911 for First Responders: Resolving Cumulative Trauma by Supporting Each Other

By Mike Pool, Retired Law Enforcement and Peer Coordinator of After Action: Building Resilience Workshop.

First responders are not allowed to show or share our emotions. We shove our reactions as far down as they’ll go so we can cope with the day-to-day corrosive events of our jobs. Most of us come to see that this kind of work found us, and not the other way around, so we plunge head first into trying to do our best. Many of us don’t realize how much our family history may have led us on this path, or the underlying reasons we need to protect and save people. We just get it done.

Cops, firefighters, EMTs and others see the worst of the worst tragedies and the most evil parts of human nature, as well as the most sad and vulnerable. Without ever realizing, the cumulative effect of trauma builds up inside us. We may know something’s not right, but we push it as far down as we can until it seeps into our personal lives and eventually explodes like a volcano of rage, illness, depression, addiction or suicide.

That’s what happened to me. During 30 years in law enforcement, including five years in undercover narcotics, I saw my share of man’s inhumanity to man. I was a tough cop 24 hours a day with no room to be weak or seem vulnerable. I was raised in a family fueled by anger – and the alcohol that carried a parent who fought in three wars – which prepared me to live on the edge of danger and deal with violence and rage. I didn’t know that my early life, combined with the unrelenting trauma exposure of my job, had sent me into a downward spiral.

My life crashed. I became emotionless and isolated. All the coping skills I had learned growing up and used to survive my profession were hell on my family. My daughter had pretty much written me off. My wife was finally fed up enough to make a bold move. Pretending to be heading to dinner with friends in San Francisco, they pulled up at the airport and threw my luggage onto the curb. She handed me a plane ticket to a recovery center on the east coast, saying “Go get your life together and don’t come back until you do.”

For many of us, that’s the way it goes. We look in the mirror and everything’s “fine” but those around us see a very different picture. In our pain, we turn to a drug of choice – drinking, using drugs, affairs, porn, you name it. My way of coping was more work – to feed my need for risk and get the adrenaline pumping – and over-exercising at the gym. I would spend three or four hours a day lifting weights. I needed to get stronger. I needed to be stronger than my demons.

The Impact of Being ‘Always On’

First responders live a very different life. The switch is never off because surviving in the job doesn’t allow it to be. We are wired to respond to crisis, so there’s a constant conflict between being our jobs and being a normal person at home with the family. We also live our lives anticipating the worst-case scenario. For example, on a “routine” day, while walking up to a car in a traffic stop, I’d approach as if that person had a gun and intended to use it. I approached a certain way, talked a certain way, and observed. Because that person’s hand could kill me. That’s the mindset I needed to survive. We get faced with fight, flight or freeze situations countless times a day, only we are not afforded the ability to do anything but to face our adversaries and the situation.

Guilt and shame in the first responder field are pervasive. Many of us are haunted by the things we can’t fix and the people we couldn’t save. Even when there’s absolutely nothing we could’ve done, the tape in our minds continues: If only I had driven faster, if I had been closer, if I had reacted differently, I could have saved that life.

We are exposed to trauma big and small, but cumulative trauma is the killer. It’s the corrosive stuff we run into daily – the SIDS call, the overdose, the shooting or the suicide – that adds up and sticks. And we are left with the stigma that we cannot share our emotions with anyone, so we bottle it up inside. We can’t tell the neighbors, family or friends about what we’ve seen because they’d never understand. Even therapists sometimes get traumatized from listening. I had to find ways to share my stories with other cops and people in related fields.

A Safe Space for Sharing

In the years since my wife packed me up to get help, I’ve healed my family relationships and enjoy spending time with my three grandchildren. My daughter has forgiven me and, not so surprisingly, she’s now a registered nurse working in a hospital unit that deals with the in-custodies and those with mental illness. Fifteen years ago, I began to counsel other first responders through the kind of trauma that nearly did me in.

The first step is realizing that there is something underneath that is driving us to behave in ways that mask our pain. The next is to learn that our reactions are normal. We are ordinary people dealing with extraordinary events. When we get to the point of not being affected anymore, we are in deep trouble. We’re humans, yet many of the organizations we work for and with expect us to “soldier on.” In telling our truth, we risk being labeled weak and broken.

That’s the value in creating a safe space with others who’ve been there, where we can tell our stories and be heard and where we can share our frustrations and reactions without fear of judgment. In this environment, we can share with people who will listen with true empathy and who can say, “Man, I know how awful that is. I’ve felt that way before.”

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