confront, (Ventura, CA: Regal Books, 2009) page 51.

July 16th, 2013

Posted In: A CHiP on My Shoulder

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Chp 8: Stuff Happens. When Hard Times Come

It isn’t a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. Stress can create police marriage problems but you can be prepared.

Because my husband has PTSD from his deployment to Iraq, the Fourth of July is now about renting loud movies, closing all the windows and blinds or praying that he gets called into work so he can be barricaded behind the prison walls where the outside can’t come in. I don’t fully understand it all, but that’s what we have to do now to make him feel better. We help relieve some of his anxieties and reassure him that while he will never forget what he went through,. God is still taking the time to heal his heart and mind. We do it one day, one step, and one prayer at a time.

Renee, wife of former National Guardsman and current sheriff’s deputy

You may have heard the tongue-in-cheek phrase about motorcycle cops: “They say there are two kinds of motors: those who’ve gone down and those who will go down.” It’s a little along the lines of a law enforcement career in general: those who have had some kind of difficulty on the job and those who will. In a twenty-to-thirty-year career, your man will suffer something. Injuries, long-term effects of hypervigilance, supervisors who don’t get it, burnout, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), grief over fallen comrades and other difficulties will at some point take a toll. How will you maneuver through these challenges together?

There are three kinds of stress that law enforcement officers experience. The first is general stress, the day-to-day things that life hands us. There are varying levels depending on the seasons that we go through—illness, death of a loved one, financial pressures, and so on.

The second kind of stress that your spouse may go through is cumulative stress. Dr. Ellen Kirschman describes cumulative stress as “prolonged, unrelieved wear and tear that results from having more demands than a person can respond to.”[i] This is also called burnout.

The third kind of stress is critical incident stress. This develops when a specific event happens that overwhelms the officer’s ability to cope effectively. Examples would include accidents that have multiple fatalities or that involve children, a mass casualty incident (like 9/11), a shooting, a suicide of a co-worker, and other disturbing incidents.

Some of the symptoms of critical incident stress are physical. These include chest pain, trouble breathing, trembling, high blood pressure, stomach issues, headaches, fatigue, and poor sleep. Emotional symptoms include denial, fear, depression, feelings of helplessness or feeling overwhelmed, anger, and excessive dwelling on the event. Other symptoms of critical incident stress are cognitive. These include disorientation, hyper-alertness, issues with concentration and memory, nightmares and flashbacks, and assigning blame to others. There are other responses reflected in behavior. [No comma needed in previous sentence.] In addition to some that I go into a bit more below, you may see changes in eating habits, crying spells, and unusual spending.

As wives, we need to be aware of the ways our men respond to stress and learn to recognize problems. It’s not an if; it’s when. Life happens. I’ve provided information on some responses to job stress. It is not an exhaustive list. If you suspect that any of these areas are affecting your guy, I would suggest you do a little extra research of your own so that you can support him in an educated manner.



[i]     Ellen Kirschman, I Love a Cop (New York: The Guilford Press, 2007) page 89.

July 8th, 2013

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Chp 7: Your Support System-You need him too

Part of your support system has to be your spouse. You need him too!

Up to this point I have talked about getting support from others. But I cannot move ahead without mentioning the most influential person of your support system: your husband! You are one entity, and you can lean on one another. Two lives intertwined, investing time, resources, and parts of yourselves to build a life together.

A long-term marriage is a journey of growth. I mentioned earlier that Brent and I had spent our earlier years peeling off our rough edges so that we can enjoy our soft centers in the later years. To be able to do this takes a two-way give and take, not a one-sided approach. Some of your needs will only be met by him.

Your husband’s input and support is valuable no matter how hard it may be to hear. Our guys many times will be brutally honest; they’ve been trained to call it like they see it. For many women this is hard to take.

Kim didn’t see James as her protector for many years. Every time she brought her unresolved conflicts to him from work, he’d ask questions about her response. He was never quick to join her pity parties and didn’t seem to take her side much. He was painfully objective. After awhile Kim translated that to mean that he didn’t care enough to protect her.

But James had a different approach. His support was unwavering for Kim, but he had a whole-picture viewpoint. Rather than take her side no matter what, he thought it best to counsel her to see the situation not as a victim but as an involved party. Sometimes Kim would be right but not always. James felt she should take responsibility for her part in problems, not just enable the victim mentality she resorted to. As Kim matured over the years, she came to see that James was no doubt a protector—he protected her dignity.

Your husband can support you even if he doesn’t see things your way. In fact, it is always better to get another opinion that is different from your own and then think it through. Our husbands are trained to ask good questions and think objectively. Generally women are led by emotions of compassion and empathy as well as a healthy need for significance. But these strong emotions can sometimes trick us. We may not be able to see the full picture. Our husbands can add in other thoughts that help balance us out, and vice versa. They are a strong addition to our support system.

Time for Reinforcement

Andy and Karen were struggling to make ends meet on their police department salary. Andy was working graveyard shift and tried to pick up extra shifts to give them a little breathing room financially. Karen was growing more and more discontent with never seeing her husband, which led to anger. She was almost ready to call it quits when they went to talk with a pastor at their church. After listening to their plight, he suggested counseling. But they were already strapped financially and couldn’t afford it. He then suggested that they meet with another law enforcement couple who could provide some counsel and guidance. Because they’d heard Brent and I speak at a law enforcement function, they contacted us.

We met for a year or so, first as couples then individually. We were able to come alongside them and help them to talk through their issues in a condemnation-free environment. We didn’t offer much advice unless they asked for it but brought up pieces of problems they should look at and discuss. They were soon back on track, but we continue to keep in contact with them to make sure they’re solid.

Sometimes we need a little help to get past the obstacles we face in our marriages. Finding other people who can help you in some way is another piece of your support system. Mentoring and marriage retreats can be a great way to invest in your relationship, as can counseling.

Erica and Marlo, mentioned in previous chapters, go to counseling regularly, like dental check ups. They need a little cleaning to keep things healthy. Others go only when they are in crisis. But do your homework. Not all counselors are created equal. Try to get some recommendations. Inquire if they work with law enforcement. If you are of a particular faith, you may want to ensure that the counselor’s approach is compatible with your beliefs. Spend time in the research beforehand and have their information available for when you need it.

Counsel, friendships with women, your relationship with your husband, and other members of law enforcement all make up your support system. You can’t do life alone and remain healthy. We need each other for the ups and for the downs.

July 1st, 2013

Posted In: A CHiP on My Shoulder

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