Category: Healing

Guest Post: Emotionless

This week I had a hard time deciding what I would write about. This is my 10th article, so I guess I wanted to write something special. I decided to write about police work and the toll it takes on a person’s emotions . This is not based on any science or psychological analysis but my own experience. Remember also that every person is different and other police officers might have had different experiences, but I think they will find similarities with my story.

To start off, I would like to say that when I first started out as a front line officer, I was learning a lot from more experienced officers. I would take from these officers what fit my personality and also what would work in the field when dealing with the public. I found that I was the type of person who would connect better with the public, whether complainants, victims or even suspects. I would be to get to know them better and know where they are coming from.

No, not the place they are coming from but what type of life they had and what brought them to this point…so in other words, empathize with them. Well for me to do this and for them to come and trust me, I would need to let a little bit of myself go also. Otherwise it’s one-way communication and you will never get any good rapport with anyone that way.

Then all of a sudden, the pulling and tugging stopped.

So this was the way I decided that I was going to police. It fit my values of life better and when I think about it, it saved me from a few tight situation. For example, one night I was working on the Reserve and keeping a close eye on a beer garden along with a local reserve officer. Close to midnight as we were driving in the parking lot, we were flagged down. One of the patrons was going nuts and wanted to fight everybody. My partner and I got out of our vehicle, approaching the subject of complaint and were going to arrest him then and there. Then all of a sudden, his buddies started tugging on us and we were being circled. The more we fought to arrest the subject, the more we were getting pulled and pushed away from this guy. Then all of a sudden, the pulling and tugging stopped. Well lo and behold, when I turned around, a bunch of people that I had built a rapport with in the past had formed a line and were keeping the subject of complaint’s buddies away from us.

For me to get a rapport of that kind,  I had to let a little bit of my personal past out to them as well. But what happens when you do this is that you start to connect with people and the people you connect with the most are the ones you deal with almost on a daily basis – which are the one you get to arrest on a regular basis! You start to really sympathize with most of them because you start finding out that they are the way they are today because of what happened to them in the past.

I found out that some of them had parents that were alcoholics or only one parent who was an alcoholic and sometimes would roam the streets at 2-3 o’clock in the morning at 6-7 years of age so they wouldn’t see the dad, or boyfriend beat up on their moms. Or that some of them had been sexually assaulted by a parent, an uncle or even grandparents as young as three years of age. A lot of social problems resulted in young kids growing up with having to deal with traumatic events when they were very young . I think some of them wanted a different life but growing up just didn’t know where to turn to for help.

Those became what I call today my “robot years.”

Some of these people I got to connect at a close level ended up committing suicide, including two hockey players I had coached a few years before. That really took a toll on my mental health, although I didn’t realize it at the time. Dealing with these types of situations after awhile, those became what I call today my “robot years.” I would actually go to certain calls and it would be like I was on automatic. I would not care at all about a break-and-enter with minor value stolen. I would take notes, make believe that I was concerned, and then leave and write my report and on to the next call.

I had built a wall so well that I was forgetting what it was like to live life like a regular human being.

The robot years started to carry on during my days off. I still remember my wife telling me years after how she would look at me and it would seem like I was a person that just didn’t have any emotions left. I wasn’t seeing it that way, but now that I reflect back on it, I really didn’t have any emotions left at all. Everything was on a level. No highs and no lows. Just functioning through life… like a robot. I had built a wall so well that I was forgetting what it was like to live life like a regular human being. I still feel the effects today, although I do have glimpses of feeling emotions of happiness and sadness, but not as much as before I joined law enforcement. I feel like I am empty inside. Nothing left. This was actually mirrored to me by a very good friend of mine who also worked 28 years in policing and just recently retired. He told me those exact words. That he felt like he had no emotions left inside. That he was dead inside.

I think as police officers, especially the ones who try to empathize with people that are struggling through life, we try to keep our emotions so much in check when attending calls that our mind starts to think that it is not good to have any emotions. And when you think about it, police officers do have to hold back emotions frequently. We can not start to break down and cry uncontrollably in front of the public at a serious accident scene where kids are deceased. Or in one of my cases, tell a seven-year-old that his mom would be okay and asking a firefighter to bring the kid up the embankment for me as I was with the paramedic attending the mom. Her face was a grayish pale with purple lips. I had a feeling she was badly bleeding internally and the paramedic confirmed my assumptions. She died soon after. I always felt a lot of guilt, even today for lying to that kid. But I just didn’t want him to see his mom this way.

I just want to enjoy the peacefulness that nature brings. That to me is true happiness.

I could go on and on about these types of calls that other police officers and I attended. We are to hold our emotions in on a daily basis. After awhile, you do not want to let go of all those emotions at home. Why would I burden my wife on the violence I witness during my shift? I don’t even want to remember them today. So why would I give this hell to someone I love? Doesn’t make any sense. Today, I find a lot of peacefulness and happiness just walking in the woods with my dog. Even though my wife tags along with me at times, she knows that sometimes, I just don’t want to talk. I just want to enjoy the peacefulness that nature brings. That to me is true happiness.

Thank you for those taking the time to read my articles. Please share to whomever you feel could benefit from them. I would really appreciate that. Until next week. Stay safe my friends. 🙂


Article: How One Paramedic is Recovering from PTSD

The Journal of Emergency Medical Services has published the PTSD recovery story of Benjamin Vernon, a paramedic/firefighter in San Diego. Vernon and his partner who was knifed by a bystander during an ordinary call. He describes the attack, recovery and the nightmares – a word he says isn’t strong enough – that followed. Unfortunately, the therapist he saw had never treated a firefighter or a victim of workplace violence.

“On the fifth day, I finally understood suicide,” Vernon writes.

The story ends well – he finds a competent therapist (whom he’s still seeing weekly) and receives EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), which he describes as “the coolest Voodoo.” (It’s also sometimes called “FM” for “F%&#ing Magic.”

News report: Meditation reduces stress, changes your brain

Many studies have shown that meditation can be a powerful way to reduce anxiety and raise the body systems that calm us down after exposure to stress. The Washington Post last May reported findings of Sara Lazar, a neuroscientist at Massachusetts General from brain scans that showed that some parts of the brain expanded and others became smaller after sustained meditation.

This is part of a big change in thinking about our brains, which until recently were assumed to be fixed, unchangeable. Now we we have a word for the brain’s ability to change – neuroplasticity – as well as increasing evidence about what kinds of attitudes and activities encourage positive changes.

Paper: Oxytocin shows promise in meth addiction (in rats)

Neuroscientists looking at meth-addicted rats found that higher levels of oxytocin, the much-studied hormone associated with social behavior and stress, decreases their demand for the drug, an article in Biological Psychiatry reports. They found that the effects are changed by actions in the part of the brain associated with aversion, motivation and rewards.

This study echoes findings in a 2014 report by some of the same researchers, which found that oxytocin decreases cocaine usage in addicted rats.

Relaxing music v. emotional memory

One of the ways we can help cope with high-stress events is to do things that, strange as it might sound, interfere with our brain’s ability to remember the emotions. Music has that power. Psychology researchers at Monash University in Australia took a look at the ability of relaxing music to lower the impact of traumatic events and found a strong correlation between listening to the music and reduced recall of an emotional story.

The research abstract is available here,  with a link to the full article (payment required).

I find myself wondering if we would do well to play relaxing music at the start of every crisis intervention. In any case, it’s probably a good idea to have your own playlist of relaxing music ready to listen to after a critical incident.


Retreat to move forward

For almost 25 years, I’ve helped put on spiritual retreats (the Walk to Emmaus) that focus on renewal – building up leaders and potential leaders, rekindling passion for their values and beliefs. I recently participated in a different kind of retreat. WCPR‘s goal is to help first responders find their way again in the aftermath of high-stress events or careers.

The starting point for attendees at these retreats are different – Emmaus retreats are for building people up from a foundation, while WCPR is focused on healing after psychological injury. WCPR is run by public safety peers and therapists, often with a chaplain present; Emmaus retreats are run by lay people and ordained clergy.

The activities are more similar than I might have expected. Not surprisingly, both kinds of retreat feature great food and fellowship.  There’s a lot of education – Emmaus is essentially a short course in Christianity, with a lot of kindness and love; WCPR is a short course on living with post-traumatic stress, also with much kindness and love. Both give the attendees a safe place to talk about the toughest parts of their lives, along with symbolic steps to let go of old hurts and habits.  In both cases, some of the weekend’s safety and support come from being among strangers who have been through similar circumstances.

Betrayal and forgiveness are common themes of injury and healing at both retreats. Betrayal is a deeply spiritual issue, I realized at WCPR.  A Darwinist view – survival of the fittest, no room for spiritual issues – says that there’s nothing wrong with betraying others if you can get away with it. Nothing personal, just competition! Or, to use a more popular reference – in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Mr. Spock, basing his decision on Vulcan logic, had no problem betraying Captain Kirk to volunteer the crew for a peace mission to the Klingons. (Okay, no more Star Trek; back to forgiveness.)

At WCPR, I was introduced to Dr. Fred Luskin’s excellent book, Forgive for Good: A Proven Prescription for Health and Happiness. Luskin describes how we can lose ourselves in shoulds and should nots (my words) – things that should not have happened, but did, or things that should have happened, but did not. When these things are beyond our control, Luskin calls them “unenforceable rules.” They have the power to make us miserable. For example, one of my unenforceable rules was that rescuers should not make mistakes that kill the people they are supposed to be rescuing. Yet that happened right in front of me once and it haunted me for a long time. A common one, not just for responders, is “children should not suffer or die.”

One of Luskin’s guidelines is to separate what is personal from what is not. Rescuers make mistakes every day and some of them are fatal – it’s not personal when it happens on your shift. Children die every day; in that sense, it’s not personal when your child dies. When another person betrays your trust, it feels terribly personal, yet in reality such behavior is almost entirely their issue (they treat everyone that way) rather than about you. That difficult co-worker may have had a rough upbringing – “If they were raised by wolves, they’re going to bite” is a reminder not to take others’ bad behavior personally.

Luskin presents the idea of a “grievance story,,” which I found enlightening because I’ve always believed in the power of stories to transform and redefine experiences, lives and even entire communities. Narrative is powerful – but Luskin points out that we can become stuck in a negative one, which he calls a grievance story. His methods for processing a grievance story – forgiveness – are relatively simple. Sometimes telling your story doesn’t bring healing or growth.

He argues that forgiveness is something we do entirely for our own well-being, not for the sake of the person who hurt us. He separates the idea of forgiveness from any requirement to repair a relationship that has been broken by abuse or other betrayal. This is food for thought relative to the central role that forgiveness plays in Christian theology. “Forgive us as we forgive others,” is perhaps the most challenging line in Christianity’s most central prayer.

I don’t think that Luskin is talking about exactly the same thing as the Lord’s Prayer. The prayer is entirely in a plural voice, while Luskin’s approach focuses entirely on individuals. At the same time, Luskin expresses great hope that his methods will bring about greater peace in troubled communities – he has developed and tested his approach with people deeply impacted by violence in Northern Ireland.

The Lord’s Prayer is often translated as “Forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.” Luskin is a psychologist, not a theologian or pastor, so sin isn’t his topic. It is a loaded word, sometimes referring to particular actions, but its deeper meaning is to be disconnected from God, to be outside of God’s will. Forgiveness then is re-connection. Applying that thinking to Luskin’s work, I find myself wondering what kind of re-connection is happening in his process. The trivially easy answer is that Luskin is talking about re-connection to life. When we are consumed by how we were wronged by parents, lovers, business partners or others who have the power to betray our trust, we’re often stuck, unable to enjoy much of anything. Christianity at its best is an invitation to life – not the moral code it is often misrepresented to be. Luskin, though secular, clearly recognizes that we are not fully living when as long as we are carrying a grievance story.

Forgiving is a letting go, always a kind of surrender. Retreats can create a safe place in which to let go, to surrender the need to be in control of everything, to see others and be seen for who we really are, warts and all. In that safe place, people often gain great insights into themselves. The best retreats also help them figure out what actions to take in response to the new insights – how to move forward from the retreat.


West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat

Next week, I will help staff the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat. I’ve been aiming to participate for several years, but my schedule hasn’t permitted it until now. I have heard wonderful reports from people who have received care and treatment there; I also have referred first responders to the program when I could see that they were really struggling, hitting a wall of some kind.

The testimonials from attendees are phenomenal – and I’ve heard the same kinds of statements directly from some of them.

WCPR describes itself as ” for first responders whose lives have been affected by their work experience.” It is one of only two such residential treatment facilities in the world. Everyone who staffs the retreat is a volunteer – responders, clinicians and chaplains.

As a new peer supporter, I expect to mostly observe and listen – and learn a lot!

WCPR is part of the First Responder Support Network, which also offers programs for spouses and significant others of responders.