It had been a day. She was working in records temporarily because of an injury she sustained during a foot pursuit a few months back. Seemingly overnight, she went from being a hard-charging, no-nonsense, asset on patrol to an overpaid someone who files paperwork at the substation. Earlier that day, she had learned that some of the squads were taking bets on whether or not she would return to full duty. After 16 years in this profession, she couldn’t believe she was here — not knowing if she would ever be a cop again.
Injury aside, she was more senior than those taking bets against her. “Half of these kids couldn’t even run a mile, much less hop a fence,” she thought to herself as she was leaving for the day. She grabbed her bags and hobbled to her car, hoping no one would see the amount of pain she was in. She was told by one of her mentors that the more she complained, the more she showed pain, the more transparent she was about her injury, the worse the bets — and rumors — would get. So, she had gone to work with a smile on her face and a pain pill (or two) in her pocket every day for the last three months. She had been able to keep her head and spirit afloat for the most part, but today was different.
Three things had happened that sent her spinning. The first was learning about the betting pool, the second was her belt being a bit tighter than she was used to (she wasn’t allowed to exercise right now either), and the third was the automatic reply she received from her workers’ compensation attorney, which read, “I will be out of the country for three weeks on vacation. Please call the office if you have any questions, and I will respond upon my return.”
Three weeks? He didn’t tell her he was leaving for three weeks — that only further delayed her treatment and any potential resolution to her case. To say she was angry would be an understatement. She was furious. Every room she walked into that day, every conversation she had either started with or ended with how screwed up the system was, how the department didn’t care, how she was just a body number, how she would just be replaced anyway … you’ve heard it before. Whatever energy wasn’t being spent on those conversations was spent on trying to smile in the hallway when passing command staff (another downside of being stuck behind a desk).
She put the keys in the ignition and started toward home. Her commute was short. Some might say too short. Within those 10 minutes, the anger had dissipated somewhat — and all that was left of her was complete and total exhaustion. She opened the front door, dropped her stuff on the kitchen table and quietly shuffled to her bedroom (she didn’t want anyone asking her how her day was). She turned off the lights, laid in her bed, flipped on the TV and pulled the covers over her head.
When she was on patrol, she wielded anger to her advantage. If she was in a fight, she used it to overpower the subject. If she was on the hunt, she would use it to sharpen her sights and situational awareness. If she was writing a report, she used it to focus on every detail that might help put her arrestees away (and keep them away when they needed to be). Whatever was left was spent on lifting weights and jiu-jitsu training. Now that “real police work” wasn’t available to her and she wasn’t able to work out, the anger and frustrations permeated too many thoughts, too many conversations, with nowhere for it to go. She was stuck. Between spending most of her days angry and most of her evenings depressed, there was no opportunity for peace, joy, happiness or even anxiety. She was tapped out.
The anger–depression cycle is a tricky one — and one all too common in police work. I was teaching a crisis intervention training class a few weeks back, and in a room of 40 or so cops, one of my subject-matter experts talked to the class about the importance of cultivating empathy for people in suicidal crisis.
Now, I am no cop, but as a police psychologist, what I do know is that sometimes, feelings can get in the way of police work and make things unsafe. For example, if you fell to a pile of mush during every death notification call, you probably wouldn’t be as situationally aware on the next call. There is a good reason why you compartmentalize and shove emotions deep, deep down, with the exception of anger, which can be both appropriate and useful. Anger can be motivating and actionable when you are in control, and you can wield it to your advantage. When we are angry, our heart rate increases, testosterone production increases, adrenaline enters our bloodstream, and our muscles tense. This is good for when the fight is on and bad for when you’re redacting body cam in records.
Anger is an emotion designed to change something, but what happens when there is nothing to do or change? Your anger just sits there — for as long as you let it — until you distract yourself, work through it or otherwise tell it to take a hike. Until you do so, however, you are sitting in a hyper-aroused state, and if you stay there for too long, it would only make sense that when you snap out of it, you have nothing left to give and end up feeling depressed.
Depression is neither motivating nor actionable. When we feel depressed, our immune system weakens, we have an increased sensitivity to physical pain, our muscles are fatigued, and our blood vessels constrict. Not a good thing for cops. The difference between depression and exhaustion is that exhaustion is primarily a result of engaging in physical activity, and the consequence is being unable to complete tasks that require physical energy. Being exhausted is a normal and natural consequence of police work. Being depressed doesn’t have to be.
The best way to bring yourself out of this cycle is to first bring awareness to it. You can’t change something you aren’t aware of. Start with this: How do you know when you’re angry? Is it a thought (“Eff this place”) or a feeling (“My chest feels heavy”), or is that your co-workers or family notice first? If you can identify your indicators for anger, you can choose what to do about it. The key here is you need to add tools to your toolbelt because the ones that used to work for you may not at some point (back to that “can’t chase bad guys and can’t workout right now” thing).
So, if your anger is primarily hanging around in your thoughts, distract yourself or write the thoughts down. There is immense value in getting whatever is swimming in your head out on paper so that the thoughts are no longer a part of you but something you can look at and deal with. If you try to distract yourself, do so with something positive, funny or task-oriented. Go play with your kids, binge-watch a good TV series or get that janky door handle fixed in the upstairs bathroom.
Put yourself in a position to change your mindset, and if you can accomplish something that’s been hanging over your head like a home project, even better. Don’t just be angry — do something with it. The same goes for when you feel depressed. Phone a friend, binge-watch that other TV series, write down your feelings or cook something difficult and delicious. Don’t just wait for when you feel depressed to come up with your ops plan, either. “If it’s predictable … it’s preventable.” Write it down before you find yourself stuck in the cycle.
And finally, if you are one of the lucky ones dealing with the workers’ compensation system (a whole other article in and of itself), please don’t wait for your case to be dispositioned to decide to get yourself out of the cycle. You are worthy of feeling joy and peace and happiness, and yes, even anxiety. It may be their call when it comes to when you can calendar your treatment, but how you feel about it and navigate it is 100% your call and your responsibility.
It had been a day. After a few minutes of being in her room under the covers, she decided to stop feeling sorry for herself (the department wasn’t paying her right now anyway — why should she spend her time spun up about it?) Easier said than done, she told herself, as she begrudgingly hobbled over to her fridge and saw the posted note she placed there first thing that morning. “Make the effing pasta, you asshole.”
She remembered she had planned to make her own homemade pasta that day and had even prepared all the ingredients before leaving for work that morning. She decided work wasn’t going to take up any more of her time today — she had pasta to make, and that was that.