Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Dum Spiro Spero

In my line of work the mental and physical requirements far outweigh the standard.

In the beginning we have a physical fitness test of our abilities in the academy.  We pass the physical abilities test in the hiring process. Then we are handed layers of gear and left unsupervised to maintain our physical fitness for duty.  In most agencies there's no annual requirement.

In the beginning we have written tests, scenarios and a basic background check for the academy.  We have to pass a more in depth background check, psychological evaluation, and polygraph in the hiring process.  Then we are handed layers of responsibilities and left unsupervised to maintain our mental fitness for duty. There's no annual check up.

In the beginning of a traumatic event such as a line of duty death, officer involved shooting, or a call for service that didn't end well for a victim, we have an agency critical incident team who checks in to see if anyone needs anything.  Then we're cleared for duty and back on the front lines unsupervised with the delayed stress, post traumatic response, and new stressors that add to an already fragile mental state.

In the beginning we're conditioned to suck it up because "how bad do you want it" becomes a motto that soon becomes a mantra to suppress the demons that are growing in a dormant part of the mind.  Like all things dormant, they're just sleeping, waiting for the one small pebble that will make them erupt.

In the military physical fitness was part of the daily routine, but mental health issues were taboo.  There were 'debriefs' for the hell many of us faced overseas which consisted of being spoken to, not heard.  Our uniforms were pressed to perfection, creases that could cut like a knife, arm sleeves rolled to measure, boots shined to reflect.  But our spirit was crinkled, our hearts broken from the loss of our brothers and sisters, internal wounds of the horrors and evils of war that scab over but never seem to fully heal.

The current number of veteran suicides a day averages 22.  In 2018 alone, law enforcement suicides outnumbered line of duty deaths.

Mental health is just as important as physical health in our profession.  Working long shifts, being on rotations that are inconsistent with family life, sitting for long periods in a car, wearing an extra 25-30 lbs of gear for hours, all with the propensity of violent attacks, spontaneous sprints, and random climbing over fences or up a side of a balcony to deal with a call for service requires more than just being physically fit.

There's a saying we heard in boot camp and years later in the law enforcement academy that we often take for granted: "Your body won't go where your mind's never been."  As important as it is to train our bodies for the unexpected, we also need to train our minds.  Under stress we fall to our basic level of training, and if our minds are not prepared for the violence, the injuries, and how to survive, then chances are we won't.

I'm saying it again in all caps so y'all remember this: MENTAL HEALTH IS JUST AS IMPORTANT AS PHYSICAL HEALTH.  Self-care is being self-aware.  Take time for yourself, find a healthy outlet for your stress, be honest with yourself about your mental/physical/spiritual health.

This topic can longer be taboo.   The reality is that we are losing our brothers and sisters to an invisible enemy because we're embarrassed, ashamed, and afraid to talk about mental health in our profession.  The first responders only come first to help others.  Always putting ourselves last, and for some too late.

As a veteran, a first responder, a sister, a daughter, a mother, a wife, a friend, I'm here.  As we live and breathe, there is hope for healing.  Please don't hesitate to reach out if you need help:

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Speaking of...

In 2019 I was a guest speaker for a group of writers that I met back in 2008.  The Space Coast Authors of Romance (STAR) is an RWA (Romance Writers of America) chapter here in Brevard County.  I was a part of this chapter up until a few years ago when my schedule changed and life went in a new direction.  I’ve been blessed to keep in touch with several members, some who’ve moved away from the chapter also, but keep encouraging each other as writers. 

For this particular meeting I was asked to be on a Q & A panel focused on first responders.  In the midst of the questions, which ranged from lighthearted to macabre, there were several moments that I found myself speaking on mental health awareness for first responders.  When asked how we deal with the line of duty deaths and stress related to our jobs, a fellow panel member who is also a retired Battalion Chief of a local fire department made a very surreal statement.  He said that in a firehouse they get called out together, show up together, and fight the same fire together, or deal with loss and trauma together, go back to the firehouse together, and are able to work through the stress together.  There’s a much more accepting environment of talking about a rough call and reaching out for help because they are always together.  There have been some who’ve taken their own lives because they weren’t able to shoulder the pain and share their burden, but far fewer than their brothers and sisters in law enforcement.

In my agency and many others, we are one-man cars, showing up on scenes solo where the trauma and tragedy happens often times before backup arrives.  When we clear the chaos we are back in our cars solo.  We continue to patrol solo. And we go home (Godspeed) end of shift solo.  We may have families at home or friends we can call, but we don’t bring that tragedy into conversations with them because we have been programmed to protect them from such horrors as we do the public.  We remain solo in our stress.   We return the next shift and short of squad briefing, we head back out on patrol…solo.  In law enforcement we’ve created an environment of keeping it all in and finding our own ways of dealing with the stress.  Often times pushing loved ones away, picking up a vice such as drinking, and eventually self-imploding when it gets to be too much. 

The use of the agency Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is something we discuss with new hires or would direct certain employees to use if it came to a higher level of intervention, however it's viewed as a negative resource for so many who don't understand it.  A lot of agency members feel like if they use EAP then the agency will know their problems and it will be held against them.  A very real conversation we need to be having is WHY agency members feel this way?  Why, if a deputy is in need of assistance, are they afraid to tell their boss? 

For me, it's from personal experience.  My family was going through a very hard time, and my stress was at a level 10 on a scale of 1-5.  I made the mistake of telling my direct supervisors of my plight and their initial response was less than reassuring.  I was at the point of potentially having to leave the agency.  The first supervisor was someone I wouldn't take advice from, but made the mistake of taking criticism from.

Another supervisor's response was to blame my husband for not stepping up to do more/work more/et cetera so I could stay at the agency.  He didn't even know my husband or children, or anything else about my life that led to this.  That was the last conversation I had with either of them about anything personal.  There was a cold last few months for me on that shift, and it had nothing to do with being winter in Florida.

The third supervisor (I'm low on the totem pole) was the only one who sat with me to really listen to what was going on. He didn't offer solutions or push me to EAP.  He just listened.  Word got up the chain of command to the big boss who spoke to me briefly on a side note to let him know if I needed anything, good luck, and that was the end of it.

Here I was again, solo.  None of them followed up.  No text, no call, no email, no 'how's it going' as they pass me by several times since...except one.  The one who listened.  The rest just knew I was thinking of leaving the agency.  They didn't even bother following up when opportunities arose that I threw my name in for.  Even though I was more than qualified, and on the 'favorites' list, all they remembered was that I was thinking of leaving a year ago.  They don't remember why at this point though.

The growing pains from this is where my faith became a priority.  My personal gratitude was the key to everything I wanted, and opened so many more personal doors for me than the agency ever can professionally.  I've learned that there's resources for first responders and veterans that are private, free, and better equipped to assist individual needs instead of lumping them into a mass category with only one solution to fix it all.  I've networked and met some amazing people who are on the same mission to help others.

There are still opportunities at work that I know I won't be considered for because some will only remember that I was thinking of leaving, but I'll outgrow those who think that's a weakness.  I'll surpass the naysayers, and gratefully take what I learned from this experience to be better, do better, and teach those following me better.  Becoming a woman who knows her worth has more authority in my life than anyone I will ever work for.  

At the conclusion of the Q & A I sat outside of the venue with one of the writers who also happens to be a mental health counselor at a clinic out of county.  She was informative and eager to assist as a resource in my journey to help others who walk the line with me every day.  In my doubt God put me exactly where I needed to be in order to grow in my purpose.  

My path has been lit by stars who encourage me to keep reaching for them.  For that, I’m eternally grateful.  #whileibreathihope

Honor Guard

We've carried too many flag draped caskets.  The weight of that flag as it's folded and handed to a family member is heavier than most of you will ever know.  

We've volleyed too many rounds for twenty-one gun salutes.  The recoil, though minimal in sight, gets stronger with each trigger pull.  

We've heard too many echos of TAPS.  The sound becomes more haunting and deafening with each note played. 

We've presented arms to the caisson too many times as it passes by.  Each hoof of the escorting equines sending quakes through the ground we stand on.  

We've kept our composure too long as they sound the alert tone for End of Watch of our fallen.  The heartbreak and tears pushed back with our shoulders as we stand at attention until dismissed.

We have done what too many others will never have the honor of doing.

We are Honor Guard.

#Pride  #Honor  #Dignity  #HonorGuard 

Law Enforcement Suicide Awareness

December 2020 article: “From our experience, white males make up the greatest percentage of those committing suicide, followed by African Am...