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May 18, 2011

The “F” Word is not Allowed



*Appeared in the Sun-Times Beacon News on Sunday, May 22, 2011

Police officers don’t use the “F” word. It’s taboo in our culture and when an officer does slip and incorporate the dreaded word, they open themselves to ridicule from their fellow officers. The “F” word to which I’m referring is feelings.

In the police culture, it’s been imbedded that we cannot show weakness because it is in direct conflict with the image of power and strength we are trying to project. Cops are really good at keeping a “game face” even when confronted with a tragedy that yanks on their heart strings. In some ways, it’s a blessing that most officers develop an emotional shield to protect them from the painful things they’ve seen. The callousness often used to describe a police officer’s lack of feeling is systematically created over many years of being the first responder to scenes of death and destruction. These layers eventually become so thick that some officers don’t have to pretend not to feel anymore – they simply don’t. At least they think they don’t.

In some ways, I see this emotional shield as a necessity for public servants. If doctors, nurses, firefighters and police officers didn’t develop one, they couldn’t sleep through the night without replaying the images over and over again. The fact is that those who say they are unaffected by the devastating tragedies usually find that it manifests in some other aspects of their lives. While they may successfully block the images from their minds, they turn to unhealthy habits that serve as outlets for their pain. But it almost always catches up with them.

One of our officers arrived first on the scene of the fire on Claim Street that took the lives of six people last weekend. He ran into the burning building and tended to victims that didn’t survive. As if that weren’t enough to handle, that same officer had a baby die in his arms the week before as he was administering CPR. When I checked in with him to see how he was doing, he answered, “Fine.”

When someone asks how you are, fine would be an acceptable answer. It means satisfactory. Most people go through life being just fine. If you had to endure what that officer endured, I surmise that you would not be fine. Perhaps he thinks he’s fine but I know he’s not. I know because this stuff gets deep inside your psyche and no matter how much you want to block it out and ignore the pictures that are etched into your memory, they keep coming back. This is the very stuff that changes us over the years. This is why the suicide rates of police officers are double that of the general population— because they aren’t fine.

Joanne Furnas is the Director of Victims Services at AID and she facilitates stress debriefings for firefighters and police personnel after traumatic incidents. I gave the police officer (the one who said he was fine) her phone number and plead with him to reach out to her. He called me a few hours later to tell me that he had not only called her but she made herself available to him immediately. He shared that his meeting with her was very helpful.

According to Joanne, the officer was minimizing the incident. Because I know Joanne’s no-nonsense method, I was glad to hear that he agreed with her assessment. He went on to tell me the details of the fire through his eyes and said it was “the worst thing he’s ever experienced” in his career.

I think he’s actually on his way to being fine because he sought the help he needed and he’s talking about the pain rather than stifling it. Some might think it’s a weakness to ask for help. In reality, admitting weakness and reaching out for help is a sign of true strength.

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