As a cop, I live for my days off. And when I finally get to my first off day—the day that I had planned to take on the world, Walmart, the gym, and that moldy stuff in the back of the fridge—I just want to disappear in between the cushions of my couch and not come out for days. But it’s so rare I ever really get a day off—between court, mandatory training, and that irresistible last-minute OT assignment, it seems like I’m always working.
Sound familiar? Man, this job can really suck the life out of you. I know you know what I’m talking about. Sure, its part of the job. But it can wear on you, and that can lead to problems. Big problems. Problems like compassion fatigue, exhaustion, depression, withdrawal from people, destruction of personal relationships and home life, drinking, more drinking, even suicidal thoughts or worse. We have all been affected by it, we have all seen it. We all know fellow cops who have burned out, let their personal life fall apart as they chase the job, or even worse, died by suicide because they felt they had nowhere else to turn.
As a cop who has been through the darkness and overcome it, I want to share some good news with you. By reading the rest of this article, you can learn the secrets I found for leading an actively balanced life of resilience; the key to surviving a career in law enforcement.
RESILIENCE STEP ONE – REST ON YOUR SABBATH DAY: Great warriors always return from battle and rest. Soldiers take time off between deployments. Cops don’t regularly have that ability, because at the end of your short break, you are back on duty. It’s imperative to give yourself a day to recover. Once you get to that first day off, remember it’s okay to accomplish very little and maybe even binge some Netflix. You’ve been hypervigilant and taking care of everyone else’s problems and conflict for the past several days, now it is time to rest. For those with small children at home, this isn’t always possible, but don’t be afraid or too “tough” to take a nap when your little one does.
RESILIENCE STEP TWO – DIVERSIFY YOUR FRIENDS: After raising my right hand and swearing to the oath, I quickly began to live and breathe everything law enforcement. All my non-cop friends didn’t really seem to “get it.” Not to mention, the same question that they always have ready to ask, “So, what’s the craziest call you’ve ever been on?” Or, “Have you ever shot anyone?” Eye roll. So I started hanging out with only cops, on and off duty. Every time I was trying to do something fun with my fellow officers, like a barbecue or fishing, our conversation always went back to work—and talking about work all the time can really drag you down. It’s great to love your job, but it’s not great to become the job.
If you ever have that really crappy call, the one involving an abused child or worse…and you just can’t shake it…cops are about the worst people to have in your rolodex. They will often laugh it off and tell you to suck it up. And if you can’t, you just might think there is something wrong with you. I have lived this and now I am so thankful for the men in my church’s men’s group. These men listen to me, pray for me, and check up on me. And I’m okay with that. I love my police brothers and sisters but they should not be my counselors in life. So, choose some friends to do life with who don’t wear a badge. Heck, even a firefighter will work as a friend—I mean, if it gets really bad (grin).
RESILIENCE STEP THREE – FIND YOUR THERAPY: Remember all those cool things you used to do before you were a cop? Remember the long weekend rides through the countryside on your Harley? Remember when you used to bring home trout by the bucketful? Remember when you used to play the guitar in that garage band? You need to find a passion to pursue. There is more to life than being a cop. Find what soothes your soul. Art, music, writing, motorcycles, horseback riding, archery, fishing, kayaking, paddle boarding, skydiving, snake wrangling (nope)…find your therapy, and make time to pursue it.
RESILIENCE STEP FOUR – GET INTO NATURE: Getting out into nature has incredible therapeutic value. Nature therapy can often be combined with the passion you pursue from step three above. If your therapy doesn’t involve getting outside and enjoying Creation, make sure you take the time to get into nature. Go for a run, or walk, or a hike in the woods. Kayak or canoe in the calm waters of a nearby pond or lake. Hop on the ATV and blaze some trails. The key here is getting away from the busyness out there and resting in the beauty that quietly and peacefully surrounds us every day.
RESILIENCE STEP FIVE – TAKE CARE OF YOUR BODY: I’m not going to preach about diet; I eat too many donuts as it is. But, realize that what you put into your body has a lot to do with the way you feel. Eating good food (and not garbage) helps you to not feel like garbage. Exercise (running, lifting weights, etc.) produces endorphins that combat depression and anxiety. Avoid alcohol. Make it a priority to get a healthy amount of sleep—at least on your days off. Your mind is part of your body, and if your body is feeling well, you are more resilient.
RESILIENCE STEP SIX – DON’T BE A CONTROL FREAK: There is a difference between being prepared and being in control. One of the most mind-freeing things for me has been to realize that I have only so much control over the world around me.
A wise pastor I know recently said, “After 30 years in ministry if there is one thing I have learned, it’s that God will be God and people will be people.” Well said! You may make a difference in someone’s life of domestic abuse only to see them fall right back into the same abusive relationship. You arrest the drunk driver and he may never drink again…or he may get arrested again next week for the same offense. People are responsible for the choices they make, and while you can be a positive influence in their life, don’t think you can change them. Find peace in knowing that ultimate control is above your pay grade.
RESILIENCE STEP SEVEN – YOU GOTTA HAVE FAITH: This is where it all comes together for me. Reconnecting with my faith and having a relationship with God has given me long term resilience and new purpose in serving others. I have the support of my church family and I have an outlook on life that helps me to have compassion for others which makes me a better cop. At the end of the day, I realize God can use me if I let Him, and this helps me to push on knowing I have a greater purpose than what I can see. Faith in God gives me hope in a world filled with hopelessness.
Fellow officer, deputy, trooper, or dispatcher, you were meant for more than mundane. I swear by all of these steps as they took me years to learn. Any one of these steps will help if you’re not feeling like tackling the whole list. I hope you can apply at least some of these steps to your life and live the life you were given. If you are struggling and you need an ear, I sincerely encourage you to please reach out to me, a Peer Support member, a Chaplain, or a counselor. I am easily found on Facebook or you can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
About the Author:
Jonathan Hickory is an active duty Master Police Officer in Virginia and the author of the award-winning book, Break Every Chain. In his 16 plus years of police experience, Jonathan mentors and instructs other officers in police driving methods and has also served as a Field Training Officer. Jonathan spent seven years investigating the reconstruction of fatal vehicle crashes and three years as a motorcycle officer. Jonathan proudly serves as a member of the Police Department's Peer Support Team providing Critical Incident Stress Management to fellow officers. Jonathan developed and teaches a DCJS approved Resilience and Suicide Prevention class at the police academy. He also leads a Life Safety team with The Point Church in Charlottesville and recently trained to become a Chaplain. Jonathan has been married to his wife Stacy for over 15 years and has two beloved children.