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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