Sunday, May 30, 2010

Cops and Booze (part two)

Denial is oxygen for alcoholism. It’s what gives it the power to destroy. Denial is a psychological defense mechanism; a reflexive lightening quick mental maneuver used by our psyches. The goal of a defense mechanisms is just that, defending our minds from pain. The irony of using denial as a defense mechanism is that, over time, it produces its own pain. That’s why we want to first expose denial as a defense mechanism, and then try and use other defenses.

Everybody currently residing on planet earth uses defense mechanisms. If we didn’t have them we’d be overrun by reality and left babbling somewhere on a psych ward.

There are many defense mechanisms available to us. Denial, when employed by the alcoholic manifests itself in the following non-exhaustive list of thoughts:

I’m not an alcoholic.

I can control my drinking.

I’ll just cut back.

I’ll just stick to beer.

I’m not as bad as [insert name of that guy who’s REALLY a lush here].

I’ll quit on [insert future date].

I’m only going to have [insert prearranged number of drinks here].

I’m only going to drink on holidays (or weekends, or every third thursday].

I could pull these out of my ass all day long, but you get the point. Step one for getting better from alcoholism is admitting your an alcoholic. That first step is a real bear. Many alcoholics never get to this stage. In AA, before you say anything, you introduce yourself. Specifically, you introduce yourself by saying, “I’m Joe Blow and I’m an alcoholic.” The creators of AA figured this denial thing out. Recovery from alcoholism starts and stops with this basic admission; this acceptance.

Are you with me so far? You either accept you’re an alcoholic or you don’t. If you’re not an alcoholic you don’t need to read any further, unless you’re just morbidly curious about how alcoholics get better.

You’ve now reached the frequently horrific and painful conclusion that you’re an alcoholic. Should you want to get better, you now have to decide if you want to stop or not. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s really not. Experienced substance abuse counselors really take their time with clients to determine if he/she wants to stop drinking. These counselors aren’t personally invested in your stopping, rather they feel you out to see where you’re at with it. If they decide you really want to stop, then there’s work to be done. If, in the end, you aren’t ready or willing, there’s not much they can do for you.

Many alcoholics know they’re such but they have decided to live out their days accompanied by the only person who really understands them: Jack Daniels. Frequently, the first thing the alcoholic does when they realize their state is they go on a real good bender. They pop their heads out of the ground, gopher like, see what’s waiting for them and say, “fuck that!”

Assuming you want to get better, you’ve so far admitted that you’re an alcoholic and decided you don’t want to be a practicing drunk. You should know there is no cure for alcoholism. Sorry. We don’t have a cure for diabetes either, only ways of living with the disease. We can live quite happily and healthily with alcoholism just as we can with diabetes.

The next step is getting help. Cops tend to really struggle with this one. We can have one of our arms blown off, have shrapnel wounds in our forehead and be bleeding out, but still we’ll say, “I’m good, I’m good.” It’s cop hubris.

Hubris (also hybris; pronounced /ˈhjuːbrɪs/) means extreme haughtiness or arrogance. Hubris often indicates being out of touch with reality and overestimating one's own competence or capabilities, especially for people in positions of power.

While there’s no cure for alcoholism, there is a cure for hubris: humility. Humility happens when we allow ourselves not to know; when we permit ourselves to be lost and vulnerable. We simply cannot pass to the next stage until we humble ourselves. This can take much time up to and including forever.

If we reach that humble stage we can then open up to getting h-e-l-p. If you can honestly say the following out loud, to another person, you have passed: “I need help.” For a lot of people, and especially cops, saying “I need help,” leaves the taste of shit in your mouth. Let me suggest the taste of shit in your mouth is a small price to pay for getting better from this disease.

If you’ve gotten this far, things start to open up a bit. Now the only step left is availing yourself of the help available, and there’s a lot of it. What follows is a list of options. I would recommend starting with a visit to your primary care doctor and spilling your beans about your drinking.

[This is a convenient place for denial to poke back up in the form of something like “hell no I’m not talking to my doctor about’ll get back to my department” or some other such thing. To this, I call bullshit. I call excuse, I call denial. I would talk to your union rep. if you have doubts. If you don’t want to talk to your union rep. for the same reason I again call bullshit. If in denial you probably won’t see one of your departments peer counselors, or EAP or anything else out there...if this is you, with love in my heart I say go back to step one.]

Your doctor should be able to determine how advanced your alcoholism has become. Depending on that here’s what you could do for treatment:

  1. In patient alcohol detoxification.
  2. Out patient intensive alcohol treatment.
  3. Substance abuse counseling.
  4. Alcoholics Anonymous.

I could say a lot more about what each of these look like, but for the sake of brevity I’ll leave it at that. You can’t stop drinking for your children or your spouse or to save your career. You can only quit for yourself. I remember going to the liquor store with my dad when I was small. Back in those days the only non-alcoholic form of beer they had was called “Near Beer.” I clearly remembering seeing Near Beer in the refrigerated door and knowing what it was. After pops got the good stuff and we were in the car, I said, “Dad why don’t you get Near Beer?” He quietly said, “It doesn’t taste the same.”

We gotta make a decision

We leave tonight or live and die this way (Tracy Chapman, “Fast Car”)

What’s your decision?

Sunday, May 23, 2010

COPS AND BOOZE (part one)

"The unique subculture of the law enforcement profession often makes alcohol use appear as an accepted practice to promote camaraderie and social interaction among officers. What starts as an occasional socializing activity, however, later can become a dangerous addiction as alcohol use evolves into a coping mechanism to camouflage the stress and trauma experienced by officers on a daily basis." (Cross, 2004)

Alcoholism among police is too large of a topic to cover in one post. This will be a two-part series.

The consensus among the legions of researchers who study us police officers is that cops have a high rate of alcoholism. But you already knew that didn’t you? We joke about the lushes we work with. Sometimes we even express concern about them. Really, what we see is only the tip of the iceberg. Many officers have no compunction about their drinking habits. Most of us hide it.

Mental health providers are taught the following rule when assessing someone for a drinking problem: ask the client how much they drink per day or week. Whatever they say, triple it.


Here are the characteristics of diseases in general:

  1. Diseases impair normal functioning.
  2. Without intervention, diseases are progressive in nature (i.e. they get worse over time).
  3. Diseases can cause death.
  4. Diseases cause abnormal functioning of one or more vital organs.

Problem drinking meets all four of these. Alcoholism is a disease. It has a strong genetic component but that genetic predisposition isn’t necessary. To say, “I don’t have any alcoholics in my family so I don’t need to worry about it,” is a potentially dangerous mistake. You can produce alcoholism in otherwise healthy lab critters.

Alcoholism ruins lives and families. You knew that too.


Maybe we should use a cocktail metaphor here. That seems appropriate. What should we call it? How ‘bout The Sleeper? It’s not the best but it’ll have to do. Send me your suggestions for a better name...I have a feeling we’ll be revisiting this topic.

So you go to your favorite dive bar after work and tell Billy the barman, you want The Sleeper. “A what?” The Sleeper. Billy, being the affable guy he is says to you, “okay, but I’ve never made one. What goes in it?” Here’s the ingredients for The Sleeper:

  1. Stress. Bucket loads.
  2. Some police personality, which includes a proclivity for avoidant coping strategies (see previous blog entitled “Should I Blow Stuff Up” for an explanation of this), and an allergy to asking for help.
  3. Add some police culture, in which alcohol consumption is not only accepted but encouraged.
  4. Shift work. Humans aren’t designed to go to bed at 8:00 AM and wake up for a graveyard shift at 4:00 PM. Alcohol is frequently used as a sleep aid by cops.
  5. If you have any genetic predisposition laying around you can throw that on for good measure. Most bars have this since about 40% of Americans have an alcohol dependent family member.

There you have The Sleeper.


[a prerequisite to using this guide is that you have the capacity of being honest with yourself]

Cue the Jeff Foxworthy voice:

If you hide your drinking you may be problem drinker.

If you ever feel like you NEED a drink, you may be a problem drinker.

If you use alcohol as a sleeping aid, you may be a problem drinker.

If you’ve tried to stop but failed you may be a problem drinker.

If you drink to get drunk you may be a problem drinker.

If you drink more alcohol over time to get the same effect you may be a problem drinker.

If you have received negative consequences as result of drinking (marital conflict, DWI, discipline at work etc.) you may have a drinking problem.

If you’re an asshole until you’ve had your first drink you may be a problem drinker.

Okay, so that’s all the bad news. The good news is that alcoholism is a treatable condition. Of course you can’t be treated for something that you don’t ASK FOR HELP with. The white knuckle approach to recovery works for a very small group but it’s doing it the hard way. Since you’re smarter than the average bear you’re not going to white knuckle’re going to ask for h-e-l-p.

We’ll talk more about what help looks like next week. If you’re a cop with a drinking problem or a family member of a cop with a drinking problem feel free to e mail me with any questions or concerns. I’ll do my best to help.

Be safe and thrive.

Cross, C.L. (2004). Police Trauma and Addiction: Coping with the Dangers of the Job. FBI

Law Enforcement Bulletin.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

The "Police Family" Myth

Police work is more than a job, it’s a way of life. When you become a cop you join a family. Right? That’s what we’re told. Young recruits gobble this up. Who doesn’t want to be part this brotherhood in blue? At the risk of killing the buzz, I’m here to tell you we really aren’t a family at all. If this is a family, it’s not one I want to be a member of.

I don’t want to split hairs here, but it would be more accurate to say the police culture has family-like characteristics. While active in our career we share the trenches with our co-workers. Any time you share an intense emotional experience (think fights, foot chases and crowd management here) with another person, a bond is created. So we have a bond with those we work with and extend it to all cops.

Yet, the extent to which you embrace the idea that you’re part of a family, is the extent to which you’ll be burnt when the bubble pops. And it always pops. Just ask a retiree. In my own department of roughly 180 cops, we had three veterans retire on one day last week. Each of them had twenty plus years of experience. Part of the reason retirement is such a huge step for cops, more than other professions, is that they know they’re leaving “the family.”

Wait a minute. Families don’t abandon their kids when they leave for college. The police “family” sure does. In about a month the churning police department machine will have moved on. Three other officers will take the retirees beats and on we go.

If you get injured on the job, if you retire, if you are the subject of a serious internal affairs investigation (legit or not) you WILL be abandoned. You’ll be dropped, your family members will distance themselves from you. If my brother in Kansas told me he got fired I may be disappointed in him for what he did to be terminated, but he’d still be my brother and I’d still be there for him. Our law enforcement family can hardly say the same.

At the West Coast Post Trauma Retreat in northern California, I’ve sat as a volunteer clinician with groups of traumatized first responders. Folks that have been involved in critical incidents and - shocker here - became psychologically injured. I’ve sat quietly listening to their stories. When recalling the incident they usually become tense, sometimes they appear dissociated, like they’re telling the story of another person. But then, almost predictably, they turn to how they were treated after the incident by the police agency and their fellow officers. That’s when the real emotion comes out. We call it “administrative betrayal.” Their family turns on them. Their old buddy, Sgt. Schmo, not only isn’t available to toss a few beers back after work, he’s suddenly creating a dossier.

All cops are aware of the huge liability we take on every time we go 10-8. With one single action, a thrown round, one extra lick on a bad guy captured on someone’s cell phone, one mistake and your family will evaporate. Believe it.

I have another co-worker who is currently out on an injury. He’s a buddy who’s been out about a month now. I’ve called him once. That’s not being a good friend let alone “brother.”

It would be instructive if you could have an honest conversation with an officer who has been retired for awhile. If you’re fortunate enough to have such people in your life, ask them about the police family. Chances are there will be some residual pain about how difficult it was to transition from a world in which they felt part of a family, to a world in which they felt kicked to the curb.

What’s the lesson in all this? Don’t confuse partnership with family. As officers, we’re partners engaged in a frequently intense occupation. We support each other and get each other’s back. We go through a lot together but we’re not blood. Don’t assume you’re in a real family, ‘cause if you do you’re going to get burnt.

Keep you’re old friends, make new ones on the job. Reserve a good, solid piece of your identity completely outside police work. That way when you retire you won’t be hit with the two by four of reality that so many retirees get hit with.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Should I blow stuff up online or go for a run?: Police coping strategies and why they matter.

Police work is stressful. A recent report by CSNBC claimed that police officers have the fifth most stressful job in America. Hans Selye, considered the big daddy of stress research, said policing “is the most stressful job in America.” Let’s not split hairs about wether or not we have the most stressful or tenth most stressful job. Let’s just say we carry a rather high stress load, and leave it at that.

What do we do with the stress we accumulate at work? The stuff we do with our stress is called “coping.” Here’s where we have a choice. We could opt not to think about our coping or how to improve the way we cope. This is like deciding not to give a shit about your diet. You could just say, “I eat what I want.” That’s a choice. And, with that choice, we receive natural consequences. If your diet consists of nothing but shite you’ll probably be sicker and live a shorter life.

You could choose to think about coping. You could choose to eat better.

There are two main types of coping that cops engage in, “active coping” and “avoidant coping.” Unfortunately, police officers tend to prefer the latter. I'd like to nudge you in the direction of active coping. Here's an excerpt from my book on this:

...pretending some feeling isn’t actually here is like hearing a strange noise from your car engine while driving along the freeway and dealing with it by turning up the volume on the car radio. It works pretty well to blank out the noise, but is not too effective in preventing the engine from seizing up ten miles down the road.

(Mark Williams, The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness).

Avoidant coping or “experiential avoidance” (Williams et. al., 2007) is an attempt to block out the unpleasant feelings associated with stress. I remember watching a commercial for a line of bath products in the 1980‘s. A middle aged woman laments, “”The traffic...the boss!...the baby...the dog! Calgone, take me away!” Contemporary stressors are still the same, but today we would end with, “Call of Duty, take me away!”

Levenson and Dwyer (2003) note that cops tend to gravitate toward these avoidant coping strategies. Kevin Gilmartin, in his book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement, calls this “sitting in the magic chair.” The magic chair could be in front of a television, a computer or it could be a barstool. We think of it as “decompressing,” and it’s quite effective for that. However, in the long run and in itself avoidant coping is ineffective for managing stress. This, because avoidant coping merely blunts the discomfort (physical & emotional) associated with stress but doesn’t address the source of stress. In police officers, avoidant coping has been associated with anxiety, depression, perceived work stress, health problems, risk-taking behaviors and partner abuse (Gershon, et. al., 2009) (Essex & Scott, 2008) (Burke, 1998). Some avoidant coping strategies (alcohol, tobacco, extramarital affairs) are worse than others. At the end of the day we say again, “what you resist, persists.”

Active coping, on the other hand, involves preemptively engaging in behaviors that reduce stress, before encountering the stressors. Research has shown that officers who have active coping styles have more job satisfaction and less work-family conflict and psychosomatic symptoms (Burke, 1998). In medicine, this is referred to as “primary prevention.” Exercise, taking a yoga class, or hobbies, such as fishing, or playing a musical instrument are examples of active coping. The difference between active and avoidant (or “escapist”) coping is important, as it highlights the difference between surviving a career in law enforcement and thriving in it. Those who rely solely on avoidant coping methods will usually survive their careers. Officers who want more than surviving need to know that active coping - which requires more organization and consideration - affords us the opportunity to beat stress back before it has a chance to reek havoc in our bodies, and therefore it affords us the opportunity to thrive.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Lean on Me: The importance of social support for police officers.

I fancy myself a bridge between researchers on the one hand, and us lab rat cops on the other. As I’ve said before, academics love to study police officers. Society as a whole finds us interesting, as evidenced by our love of cop shows. We’re captivated by the Bad Lieutenant. Not too many people would want to inhabit his skin, but he’s sure fun to watch.

Wouldn’t it be great if us officers could benefit from the research findings of others? Wouldn’t it be great if all those correlation coefficients and pie charts were somehow translated into practical life lessons, available to those of us who get dirty for a living? I think so too. So, here’s a real gem social scientists have rooted out for us. I want YOU to benefit from. Actually, there are two pieces of information you should know.

First, you should know that the tendency to be stiff-upper-lippers is part of the police personality. YES, there is a police personality. You can’t just go drag a hundred knuckleheads off the street, give ‘em guns and badges and tell ‘em to go to work. We’re a type. One personality characteristic that agencies like in potential new hires is “rugged individualism.” That’s fine. However, we also tend to be ISOLATIVE. We’re very WASPY, which is to say we keep things inside, don’t like to be all touchy feely or get into other’s business.

"Ed was the kind of man who wouldn't impose on anybody."

These were the words of Don Helms, a retired Baltimore police sergeant who works as a chaplain for the Fraternal Order of Police union. He was speaking yesterday at a funeral service for Edward William Eldridge Jr., the retired city officer who took his own life last month and had no known family and no close friends.

I pulled this off the internet a few months back. The story goes on to note the precipitating event for this officer’s suicide appeared to have been that he had nobody to take him to a medical appointment. According to the reporter, officers from the local precinct had taken the retiree to his medical appointments in the past, but this time his caretaker would need to wait with him at the hospital for a procedure. The retired officer apparently felt too embarrassed to ask an officer to wait at the hospital for him.

Let’s not pretend any suicide can boil down to something so simple. Undoubtedly, there were many factors that led up to this tragedy. But here’s where that gem comes into play. In the literature, it’s called “social support.”

If there were only one tip I could give a fellow officer for how to stay emotionally healthy through a police career, it would be “find fellow officers you trust and LEAN ON THEM.” Not every day, but when you need them, lean on them. Talk to them, open up, vent, cry, laugh. Ask them to take you to your appointment AND WAIT FOR YOU. This isn’t too congruent with the stiff upper lip mentality is it? But you know what? You already got the job, so throw that shit out the window. Really.

I can’t tell you how many good things (job satisfaction, reduced perceived stress, less heart disease, diabetes, increased resilience) have been connected to those officers who use social support. Researchers have questionnaires which actually measures this construct. If I could boil it down to the very basics I would say that, from a health perspective, you do NOT want to be low on the social support scale.

Some of you are now saying to yourselves, “I’ve got friends at work, so I’m cool with the social support thing.” Not so fast. Social support is not going to the bar, getting soused and talking shit about your co-workers and administrators. Social support is more than simply having friendly people to talk to at work. “Support” here means the other person is lifting you up somehow. It means you share a burden with a fellow human. That can be very difficult for us, but if we want to thrive in life we need to move out of our comfort zone a bit.

Police officers are generally high functioning types, so most of the time we don’t need social support. Sometimes, however, we go through divorces. Sometimes we become worried about our drinking, we have nightmares, we get depressed, or anxious or we feel angry and want to bash someone’s head in. How do I know that? Because the government still hasn’t figured out how to make police robots so they still have to hire us human beings.

It’s the times we NEED support but don’t reach out and get it that bad things happen. We get sick, we commit suicide, we become fully ensconced in our sex, gambling or alcohol addiction.

The best way to develop a social support system at work is to be available to others. That’s the real beauty of it. It’s a two way street. I’m fortunate enough to have a number of people at my job that I could pull aside and reach out to. I try to do the same when I’m called upon to provide support. It feels REALLY good to be a support to another person. My number one support dude at work recently told me - with a tear in his eye - that his being able to support me in my time of need was actually really healing for HIM. There’s a paradox for you.

You’re a cop. That means you’re a responsible, strong, smart individual. You protect other people for a living. PLEASE don’t forget to protect yourself.