(Edited, originally written as a column for
The Police Chief Magazine, an IACP Publication:
Focus on Officer Wellness, Educating the Police Spouse)
"Fatigue roughens up the
edges of your nerves;
it exposes your fears
and your weakness.
Imagine my surprise one evening while walking down a seedy street in Portland, Oregon with my family, when without control my entire body froze and I began to shudder with fear. “Linda, let’s keep walking” my husband replied. I couldn’t move. I had just passed an alleyway that looked identical to the scene that I had created in my imagination, when hearing of my husband’s shooting many years prior.
My body was stiff as the words my husband used to describe the entanglement that happened between he and a suspect replayed in my mind and, also seemingly replayed right before my eyes. The sun was setting and the darkness was brewing, I could imagine the fight, the bodies rolling around on the ground, his fellow officer in training and her apprehension regarding getting involved and the eventual horror of the outcome. I was simply paralyzed.
But, this wasn’t the same alleyway as my husband’s shooting- it wasn’t even in the same city or state. I thought at the time that it was just my mind playing tricks on me, because I had no other information to grab from to tell me otherwise. Until the day I sat in on Dr. Gina Gallivan’s (helpforpolice.com) Peer Support Training class and she mentioned the signs and symptoms of Vicarious Trauma, otherwise known as Secondary PTSD or Compassion Fatigue.
Now, PTSD I knew about - I had done a fair amount of research while building a spousal support group (Huntington Beach Police Department’s Support for Officers’ Spouses), but Vicarious Trauma was new to me. When I relayed what I had experienced during the eery evening in Portland, Dr. Gallivan immediately empathized and indeed confirmed that my reaction is exactly what one would expect from a stored memory, even though I had no involvement in this situation. Just hearing the story of my husband’s shooting was enough for my mind to create the scene, the lighting, the sounds and the fear. I had never realized the memory had been stored until it replayed vividly in front of me that night.
I consider myself very fortunate and am well aware that not every police spouse has this opportunity to attend this type of a training class. I just happened to be in a position that allowed me to receive training directly from a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in police and public safety and is extensively trained in treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. I wish every spouse could receive the information they need to help understand the very special role we play as the spouse of an officer and how it can directly affect us. If much of this information was available to spouses, I would assume that much of our anxiety regarding their job could be diminished.
With that specialized training under my belt and a 28 year police marriage that had lasted the test of time, I (along with my co-founder) began a Spousal Support group for our police department. Groups like this are a necessary place to gather, share information, empathize with other LEOWs, share helpful and educational articles, but most of all know that if something happens (y'know - the BIG one) you have access to each other. Being known, understood and valued serves to be a priceless commodity that these types of groups can offer to all who need it.
I believe it is imperative that we somehow reach every spouse of every officer with information that helps reduce anxiety and can create a basic knowledge of what to expect as a police spouse.
Here are some pieces of information that should be readily available in order to educate the Police Spouse in your department:
Educating the police spouse is a respectful way to address the sometimes confusing and all-encompassing police life we were brought into. The job of a police officer is not only their career, but it is the family’s new lifestyle. Everything is different when a cop lives in the house, these pieces of information are what the family should be prepared for. The spouse is the first line of defense and having some key knowledge related to the life and job of an officer is imperative and can help save a marriage and a family.
Whether you place this information in a packet, a pamphlet, an email or a social media post - rest assured when you get the information out it will be well-received and may even become a rapport-building tool between you and the spouses, creating a more “family” environment within your department.
Police marriages can be strained, police families can be confusing and police shifts can leave the officer and the spouse drained and possibly triggered with some trauma responses. Let’s put some form of education in place so that police marriages can stand on a solid foundation of knowledge and hope for a peaceful relationship.
Grace and Peace always,
The Ups and Downs of Life...