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Who is your who? Building your personal support network

As a police officer, you need a personal support network to help you deal with trauma; your spouse and friends are a good place to start

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Many officers see themselves as an army of one.

Where are the only children at? If you’re an only child like me, you are probably used to being an army of one, often handling things on your own and enjoying your solitary time. Maybe you are fond of peace and quiet, and if you have more than one child of your own, maybe you don’t understand why they fight over foolish differences, screaming things like, “He keeps touching me!” or “She’s looking at me!” To this day, I still don’t get it.

When you are an only child, you get used to handling things yourself and being quite independent. That independence comes with a price, however. Unfortunately, for many of us – even those with siblings – we may not always have someone to bounce things off of or to lean on when we need support.

Many of you officers out there see yourselves as an army of one. You may find yourselves bottling things up, keeping experiences to yourselves in fear you might expose your family to the pain and anguish eating away at your insides every day.

So you hide your trauma, you bury it down and continue doing the job, which only adds more to the pile that continually keeps building. You don’t address the sights and sounds that make up the never-ending highlight reel of your life – the same highlight reel you will still carry with you not just after a shift but also into retirement if you don’t address it.

Your Personal Support Network

I see a lot of great commentary out there on “What is your why?” That is, what is the main reason you as a first responder do what you do? In contrast, I want to focus here on “Who is your who?” In other words, who is that person or group of people you can turn to in times of need? Who has your back when the chips are down? Who is it that, after you’ve been a rock for everyone else, can be a rock for you?

Regardless of whether you’re an only child or one of many, none of us can do this alone. Each of us needs a personal support network.

Quite often, we may find ourselves acting as the go-to person others lean on in times of crisis. We may be that person friends and co-workers call or text in the middle of the night when they need a friendly voice or listening ear. We may be the one they reach out to when they need words of encouragement, a venting session or simply a reality check. There is a feeling of satisfaction and gratitude that comes with being that person others turn to in their times of need, but it also comes with a sense of responsibility.

As you take on the troubles of others, the weight of that responsibility can weigh you down. If you’re not careful, this vicarious trauma can impact your own life emotionally. For those of you who have read my past articles, you know I am a huge proponent of moderation. Whether it is food, drinking or anything else, I encourage first responders not to do anything to excess. I strive to promote balance both in my own life and in the lives of others. When you are the helper, when you are involved in providing peer support or when you are the friendly voice on the other end of the phone, who is looking out for you? Who are the people that make up your own support network?

Your Significant Other

For those of you who have one, your spouse or partner should be one of the most important people in your support network. This person is an optimal choice for your “who.” Now, some of you might be thinking, “I’m not going to burden my wife, husband or partner with my troubles!” You may think they won’t understand your experiences or that they will not be able to deal with the stress, trauma and burdens you face. But have you ever tried? Better yet, have you ever asked?

If you and your significant other have never discussed talking about your day’s events or having some form of emotional debriefing, why not? Bottling up your emotions and feelings is detrimental to a healthy relationship, just as it is detrimental to your own health and wellness. Repressing your anger, hurt and sorrow means these and other feelings will only be expressed in negative ways such as arguments, drinking, gambling, affairs and emotional outbursts. If you have chosen to share your life with another person, that person deserves all of you, both the good and bad, the ups and downs, and the highs and lows.

To achieve balance and moderation in your life, you need a go-to person you trust and love – someone who trusts and loves you back. A point of clarification here: You both need to agree on how much you want to share with one another, meaning either the PG version or the R-rated version of your work, of your life, of your stress. Whatever you decide, you must share. Simply assuming your spouse or partner is not able, not willing or not strong enough to hear about your workplace trauma does a huge disservice to your relationship. By not sharing with your significant other, you are devaluing them. You are viewing them not as your partner in love, but a mere acquaintance who you don’t feel fully confident to confide in.

All too often, marriages and relationships are driven apart by a lack of communication, and by the time both partners realize there is a rift, it is often too late to repair. Don’t let that happen to you and your relationship! If you’re reading this, I want you to sit down with your significant other. Tell them you love them, that they are important to you, and that you want them to be a part of your fears and struggles. Tell them you need them to be a rock you can lean on. Once you do that, have the discussion about how much you want to share with them.

If communication with your partner has not been great in the past, I want you to work on reconnecting with that person. As with anything worthwhile, this might not come overnight. It will take time, but it will be worth it. As a cop, you may want or even expect immediate resolution, immediate results, but relationships don’t work that way. They are constantly evolving and growing, but as long as both partners are working together – as long as you have open lines of communication and trust – most relationships can weather any storm.

Your Friends

Friends should also make up an important part of your support network. Friends are a great support system for those who are single, those between relationships, those having relationship issues, and those who have recently experienced a life-changing event such as a breakup, a divorce or the loss of a loved one.

Friends come in all shapes and sizes and unlike family, are oftentimes non-judgmental and much more supportive. Also, while we cannot choose our family members, we can choose our friends. These are your people. They know you and you know them. You have common interests and connections.

One thing to keep in mind is that your friends don’t need to be in law enforcement to be a helpful sounding board. While it is often beneficial to talk with someone who knows the job, and having law enforcement friends helps to shift the burden off you, you may sometimes need someone with a different perspective. In fact, having “civilian” friends can be beneficial because it reduces the likelihood that shop talk may take priority over your need for support. Non-LE friends can also provide a needed respite away from the job, a continued connection with those who knew you before you were a cop, and ultimately a neutral zone where you can talk more freely.

One of the best things about friends is that you can have multiple people you go to for different issues. One friend for relationship concerns, another friend to de-stress with and yet another friend for working out different career paths. There’s nothing wrong with compartmentalizing your support network.

Build Your Support Network Now

While all this may seem elementary to many of you, the whole point is we all need to rely on one another in difficult as well as not-so-difficult times. You may already have a spouse or partner as well as friends who are willing to listen to your experiences and react without judgment. All it takes to find your “who” is to approach someone who is already in your life and ask them if they are willing to be a sympathetic ear to help you process the things you see and do in your job.

So, the next time you are answering a text or call to help another brother or sister in their time of need, I want you to remember that you also need to take care of yourself. Don’t wait another day before you start building a support system of your own.

Until next time, stay safe.

NEXT: Benefits of therapy for first responder families

Nicholas Greco IV, MS, BCETS, CATSM, FAAETS, is president and founder of C3 Education and Research, Inc. Nick has over 25 years of experience training civilians and law enforcement. He has directed, managed and presented on over 550 training programs globally across various topics including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, verbal de-escalation techniques, post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout and vicarious traumatization. Nick has authored over 325 book reviews and has authored or co-authored over 35 articles in psychiatry and psychology.

He is a subject matter expert for Police1/Lexipol and Calibre Press, as well as a CIT instructor for the Chicago Police Department, CIT Coordinator and Lead CIT Trainer for the Lake County Sheriff’s CIT Program as well as other agencies. Nick is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), IACP, IPSA, LETOA and CIT International, Committee Chair for the IPSA Mental Health Committee, and a member of the Wellness support team for Survivors of Blue Suicide (SBS).