I’ve been thinking a lot about one of those memories that, as a police officer, you never forget but often wish you could. In many ways, it defined the terms of my life in law enforcement, though not necessarily for the better.
The “Easy Call”
It was a calm and mild Sunday morning during day shift. I’d been an officer for only a few weeks when the call came out: a solo vehicle into a tree. I was new enough that when I got the dispatcher’s call, I said a short, silent prayer it would be something easy, something I knew how to handle without asking for help. A single vehicle into a tree with no traffic in the area? I was not even a tad bit worried. I’d already had my share of vehicle collisions around the congested San Francisco Bay Area where I worked and was confident in my response. I was, dare I say, smug?
When I arrived on scene, what assaulted my senses was anything but routine. A gray, four-door sedan had struck an elm tree that had stood well over two decades beside a well-traveled thoroughfare. A seven-year-old female child was belted into the front passenger seat of the car, unharmed but in shock. A young woman, presumably her mother, sat behind the wheel with her head at an awkward angle, gasping for air. She was not wearing a seatbelt.
I’d been trained as an emergency medical technician and worked as a lifeguard for many years, so I instinctively opened the woman’s airway with a chin thrust while holding her head in a neutral position to help prevent further damage. I learned later that the gasping sound she was making was “agonal breathing,” her brain’s last-ditch effort to get the oxygen it needed to survive. As the daughter watched, I held the woman until she passed.
It was my first fatality collision and I was definitely in shock. I just stood and listened to the little girl, who asked if she had killed her mommy.
You can still be successful at work without allowing your ego to get inflated to the point of self-destruction.
It’s All Fun and Games…
Eventually, I was able to draw out the whole story. The little girl told me she and her mother had been playing a game they often used to pass the time on car trips. The girl would make silly faces at her mother, and then her mom would try to outdo the daughter’s funny faces with her own. To do this, she had let go of the steering wheel. This time, somehow, the car went out of control and straight into a roadside tree. In a seven-year-old’s magical thinking, she believed she was responsible for her mother’s death.
I’d been trying so hard to keep it together — to appear poised and unphased by death or tragedy. In truth, this was only the second time I’d ever seen a dead body. (The first was at the funeral of an elderly neighbor.) And I’d certainly never touched one, let alone held a woman as she died.
In spite of the shock, I managed to compartmentalize my feelings and remain detached. I didn’t shed a tear. I tried to look strong and resilient and even contrite about the incident. Inside, though, I was numb. My brain and my emotions were deadlocked, with neither one really winning the contest.
In the weeks and months after this call, I responded to lots of calls, many of them involving horrific loss of life. I eventually became a suicide negotiator, though I didn’t always win the argument for life over death. Looking back, I see that with each incident, I became more callous, more unemotional.
At parties, I would tell stories of crazy calls about naked drunks or heated family arguments that led to full-blown Thanksgiving food fights. I loved the laughs and the attention, finding I could spin out the yarn to make the tale even better than how it happened in real life. All the while, I was shrinking inside.
I went out less often with friends. I made excuses not to attend events like weddings and birthday parties. On the outside, I am sure I seemed like a pompous fool with an excessive need for admiration from others. I felt somehow entitled to special attention from my friends and acquaintances based on my own retelling of the heroic deeds I had performed in the line of duty.
Meanwhile, the tragedies and truly awful calls continued piling up. I never spoke to anyone about that first, fatal collision. Never once did I tell anyone about the hours I spent sobbing as I thought about the traumatized little girl who thought she’d killed her mother. To do so would’ve exposed my hidden weakness, and that simply wasn’t an option.
Showing No Weakness
Over the next couple of decades, my police career flourished, though my relationships did not. At work, I was in charge, hiding my feelings behind a façade of strength. At home, I tried to control everyone and everything to my own benefit. I found myself unable to be sympathetic to the issues others were having. I was acting egotistical at work, but couldn’t recognize how my elevated sense of self-importance was bleeding into my personal life.
It’s a sad reality that public safety workers are often seen by others as self-absorbed. Maybe it’s the phenomenon of the “hero complex.” But maybe it’s just the mindset we need to do the job. They very nature of a career in emergency services requires a great deal of self-confidence. Chasing a person actively shooting at you or standing on a burning roof to cut a roof vent with a chainsaw is incredibly dangerous. Most people wouldn’t dare attempt such a thing.
What makes for a successful, long career as a police officer, firefighter or EMT can be confused for arrogance and superiority. Unfortunately, the confidence you feel as a first responder just might change your life in negative ways you were not expecting.
Not a Narcissist, but I Play One at Work
There’s an old joke that goes: “What’s the difference between a cop and God?” Answer: “God doesn’t think he’s a cop.”
Are all police officers narcissists? Absolutely not. Narcissistic personality disorder (NPD) is actually quite rare, with fewer than 200,000 cases a year. But it’s not unusual for someone in law enforcement to exhibit some of the traits common to the condition:
- Over-inflated self-importance: Public safety workers — and police officers in particular — often experience exaggerated feelings of self-importance. Having the power to use deadly force, to arrest and restore order, can eventually lead to notions of superiority or the fantasy of superhuman abilities.
- Need for the admiration of others: At social gatherings, we can often be heard telling outrageous stories of heroic feats to win over a crowd of eager listeners. It’s one thing to want to help others, but another to need others to adore and respect you.
- Superficial, exploitative relationships: First responders often experience relationships differently than others. Our friendships can be shallow and even exploitive, lacking much consideration for another person’s feelings or needs.
- Lack of empathy: Emergency workers may develop a callousness to the human condition. Especially after years of seeing the worst in society, we often shut down our emotions as a form of self-preservation.
- Unstable sense of identity: Constant feelings of superiority can leave an ego fragile. No one likes to admit failure, but graciously accepting criticism can become nearly impossible for some first responders. If you can’t provide a good answer to the question, “Who are you without the badge?” that’s a sign that you might have an issue.
- Problems forming personal attachments: The often-cited statistic that police officers get divorced at much higher rates, compared to people in other professions, may or may not be rooted in fact. Still, many law enforcement spouses can attest to how difficult it is to cohabitate with a cop. In addition to the stress of shift schedules, public safety spouses often must deal with their partners withdrawing, failing to open up and developing a “you just wouldn’t understand” attitude.
- Chronic boredom: Emergency workers are also prone to emptiness and boredom. The constant need for stimulation, positive affirmation and praise can make them restless. No one can maintain indefinitely the high that comes from saving lives or providing order in chaos. When the adrenaline stops and no one needs us urgently, an emergency worker can feel flat and emotionless.
- Difficulty with change: We can all feel some vulnerability to life’s transitions, but first responders are often impacted deeply when changes in their personal and professional lives force them to respond or make compromises.
- Suicidal ideation: Suicide in first-responder professions is finally being recognized as the real problem it is. High stress, along with substance abuse and excessively risky behaviors, can be a compounding factor in suicide risk. Add unfulfilling relationships and failed marriages and you’ve got a recipe for trouble.
Changing Your Outlook
Take a long, hard look at the list above. Do you see your own personality in any of the nine traits? If you’re startled to find yourself matching three, four or more of these attributes, don’t panic. It may be impossible to teach an old dog new tricks, but you’re a person, not a dog. Making some simple, positive changes to the way you act can be instrumental in unlocking some of the barriers you’ve put up inside to insulate yourself from trauma. Here are some ideas:
Identify the behaviors you want to change. There is no point of no return. If you’ve developed habits or responses in your work and personal life that put your own ego ahead of the feelings of others, you can still work to change your behavior (and eventually, your mindset). Maybe you tend to stand off to the side and let other officers “deal with” a victim. You might have developed the habit of looking at everyone you meet as a potential criminal or troublemaker. Or perhaps you’ve decided you’re too busy with work responsibilities to remember and acknowledge things like birthdays and anniversaries. Whatever the behavior is, try asking yourself: Do I only act this way at work or is this behavior affecting my personal life and relationships outside of the uniform?
Script a new response. Once you’ve targeted the habits you want to change, plan out a new response. Instead of treating all members of the public warily, you might decide to smile and say, “Good morning” when you meet people on the street. Rather than avoiding human contact, make the conscious decision to shake someone’s hand, give a fist bump or even offer a hug. Load all your important dates into your phone, with 48-hour reminders, so you’ll have ample time to make the effort to recognize others. Reducing just one bad habit or practice can lead to recognizing and eliminating others.
Celebrate your successes and failures. Sometimes, you’ll forget. Other times, you’ll fall back into old habits. More often than not, though, making the effort to change your outward behaviors will help gradually soften your outlook and the way you interact with others. If you blow it, resolve to do better next time. When you surprise a family member with an uncharacteristically kind act, feel free to pat yourself privately on the back and keep up the good work.
Get some help. If you saw quite a lot of yourself in the traits listed above — especially the last one — it’s probably time to talk to someone about how you’re feeling. It might be as simple as opening up to someone in your agency’s peer support group. If you’re really struggling, consider talking to a therapist who specializes in public safety issues. Please don’t wait until the isolation becomes overwhelming before seeking professional help.
You can still be successful at work without allowing your ego to get inflated to the point of self-destruction. Now, perhaps more than ever, we need compassionate and mentally strong first responders who are resilient in mind but realistic in emotion.
I have never let go of that child who sat in the passenger seat of the car that awful Sunday morning. She had no way of knowing this, but I remembered her when she would have turned 18. I grieved for her loss and mine as well. Emotionally, I was never the same from that day forward. It took more than a few lost friendships and destroyed relationships before I could see how my changing personality was hurting me — both at work and off the job.
No one likes a self-absorbed person. I know I didn’t like that person either, and I’m glad she is gone.