The nexus between depression and alcohol: A cop’s perspective
Depression in policing is real and more common than any statistic might show because most of us won’t admit it
By Bradley Nickell, Special Contributor to Police1
In my two and a half decades in policing, I’ve known many hundreds of law enforcement professionals — local, state, and federal. We come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but share many things in common, none greater than a love of a moral code and an oath to serve the people.
Unfortunately, another common factor I’ve witnessed in my years is how many in law enforcement drink alcohol. Most consider it no big deal and partake responsibly without excess. I was one of those. It’s often a social bonding thing — sharing a few drinks off duty with comrades you face extreme dangers with. Some use it to escape the images of destruction and death they’ve encountered on the job. Others indulge as a form of blowing off steam from difficult circumstances in their work or family lives.
One thing I’ve learned firsthand is alcohol’s lure of release or escape is a false promise, and I’m thankful I learned it before it became destructive to my career, my family, or my life.
Depression is a taboo word in cop culture. It is in ordinary culture as well, but even more so in law enforcement circles because it implies weakness or a flaw, although incorrectly so. Cops can’t think of themselves as flawed or weak when they’re strapping on a gun and pulling on body armor to start their shift. They’re about to journey into the unknown, not knowing the dangers they may face on any given day.
If you lose your edge and think you’re less than invincible, it could cause hesitation in the very moment you’re needed to save someone’s life or even your own. Even though we are far from invincible, belief that we’re close to it makes us better at what we do. It’s part of why we run toward gunfire when others run away.
But depression in policing is real and more common than any statistic might show because most of us won’t admit it. Fear of appearing weak or fear of reprisal or inquiry from superiors keeps talk about it in the closet. Depression is a psychological condition that only reveals itself to the outside world when one admits it or some destructive behavior attributed to it boils to the surface.
One of depression’s attributes is a constant feeling of hopelessness — that things have gotten bad and won’t get better. This is something easily contracted in law enforcement while trudging through the never-ending ugliness of the world. Inescapable images of hurt, rot and destruction fill the memory banks and often overflow into our dreams. Many cops even exhibit classic symptoms of PTSD as a result of the tragic experiences they’ve experienced or witnessed. We all have stories and take no joy in retelling them.
It’s easy for cops to see no hope for humanity when they spend their best moments chasing the darkness the world has to offer. Social circles grow ever smaller, and it can become an echo-chamber where depression is bred like bacteria in a Petri dish.
But depression is a true biochemical dysfunction, one that sometimes needs a catalyst to bring it to life — something more than just exposure to catastrophic events. I offer my own experience as evidence.
After being a cop and a detective for so long, I have a large catalog of memories I’d love to un-see. I know what death smells like. I know what it looks like when someone dies from bleeding out. I know what the interior of a human head looks like from a shotgun blast when the rest of the body doesn’t realize it’s dead yet. I know what a two-year-old child looks like when her head is crushed by a truck tire. I’ve lived through the feelings of learning that a notorious criminal was trying to hire someone to kill me. The images and stories are endless.
For many of us, we also bring the memories of things from before we were cops to the table as well. Some of the things we experienced as children, such as physical or sexual abuse or being brought up in a destructive home, still breathe in us. For me, it was the loss of my mother in a drunken driving "accident" when I was six years old. It imprinted some things on my mind that I’ve still yet to shake, that sometimes impair my ability to function normally in relationships. I don’t trust people easily and my default position is to expect those closest to me to cause grief.
I’ve done what I think is a good job of recognizing my issues and the resulting behaviors, so I’m on a good path. But two years ago, at a New Year’s Eve celebration, I drank alcohol for the first time in several years. I had given up drinking completely before that, because I recognized it wasn’t adding anything good to my life.
That New Year’s Eve turned to a few more drinks a few weeks later. Everything was fine. I was in control. I wasn’t a drunk. I was responsible.
Several months later, I was drinking every weekend. My wife didn’t care for it and I began looking for reasons to spend time away from the house — so I could drink. I began hiding it. I didn’t want to upset things at home. I began enjoying drinking alone so I could be alone with my thoughts. Old memories from work and before, that hadn’t bothered me in a long time, sprang back to life and alcohol seemed to bring peace. After more time, only alcohol brought peace.
Of course, at some point, my wife discovered my drinking and voiced her concern. It brought conflict between us because she was threatening the singular thing I thought was bringing me peace from my lasting feelings of hopelessness — alcohol.
Alcohol began to cloud my ability to organize and sort out my feelings that I had managed so well without alcohol, so much so, that I was completely convinced that alcohol was the only cure. I’ve known people who are treated for depression who take antidepressant medication. I thought, "What’s the difference between that and me using alcohol if alcohol works for me?"
But the conflict at home made me seek information. I wrote down a long list of things that make me happy, things that make me mad, and things that make me sad. The latter two crowded the pages while the things that made me happy were a short list of five things. Three of them involved alcohol. This was a clue.
I began reading everything I could find from reputable sources on the Internet about alcohol and depression. I found nothing that indicated alcohol helps depression. I found a gold mine of information to the contrary.
My next step was something also considered taboo in law enforcement — for the same reason — it incorrectly implies weakness. I located a therapist who specializes in depression and alcohol. It was good for me that she is also a Christian woman; I wanted someone who was Christ-centered. She gave me a safe place to express my feelings and start managing them appropriately again.
I spent the next few weeks struggling to stay away from alcohol when the feelings of depression roared to life. I was at risk of drinking anytime I was alone and not at work. I failed a few times. I got caught a couple of times. Finally, I decided to give real sobriety a shot and see what would happen.
After a few weeks without alcohol, my ability to easily process my feelings began to return. The feeling of hopelessness, that things would never get better, that I’m just wired wrong from my experiences, began to subside.
Today, just a few months without alcohol, it is crystal clear to me now: Alcohol was a liar. It had convinced me that it was my source of peace. No, it wasn’t my source of peace; it was the source of my lack of peace.
Today, there is no risk of me flirting with alcohol again. It went from some New Year’s cheer, to nearly consuming me in less than a year. It was incremental. My ability to be cognizant of that is liberating. It crept in slowly, wrapping itself in my self-image. If it had come all at once, that would’ve been easy to recognize and reject. Tossing the booze put me back in charge of managing the other junk that will always be there. It gave me my freedom back.
Some who go through this same thing are so entrenched in their belief that alcohol is making things better, even if for a short time, that the result is self-destruction. Unacceptable behaviors and unbearable consequences wreck careers, wreck families, wreck dreams and sometimes end lives.
Do yourself a favor and ask if you’re using alcohol to escape from something. Could you go without alcohol? If your answer is yes, try it for a month. If some things you struggle with become more clear and manageable, you’ve found the right path to freeing yourself from the chains you might not have even known were there. Welcome back, conqueror!
About the Author
Bradley Nickell is a twenty-six year veteran in law enforcement and author of Repeat Offender; Sin City’s Most Prolific Criminal and the Cop Who Caught Him. Http://wildbluepress.com/RepeatOffender Visit Bradley’s blog and follow Bradley on Twitter.