Total Pageviews

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

The "F" Word is not Allowed

*Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on Sunday, May 22, 2011

Police officers don’t use the “F” word. It’s taboo in our culture and when an officer does slip and incorporate the dreaded word, they open themselves to ridicule from their fellow officers. The “F” word to which I’m referring is feelings.

In the police culture, it’s been imbedded that we cannot show weakness because it is in direct conflict with the image of power and strength we are trying to project. Cops are really good at keeping a “game face” even when confronted with a tragedy that yanks on their heart strings. In some ways, it’s a blessing that most officers develop an emotional shield to protect them from the painful things they’ve seen. The callousness often used to describe a police officer’s lack of feeling is systematically created over many years of being the first responder to scenes of death and destruction. These layers eventually become so thick that some officers don’t have to pretend not to feel anymore – they simply don’t. At least they think they don’t.

In some ways, I see this emotional shield as a necessity for public servants. If doctors, nurses, firefighters and police officers didn’t develop one, they couldn’t sleep through the night without replaying the images over and over again. The fact is that those who say they are unaffected by the devastating tragedies usually find that it manifests in some other aspects of their lives. While they may successfully block the images from their minds, they turn to unhealthy habits that serve as outlets for their pain. But it almost always catches up with them.

One of our officers arrived first on the scene of the fire on Claim Street that took the lives of six people last weekend. He ran into the burning building and tended to victims that didn’t survive. As if that weren’t enough to handle, that same officer had a baby die in his arms the week before as he was administering CPR. When I checked in with him to see how he was doing, he answered, “Fine.”

When someone asks how you are, fine would be an acceptable answer. It means satisfactory. Most people go through life being just fine. If you had to endure what that officer endured, I surmise that you would not be fine. Perhaps he thinks he’s fine but I know he’s not. I know because this stuff gets deep inside your psyche and no matter how much you want to block it out and ignore the pictures that are etched into your memory, they keep coming back. This is the very stuff that changes us over the years. This is why the suicide rates of police officers are double that of the general population--- because they aren’t fine.

Joanne Furnas is the Director of Victims Services at AID and she facilitates stress debriefings for firefighters and police personnel after traumatic incidents. I gave the police officer (the one who said he was fine) her phone number and plead with him to reach out to her. He called me a few hours later to tell me that he had not only called her but she made herself available to him immediately. He shared that his meeting with her was very helpful.

According to Joanne, the officer was minimizing the incident. Because I know Joanne’s no-nonsense method, I was glad to hear that he agreed with her assessment. He went on to tell me the details of the fire through his eyes and said it was “the worst thing he’s ever experienced” in his career.

I think he’s actually on his way to being fine because he sought the help he needed and he’s talking about the pain rather than stifling it. Some might think it’s a weakness to ask for help. In reality, admitting weakness and reaching out for help is a sign of true strength.

Monday, May 9, 2011

Bad Attitudes and Glowworms

*Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on May 8, 2011

In my third grade classroom there was a poster on the wall that read:

I wish I were a glowworm,

A glowworm's never glum.

'Cuz how can you be grumpy

When the sun shines out your bum!

I didn’t understand what that poem meant until I was in my 20’s, and I had an epiphany about attitude. I was partnered with a veteran officer and two hours into our eight hour shift, I began to realize that that there was not a single thing he enjoyed about his job or his life. Being assigned to ride with me was also a source of contention for him and he wasn’t bashful about telling me so.

I found his disdain for life odd – especially given the fact that it was a beautiful summer day and the few calls we answered were relatively uneventful. As we patrolled the streets, I visualized a dark cloud exclusively over his head in contrast to the sunshine surrounding the rest of us and I laughed out loud as the glowworm poem popped into my head. It was at that moment that I started to understand the effect our attitude has on our entire existence.

Throughout my life, I have been bombarded with lessons about attitude. It’s not what happens to us in life, but the way we respond that makes a difference. If you can’t change a situation, you must change the way you see the situation. I understand these lessons on an intellectual level but conceptually, there are times I find it difficult to find the light when darkness seems to be so overwhelming.

As I gained more experience as a police officer, I began to understand how the metamorphosis from an optimist to a pessimist occurs. I became distrusting of other human beings though not without reason. I had been lied to, spit on, and physically attacked while doing my job. I saw the evil human beings did to one another and started to become suspicious of motives all around me. There was a moment where I quietly challenged my decision to make this my career and I felt my own dark cloud begin to hover.

Because I’ve always been very analytical and self-aware [by my own estimation], I started to pay attention to the negativity of my co-workers and it suddenly became clear that the miserable ones seemed to feed off each other like vultures. They gravitated towards one another because they validated each other’s thoughts and beliefs. They were always victims and they effortlessly found someone else to blame for all that was wrong. Never did they stop to look in the proverbial mirror and ask themselves if they might be part of the problem.

My favorite book is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by Viktor Frankl. In his book, Frankl writes about his experiences in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany. He took particular interest in how some of his fellow prisoners seemed to endure and even thrive, while others gave up and laid down to die. From this, he concluded that, “everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of human freedom is to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances – to choose ones own way.”

We all struggle in some way with things that are completely out of our control. But the way we gain control over these things – even if only attitudinally – is where our freedom lies. We don’t have to experience torture in a concentration camp to apply Frankl’s teachings to our own lives. We each have the freedom to make choices that liberate us from our self-imposed prisons.

If Frankl’s story doesn’t motivate you to choose the way you look at things, maybe you need to surround yourselves with more glowworms.