"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.
IS ALCOHOLISM A DISEASE?
Here are the characteristics of diseases in general:
- Diseases impair normal functioning.
- Without intervention, diseases are progressive in nature (i.e. they get worse over time).
- Diseases can cause death.
- 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.
WHY COPS ARE ESPECIALLY VULNERABLE TO ALCOHOLISM
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:
- Stress. Bucket loads.
- 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.
- Add some police culture, in which alcohol consumption is not only accepted but encouraged.
- 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.
- 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.
QUICK AND DIRTY GUIDE TO FIGURE OUT IF YOU HAVE A DRINKING PROBLEM
[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 it...you’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.