Sunday, July 25, 2010

Schadenfreude and Encouragement

Schadenfreude and Encouragement

(part one of a two part series)

I walk around my department like an undercover social scientist, taking mental notes about what works to improve wellness and what...well, doesn’t. Having grown up in an alcoholic family, I’m pretty good at reading people. For example, when my dad came home I knew there were three options: 1) sober and morose, 2) drunk and violent or 3) drunk and maudlin. Back then, I had to read him real quick and take immediate action, otherwise bad things could happen. So, I’ve learned to trust my observations.

I’ve noticed cops (including myself) have an almost insatiable appetite for hearing and talking about our co-workers’ fuck ups. We love it.

Cop 1: You heard about Joe Blow, right?

Cop 2: No! What?

Cop 1: He got three days at the beach for a negligent discharge in the locker room.

Cop 2: That Joe is such an idiot, ha ha ha!

I love the word for this phenomenon: schadenfreude. It means taking pleasure from the misfortune of others. And don’t we do that? I always feel a twinge of guilt after I get done thrashing one of my colleagues. Somehow my personal wellness quotient dips just a touch.

When I worked narcotics we had a ‘team approach’. Our unit of about ten meat eaters conducted dope operations, each one offering multiple chances to fuck it up. The first thing that went through my mind after blowing something would be, “Oh shit, here it comes.” My Nextel would start blowing up. “Shannon, did you get the dope?” No, he got it down. “You’re a fuckin’ IDIOT...have you ever got dope off anyone? Ha ha ha ha!”

When an NFL QB throws a particularly poorly timed interception, have you noticed what happens? The guy trots off the field with his tail between his legs, finds an private spot on the pine and sits....alone. People leave him alone ‘cause they know he just pooched one.

Not so in law enforcement. When we screw up we get creative cartoons on the white board, new nicknames and a full round of “good job!” dripping with sarcasm. It’s a rough crowd.

An old family therapist and hero of mine, Murray Bowen, described schadenfreude as a way to reduce anxiety in groups. He calls it ‘triangulation’. For Bowen, any time two or more people are in the same place a certain amount of intimacy is floating in the space. This creates anxiety. Even if you don’t feel it, it’s there.

A very common method, albeit unconscious, people use to decrease the anxiety is to focus attention on someone not in the room. That should sound familiar. Inexplicably, when the group begins talking about the poor bastard that’s not there to defend himself, the tone is almost always critical. It seems to put everyone more at ease to join together in beating the shit out of Joe Blow.

To get a sense of how pervasive triangulation is, try an experiment. For one day, see if you can avoid disparaging a co-worker who isn’t in the room. Yeah, that includes administrators. If you’re Buddha Jr. and are able to do this without a problem, then notice it in others. Oh yeah, and share with me how you’re able to do it. I could use some help.

Next week we’ll discuss schadenfreudes’ opposite: encouragement.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Officer Fatigue

The following is an excerpt from the book on police mental health I've been working on for what feels like a frickin' decade.


Early on in my police career I figured there was something going on with this fatigue thing. I'd worked my whole life, knew what it was like to put in a full day and come home tired. I'd also been married seven years by the time I went into the police academy and fatigue in and of itself was never a marital issue. But the fatigue I experienced as a cop felt like a whole different beast. As an officer, being tired wasn't so much a mood as a complete mental, and physical breakdown. In fact, I call it "fatigue" but this word doesn't do it justice. That vegetable-like, completely psychically checked-out state cops fall into after getting home warrants it's own word. Another label for this dulled state of consciousness comes to us by Dr. Kevin Gilmartin in his excellent book, Emotional Survival for Law Enforcement. He calls it the "hypervigilance biological roller coaster.” Gilmartin offers a detailed, biologically-based explanation for officer fatigue.

How, you may ask, can officer fatigue become so serious that it creates marital problems? It wasn't until I came across Gilmartin's work that I began to really understand officer fatigue. Gilmartin describes the physiology of officer fatigue as an inevitable product of hypervigilance. Anderson (1998) refers to the constant state of readiness necessary for an officer’s survival as “cop-face,” another descriptive and accurate term. Let's try and understand how officer fatigue is produced, what makes it different and how to minimize it's deleterious impact on marriage.

Officers are trained to use some version of the Cooper Color Code, in which different states of mental awareness are assigned colors. White, for example, is the condition we're in while daydreaming, or taking a relaxing walk in the woods. Officers are trained never to step inside a police station while in code white. In fact, some trainers believe cops should never be totally relaxed. But let's not get into the details of the Cooper Color Code. Suffice it to say, cops are always supposed to be vigilant while at work. To be in any way relaxed while on patrol increases the chance that you will be injured or killed. Of course, one problem officers face, frequently without being consciously aware of it, is guilt about the fact that they aren't in this vigilant state at all times at work. That's because our bodies register the "vigilant all day" thing as an absurd request and rejects it. Our bodies can't maintain this elevated state of awareness without a rebound affect. The rebound for prolonged vigilance (a.k.a. hypervigilance) is extreme lethargy.

And isn't it a kind of lethargy officers fall into at home? After working and especially on weekends, we simply want to sit and engage in meaningless activities, such as video games (preferably the "first person shooter" type), internet, and sleeping. Gilmartin calls it sitting in the "magic chair." We all have that familiar place in our homes where we gravitate after work. We occupy this place (sometimes a chair) and decompress. What's happening is that our brains are on overload. These so-called meaningless activities actually serve the very important function of releasing steam from our heads. We can, if left to our own devices, do these post-work activities for many, many hours. We feel the tension in our heads begin to dissipate. Then we go to sleep.

On our weekends our bodies are bouncing back from the hypervigilant state they were in all week. The net result is that we are exhausted, both mentally and physically. We don't want to make any decisions, don't want to engage in idle chat or plan activities. We just want to recover. Importantly, this recovering isn't laziness, nor is it meant to convey the message, "I don't care" to our spouses and children. Consider a natural disaster or family emergency which required you not only to be awake for many hours, but necessitated your being extra alert. After the emergency ended your body and mind would need to recover. It's not your attitude, it's your body.

Yet, for the non-police partner this checking out business doesn't really work. Our partners have been without us all day or week. Perhaps, they've been single-parenting all day or week as well. After work and on the weekends they need our attention (not to mention our help), as do our children. That's the problem. This is the classic clash of needs. One partner really craves, and physiologically needs X and the other equally craves Y. There are things you can do to minimize the impact of this phenomenon on your marriage.

By our own awareness that fatigue can be a real issue in police families we reduce the harm associated with it. Law enforcement couples need to talk about officer fatigue. Partners of officers should understand that, while it can be extremely inconvenient, it's not a personal rejection. Moreover, there are specific activities which help our bodies rebound more quickly from fatigue.

"Poor diets, high stress, pollution, and toxic work environments all take their toll, as does our consumption of stimulants such as coffee, tea, and colas. The use of these largely caffeine-based products disrupts eating cycles, creating rebound fatigue effects and contributing to low-blood sugar and adrenal exhaustion. Sometimes a solution to fatigue is as simple as taking a good multivitamin, more protein in the diet, or regular exercise." (Butler)

You already knew that though, didn’t you? The difference between surviving your law enforcement career and thriving in it requires putting our awareness into action.

Anderson, B.A. (1998). Trauma response profile.

Butler, Graham. The New Energy Crisis.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Cops and Couples Therapy

I contacted a baby faced eighteen year old kid the other day. I was getting my dip and a highly caffeinated beverage and noticed that he appeared to be casing. The first thing out of the kids’ smiling mouth was “I’m on parole...I just got out of jail.” I said, “why are you smiling...are you proud of that?” When asked where he lived he said, “the rollin’ seventies,” a gang-type designation. Then it clicked, this kid is proud of going to prison. He got his stripes.

While this may not be a fair comparison, it seems to me that too many jaded, battle worn veteran cops talk about their three divorces with similar gusto. It’s like, “yeah, I divorced that crazy bitch.” And thus begins the next generation of divorced cops, as the baby faced rookies enter police culture. I shudder to think of the messages they get about marriage when driving around with the veterans during their field training.

Fine. But what if you don’t WANT a divorce? By stealing away to an isolated corner of the police department and pulling up ‘police mental health’ I’m assuming you’d like something more for your life. So, let’s talk about it. Here is a non-exhaustive list of signs that you should consider couples counseling:

  1. You feel miserable (or something close to miserable) in your marriage.
  2. You haven’t had sex since Y2K.
  3. You resent your partner but can’t talk to him/her about it for whatever reason.
  4. Your having or have had an affair.
  5. You’d rather be at work than home.
  6. Your ability to solve life problems (finances, child-rearing etc) with your partner has broken down.

Couples counselors don’t have magic wands. In fact, good therapists will tell you they’re not personally invested in you staying together or getting a divorce. That’s up to you. What they can do is help you clear the air, and communicate more effectively. As a therapist, peer support person, friend and husband I have found that the biggest problem in marriages isn’t finances, or child-rearing or work issues. It’s communication.

I’ve already covered the most common problems encountered in police marriages,

and the importance of getting professional help when its needed, so we’ll get right into how to make the most of your couples counseling.

Take the kid gloves off. You can’t solve problems you don’t talk bring it [whatever ‘it’ is] up in the meetings. That doesn’t mean being abusive or sadistic. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked to people about their couples therapy that say, ‘I can’t bring THAT up?’ Really? You’re paying this shrink money! Probably a lot of money. You’re waisting your money if you don’t bring up the real issues that are bothering you.

If you’ve been going to couples counseling for awhile and dread going to your next session because of how uncomfortable it is, then your on the right track. It should hurt a little to be in therapy. If it’s a big Happy Fest you’re probably not doing the work you need to do to fix stuff.

Ultimately couples counseling should give you and your spouse clarity. Either you’ll realize you really do need to split, or you’ll realize this marriage thing is doable.

Or, you could skip the touchy feely crap, divorce ‘the bitch’ and move on. But if you fail to delve any deeper than ‘she was a bitch’ you’ll probably have the same problem with your next mate. “An unexamined life is not worth living.” Regarding police marriage, an unexamined life is probably going to cost you a lot of money and heart ache as well.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Cops and Divorce: Myth and Reality

For those of you with Attention Deficit Disorder here’s a summary of our topic this week: the popularly held belief that cops get divorced more than others is not supported by research. This fact does not mean we don’t get more divorces, only that there’s no good science to prove it. Policing does involve unique stresses and strains on marriages that we should be aware of.

Many conscientious young people considering a career in law enforcement want to know about the divorce rate of cops. Police forums are consulted, and internet searches performed with the simple question: What’s the deal with cops and divorce?

Let’s start with the internet. God bless the internet. Really. When I was in college two hundred years ago I couldn’t use the internet for my school papers. I had to go to the library and then type the damn thing out with my typewriter. Man was I excited when they came up with the auto erase function (fewer bottles of white out).

But the internet is also known for spreading myth like wildfire, which brings us back to the topic at hand. A quick check of the internet would have us believing cops have a ridiculously high divorce rate. If you want to take Sheriff Ray Nash’s statement that the divorce rate for police officers is twenty to fifty times that of the general public, or police psychologist Goldfarb’s ominous and authoritative sounding statement that "All research shows police suffer a substantially higher divorce rate with estimates ranging from 60 to 75%" you go right ahead.

When I looked into this question I wanted to know what researchers had to say. My answer: not much. As much as university professors and masters thesis writers love to study us cops, there’s a real gap here. However, a breath of fresh air can be found in Prof. Michael Aamodt at the University of Arkansas. He isn’t interested in perpetuating myths of how screwed up cops are and then making money fixing us. He’s interested in the truth.

Aamodt was kind enough to forward me an advance copy of a project he did with McCoy, called A comparison of law enforcement divorce rates with those of other occupations which will be published in the Journal of Police and Criminal Psychology. McCoy and Aamodt did two things. First they reviewed the RESEARCH (not opinion) on police divorce. What they found was that existing research on the topic is old. Really from the 1960’s. Then, they looked at census data to take a stab at divorce rates of cops compared to the general public. They concluded, “the idea that divorce rates are unusually high for law enforcement workers is unfounded.”

Police officers may, fact, have higher divorce rates. McCoy and Aamodt just found that there is no research supporting that conclusion at present. They admitted using census data for their research has some problems.

To conclude from all this that you don’t need to pay careful attention to how your law enforcement career may be harmful to your marriage would be quite a mistake. A bucket load of other research has shown that policing can be bad for your coronary arteries, abbreviate your life and “spills over” into your marriage.

In The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work, John Gottman (another guy with solid research to back up his opinions) writes, "Statistically speaking, when a man is not willing to share power, there is an 81 percent chance that his marriage will self-destruct." As a marriage therapist I can say the police personality (cynical and controlling) and the nature of our job (“my way or the highway”) are not compatible with egalitarian marriages.

So, leaving aside the exact divorce rates of cops we can say police marriages have unique challenges. Like so many other threats to the wellness of law enforcement professionals, these challenges are manageable if we ASK FOR HELP when we need it. If your marriage is going down the toilet seek help. Marital counseling is a good investment and one we’ll discuss in the future.