Sunday, April 25, 2010
Sunday, April 18, 2010
Awhile back, a local homeless guy rang my doorbell and asked if he could do some lawn work for me. He asked me for $20.00 up front saying he needed to pick up some medicine right away. He assured me he’d be back to do the work later in the day. I assumed he was going to smoke up the twenty bucks, but I wanted to give him the benefit of the doubt. Six months later, homeboy’s still in the wind.
I can hear you snorting, “you’re and idiot, of COURSE he’s gonna buy crack with your money!” My contention is that retaining some of the naivety we all (more or less) had when we started this career is a GOOD thing.
Policing distorts and narrows our world view. Two factors combine to produce this phenomenon. First, we’re exposed to a very small subset of society: criminals and victims. We work in waters inhabited almost exclusively by victims and criminals. The general public has no idea just how depraved, petty and vicious human beings can be. We do.
Second, the encounters we have with this “special” group tend to be emotionally charged, which imprints this into our brain. Stimuli we take in while emotionally charged tends to stay with us. The end result is that, as police officers, we become convinced we live in “reality.” We can be downright smug about our sense that we know what the “real world” is all about. We give many speeches about life in the real world to our adolescent children. But here’s the problem: we don’t know reality, we know POLICE reality. There’s a huge difference.
We see the world through different lenses. It starts in the academy. We’re given cop shades and instructed never to take them off. Seen through our cops shades, the world is a dangerous place, filled with malevolent evil-doers. Once a felon always a felon. People don’t change. Quick, neat boxes. Crack head, victim, asshole, parolee. We develop a decidedly pessimistic view of human nature.
The slice of “reality” we live in at work is just that, a slice. A very thin slice. Our exposure to this tiny segment of humanity renders us experts in it. The problem arises when we forget that not every scout master is a pedophile and that some drug addicts change their lives.
Here’s what you need to know: if you never take your cop shades off, you will inadvertently place your mind in a small cage. You may continue on with your smug belief that you live in reality, but really the existential joke’s on you.
Getting burned now and again is a small price to pay for maintaing a wide angle view of the world.
Sunday, April 11, 2010
If you’re a law enforcement officer reading this, you’re an odd duck. “Police Mental Health?” Really?
When I first created this site, I told my work partner about it. He said it sounded as interesting as underwater basket weaving. In response to a mass text message to all my cop buddies about the blog and what it’s about, I received multiple versions of this simple reply: “I DON’T GIVE A FUCK.” Cute. Mental health isn’t interesting to most cops. Shrinks are seen as “quacks,” unnecessary, overly-sensitive hippies who want to give hugs all day.
Of course, our problem with psychotherapy is illogical but phobias are impervious to reason. Us cops tend to be psychophobes (I just made that word up). Seriously, if you want quality emotional kevlar for this career, you’ll develop, introspection, psychological mindedness and honesty within yourself. Introspection means looking inside yourself for clues about why you do things. Psychological mindedness is a curiosity about your emotions and thoughts and all the factors that go into making who you are.
I’ve come to realize that most officers are really masking their apprehension and “fear of the unknown” about psychotherapy by demeaning it. It’s simply not logical to dismiss an entire science with childish proclamations. I’ve learned this through countless conversations I’ve had with officers about the counseling process. It seems many of us cops believe shrinks have special and frightening powers, including mind-reading and the ability to “get in my ooda loop.”
So let’s talk about this, shall we?
I myself am a fairly harsh critic of therapists and therapy. Having taught, practiced and clinically supervised many therapists over the years, I have developed strong opinions about what makes therapy work. First, however, let’s briefly cover some basics.
THE CASE FOR PSYCHOTHERAPY.
The idea that our emotional life is or should be separate and distinct from our physical life began to die in western culture when the roman poet Juvenal (second century CE) advocated for mens sana in corpore sano ("A healthy mind in a healthy body"). Our psyche is an essential part of us. It should be cared for in the same way we care for our bodies. Through socialization we learn that only crazy people need therapy. We think, “yeah, I’m irritable and a little depressed, but I don’t need therapy. I’m not that fucked up.” This sentiment is pervasive and it’s killing us. Psychotherapy does NOT equal crazy. It doesn’t equal mentally ill or weak or feminine. You may be one of the innumerable police officers around the world pushing a beat car around town while privately suffering immense pain. You may continue suffering privately and taking it out on the ones you love. You may continue refusing to get the help that’s available to you because you continue to hold on to the horse shit you learned about what it means to be in counseling. If that’s you, on behalf of your children and loved ones I say, shame on you. There’s no excuse for that. None.
HOW DO I KNOW IF I SHOULD BE IN THERAPY?
You’ll never know if you should try therapy if you don’t have the capacity to be honest with yourself. It’s a prerequisite of sorts. If you’ve met that prerequisite, here’s a short list of indicators that you should go try therapy:
If, in your honest moments you feel a significant amount of emotional upset (anger, anxiety, sadness etc.) that goes beyond a fleeting mood and you don’t know what it’s about or can't figure out and fix alone.
If your marriage or long term relationship is taking a shit and your efforts to fix it haven’t worked.
If you want a long term relationship but manage to blow it up every time.
If others around you (friends, supervisors, family members) are saying any version of “Hey buddy, you have some issues.” We call this “convergent feedback.” If your girlfriend, sibling and good friend are all saying you’re drinking too much, you’re well advised to LISTEN.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR IN A THERAPIST.
Competence. That’s what you need. You don’t need a shrink who specializes in working with first responders (though that would be nice). Why? Because one of the biggest problems with counseling is that results are hard to measure. It’s very subjective. This fact has done a lot to damage the endeavor of therapy. This, because it tacitly gives permission to incompetent therapists to continue their lame ways. Oncologists don’t have this problem. The patient comes to you for cancer, you treat them and then they either still have it, you zap it out of them or it goes into remission. Psychotherapists have all manner of explaining away why a patient doesn’t get better. We have a lot of fancy words to put the onus on the “resistant” or “defended” patient. HOWEVER, this does not mean therapy in GENERAL is worthless. It simply means you have to be a discerning shopper.
The therapy relationship is pardoxical, in that it’s both a real and an unreal relationship. It’s real insofar as your therapist is a real person, with real foibles. It’s unreal in that you should be able to tell your therapist things that you wouldn’t usually tell others. You should be able to practice ways of being in the world that are new and frequently uncomfortable. THERAPY DOESN’T ALWAYS FEEL GOOD. Sometimes people feel worse...a lot worse, than they did initially. Sometimes we have to feel like shit in order to get better. If you’ve been in therapy for a year and you feel great every time you leave something is seriously wrong with your therapy.
If you don’t like the shrink you’ve chosen after the first or second session, keep looking. If you don’t like them after five sessions it’s probably because they’re calling you on your issues and you should talk to them about it. You should feel safe and accepted by your therapist before he or she starts pointing out sore spots.
There are many, many different types of therapists practicing many, many different types of therapy. You should ask a potential therapist, “What’s your theoretical orientation?” If they can’t answer that question, hem and haw or tell you something you don’t understand, keep looking. Look out for words like “eclectic.” Eclectic is a fancy word for “I use a little of this theory and a little of that theory.” Usually it means, “I don’t know any theory so I’m faking it.”
Therapists treat people using theory as a framework. I’m a cognitive therapist. I can tell you what that means in a language that you’ll understand. I’m also influenced by Object Relations theory, specifically D.W. Winnicott. I can also tell you what that means. The point is, if your potential shrink has no framework from which to do the work, they will be “supportive,” as in “I do supportive counseling.” What THAT means is they’re like a rent-a-friend. They make you feel good. YOU DON’T NEED THAT. You already (hopefully) have friends that can make you feel good when you’re down. You need a COMPETENT therapist.
To say you don’t get counseling because the shrink won’t understand police work and what you’re up against in this work is an excuse. A good therapist doesn’t need to know all about police work. They just need to know psychology.
The Badge of Life (badgeoflife.com) is an organization dedicated to mental health for all police officers. I'm a proud member of this organization. The Badge of Life recommends annual mental health checks for all cops. Most of us are required to get annual physical examinations, so why not check in with a licensed mental health professional annually as well? It's not like you won't have things to talk about. E mail me if you have specific questions regarding therapy.
Sunday, April 4, 2010
Why Cops Get Fat and Die Young.
That's an eye grabber, eh? I would have called this week's entry something like, "Stress physiology 101 for cops," but I've been told my blog name is boring and that I should spice things up a bit. There you go.
This little corner of the internet is guided by science and what is sometimes called, "the scientific method of inquiry." That's my bias. Science isn't perfect. It is, by definition, progressive in nature. Scientists used to tell us the earth was flat and that prefrontal lobotomy's cured depression. Now we know these are false. We've progressed, and will continue to do so. But I'm still more inclined to believe truth claims when they are based in scientific research, rather than faith, intuition or tarot cards. With science as our guide I ask,
Do police officers have a shorter life-expectancy than the general population?
Answer: Yes. According to recent research by John Violanti and his colleagues at the University of Buffalo, the average life expectancy for officers is 66 years, compared to 75 year for the general population. Moreover, the quality of our lives is poorer, due to an alphabet soup of diseases and disorders that we disproportionately acquire through a police career.
Many young officers don't really care about this fact. It's cool being a cop. It's exciting, interesting, challenging and a good way to get dates. Let's not let the fact that a police career may very well shave a full nine full years off our lives kill the buzz of Code-3 cover calls and choir practices. Right? Let me, with love in my heart, invite you to look a little further out in time. Most cops are scrupulous financial planners. We set money aside, invest in real estate and carefully consider our retirement. We NEED…repeat NEED to consider our personal wellness in a similar fashion. Otherwise, we're going to live significantly shorter, more unhealthy lives. We'll become caricatures instead of real people. Those jaded, grizzled, hard drinking cops are fun to watch on t.v. I can pretty much guarantee you wouldn't want to BE that cop in real life. You're kids and spouses definitely don't want that.
Why do cops get fat and die young?
Answer: cortisol. It's at least one reason.
Okay, so we have a bunch of different kinds of steroid hormones (called "glucocorticoids") running around our bodies. Their job is to get the body ready to whoop someone up. For our purpose, the most important glucocorticoid is cortisol (aka "the stress hormone"). Since police officers are always on guard at work (think, Cooper Color Code here), our bodies produce way more cortisol than it should. In the animal kingdom, the further up the food chain you go, the more crazy cortisol levels play havoc. Animals slightly lower in the food chain produce cortisol and other stress hormones (i.e.. adrenaline) only when they need them for immediate battle, like when chasing or running from predators. After the chase, they just go back doing whatever they were doing, and their cortisol goes back to normal. Humans are unique in that we can actually produce cortisol by our thoughts. The only way to really freak a zebra out is to be bigger than it and start chasing it across the savanna like you want to eat the bastard. Zebras don't get freaked out by their thoughts. They don't fret about second mortgages while grazing. The absolute guru in this area, and a hero of mine, is Robert Sapolski from Stanford University. He has two things I like a lot. First, he's an internationally recognized expert and researcher in stress physiology. Second, he talks about his work in such a way that any bozo (like me) can actually UNDERSTAND. His book on this topic is called, Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers. I would recommend it highly. I've attached a video of Sapolsky talking about the zebra thing.
Here's the problem with cortisol. Elevated levels cause a whole bunch of medical and psychological problems, such as hypertension, depression, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Those are just the headliners. There are many more diseases/disorders associated with whacky cortisol levels. If your body produces more cortisol than it needs it gets stuck with it. After mashing Code-3 to a hot call for sixty seconds, the officer goes Code-4 and you're not even on scene yet. Your body then says, "SHIT, I have all this cortisol that WAS going to be used for this good brawl…now what I'm I going to do with it?" Apparently, (and this is a real bummer) what god has instructed our bodies to do is store extra cortisol in our bodies as fat. That's right, body fat. That's one reason so many of us have huge spare tires and big asses.
Importantly, we cannot consciously choose how much cortisol is secreted during stress. It's one of the many ("autonomic") bodily functions not under our direct control. I say "direct" here because there are a few autonomic functions we DO have control over. If memory serves eye blinking is one, but that's not gonna help us. Another is BREATHING.
You guys need to start breathing more. In my book, I talk a lot about breathing. I'm tempted here to just cut and paste the stuff but then you won't go out and buy it when it comes out, so let me paraphrase my wise self. Breathing - specifically diaphragmatic (aka "tactical" "combat") breathing recalibrates the body. It produces a conscious feeling of calm. Breathing is free. It can be used anytime, anywhere. As counterintuitive as it may seem, as soon as you hear a hot call come over the radio, you should start tactical breathing. Not only will this allow you to retain access of higher cognitive functioning (which is really helpful when you're making snap, life or death decisions), it will keep your body in check. So, not as much cortisol will dump. I'm not going to go into more detail about tactical breathing here this morning. If you don't know how to breath diaphrematically, just do an internet search. I may dedicate a post entirely to breathing because it's THAT freakin' important. Breathing is a tool and it's a damn good one for combatting cortisol and all the negative ju ju that excessive cortisol does to us.
As soon as you're done reading this take four diaphragmatic breaths. In for a four count, hold for four, release for a four count. Do that four times and carry on with your day. If you don't…well then you've been led to the water and you're simply refusing to drink.
It seems the audio may not be working here. If you can't hear it, just go to the youtube video,