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How To Love Your Cop
How To Love Your Cop

Two Minutes with Gilmartin

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.

Enablers?

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.

November 22nd, 2013

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13 Comments

  • Victoria Newman says:

    Do you disagree with the Hypervigilance Roller Coaster, or my thoughts on supporting him as a spouse?

    • Hi there, I was wondering what your thoughts were on spouses being on a Hypervigilance roller coaster of their own? I work with LEO couples and I’ve noticed a theme, of when the LEO is at work, the spouse has a hard time getting anything done (as though in the “Off Duty” phase. Then when their LEO gets home they become hypervigilent “On Duty”. I myself have been caught on this roller coaster, married to a LEO 25 years, so I’m not sure if it has anything to do with the LEO, or if this is common in marriage? Also, this shows up more in stay at home wives. I saw Gilmartin speak yesterday, and when I saw the graph it just got me thinking. Thanks!

      • Victoria Newman - "A CHiP on My Shoulder" says:

        Hello Carol!

        Good question. As far as the hypervigilance roller coaster as it is defined in Gilmartin’s book, we as spouses are not experiencing the same thing, unless the spouse is also an officer. Hypervigilance is the product of biochemistry–the heightened awareness on duty that comes from the training that comes from being in a heightened awareness mentality, handling stress and being on guard. The dump is the body’s response to that extended time in being over-vigilant. Now, with that being said, we as spouses have ups and downs too, but it is caused by other things. We are definitely affected by the stress that comes home in many different ways for sure, and secondary PTSD is a thing. If we get so fatigued or affected by the constant demands our officer’s job puts on us, we can have a tendency to withdraw or experience depression-like symptoms (or depression itself). Stress can cause stress! And if we slide into a mode of watching TV or in front of a screen and disengaging from the family, well it looks like the hypervigilance rollercoaster, but it isn’t the same physiologically. Does this help?

  • Mark says:

    I just attended Dr. Gilmartin’s seminar today. I am a detective and he hit home!! I now see what I have been putting family through for the past 25 years. I have some serious changing to do. I appreciate your post and your support of your officer!
    Thanks

  • Becca says:

    Gilmartin is a name used daily in our household. One of the most valuable tools that he offers, from my opinion, is the ability for a wife to express her concerns with facts to back her up. I noticed many of the symptoms of the “roller coaster”, but could not express why our home life did not seem like other families home lives. It is enlightening and freeing to be able to have insight into what is going on in my husbands life and physiology and to try to help mitigate the effects of this cycle. I gain a new positive focus by reading all of the different things that we as spouses can do. Thank you for helping in the fight to improve officers lives and families!

  • Juice says:

    Victoria, I found your post after rereading chapter 8 of Emotional Survival for the 4th time. The recognition of seeing that I’m part of the problem is humbling and freeing. I feel like my wife wants to leave me and it has been ripping my entrails out.
    THoweverwo things:
    1. before shift today I asked her to please come home, and she said of course. (Made my day much easier) this evening I realized I asked the wrong preshift question. I should be asking: what do you need from me today?
    2. Chapter 8 is HUGE on aggressive time management. We spouses need to be coming up with creative activities outside of home and outside of cop life, so they can get back into the normal risk zone. (Ex: I plan to take her to a park on Coronado and throw the softball back and forth. But mentioning it tomorrow before shift so she can begin time managing it in her brain)

    • Victoria Newman says:

      Juice: Love your comments! My husband and I bought a kayak–and that is medicine. A little core and arm workout coupled with some beauty and fresh air. Priceless. You’re right–we can be part of the problem, or part of the solution. She’s blessed to have a man who cares enough to do the research, the creativity, and now the follow-thru. Excellent!

  • Juice says:

    Btw…I am currently under the idea that planned time management needs to wait until at least the 12 Hour mark…give there bodies time to recover before trying to shock them with an emotional EKG

  • Melissa says:

    Hi, I love reading these comments! Thank you for all sharing your story and perspectives. My LEO has been on 10 years. I should be doing more at home to not enable hypervigilance in our home. It is hard, protest after protest–riot after riot… hours getting changed last minute, sleep being lost and the department being short over 100+ officers. Not to mention the amount of actual hours he works, between secondary and his shift. Ex. he just left and will work from 10am-2pm, go to the gym, then work 4pm-12am. I work full-time and 40+ hours a week myself. It is also hard, because at work and with my parent’s I am the one who keeps it all together for us. I organize and facilitate our lives… normally, I do it really well too! ha However, there are days it makes me angry and resentful of his department and his job.

    • Juice says:

      Melissa, be careful with the word “should” it can be dangerous, and often the only thing “should” is good for…is that we should get it out of our vocabulary. But I love hearing your comments because I hear that you DO love your husband so much, and with such sacrifice.
      Normal life is difficult to keep the love tank full, so it is encouraging to hear of an LE couple desiring to put into the tank…on purpose…amidst the vast limitations.
      Keep on wanting it together!

  • Glen Lee Edwards says:

    I’m going to suggest that the best off-duty activities are those that don’t have a performance or competitive component. Coaching the kid’s baseball/softball team sounds like a positive diversion, but due to the competitive stress the players and their parents already place on themselves to win and be the best, and the expectation they place on the coach to make it happen, this forces the officer back into hypervigilance mode. Video games should be avoided. Anything that forces the off duty officer into performance mode, high alertness, or places performance demands on him, are off duty activities best to be avoided.

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