Last week I had the opportunity to attend Dr. Kevin Gilmartin’s training on Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. It was my first time listening to him teach in person.
I was taken in with the way he presented the parts of police officers others rarely see: the biological and chemical reactions to what they are trained to do, the responses that affect their bodies short and long term, their attitudes and decisions toward the job, and their relationships at home. It was excellent information.
Here are some of my highlighted notes:
*Most officers get 4-6 hours of sleep a night, two hours less than they need.
*Sleep deprivation is a cancer risk.
*Cops are experts on the shit of life. We need to train officers to be professional cynics, not half-assed cynics who can’t turn it off.
*Cynicism is distrust of human nature and motives.
*Normal people make decisions based on probability. Cops make decisions based on possibility.
*Trust to an officer is naïve risk-taking.
*Cops die 19 years earlier than they should – because of the hypervigilance rollercoaster and the long-term affects it has on their bodies.
*We lose 484 officers a year to suicide.
*Firemen face risk for small portions of their shifts. Cops face potential risk their entire shift.
*Fire is a team-based trust profession. Policing is an individual-based distrust profession.
*Law enforcement culture doesn’t talk about the affects of carbohydrates or low levels of cortisol, but then we joke about donuts and bury them early.
*The hypervigilance rollercoaster produces cops that are emotionally over-invested at work, and emotionally under-invested at home.
*To break the cycle of the rollercoaster, the officer needs to get off his ass, exercise a half hour a day, eat right, and intentionally invest in other roles of his life.
Then, at lunchtime, I took the opportunity to talk with Dr. Gilmartin. The exchange was maybe two minutes.
But it rocked my world.
Let me back up a bit. When I spoke in Canmore, Alberta a month ago, one of the gals presented information from Gilmartin’s book. She gave a great summary of hypervigilance, which is the biological process a peace officer undergoes while on duty, which heightens their awareness, thinking abilities, and quick response to anything that comes up. She explained that once the shift is over, their bodies need to recover, which means off-duty, their bodies go into a exact opposite/depression-like state to offset the affects of the body while in hypervigilance (Gilmartin calls this the Hypervigilance Biological Rollercoaster.) After her presentation, the LEOWs had several questions, mainly about how to explain and train their children to understand and accept this phenomena. I told them I would see Dr. Gilmartin in November, and would ask him exactly that.
I approached Gilmartin, armed with my innocent question. His response stopped me in my heels.
“Kids should not even be aware of hypervigilance,” He asserted. He then shifted and sort of sighed, “Spouses can be the biggest enablers…”
I didn’t hear anything after that.
There was, by then, a crowd that had gathered. I saw the look on the gal’s face next to me. It was a wince. I felt my insides turn, so I muttered something about thanks and excused myself. Then, for the next three hours of traffic-laden processing and a tearful conversation with Chief, I realized something.
I’d used hypervigilance as an excuse for some of the bad habits in our home.
And not only was I not engaged in the fight against hypervigilance, I’d actually resigned myself to it, and joined in with both feet.
For quite some time now.
And I’ve been believing, talking about and teaching that we need to understand who our officers are, how the job affects them, and then deal with it. I’ve not understood the entire picture.
I need to understand so that I can not just deal with it, or make excuses for it, but rather join in on the solutions. I am the heart of my home, and my husband’s best friend. I’ve declared I’m his backup at home – and the biological effects of hypervigilance take place at home. Gilmartin didn’t write his book so that we could just understand it and let it take its course. Gilmartin wrote his book so that we could understand it, and join in the FIGHT to CHANGE it.
My husband’s health – physically, emotionally, and relationally – depends on it.
His actual LIFE depends on it.
He has his brothers and sisters on duty that have his back should something go crazy. But at home, there are still dangers that lurk within his very body that threaten his life.
Is there any more important backup than that?
So, as his backup at home:
I can fix healthy meals to help my officer to FIGHT against the affects on his weight…
I can leave Oreos and Doritos and Jack Daniels on the shelf at the store…
I can exercise with my officer so that he swings back into a normal level…
I can make sure he gets the sleep he needs…
I can motivate (without nagging) my officer to turn off the computer/TV to wrestle with the kids, or go to church, or coach his son’s baseball team, or to get out in the yard (together) and make it pretty again…
I can live and operate with the realization that my officer is a cop, but that is not the only thing he is. He is a husband, a father, a son, a coach, a friend, a board member, an outdoorsman, and he has much to offer our family, and our community…
So that his kids will never know about hypervigilance.
Victoria Newman - "A CHiP on My Shoulder" November 22nd, 2013
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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