What should you ask that cop friend or family member?
Last year, 2018, more cops took their life than were killed in the line of duty. 2019 hasn't started off much better for Chicago or the US. Just about every cop has been touched by suicide of a brother or sister in blue, myself included. Even when it isn't someone we know, the sadness still dwells in our hearts, but we regroup and return to duty.
Our veterans of our wars take their lives at an alarmingly high rate, roughly 22 per day. But other than a push-up challenge and a few celebrities speaking out on it, its probably not on the forefront of most people's minds. We've asked them to put themselves in horrific situations and circumstances and then forget their service outside of a few holidays.
Most know it's rude to ask a service member if they have taken a life in war, and most people wouldn't ask that. Most people would probably ask about what cool weaponry they used or their fallen brethren. Most people know not to ask the sensitive questions.
But then we have no problem asking our first responders about their worst call.
Police, first responders, and even the dispatchers are in a very similar boat. However instead of an enemy combatant we face our neighbors and the tragedy that befalls them. The horrendous things we see or hear on a daily basis shape and form who we are, our world view, and how we interact with those we know and don't know.
Those situations can range from the mundane call for service to the fatal auto accident, the dead body surrounded by loving family, or one forgotten and left to rot in an abandoned building; from something like a hello and how are you with John Q Public, to the shooting victim that takes their last breath at you standby uselessly staring on.
When you ask a cop what their worst call was, the shooting scene they were just on, or if they shot someone, you're asking them to relive the worst moments in their life.
The sights, smells, sounds, how they felt in that moment come flooding back. And our response is probably animated and in depth. We explain the details, have the ability to paint a vivid picture that you can see in your own mind. We seem to enjoy or relish the moment as we reenact the call.
We are fantastic storytellers, we have to be.
But then it comes back. The memories of the moment. Accompanying the memories are the feelings. How we watched a mother mourn and how we had to look away, thankful it's a sunny day and we have sunglasses on.
The frustrated anger as the people in the area refuse too cooperate in anyway.
The feeling of shame or guilt for having taken a life that gave the officer no option otherwise.
While most people can digest and work through a traumatic incident, police can have multiple in one day with no time to process. I know for myself I've been on multiple shooting scenes with multiple victims who are shot and just sauntering over to EMS personnel as they stare off in shock. Going from murder scene to scene and dealing with the shock of the crowd finding out, rolling over another young man's body and knowing he is no longer living, or that sterile smell a newly dead body emits.
While one incident can create an impact on someone's life, the collective impact of multiple or on going trauma, creates a change. While most people can see how their cop friend has changed like the little nuances like where they sit, how they are scanning a crowd, and so on, there are deeper changes.
Over the last 4 decades the understanding of the human mind has deepened. But the information gathered shows that it isn't just in the mind. The paths by which thought-processes travel through the brain are strengthened. The more the brain follows that path way, the stronger the connections and the more readily available the memory is to recall. So now it goes from a deep seated memory to one that rests in our conscious.
For a long time it was taboo to seek out help outside of drinking. It was all about stuffing the thoughts down, "manning up" or toughening up. But the brain is a fickle thing, it can see an innocuous trigger that brings back the worst call ever. PTSD has been aptly changed to be referred to as PTSI, Post Traumatic Stress Injury.
The research is showing it isn't a disorder, but an actual injury. The changes are obviously in the mind, but they extend their reach into the person's psyche and physiology. The natural hormone releases are triggered by incidents that don't normally require the response the body is preparing itself for, but it doesn't know that. The mind and body builds up a tolerance, like caffeine or alcohol causes the body to require higher doses for the same effect. But instead of that it is things like adrenaline and cortisol, which as the body doesn't seem to have the same reaction dumps more and more to get the reaction it feels it needs.
Or it is in a constant state of fight or flight.
Then we see things like hypertension and high blood pressure in our police and other first responders. The pathways to the memory are grown and it haunts one's memory all the time. We become irritable, distant, short and engage in risky behaviors on a more regular basis.
So what SHOULD you ask that cop or firefighter buddy? What about your friend that is an EMS personnel or ER nurse or doctor? What about the cousin that works as a 911 call taker or dispatcher? They have all heard or seen things. They remember the officer calling out they've been shot, the ex-wife screaming in the phone asking for help, and then the silence.
But we also remember the good or even great memories. The coaching someone over the phone to help deliver a baby. The CPR we performed that saved a life. That time we got out of the car and played some basketball with a few young guys. The high-fives from the kids on the block. The tears of joy when we return the lost child. That real bad guy we caught that is doing some serious time for their crime behind bars, where the rightly belong.
We also have families, kids, hobbies, and things that define us as something other than a profession. Books we are reading, that new podcast we started listening to, or a new show we are watching (that may or may not be cop related). That most recent fishing trip where we caught that whopper of a fish (let us get detailed here and embellish a bit....you know, a typical angler's story!) or that last golf outing where we shot our best.
Help us strengthen the good memories pathways. Help us place the happy memories at the forefront of our minds. The reality is we will never really forget, we will always remember. The scenes, the screams, the smells will always be there. An ever present silent and solemn partner that rides with us in the squad car, in our personal cars on the way home, and sometimes stands by in the corner as another officer take their own life.
But you can help us make those memory giants a little smaller, a little less overwhelming, and allow us to create a little more control over where our mind wants to race.
So instead of "hey man, what's the WORST thing you've ever seen?" next time ask "hey man, what's the BEST thing you've ever seen?" and allow us to get into all the nitty-gritty details.