Maintaining Relationships With Friends Outside Law Enforcement
DR. CHERYLYNN LEE
Take a moment and think back to a time before you were in law enforcement — a time when the idea of going to a crowded bar or restaurant with a group of friends seemed like a good way to spend your weekend. Your conversations might have centered around things like sports, the book you were reading or the newest episode of Yellowstone. Now, bring yourself back to the present day. When was the last time you elected to be around a large group of people who weren’t cops? Where are those friends you used to have and who are the people you keep around you now? Are you talking about sports and the last book you read, or are you talking about how effed-up the department is and comparing notes on your “countdown to retirement” app? Working in law enforcement changes how you see the world and can change who you are and how you are in the world. My question to you is: Are you aware of how you may have changed, and did you choose to be who you are today?
When Your Friends Just Don’t Get It
Friday nights are wild when you hit your late 30s, especially when you’re a mom. There’s this thing called “moms’ night in,” which — brace yourselves — consists of women getting together, wearing stretchy pants, eating cheese and drinking wine. A lot of wine. Topics of conversation usually center around things like The Bachelor, what your husband did or didn’t do this week, which summer camp you’re going to put your kids in and how good the cheese plate is. This Friday was no different, except for one detail: There had been a mass shooting at a school in another state that made national headlines a few days earlier. About halfway through the cheese plate and right before the soccer-versus-dance-camp discussion, I found myself splashing water on my face alone in the bathroom, wondering if I was cut out for these kinds of gatherings anymore.
For non-law-enforcement folks, a mass shooting is a matter of intellectual concept, a conversation laden with politics, feelings, anecdotes and opinions. The events of that week happened in a faraway place — a place my friends would never go. Though they were upset (obviously and rightfully so), as soon as they let out their emotions and anecdotes, they went back to talking about The Bachelor (for the record, I’ve never actually seen an episode on purpose). They just don’t get it. For us in public safety, we are not only thinking about the event, but also playing it over in our minds in elaborate detail to learn from it and prepare for when we are tasked with responding to the very same type of event closer to home.
As a beat cop, detective or school resource deputy, you have likely handled cases involving persons of concern. The world stops turning, all hands on deck, let’s gather our intel, see what we have, deploy resources and solve the problem. Through good police work, collaboration, action and a sprinkle of luck, most cases of would-be active shooters haven’t made the 5 o’clock news because they never happened. (I think it was Al Pacino who said, “Our failures are known. Our successes … are not. That’s the company motto.”) So, for those of us in law enforcement, taking part in a casual conversation about these incidents is off the table; there is nothing casual about it.
Fun fact: It’s not your friends’ job to “get it.” It’s yours. If all you do is ruminate about these incidents for too long without purpose and spend all your time thinking about work, being at work or talking about work, the world becomes a very dangerous, ugly place (which, let’s face it, sometimes it can be). If the world you live in is only ever dangerous and ugly, no wonder you don’t want to go out or be around anyone except other cops. Regardless of time on, you have a choice to make. You can choose to find and see the good in this world, or you can choose to only focus on the bad. Whatever you decide will become your reality. As therapist Georgi Y. Johnson wrote, “Perception does not define who we are, but it does define where we are limited, and where we are not yet free.”
Notice When You’re Not OK
Being self-aware is the key to solving most problems. Tactically, this might translate to knowing where you are standing, what tools you have available and how much you know about your suspect. From a psychological and emotional perspective, it’s a bit different. The indicators that inform how well you are doing or not doing are harder to put your finger on, less black and white. So, my question to you is: Do you know what your indicators are? How do you know when you’re not OK?
I ask this question of nearly all my private clients at some point during our sessions, as well as when I conduct critical incident stress debriefs. The responses are varied; there is no right or wrong answer — everyone is different. Generally speaking, there are four buckets of indicators: physical, psychological, emotional and external.
The most common response I hear are:
- Physical: increased heart rate, heavy chest, exhaustion, hyperarousal
- Psychological: feeling helpless, getting caught in the “woulda, shoulda, coulda”s, negative self-talk
- Emotional: intense anger, inappropriate sadness and depression, the absence of joy or happiness
- External: getting in trouble at work, getting in trouble at home, drinking too much, working all the overtime
For you, it may be some combination of the above, all of the above or something completely different. Maybe you don’t know. Frankly, that’s a good place to start. For me, I know I shut down (I’m sure I’m the only wife who gives her husband the silent treatment, thank you very much). We become flooded with whatever stress or bullshit is happening around us, and even the tiniest bit of stress (friends commenting on a mass shooting, for example) catapults us into a state of both panic and paralysis (aka fight, flight or freeze). Without knowing this is happening, without being self-aware, you might lash out in anger, become hyperaroused and hypervigilant or get up and leave (no cheese plate for you!).
Somewhere between thought, feeling and action, you have a choice. If you can pause when you notice you’re not OK (whatever that is for you) and reflect on how you got there, you can choose what to do with it. You can walk into the bathroom, splash water on your face and go back to spending time with people you care about, or you can proclaim that everyone is stupid and everything is bullshit, and eff these people because they don’t get it. Before you know it, your days off are spent with other people who think like you and what you end up talking about are bullshit internal policies that don’t actually mean a damn thing in the big picture. Choice.
Working in law enforcement changes how you see the world and can change who you are and how you are in the world. Who are you going to choose to be?
About the Author
Dr. Cherylynn Lee is a police psychologist and works full-time for the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office as the Behavioral Sciences manager, overseeing the mental health co-response teams, CIT training and Wellness Unit, including Peer Support. As part of her duties, Dr. Lee is a member of the county’s threat management team and serves on the crisis negotiation response teams for both the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Office and the Santa Barbara Police Department. Dr. Lee is the clinical operations director for First Responder Wellness, The Counseling Team International, for the Tri-Counties area. She has a private practice in the Santa Ynez Valley where she sees first responders exclusively, specializing in trauma, post-traumatic stress, mindfulness and job performance improvement. Dr. Lee has led many critical incident stress debriefings for OIS, LODD, natural disasters and as requested by both local and state fire and law agencies. Dr. Lee is also a subject-matter expert with CA POST on both officer and dispatcher wellness and has participated in several training videos and initiatives aimed at supporting and encouraging wellness for departments and their personnel. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.