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A Time to Receive
I was reading the Staff Stories on your website and thought that I would send in a short story from my career that took place around 8 years ago.
I was working my post as the Corridor Sergeant one day on swing shift, and once again we had to respond to the same inmate engaging in self-harm. I had already responded to this inmate so many times that I can’t count them. That day was different – worse, as I had to use the cut-down tool to remove the material from her neck. Her face was blue, and she was unconscious. As I began to cut the material, she regained consciousness. She looked me directly in the face, and pleaded with me to save her. She apologized for what she had done, and told me that she didn’t mean to go this far. This happened a couple of times while I was struggling to get the cut-down tool in between her neck and the material so that I could remove it.
I had worked for my department for around 12 years when this event occurred. I am the person in charge of our CISM/Peer Support Team, and I am always here to help everyone else. That day after this incident, I refused to attend a tactical debriefing, supposedly so that I could write my reports. When I was approached by a Captain and told to come back to the debriefing, I told him that I couldn’t do that because I needed to write my reports. He told me that I could write my reports tomorrow. That is when I removed my badge and handed it to him. I told him that I had to write my reports today because I wasn’t coming back tomorrow or any other day.
I am thankful that my Captain that day knew me very well, and he refused to take my badge from me. He let me finish my reports and then he walked to my car with me. He reminded me that we have a great group of people on our CISM/Peer Support Team, and told me that maybe I needed to talk to one of them. As I was getting into my car, he also told me to talk to my husband, and talk to someone on my team. He reminded me that just because I am the one to help others, that doesn’t mean that I can’t need that help myself. He called me the next day and asked how I was doing, and was happy to hear that I had spent many hours talking to my support system and that I would be at work that night.
I was very thankful that this Captain made me see that it was OK for me to ask for help after this incident, and that he stopped me from walking away from my career. Today I am just over 20 years with my department, and I have recently become an instructor for Corrections Fatigue To Fulfillment. I am looking forward to sharing the information in this class with my coworkers. Although I didn’t know the name for it back then, I am now positive that Corrections Fatigue was a huge part of the problem for me back then.
What Does a Glock Taste Like?
Have you ever pictured yourself laid back in your recliner, tears falling down your face, with a 40-caliber Glock handgun laid across your chest? Your hand is squeezing the pistol grip so tight you feel the tingling of numbness as your fingertips and knuckles are turning as white as the Florida sand. You know how dangerous firearms can be, so you keep your finger down the side of the barrel and outside the trigger guard.
You hold the gun, laying it across your chest at first. Thoughts racing through your mind, wrestling with the pain in your heart. Still crying, you put the barrel of the gun against your temple.
So, this is what it feels like to have the cold steel of a barrel pressed against your head with your own hand.
You lay the gun back on your chest as another wave of pain overtakes your body and makes you tremble. Never realizing your heart could hurt this bad, you wonder if you’re going to pull the trigger.
Let’s start over, this time talking about me – because this is about me and my story.
I lay back in my recliner, tears falling down my face, with a 40-caliber Glock handgun laid across my chest. My hand is squeezing the pistol grip so tight that I feel the tingling of numbness as my fingertips and knuckles turn as white as the Florida sand. I know how dangerous firearms can be, so I keep my finger down the side of the barrel and outside the trigger guard.
I hold the gun, laying it across my chest at first. Thoughts are racing through my mind, wrestling with the pain in my heart. Still crying, I put the barrel of the gun against my temple.
So, I think to myself, this is what it feels like to have the cold steel of a barrel pressed against my head with my own hand.
I lay the gun back on my chest as another wave of pain overtakes my body and makes me tremble. Never realizing before that my heart could hurt this bad, I wonder if I am going to pull the trigger.
I ask myself:
Is this the day my life ends?
Is this the day all my pain stops?
I put the barrel of the Glock in my mouth and the reality of what is about to happen is overwhelming. With the taste of gun oil on my lips, my hand is shaking so badly that until I close my mouth tightly around the barrel, it bounces against my teeth. The metal against my teeth equates to fingernails on a chalkboard or scraping a fork across a dinner plate, and it makes “that” noise.
Do I say, “fuck it” and pull the trigger?
Maybe I should call 911 and report a suicide so my wife doesn’t come home to the messy scene I just created? Even though the aﬀair she had for the last year that I just found out about moments ago help push me to this breaking point? Do I call my adult children, not to tell them my plans, but to hear their voices and tell them I love them one last time?
For some reason I can’t pull the trigger at that moment. I lay the Glock across my chest and cry a little while longer. I pick up my cell phone and snap a picture so I can send it to my wife and tell her I love her one last time.
Then I have an AHA! moment. How pathetic is this? I just took a picture of a gun laying across my chest, in tears, to send my wife.
I realize this very second that I do not want to die. I want the pain to stop. I ABSOLUTELY want the pain to stop, but I don’t want to die. I don’t want to put my 4 adult children through the pain of losing me and asking themselves “Why?” for the rest of their lives.
And even though I’m absolutely crushed by my wife’s actions, I truly don’t want to put this guilt on her either. I also realize that sending this picture is more of a manipulation move to make her feel the pain I’m feeling.
I lay the phone down. I lay the gun down. I think about how my life has just been changed forever. Right now, I feel lost. I feel hopeless. I feel helpless. I’m scared of the future. But I know I do not want to die. As I said before, I want the pain to stop, but I don’t want to die. I have many more things I want to do with my grown children and three granddaughters.
Life is hard right now, but it’s getting better. Some days are worse than others, but the better days get a little better every time.
I’m back to work. I’m enjoying my family, even though it looks diﬀerent now. I have an amazing therapist I see weekly. I have a new outlook on life, and I am very excited about my future and this trip to New Orleans coming up – a place I have never been, but have always wanted to go to. An all-guys trip with friends from work. We all need to decompress sometimes.
Tasting the gun oil on a Glock. Never again ….
This Profession Needs Decompression
Decompress. This is a topic we do not discuss enough and something we do not do enough. This job wears on you and at times we do not even realize how much it is weighing on us. Sometimes we do not realize it until it is brought to our attention. The problem with this is it is often brought to our attention by our spouse or significant other, children, co-worker or friend. If other people can tell that we are stressed, it is obviously manifesting physically in some way. A lot of times, other people see it before we realize it. I believe this is because we are used to being under stress. We are always hypervigilant and that often prevents us from fully relaxing. Some of us can never fully relax and that constant stress eventually takes its toll. I have known correctional staff to die within days of retirement. I have known two officers that had heart attacks and passed away while on vacation. I don’t know or understand the science behind it, but it appears to me that we get so used to a certain level of stress and when that stress goes away, this is when the damage caused by the stress manifests itself. It almost seems after so many years at a constant stress level that your body does not know how to react with no stress.
The wife and I recently went to Las Vegas. I could not wait to get out of town. I needed very badly to get away from the job and home. The problem is, I cannot just relax. I cannot be calm without anxiety keeping me worked up. That fight or flight feeling is always there even though it does not need to be. Large crowds make me feel like something bad is going to happen at any moment. And even though it could, the odds are low. When you unknowingly allow yourself to relax, an alarm or bells start ringing. Anxiety back to maximum levels even though you realize within seconds it is a slot machine. A security guard is standing close by when his radio comes to life. For a split second you are on full alert. Who is calling for help? You tell yourself you are on vacation and you talk yourself back down. Never all the way down.
You take your wife and family to a comedy show and a fight breaks out in front of you. You find yourself going into prison mode and taking one of the fighters to the ground. Security is glad you were there to help and jokingly offers you a job. Your two sons, two daughters and their friends are proud of you and pumped up because they got to “see you in action” and are surprised the old man still has it. Everyone is excited, proud, laughing, talking about everything that just happened. You smile and try to laugh with them, but you are back in a place mentally you really do not want to be in. Your wife gives you a kiss and hug because she understands where you are at mentally. You travelled a couple thousand miles to get a break from this type of behavior. You are stressed, your anxiety is back at max levels and it is very tiring with these stress levels going up and down so much. You almost need a vacation from your vacation. Therefore, we cannot relax. We are either waiting for something dangerous to happen, or we are reacting to something that is happening.
When my sons were younger and in Boy Scouts, we took the group to the monster trucks. I was an Officer at the time and my assistant was a Paramedic at the prison hospital. We are walking the group of kids through the arena when a man falls on the ground in front of the kids and starts having a seizure. His wife is screaming that this has never happened before. The kids are panicking because they have never seen this before. My partner and I go right into work mode and help this man until the ambulance arrives. It is times like this that you are glad you were there to help, but it is just another moment stolen from you that was supposed to be relaxing. A good time with family and friends ruined. Another moment where the anxiety shoots back up as a reminder that you are somehow being punished for trying to have a good time.
I could go on and on with situations like these. I am sure most of you can too. This keeps my anxiety high. I can tell it often irritates my wife even though she tries to be as supportive as possible. It is kind of an unspoken agreement between the wife and I that if we are in an environment that drives the anxiety up all I have to say is, “Hey babe, it’s time to go.” No questions asked, we are walking out. This may cause an argument later or at least a discussion, but she immediately knows it is time to go. Sometimes it is not fair to her or even justified. We know anxiety is a liar, but it is so hard to shake those feelings when they show up.
With anxiety comes depression. It is a vicious circle. You cannot control your anxiety, so this makes you depressed. Depression comes in many forms and sometimes we do not realize it until it is too late. Therefore, it is so important to ask for help. Reach out. Talk to someone. Family, a friend, coworkers, a mental health professional, someone. We cannot let these things fester and build up. These things will take control of our lives, and way too many times it ends in suicide. We should not wait until we are curled up in the corner in a fetal position sucking our thumb. It often does not get to that point, but that does not mean we do not need help. I believe the second you have thoughts like, “I wonder what it would be like to die,” or “Suicide has to be better than this crazy world,” the moment you have any thoughts close to these, you should be reaching out. These thoughts do not necessarily mean you are suicidal, but it is a great time to head this off before it becomes more than it needs to be.
I am tired of burying correctional staff. I am tired of hearing about another suicide. And what I have learned is this is not just a state issue or United States issue. The suicide rate for correctional staff is high around the world. This is an issue that needs to be addressed on a bigger scale than it currently is, but it starts with us. We must reach out before it is too late, and we must let other staff know we care when we notice they are going through something. As correctional staff, we feel alone. Even at work we feel like we must have each other’s back because we are all we have. We always have each other’s back with physical altercations. It is time to have each other’s back for mental health issues also. We must get rid of the stigma that comes with mental health and asking for help. It is okay to not be okay, but it is not okay to let these feelings destroy you.
Be safe, be vigilant, and have each other’s back!
Juggling My Trauma and the Inmates’ Trauma
Rates of trauma exposure and PTSD are extremely high among both justice-involved individuals and correctional professionals, perhaps 10 times higher compared to a community sample.
I have worked in corrections for 12 years. I do not have PTSD but I have been exposed to an extremely high volume of trauma in my adult life. Since working in corrections, but outside my work life, I have been robbed at gunpoint and also shot at. Both these incidents were followed by weeks of classic post-trauma symptoms. Ironically, it was my experience of working in corrections that enabled me to eventually move past these traumatic experiences with relative ease, because I anticipate and expect things like this to happen, and I know how to roll with them.
I have witnessed many dozens, if not over 100 traumatic incidents through my role as a crisis first-responder in corrections. Probably 95% of these trauma exposures are assaults, suicide attempts, and self-mutilation incidents. I’ve intervened on a handful of attempted murders, and probably a couple dozen suicide attempts where the individual came very, very close to completing the act. Some of these individuals later came up with more-efficient attempts, and they are no longer with us. There are also several dozen other near-miss incidents when I have had the adrenaline dump and was in the “red” awareness zone, but my coworkers and I used our skills to talk someone down from harming themselves or others (such as us!).
As the years in this career roll on, I increasingly struggle with withdrawing, disengaging, lacking compassion, and emotional numbness. On a good day I am still my best self; I am a good helper, but when I’m stressed or overwhelmed I feel kind of like a shadow of my new-career enthusiasm. Just like the Toby Keith lyrics, “I’m not as good as I once was, but I’m as good once as I ever was.”
Another irony of being exposed to so much trauma is that it has tempered my demeanor and approach to interacting with inmates. I know the strain and drain of 20 lifetimes of trauma because I have lived through it already. I desire persons to be understanding, compassionate, patient, and kind towards me because of my experience with trauma. And since I aim to treat others the way I would like to be treated, I go above and beyond to interact with inmates in a neutral, non-threatening, calm, and measured manner.
When I train new correctional employees, I have begun advising the new recruits to treat every inmate as if they had PTSD. That is, no escalating, yelling, cornering, threatening, abrupt noises, or walking up behind others unannounced. Always give inmates a way out, an escape, an option to feel like they have “won,” and assume that much of inmate behavior is a trauma reaction rather than an intentionally bad behavior.
In my observation, traumatized staff and inmates can actually get along relatively well together when we establish norms for respect, space, and conflict resolution that are both clear and fair.
Some of the biggest threats to maintaining a relatively peaceful environment are when members of this community have severe, untreated PTSD. When threatened, rational thinking is out the window, and that is when the reckless acts and outbursts can occur.
Perhaps one of the most meaningful solutions to maintaining a peaceful prison environment is to ensure that inmates and staff alike have access to adequate treatment for PTSD, such as medication and therapy.
Inmates in my state correctional system have good access to psychiatry and limited access to therapy. They can get in to see a psychiatrist within a couple weeks, and some therapy groups are available, but individual psychotherapy is not provided due to limited staffing. For staff, accessing treatment is the opposite. It is easy to access psychotherapy, but due to a severe shortage of psychiatric providers in our state, it takes 4-5 months to get in for an appointment.
The structure of benefits for correctional professionals in our state correctional agency is not at all conducive to PTSD and extensive trauma exposure, in my opinion. If you have PTSD, let’s be real, you are going to miss some work. However, you can’t technically call in sick for mental illness, unless you have a diagnosis. So, what are you going to do in the 5 months before you can even get an appointment to be diagnosed with PTSD? Let’s say you are fortunate(?) to finally get the PTSD diagnosis, and then you call in sick. If you are gone for more than 2 consecutive days you need to go and get a doctor’s note saying you are fit to return to duty. So, tell me again how that’s going to work when you have to wait another 5 months to see the psychiatrist?
In reality, you don’t ever get a diagnosis, you call in sick and list some reason other than PTSD, and then you make sure not to be off more than 2 days in a row. That does get you your mental health day, but your HR record gets pinged. Enough “unscheduled” sick days in a year and you don’t get your annual raise.
Well, unless of course you missed work because of PTSD and you have the diagnosis to back that up – then you are covered under FMLA and the employer cannot legally discriminate against you. That’s all fine and great, but because of the inability to actually get in to see the provider to get the diagnosis, or get in for a follow up to be declared fit to return to work after 2 days, guess how many correctional employees in our state correctional agency actually have a PTSD diagnosis? I’d be willing to guess the number is close to zero.
The result is many correctional professionals in our agency with undiagnosed PTSD who either suck it up and deal with it, or else they exit the profession. The latter happens a lot.
Another benefits problem is that once you leave corrections employment you can’t afford health care for the health conditions caused and exacerbated by your employment in corrections. You can collect full retirement benefits at 55, which is great, but state health insurance falls off an average of about 6 months after retirement. Medicare kicks in at 65, so that’s 9.5 years to plan for.
Employees deal with this in various ways. One is that they stay in corrections long beyond age 55. Overwhelmingly, the number of correctional employees “working late” in our agency are doing so primarily for health insurance.
Occasionally this can work out for the individual, but much of the time the worker is burned out and needs a realistic way to exit the profession, for the benefit of everyone. Some employees retire at 55 and then have the fortune to ride on their spouse’s health insurance. Other employees retire from corrections and start a second career, basically working for health benefits.
This is doable, sometimes, but very often the correctional professional is not in a condition to launch into nine more years of full-time work in a different field. A corrections maxim, “Your first four years in corrections, you are no good. After four years in corrections, you are no good anywhere else” has a lot of truth in it. One other option, pay for health insurance out of pocket, is simply not affordable on a state worker pension.
All these scenarios assume a correctional worker can even make it to age 55. The vast majority of the time the worker resigns, is fired, or dies long before then.
The answer the question of, “What can reduce the flammability of staff-offender interactions caused by PTSD issues?” is reform staff benefits and HR policies to match the realities of corrections work as it pertains to trauma exposure.
Personally, I hope to have 18 more years in corrections, by which time I’ll have a maxed-out pension. That doesn’t really feel doable due to the volume of trauma I’ve already been exposed to. However, I choose to be optimistic and take it one day at a time. Every year I re-evaluate whether staying in corrections is the best thing for me, my family, coworkers, and the inmates. This year it is, so here I am.
I spend a ton of time outside in nature: hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, etc., to rebalance the hours spent in a concrete box at work exposed to the worst evils humanity is capable of. The beauty and tranquility of nature heals pain of trauma in a way that nothing else does – it is my oxygen.
This is a huge drain on my wife who stays home with our three kids under the age of five. I try to explain that the time away is necessary, not just a bunch of extra recreation time for myself. I feel selfish in asking for this, but she does understand, on some level, and she is very gracious in allowing me to keep my head above water. I’ve already talked with her about the possibility of her going to work full time once I retire, so that I can be on her health insurance. This is a humbling thing to ask for. She said after raising and homeschooling three kids, two of which have special needs, she isn’t sure she’ll be up for working another nine years outside the home either. I told her that we will figure it out one way or another, and we will.
We Were Setting Each Other Off All the Time
Being an officer with PTSD, I have worked hard on being able to recognize some of the common symptoms of PTSD in myself and in the offenders with whom I work. These symptoms include reliving the trauma, avoiding anything that could or does reminds us of our trauma, increased alertness that affects anger/ irritability /difficulty sleeping, intrusive negative distressing thoughts. And I learned a new term – Flat Affect – where a person does not show socially acceptable emotional expression or they misinterpret emotional expression in other people.
I work with juvenile offenders, and they, for the most part, are not aware of these signs of PSTD, and they definitely do not know what triggers they have around their trauma. I used to be like that before going to therapy, so I was triggered just about every day I came into work. Not only that, but I was experiencing trauma from work as well and I was unable to process the new triggers I was developing. When you mix my triggers with the triggers of the youth I work with, with no coping skills, it is easy to see how we were setting each other off all the time. It didn’t take long before I knew I needed to change something because I was mentally and emotionally not doing well with this job. I was around enough mental health staff at the facility that I started asking them what skills they used to help the youth deescalate, but I also was asking to figure out how to help myself too. One thing led to another, and I started working on myself and my PTSD, learning healthy coping skills and being able to use them effectively.
Once I could make sure I was good mentally, I then began looking at the youth around me and being able to recognize when they first where triggered and stepping in before it escalated to a use of force or locking down the unit. I make it a point to model the coping skills that I learn when I can, like deep breathing or asking them if they have had time to journal. When I notice that I have been triggered, I call for a Sergeant or an available officer to come to the unit so I can get off the unit to regulate myself, or if it beyond that, then take my anxiety medication and message my therapist to talk to after work. I also got past my pride and got FMLA for my mental health, and have actively worked on making my mental health needs come first, and not worry what my facility will think of me for it.
When it comes to working with other officers, I had made it a point to tell them about Desert Waters, the EAP, and made it known that I am a safe person to talk to if they feel like they may be triggered and need someone to help. It doesn’t help the offenders or the facility if another officer is triggered and no one tries to help them through that.
I would like to see more officers learn how to help each other and their offenders, but mental health is such a weird and taboo topic in corrections, that I feel like people would rather suffer than get help. But, if I lead by example and show how by taking care of my mental health needs, then I am able to be helpful to the youth and the staff around me and give them permission to work on themselves as well.
I really liked writing this article because it made me think and reflect, which I think makes me a better person and officer.
My phone rings. It’s my friend, my best friend. I know what is about to happen because I have been waiting and hoping for this exact phone call and conversation. I answer the phone, but not in the usual excited way. I am deflated and fatigued. It’s been some time since we have spoken. I have been avoiding reality. My best friend is reality. It hurts to avoid reality.
“Jay, come in to see me in the office.”
He didn’t call me by my nickname, which he gave me.
“I know Al, I’m on my way.”
I didn’t call him by his nickname, which by the way, HE gave to me, to call him.
I feel like there has been a warrant issued for my life and the officer is coming. There is no more avoiding. I am relieved. This is what I had hoped for. I went to his office. He let me in. No words were exchanged. He sat in his chair beside his desk. I sat down in the chair across from him. I could not look at him in his eyes. I felt shame and every other gross, uncomfortable emotional and mental feeling there is. But, in the moment just before I mustered the energy to look at my best friend in his eyes, I was drawn to a framed quote, centered on the mantle of the fireplace, located just behind his right shoulder. It simply stated,
“YOUR ATTENTION PLEASE:
No one is coming to save you.
This life of yours is 100% your responsibility.”
I blinked and read that quote again. I was at attention. A life altering moment in this universe. It was at that moment I realized that I was responsible. And I made the decision to save myself. I looked my best friend in his eyes, called him by his nickname, that he gave me to call him, and said, “Okay, now what.”
Moments before this phone call even happened, I was in the basement of my house. I picked up my old baseball glove. The leather was dried out and needed some oil. My father showed me how to oil my glove when I was a kid. I could not find the old can of Blue Ribbon Neatsfoot Compound Oil that “softens, waterproofs and preserves all leather goods.” I cried uncontrollably in my glove instead. Gushing, snotty, sniveling, and gasping for air type of crying. Now my glove was “oiled.” I sat on the stool at my workbench. I thought it was time to clean my firearm. I disassembled it, cleaned and oiled all the parts, not with tears, with the proper oil. I reassembled my firearm. And that is when I became stuck. Stuck with the questions: What do I do? What would happen? What if? So I racked the slide of my firearm and dry fired it. I felt the pull of the trigger and heard the click of firing pin. I racked the slide again, but this time I put the muzzle of my firearm to the temple of my head and dry fired it. I didn’t feel the pull of the trigger. I didn’t hear the click of the firing pin. I did not hear anything. I sat staring at the first live round of ammunition in the magazine on top of the workbench. I looked up at the exposed unfinished ceiling of the basement. My bedroom was on the floor above. An unforced conscious breath overwhelmed me. It felt like that first gulp of air you take after being crushed by a wave, held underwater and not knowing if you are going to fill your lungs with air ever again or drown. I sat and waited, hoping for my phone to ring, hoping for that phone call from my best friend, whose nickname was given to me by him, to call him by.
And the phone did ring and my best did call. He later told me that he called based on his “informed intuition.” A life-saving miracle.
Addiction to Chaos
Say what? Yes, chaos “addiction” is real. Is it an adrenalin addiction? Where did it come from? When did it first become apparent that it may be causing problems in your life? Was it before or after your job in corrections began that you had chaos addiction issues?
I may touch on subjects that anger you, but hear me out. Please.
Were you, like me, raised in a home where chaos was a typical day? Maybe there was substance abuse or domestic violence in your home. That brings a lot of chaos on. Maybe there were sibling rivalries. That can make chaos. Maybe there were absent parents. This can make chaos by either making you the parent yourself and/or your siblings. That extra stress, and pressures of responsibility, the fear of failing can lead to living in chaos. Another scenario could be that parents stay out drinking every night and they come home to violent arguments until they pass out. Hearing the constant yelling, crying, and slamming doors every night could make you comfortable in chaos because this becomes a typical day in your life.
Nine times out of ten you continued this lifestyle in your relationships because that was your “normal.” Well, you grew up, you survived, and now it’s time to pick your career and get a job.
Let’s see, what are you going to be when you grow up? Hmmm……Car salesman? No, how boring to have to kiss someone’s butt for an hour or so to sell them a car you could not care less about. No, don’t think so…. Boring! Truck driver, be alone 24/7…. Boring!
Whoa, here’s something that I think will be perfect! Department of Corrections staff. Sounds interesting. You apply, you get hired, you fit like a hand in a glove. How can this be? You found your kryptonite…. CHAOS!!! The old familiar, blood pumping action, and even better than your childhood memories of your heart-pounding, adrenalin-pumping days gone by. It feeds your flame to the point of no return, or so it seems.
If you are at your max of chaos addiction or see yourself heading to that point, please get help! You do not have to suffer alone! Your employer has mental health contacts that can help you 365/24/7. Just call the number for Employee Assistance on the back of your insurance card. I am from Indiana, and we get eight free therapy sessions per year for mental health.
But wait, there’s more! We are going to use the coin analogy. You are on one side of the coin. Offenders are on the other side of the coin. What?! Where in the heck am I going with this, you ask.
Maybe you came from a chaotic home. You can pretty much bet that many offenders came from that same chaos to the nth degree. Their environment included abandonment, gangs, generational gang pressures, drugs, prostitution, violence, sexual abuse, etc. They break the law, end up in prison, and guess what? They fit like a hand in a glove. In prison they find all of the chaos they could ever want, and more. It’s a comfortable place.
Sounds familiar? The good news though is that both groups of people on the coin are capable of change. The first step is to recognize the chaos addiction and own it. Neither side of the coin realizes that they are feeding each other’s addictions.
Some require professional help to come up with a plan and to figure out how to work with it. Some will require medication and/or therapy during the process of recovering from an addiction to chaos. That does not show a sign of weakness. This shows you are human, and that you are serious about breaking the cycle of chaos that you are stuck in. This cycle may have been passed down for generations. “Normal” is more than just a setting on your dryer. When you are not used to it, it’s very uncomfortable and boring. Can you imagine day after day with NO amped up drama or stress? No more heart pounding out of your chest? No more yelling or slamming stuff around?
Once you face your chaos addiction, and you more or less come up on the other side (on a good day), the new you is calm as a cucumber, mellow, smiling, with an even tone of voice. But you’re still effective and professional, getting the same job done, only without drama. You keep yourself in check, and those around you will act accordingly. You may even get others on board with you, once they see the new you. I think others will want to know your “secret.”
In order to remove chaos from prisons, both sides of the coin would have to be dedicated to the change, and work toward resolution. It would be hard to get all on board, but if you make it a “mission statement” of the facility, it could be done. It would be a slow process, but I’ve heard in my life’s journeys that “slow and steady wins the race.”
Most important is to get yourself fixed. It is not your job to fix everyone else. Fix yourself, and pray for everyone else.
NOTE: I am not just referring to correctional officers. I am talking about all corrections staff. We all experience trauma while inside the fence. My office for two years was located on a dorm with 120 men and one officer, and yes, I am a female. I have worked with all sorts of offenders during my 28 years inside the fence. I feel that even those that grew up in the perfect storybook setting home can fall into the chaos trap. It fills a gap of what was lacking in their lives, and when they discover it, it can overtake them.
My personal experience with chaos addiction comes from a childhood of abandonment, alcohol being the cause. As I aged, I was attracted to people that dished out the same pattern. I found perfect relationships to fit my sick need, not realizing this until decades later in life. I latched onto partners that were not available. A few were married, the others not emotionally available because of the constant drug induced stupor that they lived in. Some didn’t even want a relationship. This way I was always ready to be abandoned, and their constant drama kept my chaos addiction fed. I can’t say that I am making wiser choices all the time now at home or at work. Both places keep me supplied in adrenalin. Life is good, right?! Wrong!! It’s not healthy to live like that.
One time I was in a “non-chaotic” relationship. I think that’s called “normal.” Talk about dull, what a snorer! I don’t know how those “normal” people do it. Did you ever watch paint dry? Well, it’s like that. Same ho-hum—day in and day out. But somehow, we have to break the pattern that we are all in (most without even knowing it.)
So, in my estimation, staff and offenders have become chaos addicts, and most come from crappy childhoods. And they’re passing the dysfunction on to their children, and their children pass it on to their children, etc.
Now what??? I wonder if there could be group therapy sessions offered at work for staff who are interested in learning more about chaos addiction. It would need to be offered to all shifts so that no one is left out. What about staff groups and also offender groups taking place? Then, after about six months, what about offering combined chaos addiction groups of both staff and offenders?
I believe that once we all realize what each other has gone through, we’d look at each other in a different light. I also feel that the mindset of prison staff would become more understanding towards both coworkers and offenders, and everyone would help each other get through the “withdrawals” from chaos addiction that will be experienced. I feel that the awareness factor alone on both sides of the coin would start positive change that is so desperately needed.
In this article I presented the problem as I see it. I presented some solutions. I don’t know where to go with it from here.
In closing, for decades I have had this burning desire to write about chaos addiction. Hopefully, I will find some peace knowing that I finally shared it. I will have twenty-nine years in the corrections field in November 2021, if I don’t retire before that. I am eligible for my full Social Security benefits August 25, 2021. Back when I had a lot of years to get to that date, it seemed like forever. And I couldn’t wait for that day to arrive. Now that it’s getting close, I find that I do not want to cut the cord.
What has changed to make me feel this way now? Is it that I don’t want to cut off my adrenalin dealer? I don’t want to give up my daily guaranteed fix? How sick is that? So, is chaos addiction actually an addiction to adrenalin? I refer to work as “the land of dysfunction.” So why am I okay with being comfortable there? Because it is a sickness, and I need to continue working on getting well.
I wish I knew how many who read this article found that they are right there with me. You know there’s comfort in numbers. LOL. Seriously, if you are right there with me, write to me through Desert Waters, and put “ATTN: CHAOS ADDICTION.” I will answer every email that is forwarded to me.
One more thing…or two (LOL), or three:
- I am of the opinion that there needs to be a place outside of the fence for retired staff, and a separate place for released offenders, for deprogramming the shell-shock of prison life when leaving for good.
- I am wondering and thinking that this article may also be fitting for police, fire, military, etc. Let’s share.
- I also, along with many co-workers and offenders, now suffer from PTSD. This is another topic in one way, but in another way, it goes hand-in-hand with chaos addiction. I believe that healing one (either PTSD or chaos addiction) will piggy-back into healing the other.
A Blessed Misfire
A couple of years ago I was tasked with writing an article for our Institution’s monthly training bulletin. I have nearly 20 years of Law Enforcement experience, mostly within the state prison system, and have worked at six prisons and one Headquarters assignment. Even with all the different experiences I have had during my career, I was struggling with what to write about, when an email arrived in my inbox that read, “Another Brother has lost the battle and has taken his life.” Sadly, I wasn’t shocked that this had happened again, but that email solidified my decision of what I felt I needed to write.
I decided to open myself up and share a very personal experience that I felt was relevant and necessary for our staff to hear. I have served in our department’s Peer Support Team for several years and unofficially provided counseling support to my staff and friends/family/church for many, many years prior. Currently, I am assigned as our Institution’s Peer Support (PSP) Administrator providing a liaison between our PSP team and the Administration. When this story was originally published in our local bulletin, my boss shared it with our Headquarters Leadership, and it was sent out statewide. I received a lot of feedback from that article, mostly good comments, but as can be expected, some were critical. All of the feedback was, and is, truly appreciated. The story below is an edited version of the original. I am definitely not an author, but I have tried to address some of the concerns raised by the feedback I received.
I have never shared this story with anyone, as it still brings up many emotions.
Several years ago I had an officer that worked for me, who was a close friend for many years before I had joined the department. He was that big, boisterous, and, at times, obnoxious officer that everyone either loved or hated. He had nearly 30 years in and was very good at his job. One night I got a call from him asking me to stop by and help him move something in his garage. I went right over and when I got to his house I saw him sitting on the tailgate of his truck in his driveway. As I walked up to him, I noticed his .38 revolver sitting in his lap. At the time I didn’t think anything of it; we’re cops and we have guns, no big deal. It was at this moment that I saw his face. His eyes were swollen and red, and it was apparent he had been crying. I asked what was going on and he handed me the gun and thanked me for coming over. I still wasn’t sure what was going on, but I gave him a quick hug and sat down next to him on the tailgate. We spent the next several hours talking about the terrible things he’s seen during his 30 years in our department, and how he had spent his entire career pushing all those feelings down because he couldn’t show any weakness, as he was always expected to be rough, tough and ready for action.
He explained that as he was now approaching retirement, it felt like the floodgates opened up and all those pent up feelings hit him all at once, and he didn’t know how to react. He was angry, sad, anxious, and, he didn’t like saying it, scared as well. He said he was scared of what was going on inside of him and what the future may hold for him. It was difficult to see and hear my close friend and co-worker as he recalled, in detail, each and every traumatic event in his career. This discussion went on for hours and we eventually ended up at a Denny’s at four in morning, eating breakfast and finishing our talk. My friend thanked me again, and said he was feeling a lot better and he would be ok. When I got home and opened up my safe to put his gun away, I unloaded one bullet from the cylinder of his revolver. Then I saw it! The bullet primer was clearly indented! Apparently, he had pulled the trigger, but the bullet had failed to fire. I immediately, frantically, called him and said. “I’m heading back over, because we have more to talk about.” He laughed and said he expected my call, but not to worry, he was ok. I started to ask, “How,” and he interupted saying, “I guess God’s plan is better than mine.” As a man of Faith, I felt immediately comforted by his statement. We prayed together and hung up our phones.
I share this story because we have all lost too many of our own throughout our careers. Please take time now to invest and engage in your partners. We spend more time with our partners than we do with our families. We know each other’s personalities and quirks, and we should be able to notice when someone is “off.” Don’t be afraid to have those uncomfortable conversations with each other. Reach out to one another for help. There is no weakness in asking for help and no greater gift you can give than being there and being a listening ear for your partners. Suicide, that ugly word we are often afraid to say aloud, is real, and it is taking our Brothers and Sisters at an ever-increasing rate. We must find a way to normalize these conversations and reduce the stigma associated with suicide and mental health treatment for our staff. I don’t recall where I heard this statement, but we have to get our staff to understand and believe, “It’s ok to not be ok.”
If you’ve been with our profession for any amount of time, you have witnessed or done things that nobody should ever have to experience. These events are cumulative, and they do take a toll on our mental and physical health. There will come a day when all of these experiences will just “hit” you, and you will need a way to cope. Take time now to build those trusting relationships with your partners, so they will be there in your time of need, and so you will be there in their time of need. Behind these fences and walls we are all we have, so let’s put aside the petty disagreements and come together to ensure we all make it out of here every day, together as family.
The story above is much longer with more details than can be shared publically, in order to maintain some privacy for those involved. My friend called in sick for two weeks after that night and then retired. He is doing well and is enjoying his retirement. Other than a random “thank you” text I get, we had never talked about that night or the bullet that didn’t fire…until about a year ago. My story had somehow made it to him, and he called me to return the “favor.” He thanked me again and apologized for putting me through so much that night. I said no apology was necessary and I thanked him for reaching out and not pulling the trigger again. He said he was in town and would like to meet up to talk. The next morning we sat and reminisced for hours, at Denny’s, at 4:00 am. He asked me, “Do you still have it?” I pulled the bullet out of my pocket and set it on the table in front of him. He stared at it for a few minutes with his eyes watering up and in typical OG (Old Guard) fashion, laughed and stated, “Thank God for cheap ammo!” We both laughed and I knew my friend had not only survived the blessed misfire, but also all the painful experiences that had such a tight hold on him that day, many years ago.
I still have that bullet sitting on my nightstand. It reminds of the friends I’ve lost, the friend I almost lost, and most importantly it reminds me to engage and to be involved with the lives of those around me. Our nation is going through a very difficult time right now, and we need each other now more than ever.
Social distancing and stay at home orders have made it difficult to gather and enjoy each other’s company. During these trying times, get creative, make the effort, and find ways to spend quality time with each other and reach out to those who may be struggling. Regardless of which uniform you wear, I believe our profession is a big family that can be counted on whenever we may need it.
Mike Blackford, Captain
California Men’s Colony
If I Could Turn Back Time…
The other day I worked a 16-hour shift, and I was on the same yard I started as a Lieutenant on in 2008.
As I sat at my desk reminiscing about all the things I have experienced over the last 12 years, one thing always stands out when I work that yard—January 22, 2010—one of the worst days in my career.
We did not have some huge riot that day. In fact, the whole 16 hours was relatively quiet, a good day to catch up on reports. I was working my second watch shift, spending most of it in the office tied up with paperwork. As I was working on a package, my Captain walked through my office on the way to his, and casually said, “Jack will not be in tonight.” I remember thinking it was weird that my Captain knew my Sergeant had called in, but I did not give it much thought.
A while later my Captain walked back through my office and told me that Jack was going to be fired when he reported to work. I remember thinking why would you tell me that? I had worked for Jack as an Officer, then we were partners for a while, and now he was my 5-day a week Sergeant. I was in a sullen mood for the rest of second watch knowing what was coming.
Sure enough, third watch started and Jack was not here, so I requested an overtime Sergeant. I was aware of the investigation Jack had been going through, and had no doubt that he would get his job back.
At this time, I had been on our Peer Support Team for 10 years. I told myself to call Jack and check on him, each time telling myself I would call him after I got off duty and we could talk uninterrupted. All night I kept thinking I should reach out, but I’d find a reason not to—like, too many reports to work on, I can do it after work.
Well before my shift ended I was notified Jack had taken his own life. I worked hard to keep my composure as I supported my staff. When my shift ended, I stopped by the Watch Sergeants office and told him to put me out. He asked, “For tomorrow?” I told him I would call when I was ready to come back.
I was married at the time, but fortunately my wife was living at her parents ranch as it was over an hour away and close to her job. I say fortunately because I could not have told her the torment I was going through. I love her and she is a great support system, but I had no words for my emotions. When I got home, I threw my uniform shirt and vest on a chair, walked to my bar, and I grabbed an unopened 1.75-liter bottle of Jack Daniel and some cigars. I then went out to the back patio.
I tried my best to drink the guilt and hurt away. I woke up the next morning sitting in my camp chair with my dog lying next to me. I did not get my stuff together, rather I reached for that bottle and proceeded to live in it and a couple more for the next few days.
This was one of the darkest times I have gone through. I had lost partners to suicide over the years, and talked with many who were suicidal, including a couple who had attempted suicide. I did not see any of the indicators in Jack and felt I could wait till my shift was over, yet something in my subconscious was telling me to reach out to him, and to this day I live with the regret of not following that prompting.
Oftentimes we see more of our partners than we do our own families and we get to know them well, all the intricacies in their personalities, behaviors and the subtle changes. If you feel your partner may be going through a tough time, reach out to them. I understand it is not an easy or comfortable conversation to have with someone you care about. It will be one of the hardest things you do to sit down with a Brother or Sister, and ask them if they are thinking of ending their life. Trust me when I say it is nothing compared to the pain of not asking and having them die by or attempt suicide.
That day proved a valuable life lesson. I will never again hesitate to reach out to someone who is going through a rough time. I will not put off checking in with someone. The possible awkwardness or discomfort of talking about a situation is much easier to deal with than the devastation that can come if you don’t.
I have also come to realize that the way I dealt with the grief was not healthy. I now have people to whom I can reach out to, other outlets for my emotions, as well as resources I use instead of turning to a bottle of booze.
Keeping the Demons behind the Walls
Sounds like our job description, doesn’t it?
The thing is, I am not talking about inmates, but rather the demons within us that we hide from others, fighting inside ourselves. Understand, after 22 years on the line, I still love my job, the staff I work with, and I still look forward to coming to work each day.
The issue, which happens to all of us who do this job, is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I know that term may turn some of you away as it is considered a mental health condition that people fear admitting to, as it could cost them their job, but I sincerely hope it does not.
The Mayo Clinic says, Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is triggered by a terrifying event — either experiencing it or witnessing it. Symptoms may include flashbacks, nightmares and severe anxiety, as well as uncontrollable thoughts about the event. Most people who go through traumatic events may have temporary difficulty adjusting and coping, but with time and good self-care, they usually get better. If the symptoms get worse, last for months or even years, and interfere with your day-to-day functioning, you may have PTSD.
There is a great YouTube video I show when I teach In-Service training. It is by Mike Spears who retired from the San Diego Sheriff’s Department due to PTSD after a shooting. Mike says it does not have to be a singular event like a shooting, but a cumulative total of the things we see and experience during our career. Mike says we all have PTSD, just to varying degrees. I believe him when he says we have all experienced things which have forever changed us, and events we cannot un-see no matter how much we want to.
We have all witnessed horrible and traumatic things over the years. We work a certain area and remember both the good times and the bad. For the most part, they do not bother us, as they are just memories, such as riots, partners getting battered and hurt, homicides as well as many others. We consider these to be a part of the job, things we accept that come with the job we have chosen
Then there are the others, those traumatic events that change us to the core and bring forth the demons. These demons who come out when we least expect it, taking over our thoughts and consuming us during the quiet hours of the night.
For me it is one incident in particular. I was off work earlier this month and received an email about six of our staff members receiving the Department’s Bronze Star for Valor. That was all the email stated, they were receiving the award, and I knew why they received the award. Instead of being happy for them as I should have been, I found the demon coming to visit again and reliving that day. They were the first responders to an automobile accident involving one of our Officers and an Officer from a neighboring Prison. I was on duty that morning and heard about the accident from the Watch Sergeant. I grabbed another Peer Support Program (PSP) team member and headed out to the accident scene. When we arrived, they had transported the Officer from the other prison to the hospital and non-involved staff had left the scene. Our partner had not survived, and her body was still pinned in her vehicle. One of our staff who is a volunteer firefighter was toned out (called out) for the accident, and he was still on the scene.
My partner and I stayed with her body until it was removed from her car and the coroner arrived to take it. When they were extracting our partner from the vehicle, I was facing the scene with my partner who is the firefighter facing me to make sure he did not see the removal of the body. He was blocking my view as he was watching the family to ensure they did not approach the scene. (They had been called by one of the original Officers on the scene.)
Just as they removed the body from her car, my partner moved to my left and I had full view of it. That is a moment I will live with the rest of my life. The deceased Officer had been at my Prison for 13 years and previously worked directly for me when I was a Sgt., Lt. and acting Capt.
So instead of being happy for the six staff being honored for their efforts in saving the other Officer’s life, I found myself going back to that day. I spent the day flashing back, seeing my partner’s body being removed from her vehicle and placed on the ground in the body bag, then going with the Deputies to console her husband and daughter. Then waiting next to her remains on the side of the road until the coroner arrived, not wanting to leave her alone. I fought the feelings off all day. That evening in the shower I found all the emotions I had been holding in wanting to burst from me. I stood there under the water wanting to cry, wanting the water to wash away my tears and pain, but I was not able to weep.
I have cried many tears reliving that day this last year. I have gone to my partner’s house many times to check on her husband and daughter. Every time I hold it together, then upon leaving I have to pull over as I am crying so hard, I cannot see the road. When her husband and daughter were introduced at our Christmas party, I had to leave as I could feel myself coming apart. Towards the end of the party he sought me out to say “thank you,” and I felt all of it well up inside me again as we hugged. As I am typing this at my desk, I am wiping away tears, but to look at me I am not breaking down (on the outside at least).
Why was I not able to cry in the shower that night when I wanted to release all the grief inside me? Honestly, I have no idea, but it made me realize that I do have issues and need to talk to someone.
I have been on the job over 22 years, on my institution’s Peer Support Team for 20 years (team leader the last few). I am well versed in resources to direct others to get help, but for myself I never sought it. God has blessed me to have a beautiful, loving and supportive wife that I can talk to about anything. She senses when I am having a bad day, she understands and supports me.
Sometimes though we need to talk with someone we have no connection to. For us in California, Employee Assistance Program (EAP) is a great resource. We get up to 7 sessions at no cost to us with a licensed therapist. For departments around the country, there are resources even if your state does not offer any. There is the Crisis Text Line 741-741 (a free and confidential text platform because sometimes it is easier to text than talk out loud to someone), National Suicide Prevention Hotline (800-273-8255) and Aunt Bertha (AuntBertha.com) which helps to find free or low cost services. Just make sure you talk to someone, even a trusted friend or pastor of your church. Talking with someone is critical to helping us cope.
This job changes us, that is inevitable, but there are avenues to get help. The first step is realizing we have changed. Once we do that we can work on improving ourselves through self-care, and when it is needed, reaching out for help.
I know it is not easy, machismo, our sense of “I got this,” and I can deal with it, until one day we realize it—PTSD, “the demon,” is controlling us. Our families deserve the best from us, and we owe it to them to get help when going through the tough times.
God bless and stay safe,
John Mendiboure, Correctional Lieutenant, Avenal State Prison
We Suffer in Silence
Reprinted with the author’s permission from a Facebook post.
This will be a long post, but I’m going to do something most Correctional staff don’t do enough of, and that’s open up.
I broke down today, I cried. I don’t break often and NEVER talk about it or do it in front of anyone else.
At first, I couldn’t comprehend another co-worker suicide, but then I got to thinking about our lives. We as Correctional staff SUFFER IN SILENCE. Some of us deal with the daily stress better than others. Some of us can’t cope at all. Some of us have seen some horrendous things that people should never witness, and things we will never forget. Some of us have even had to do things that haunt the s#!t out of us daily and are the things nightmares are made of.
These demons are very real, and the more I think about them, the more they scare me. When we are working in the moment, it just turns into our daily grind. It sadly becomes our normal, but when we retire or let these things creep in our minds, things change. When we go from working every day to retired, we have to face those demons that we have spent 20, 25 or 30 years burying daily.
I can say the last 4-5 Officers who died by suicide have been great Officers and amazing people that no one would imagine in 100 years that they would ever do this. That is the thought that is haunting me. Demons are real, and we can’t escape them. These last several suicides were people that normally would have never taken their own lives. That tells me these demons are stronger than we realize, and they can overtake any one of us.
I used to say I would never die by suicide. Now I wonder if these demons will catch me one day. I have many Correctional demons that haunt me and bring me to tears when I give them even one second of my time. I guarantee these men never thought they would succumb to suicide either. We SUFFER IN SILENCE and don’t share these things with our families because we never want to expose our loved ones to the things that torture us. Many of us will take things to the grave without ever speaking of them again. Stress also weakens our immune system, causing many premature physical illnesses that take so many lives of Correctional staff.
We work in such a negative atmosphere. We work in the only profession where our own co-workers will talk s#!t about us if we save a prisoner’s life. They will literally talk s#!t because you did your job and saved another human life! I can say I’m guilty of that myself, and I have been on the receiving side. I guarantee some of my co-workers will talk s#!t about me for making this post, but I don’t care. I’m speaking the raw truth.
So I used to wonder why these great, amazing people never reached out to anyone, even one of us that understands the struggle. But I totally understand. We are trained to be non-human and emotionless. We are weak if we show any emotions, so we compartmentalize these demons. We stay silent and fight the demons in our heads.
I have a love and respect for the people I have worked with past, and present. I hope this will be the last suicide we have, knowing darn well there will be many more.
I have been doing this job for almost 23 years and every day my wife will ask me how my day was. Every day for almost 23 years my response has been, “Just another day.”
I say this to my wife rather than telling her that today I saw a prisoner stabbed in the neck on the 2nd gallery of 12 block die choking on his own blood, or that I did CPR on a probationary Officer who fell out due to a heart attack, with prisoners around him screaming, “Die m*#$&r! Die bitch!”, knowing these were the last words this Officer heard as he died.
The demons are real, and although I’m here right now asking you to reach out for help if you are battling these demons, I know that I would probably never ask for help either. That’s why I say WE SUFFER IN SILENCE. That’s what we do. We just “deal with it.”
I am here for ANYONE that ever needs to vent or talk about their demons, Corrections or not. To hell with religious beliefs, to hell with sports rivalries, and to hell with political differences. I am here for you. For those of you that continue to suffer in silence, just know you are never alone in your battle. I know it feels lonely, but we are all dealing with our own battles right with you. Thank you, Shelby Hughes, for always being here for me when I talk to you about my demons, or you just hug me while I struggle in my own head….
The 21 Years of My Life I Wish I Could Change – Part 1
Well, to whoever is reading this, I just want to say hang in there! It will get better. I know it sure doesn’t feel like it, but keep plugging away at it. Be open to new things even if they seem weird or uncomfortable, try them and embrace them, because you are here reading this for a reason.
I am husband to a beautiful wife of 20 years and have 3 amazing children, ages 16, 13 and 9. I work for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, and have for the past 21 years. It is truly a thankless job that is extremely negative, violent, corrupt and downright disgusting. This job consumed me! It changed me slowly over the years, and, like for a lot of us and our super egos, it affected me and everyone in my family.
I noticed a change in myself probably around my five-year mark. I started battling with depression, negativity, anger, hate and isolation, and these emotions and attitudes were slowly eating me up. The job took the person who I was and changed him. It changed the once funny, caring and happy person into someone that quite honestly makes my stomach turn thinking about. I was detached, craved loneliness and isolation, and didn’t really care about anything anymore. I turned to alcohol on my time off and usually drank myself into a stupor, went to bed late without saying goodnight to any of my loved ones, and got up the next day, and guess what? I still felt horrible! Not trying to preach to you about alcohol, but I guess it was my answer to hiding my pain. A way for me to forget about reality, my job, and to temporarily shut down those feelings.
At the time I didn’t see it, I thought, “Hey, it will pass. Everyone goes through tough times.” In my case, guess what? It didn’t pass. It got worse.
My marriage was slowly sinking. My beautiful wife had managed to run the house without me, because I was either working all the time or detached and not interested in doing anything. Now my once wonderful relationship with her was in shambles, and we were like roommates instead of a happily married couple. We never fought, but just kind of went on without each other. She was being a wonderful mother and taking care of my children, while I worked and came home and shut down. Thinking about this kills me! It tears me up inside to think that I was doing this and at the time I knew it, but couldn’t stop it or change. I mean, hey, it wasn’t me; it was everyone and everything else, right?
I was on vacation with my family in June of 2018, going through the motions, being fake. Fake because inside I was miserable and screaming, but trying to keep a face on for my family. This was my way of life. I was miserable, but this was all I knew, and, as odd as it sounds, I was comfortable with it. My thoughts were extremely bad! I wasn’t really thinking suicide, because the thought of my wife and kids hating me for it made me extremely sad and the damage I would cause to them really upset me. Then the thought of my mom and dad having to deal with their son’s suicide really put things into perspective. The one they brought into this world, raised, supported and guided into a safe direction took his own life.
With them came the thought of my one and only older sibling. My sister, how would she feel that her little brother, the one she grew up with, fought with, laughed with and shared everything with was gone by his own hands. No way! If I could have done it and made it look like an accident, I was all in. I didn’t want to live anymore.
The pain of feeling horrible, alone, worthless, isolated, sad, and angry was chewing me up. I truly wanted to die. I sat one day looking at the phone for about an hour, crying, and dialed the number to the Employee Assistance Program (EAP) for an authorization to get some help or advice. Of course they ask, “Are you in crisis?” I wanted to say, “Hell, yeah, I’m in a crisis,” but the unrealistic fear of a white van pulling up in my driveway, two hairy dudes with big moustaches getting out, tasing me and putting me in a strait jacket to haul me away to a hospital, stopped me. So I said, “No, I just need someone to talk to.”
That someone has turned out to be a therapist, a truly amazing person who I felt a bond with right away. I was never more scared than during my first appointment with her. I felt weak, ashamed and embarrassed for not being able to kick this on my own. I left after my first appointment and cried the whole way home. I didn’t want to go back because it was uncomfortable, strange, and once again I felt weak. She asked questions that of course I had to answer, and it was tough. I was and still am 100% honest with her because what good would it do me to lie? I’m seeing her for a reason, right?
After a few visits with her she diagnosed me with severe depression and PTSD. I knew I was depressed, but PTSD? I said, “I’m a veteran, but not a war veteran. How could I have PTSD?” To address the misconception of most people, including myself, PTSD doesn’t just affect war veterans. She explained that after all the trauma I had experience in 21 years working within the prison system, I was a walking trauma victim. I hadn’t really thought about it, and I struggled with the diagnosis because any of us in this business just shrug it off and do it again the next day. No big deal, right?
After talking with her during multiple visits and doing Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), revisiting things that I had witnessed and been a part of years ago in Corrections, I realized that the stuff we see doesn’t go away. It gets filed away in our brains only to wreak havoc on us later in life because it hasn’t been processed correctly. It affects our thought process and our moods. Mine came out as depression and isolation. I can remember each and every incident that I’ve been involved with over the years. While doing EMDR, I could recall the sounds, the smells, the weather, my partners, the looks on their faces, and even the Sergeant in Central Control on the radio that I honestly haven’t thought about in years, but I could hear his voice clear as day.
After a few visits she talked to me about starting a group. What? Talk to others about my issues? No way! Well, with her amazing powers and therapeutic ways I ended up going and once again my first day I felt like I was going to puke. But it really wasn’t that bad. I met some wonderful people that have the same issues, and you know what, it was good to talk about it and to have people actually understand and listen, instead of trying to tell you how to fix it. Although the people in my group are not in Corrections, I truly trust and enjoy talking with them and I have nothing but love for each and every one of them as well as my therapist. Every one of them will always have a special place in my heart, and I will never forget about them.
My therapist had me attend a PTSD retreat for five days, and I went excited and with high hopes. Here I was, the only Corrections employee at a retreat with Firefighters and one Police Officer. Instantly I felt like they couldn’t relate. I felt ashamed to be there hearing their stories about helping good people, and being involved in situations where they were assisting our neighbors, friends, relatives and members of the community. I was there as a guy looking for answers, and I was ashamed, because all I have done was witness horrific things that terrible people do to one another. I was looking for answers as to why I felt like I did, and I did not share my stories with the others, because I thought they couldn’t relate or even know what it was I was talking about. Although I met some wonderful people struggling to hold onto life, I left there sad and confused. Sad because I was tired of being this way, and confused as to why I still felt like I did, hopeless!
I don’t want anyone reading this to think that these types of retreats are useless or unhelpful. I don’t want you to think that for one second! This retreat has helped me in ways that I am unable to explain. I was in a very bad place mentally, and maybe I wasn’t completely open to it. However, I can honestly say that I left there that day with fourteen new friends that I didn’t know five days prior. These are friends that I still stay in contact with to this day and we all formed a bond with one another that will never break. The counselors running the retreat were amazing, helpful and kind people that have made this their mission to help others and they are truly wonderful people. They gave me skills that I do practice daily, and I can say that their help and support have made me a better person, although at the time I did not realize it. Everything they taught me and told me remains within me. Just like all the stuff in life we hold onto, I will hold on to it forever and practice the healing methods that were taught to me.
Once my plane finally landed, and with the retreat behind me physically but not mentally, I got into my truck at the airport. I couldn’t wait for this moment so I could be alone and not show my real self. I got into my truck and cried like a baby. I was a mess! I didn’t want to go home, but I didn’t know where to go. I just wanted to keep driving to somewhere. I didn’t know where, but I just wanted to escape from everything.
It’s been 10 long months and I still see my therapist once a week if I can, and I attend group when possible. I’ve tried medication, but I didn’t like the feelings it gave me, and in my mind it made me feel like I was weak. I’m not saying that medication is not the answer because I truly believed I should have been on something, and I believe it is beneficial to a lot of people. However, with my therapist’s help I chose not to. She talked me into going to acupuncture. I thought, “Hey, what have I got to lose?” I went, even though part of me thought, “This will never work! It will never work, because I’m broken and need to be medicated.” After meeting and talking with the acupuncturist, she wanted me to start taking supplements (natural stuff), so I did. It’s been about 3 months taking the supplements and going to acupuncture and seeing my therapist weekly and I am a different person. Almost like the guy I used to be! What? I don’t know if it’s the placebo effect, a combination of everything, or the fact that I was really tired of myself, but I’ve found a happiness that I had lost years ago, and it is a wonderful feeling.
I am working hard at it, and l still have my moments, and I have to fight off my sad and negative feelings that like to reappear from time to time. I have a lot of work to do repairing my marriage, but things are really looking up. My wife is very supportive and understanding, and I make sure I try to communicate with her, because holding that stuff in isn’t good, and it’s not easy when you’ve been quietly struggling for so long. I know I’m not cured by any means, but it’s two steps forward and one step back.
I think back of that guy I was turning into just a few months back, and it honestly turns my stomach. It makes me sick, and I really hate that guy and I don’t ever want to experience him again! Although I never want to experience him again, I also love that guy and have learned a great deal from him. I learned to not stuff things away and to talk about them. I’ve become more passionate and sensitive. I’ve learned if you feel like crying, let it out, it’s your body’s way of healing, and, trust me, after progressing through this journey, I get emotional all the time. Embrace it and be comfortable with it. I’ve learned to recognize others that are struggling and try to offer advice, instead of telling them to snap out of it. I truly believe that the guy I once was, was a guy struggling, traumatized, confused, sick and overridden with negativity. I was wounded and scarred in ways that I can’t even imagine. It is horrible to think about, but I was sick with depression caused from events and images in my life that I will have with me forever. They were all things that I thought I had under control, but I was sadly mistaken. These memories will never leave me, but there are ways to deal with them. I honestly can’t explain this, but I now believe that these events in my life will make me a better person.
So with this long drawn out story of my journey, just understand that you can change for the better. It does work, whether it is individual therapy, group therapy, EMDR, medication, acupuncture, natural healers, retreats… the sky is the limit! Just be open. Everyone is different, and everything works differently for different people. Even though you are struggling mentally and physically, and your mind is telling you that you’re hopeless, keep pushing and you will see a difference. Keep doing what the little part of your head that isn’t overridden with negativity is telling you! Listen to it! It is extremely difficult to do, I know, but DON’T GIVE UP! PLEASE DON’T GIVE UP! Make that call, send that email, speak up, and seek the help you need, even though you think you have it under control. Confront that issue with your chin up, chest out, and stop letting it run your life. JUST REMEMBER, MY FRIEND, THAT YOU ARE LOVED, YOU ARE NOT ALONE, YOU CAN AND WILL GET BETTER, AND THE WORLD IS TRULY A BETTER PLACE WITH YOU IN IT.
The 21 Years of My Life I Wish I Could Change—Part 2
For those of you who are reading this and who read the first part of my journey, I want to say it will get better, but it is not easy.
I have found that my journey through this process has its ups and downs. After a short lived stint of happiness and enjoying life again, I found myself slipping back into depression. Sure, there are times in everyone’s life that we all get depressed, but my depression has been on a whole different level. The sad, alone and horrible feelings that I had before came back, and they have been extremely hard to get rid of. The daunting task of waking up to my alarm, putting my uniform on and heading to work has been exhausting.
I could feel it sucking the life out of me as I’d get closer to another day surrounded by inmates, negativity and ugliness. I found myself leaving for work an hour earlier than normal, only to park my car in a secluded pullout and cry. I’d sit and drink my coffee in the silence, dreading the day that’s to come and cry. When I arrived to work I acted like everything was okay and went through the motions, plugging away and being fake to my Officers, because I didn’t want them to think their Sergeant was weak and falling apart. I have a job to do, and it is what I signed up for.
When it’d be time to get off of work, I’d leave exhausted, barely able to drive home without falling asleep. And when I’d get home, I’d just want to go somewhere quiet and be left alone. I hated this part because my family needs me. My kids need their dad, and my wife needs her husband, but I didn’t know where he was. I’d lost him and I missed him terribly. I missed that guy that looked forward to coming home and being with his loved ones. I missed the once funny and happy person who had once again disappeared from my life. I’m sure my family missed him also. I missed the guy who looked forward to things and found joy in simple things like the sunrise, the sunset, the smell of fresh cut grass, the sound of birds chirping, the sound of my kids laughing, seeing their beautiful smiling faces and looking into my wife’s beautiful eyes. Those things were still there, but it was a struggle to enjoy them.
I addressed these feelings and issues with my therapist, and we both agreed it was time to visit the medication part again. I agreed that there was something missing, and I know that there is a very logical medical explanation as to why a person needs to take medication for depression, but I just needed to be ready for it. I wasn’t ready to take it before, and I was managing without it.
It has been explained to me that I need to rewire my brain and my way of thinking. It sounds easy, but it’s not. You see I’ve been in this funk for so many years, that it’s all I know. Like I explained in my first article, I’m comfortable with it and of course miserable, but comfortable. It sounds strange, but all these years of negativity, trauma and the heightened awareness have hurt my brain, and now it’s not functioning in a healthy way.
Through this journey I’ve been searching for answers and constantly looking for that ah ha! moment that clarifies why I feel this way, only to realize it’s my brain not communicating to itself properly. I am lacking the “nourishment” it needs to function at a healthy level. This is where the medication comes in. So I started taking a Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI), Citalopram, which changes the levels of serotonin in my brain, and a Norepinephrine-Dopamine Reuptake Inhibitor (NDRI), Bupropion, which increases the levels of the mood-boosting chemicals Norepinephrine and Dopamine in the brain. With these medications I can honestly say that I am slowly climbing back out of that horrible pit. I have more energy, I laugh again, and, most important, I feel like I have a purpose on this earth. I’m finding once again enjoyment in things, enjoyment that I had lost.
I was really against the medication aspect, but maybe it helps my brain and my thinking to get back on track. I hope that one day, with trying to rewire the way I’ve been thinking for years and taking the medication, that I will be able to function without the medication. Only time will tell. And if not, so be it, I will continue to take the medication if that’s what I have to do, because that guy that had taken over my life recently needed help.
I truly feel better now than I did a year ago, before therapy, acupuncture, supplements and the PTSD retreat, and all that was positive, but there was something missing—the medication. I will continue to do these things with the medication, and I will to climb out of this dark pit that I’d fallen into.
I wanted to write this article to share with others that read my first post that it’s not all magical. I’m not magically healed. Healing is a work in progress. Like I said in the first post, sometimes it’s two steps forward and one step back, although at times it may be three steps back. I have to keep pushing forward, cry when I feel like crying, and keep seeking the help that I waited so long to reach out for. Maybe if I sought the help I needed earlier in my career, it wouldn’t have been so hard to correct the problem.
Once again, if you are struggling you are not weak, weird or broken. You are human and you are not alone. Reach out and get help when you feel it is time. There are many great people out there that are willing to help you. Don’t be embarrassed or ashamed about it. Reach out and GET YOUR LIFE BACK!
For a lot of us stuck in this funk just talking to someone and being open helps. You have to be ready for this, and you have to get past the stubborn “I’m fine” thoughts. Therapy has helped me a great deal, and it was the best decision that I have ever made. I have an amazing therapist that has a wonderful outlook on life, is very humorous and bright. She is someone that I look forward to talking to. A lot of it is just conversation. Just talking about the past or everyday dilemmas actually has an amazing effect, especially when you’ve been shut down for so long. It feels good to get it out.
Through this journey I have discovered that my depression and treatment are no big secrets anymore. I find myself sharing openly about the fact that I have been in a really bad spot for a long time and once again I’m climbing out of it. I’m not ashamed of it and maybe my testimony will help someone, maybe just one, but one person is better than none.
Recovering From Years of Depression
It’s been a long road! Two and a half years ago I was headed for the bottom at an alarming rate. I was in dire need of some help and answers. My depression was off the charts and the overwhelming thoughts of taking my own life were a daily occurrence. I reached out to get help, and it was the best move I have ever made.
I did not know what was going on in my life, other than I felt miserable all the time. I was tired, felt alone, depressed, sad, drank too much, and the list goes on and on.
The seed of recovery was planted when my department started training its staff on the effects of Correctional Fatigue yearly. Hearing stories from other staff members about their struggles was another revelation. It was really heartfelt to listen to a well-known staff member that everyone looked up to share with intimacy their struggles. No one even knew they were struggling. This choked me up, and it really helped me understand that I was not alone, and that Correctional Fatigue was real.
I promoted in 2017, and was required to attend the Sergeants Academy. One of our class days included the benefits of the Employee Assistance Program (EAP). The class was full of information about how to use it, who was eligible, and what it covered. Not being new to the department but a new supervisor, I was now responsible for recognizing change in personnel, and possible issues with our employees and offering EAP. This training opened my eyes and that seed really started to grow.
For years everyone, including myself, joked about EAP not knowing that one day I would use it and it would save my marriage and my life. You see, after the training on EAP and the Correctional Fatigue classes I started to evaluate myself, knowing that I had issues, but I didn’t know which way to go. For years I was miserable, and my thoughts were that it was just a phase. But because of a sequence of events that happened in my career, I couldn’t take anymore, and I was in a downward spiral. I finally stepped up and made that call for help.
I’ve been seeing a therapist for over two years now, and will continue until I feel the time is right to stop. I’ve been to a PTSD retreat, I’ve done acupuncture, group therapy and tried different kinds of medication. All were very helpful and have helped improve my health and stability, but it wasn’t until recently in my journey that I have found peace. Peace because I finally feel like I can breathe, without the overwhelming weight of myself crushing me. It’s not perfect, because I still have my days of sadness, but they are usually short lived, and I’m able to recover quickly. That’s a big change from where I was three years ago.
I feel like I have a new beginning, and it doesn’t come without trials, but I will keep seeking for what it is I need and push for it. You see, I was in a very bad place and although since the beginning of my therapy there were changes, it was frustrating because we all want that quick fix. After years of living and working like this, change just doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long process to create closure, tap into things we don’t want to talk about, and rewire our brains. The positive and happy thoughts just don’t come back that fast. At least they did not for me.
I’ve learned to be present and in the moment, instead of being overwhelmed with sadness about the past or the future. This process is not easy for me and I really have to work hard at it, but it does work. So I try to change the way I’ve thought for years by stopping those thoughts and thinking of the present. I recognize where I feel uncomfortable, whether it’s my head, stomach or whole body, and I think about why.
Now, thinking about the present, recognizing things around me, and of course thinking happy thoughts are all part of the process, and IT REALLY WORKS! I’m a 48-year old male with 23 plus years in the department, stubborn with a type A personality, and I can testify it does work! You just have to seek the guidance to get there.
In the past two years I have met and talked with some amazing, wonderful people that are there to help. This is what they do, and they live it. They specialize in this kind of stuff and they will guide you back into your functioning life.
If you are stuck and confused make that call, reach out and get your life back. Don’t be ashamed, embarrassed or worried about what others think. We’ve all worked with someone that isn’t with us anymore because of the pressure and the overwhelming feelings. Reach out, speak up. No one is there to judge, and there IS help!
Sergeant Mike Flowerdew
Down with a Sickness
COVID-19: a subject I was tired of hearing about and had no intention or interest in writing about. I knew this virus wasn’t nearly as serious as we were being told. I knew the government was totally overreacting. I felt like I was being placed on sanction by our Governor. It first started as loss of privileges, and then Top Lock. I just knew this was Government control and overreaching. Until I lost half of my Officers to this sickness. Until an Officer passed away due to this virus. Until several officers were placed on ventilators. Until the facility I work at was obliterated by this virus, and prisoners were being taken out by ambulance daily. Until I got sick and was off work for three weeks.
I don’t go to the doctor. I’m stubborn. When I get sick, I just suffer through it, and make my wife miserable. Like with most men, when I get sick it’s like the end of the world. I usually joke with my wife when I’m sick and tell her I’m dying. Only this virus turned out to not be a joke. People WERE dying. Not just a few, and not just strangers. A transportation Officer had died. An administrator had died. Prisoners were dying every few days. More and more staff were missing from work every day. And a civilian friend of mine died from this virus.
I called my doctor, and he sent me to the hospital. Because I was exposed to the virus, I wasn’t allowed to physically enter the doctor’s office. Because my breathing was not affected severely, the hospital sent me home to quarantine there, and only return if my breathing got worse.
I had a fever of 103 degrees, a pounding headache, all the joints in my body ached, and I’ve never coughed so hard in my life. These symptoms lasted almost two weeks. I had to stop watching the news, because it was nothing but death and destruction due to the virus. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that I let the worry get in my head and cause a couple panic attacks when I was at my worst. Could this really be the way I’m going to go? All the things I’ve been through, seen and done in this life, and a virus like the flu was going to be the death of me? My wife walked in the room while I was in the middle of my second panic attack of the week. (I never told her about the first one.) If people have never had a panic attack, it is impossible to explain this experience, and people will never fully understand what a panic attack is like.
What could be worse than being sick with a virus, stuck at home, quarantined away from the world? GUILT. That’s right, GUILT! My officers are walking in that facility every day for a minimum of 8 hours and most likely 16, and I’m not there leading them. They are entering the facility facing an invisible enemy. On top of the fear of catching this virus and taking it home to your loved ones, you also have to maintain the facility to run as smooth as possible with tensions running higher than they have been in many, many years. Tensions have been so high among the prisoners that an uproar is minutes away at all times right now. Lower level facilities are experiencing violence they don’t normally have to deal with.
Knowing what my Officers were facing every day, and that I wasn’t there leading the charge was hard for me to accept. Although I knew it would be counterproductive for me to be at work, making more people sick, I felt I should have been there as an example of true leadership.
I was encouraged by the number of Officers that texted, called and emailed me to see how I was doing. I expressed my feelings of guilt to everyone that checked on me, and they assured me they understood. My staff reassured me that they knew I would be right by their side if I could.
All the staff checking on me daily probably has done more for my recovery than any medicine did. I have an amazing staff, and I couldn’t be prouder of every one of them. That is one thing about Corrections staff that no one can take away from us. When it is time to get serious and take care of business, Corrections staff show up.
If you’re a supervisor, let your staff know you’re proud of them. Whether they admit it or not, these are stressful times. Probably more stress than many have ever experienced. Those that are stressed and scared are looking to you more than they ever have.
As for my health, I’m better. It’s been 5 weeks, and all symptoms are gone except this cough. But I’m back at work where I belong, in the world I know, and with the staff I appreciate more and more every day.
As always, be safe, be vigilant and take care of each other. Keep on keeping on!
CF2F—A Family’s Perspective
The wife’s story: How does someone with 20+ years cope with stress and the everyday concern for their personal safety, as well as their co-workers’?
You become a different person, or you develop an alter ego, if you will. This allows you to keep a stern profile and not allow people to see any other side of you. For safety and security issues this is more than acceptable. However, one needs to be able to turn that off when they leave work and go home to their family and friends.
Although I’ve never worked directly with offenders, because my husband deals with it on a daily basis, I feel as though I have lived the experiences, situations, etc. that he has. He has always been a wonderful provider, soulmate, father and friend but recently I had noticed, those things were slowly diminishing and he was becoming someone that I did not feel as though I knew anymore. The stress of the job was getting to him and that stern profile he had to maintain eight hours a day while at work became his profile every hour of every day.
Our daughter had even noticed the change in her father and they had always had an inseparable bond, as most fathers and daughters do. This was breaking our daughter’s heart and after a recent disagreement they had, she lashed out at me saying some very hurtful things about her father. I knew in my heart she truly did not mean them, but was so angry she had just come to her boiling point and exploded. I asked her to give herself a few days to calm down and then discuss it with her father. A few days went by and she did what I asked. I did not witness the conversation, but I came in towards the end of it and I could see the pain and hurt in my husband’s eyes. He had no idea things had gotten this bad. We, as a family, then also discussed other issues that needed addressed.
I felt that we had made progress, but I did not have any idea how much until my husband went to Desert Waters’ class, From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment (CF2F). I remember him coming home from the class and immediately hugging our daughter and apologizing for his behavior and who he had become. I saw an immediate change in him after this class and his passion for this program. The man I married 25 years ago has become the same man I fell in love with all over again!
This isn’t something to be ignored. Corrections is a very stressful job, and your family and friends are the ones who suffer from it. Don’t shut them out. They are the ones who love and support you every day.
The daughter’s story: My father has always been my biggest role model.
Every morning, he set me up for success. Words of encouragement were spoken, he told me I would do amazing things, he said that he loved me, and out the door to work he went.
The mornings, they made me happy. It was always the afternoon I dreaded, when dad came home from work. Dad would come home defeated every day, answering constant phone calls, and just looked like he had given up. My cheery, loving father seemed to vanish when he was off work.
People started telling me things about my dad like how power-needy he was, how he had to be in constant control, how his emotions always affected his attitude. I began to realize that my dad was becoming his work. I struggled with connecting with him, never feeling like I could disclose information to him, and instead feeling scared to tell my dad about my life in fear of him disapproving, or snapping at me.
My mom and I brought this to his attention, and that’s when things began to change. My father was so hurt. He never realized what was happening.
Next thing I knew, Dad was gone for a week, in Springfield, attending the CF2F workshop. I remember the day he came home, and he came into the door and hugged me, and started giving Mom and me a summary of his week. Dad broke down, sobbing. He told us all about these things that he learned, the stories he was told, and how he didn’t feel like he was alone in his struggle of becoming his work. I broke down right along with him. From the moment he stepped into the door, I knew my dad was back. He was given the right tools to understand and cope with what he was going through, and he used them.
Now, once again, Dad channels his rough patches into productivity, and I have never been so proud of him. Dad and I have never had such a strong relationship, and I look to model myself after the person my father has become.
Let There Be Hope—A Chaplain’s Perspective
As we all know, or at least should know, working in the Corrections Profession for any amount of time takes its toll on all of us. Many have sat back and denied the effects, many have accepted the effects, and others are still not sure. I am here today to express some thoughts on how we can change the effects this career choice has had, or is having, on us. And, to let us all know there is Hope.
First, I want to let you know I have worked for a Department of Corrections for over 24 years in a variety of positions. I worked in custody for 19 years, with 7 of those as a sergeant. I spent a year as the Grievance Coordinator listening to offender complaints and “swimming in the swamp of negativity.” And now for the past 4+ years I have been a Case Manager. I have seen and experienced my share of traumatic events. I have also experienced symptoms of Fatigue, Depression, Stress, Anger, Frustration, and the list goes on.
I am sure you are wondering about the byline being “A Chaplain’s Perspective,” especially since I never said I held the position of Chaplain. Well, to make a very long story short, I will tell you where the byline comes from. At 20 years into my career, I came upon Desert Waters’ Correctional Oasis, and began to read it each month. I quickly realized there were issues/concerns within my department and I wanted to help. You see, I grew up in a family that was not perfect, but was God-centered. I always had the drive to “help” others when and where I could. In 2014 our state brought DWCO Master Instructor Greg Morton to teach the From Corrections Fatigue to Fulfillment (CF2F), and I was fortunate enough to be able to attend. I became a certified instructor for CF2F and taught many classes for our Department.
Around the same time, I applied for and was chosen to be a part of our Critical Incident Stress Management Team. I attended the training academy for this and learned more skills to “help”. About 2 years later I became a Certified Chaplain through the National Police Fire Chaplain’s Academy, learning even more skills to “help.” I continued to learn more and more skills to “help,” and that was all well and good. But the underlying issue still remained: why was I not improving? What was it that I wasn’t dealing with?
Let’s dive into the fray. For years I denied the effects of this career. I denied the changes that were happening to me and in me. I denied how I was treating my family, my friends, and myself. Sounds like a lot of denial right? Well, it was. It took me almost 24 years to decide to get some help, to finally accept what was happening in me. So I called the Employee Assistance Program hotline and garnered a referral to see a Mental Health Provider. I showed up early and, I have to tell you, I was extremely nervous. The man I met with was terrific. He took the time to listen and explore my state of being. To top it all off, he was a man of faith, and that made a huge difference for me. I believed in my heart that I could trust this man, and I knew he would tell me the truth, whether I wanted to hear it or not.
Then it happened. The diagnosis. I didn’t want it. Heck, I even denied it, though deep down I knew he was probably right; after all he is the professional. As the words came out of his mouth I sat there in denial saying to myself, “Nope. He’s wrong; I don’t have that.” I then was given a list of symptoms for said diagnosis and as I looked them over, I found two of them I didn’t meet, but there were about twelve to fifteen that I did. I finally had to admit and accept “the diagnosis;” I have PTSD.
As I sat back and thought about my career and all the things I had been through, I began to realize my misconception. I had believed there had to be an “event” so severe it would cause PTSD. I thought it had to be a shooting or a death or being in a war zone. Then it hit me: we work in a war zone everyday of our careers.
We encounter people who threaten us, assault us, and fight with us. We read story after story of the heinous crimes they have committed. We interview them about their crimes, so we can better understand what programming they may need in an effort to “rehabilitate” them.
I came to realize, through the help of a few Mental Health Professionals, that PTSD is not necessarily the result of one “event;” rather it can be also caused by prolonged “exposure” to these stressors. All the fights, assaults, threats, and reading or hearing or listening to them tell us how they did what they did and why. This might be the leading cause of PTSD in those who work in the Corrections field.
You see, our biggest enemy is denial. The biggest reason people like you and me go undiagnosed and do not get help is denial. The power of PTSD is in the “unknown,” because what we don’t know can cause severe and possibly irreparable damage. It is the fear and stigma attached to “Mental Health” that keeps us from seeking the help we need. It is the unfounded fear that our brothers and sisters will think poorly of us and think us weak. It is this fear that I am attempting to overcome in the hope you will overcome it as well.
I am a Chaplain. I also have PTSD. But neither of these two things define me. I am who I am because of my God. The way I see it is that He has allowed me to go through these things (fights, assaults, threats, etc.) to mold me into the man I am. Remember, it is not just experiencing these things first hand that causes us harm. Indirect exposure—hearing about them and reading about them—can cause just as much harm.
I am a man who is designed and destined to help others. I can see that now more clearly than ever because I finally learned that to help others, I must first take care of myself. If I don’t take care of myself then I am no good to anyone else. As the flight attendant always says, “First put on your oxygen mask before you attempt to help others.” If you are not taking care of yourself, you will quickly become useless to those you are attempting to help.
There are many programs out there designed to teach us the skills needed to take care of ourselves. Take one. There are many videos out there on self-care. (YouTube is a good source). Watch one. Heck, take more than one and watch more than one. Take as many classes, watch as many videos, and read as many books as you need to find the way to “YOUR” wellbeing.
For me, my God is the source of my wellbeing. I still need to practice the other skills I have learned through classes I have taken, videos I have watched, and books I have read. But I must tell you, all the skills in the world will not have lasting effects until you find that one thing that is your rock, your source of wellbeing, peace and hope. Find yours.
My final encouragement for you today is this: make the time to care for yourself, and find your rock, your source of wellbeing. For only then can you think to care for your family and friends the way you want, the way you need, the way you should.
Blessings to each and every one of you, and may divine light shine upon you.
Recovering & Helping Others Recover
I began my career in Washington State Department of Corrections in July 1995. I was hired at the Twin Rivers Corrections Center in Monroe Washington. As soon as I made permanent officer I worked as a Sick Leave relief officer for 2 years. I worked between Twin Rivers and the Special Offender Center. TRCC is a medium security prison that houses several offenders who are in for a sexual crime; mostly against children. SOC is a close custody facility with primarily mentally unstable offenders who would just as soon kill you as look at you. Several do conduct themselves with a modicum of restraint and respect for officers.
On nights while working at the Special Offender Center I had opportunity to respond to several emergency issues. These issues ranged from offenders cutting on themselves, staff assault, staff being thrown on with body fluids (milkshake), and the list goes on. I was blessed enough to have never been assaulted myself, but knew many others who were not so fortunate.
I worked between these two institutions for four years. I was then promoted to Sergeant at another institution across the state at Airway Heights Corrections Center. I worked in a living unit as the sergeant for 6 years. During that time, I conducted many investigations regarding fights, assaults, and other such issues. I had to deal with medical emergencies, fire emergencies, etc.
One thing you must understand about being a sergeant at AHCC is that there was little relief available to us. So, those of us who were lower in seniority did not get much for vacation time and such. As a lower senior sergeant, I was also subjected to mandatory overtime on a monthly basis. Thus, after 6 years as a sergeant, I decided that I really needed time away from work and demoted back to officer. This afforded better vacation to me and allowed me more time with my family.
As an officer I had to handle the duties as every other officer; angry offenders, aggressive offenders, depressed offenders, medical emergencies, death of offender family emergencies, etc. On one specific night, I remember it extremely well, I had to respond to an inmate who was assaulted and died. I responded to find my partners performing CPR and attempting to revive the dead offender. All such efforts were fruitless as the offender’s carotid artery had been severed by a “one-in-a-million” punch from another offender.
As I continued my career, I thought I was doing very well with dealing with all of these traumatic events. I was well adjusted, relaxed, and relatively without stress. Or so I thought. I read my first issue of Correctional Oasis in December 2012. In this issue it talked about PTSD and how it had a higher prevalence in DOC than even the military. In the January issue I read about Corrections Fatigue and found the information valuable. However, I honestly did not think it applied to me. But I did think of many of my partners who I identified as being affected. I continued to read the publications each month, learning about Fatigue, PTSD, Depression, and the issues each of these causes in the lives of those who suffer them.
In June 2013, I finally had to admit that I too was suffering from this issue. It presented itself in me when I lost interest in things that I truly loved to do (I am an avid bicycle rider). I began to recognize that I was suffering from a case of depression. For a while I suffered in silence, even to the point of contemplating suicide. Now, I do not believe that my depression issues were caused only by my choice of career and the things that I have dealt with over the years. I do, however, believe this was a highly contributing factor and exacerbated the issues.
But then one of my friends from church recognized that I was having some difficulties. He asked some very probing questions and I truly had to accept the truth of my predicament. He and some other friends were able to help me to get through the issues and I am now doing much better. In fact, I believe it is behind me almost 100%.
Upon going through this, I have begun to have a passion for helping others who are suffering these issues. And, since I have been an instructor for my department since 2001, I put a suggestion in to our local training department that we incorporate a class on this subject during our annual in-service training. I also suggested this to the Director of Prisons for Washington State. I received positive feedback from each of these persons and we are now teaching a class entitled “Wellness: Occupational Stress Management.”
I have had the privilege of instructing this class and have received some interesting feedback. At first, most of my colleagues are resistive to the material. I get attitudes like: Are you serious, this doesn’t apply to me, why do we have to go over this lame subject, and others. But more times than not, by the end of the class the vast majority have changed their minds. In fact, several have requested the link to your website so they too can subscribe to your publication. I view this as a very encouraging sign, and I am looking forward to learning more, growing more, and helping more.
Learning this, and going through this, also encouraged me in other areas as well. I applied for and was accepted to the Critical Incident Stress Management Team for our region.
I thank you for the timeliness of your research and publication.
Words of Wisdom
As a veteran C/O I have seen way too many families break up after a few years at this job. I have seen drugs and alcohol devastate marriages, friendships and careers. I have seen too many people kill themselves while employed or within a few days after termination from the department. I myself have spent a night with a Smith and Wesson 686 on my lap. I put it up, and got the help I needed.
Through the years I may have put a finger on two pieces of the puzzle: (1) people need success in their jobs, but in corrections you mostly see failure — successful people don’t come back to prison; and (2) the rest of the Officers in the criminal justice system have the tendency to view us as the B-team.
We as a group have to do more to increase our professional presence within the criminal justice system and with the public.
I was proud to protect and serve the people of the state of _____ for nearly 28 years. In fact, it was with mixed emotions that I took off my uniform and hung up my leather for the last time.
Now I’m doing the greatest thing you can do being retired – taking care of my grandchildren.
Corrections Desert and Flash Floods
Let me start by saying I am not a doctor or licensed counselor. I am a retired correctional professional with over 20 years of experience in the field. I have worked at almost every type of facility the federal government has. I am also a photographer. I use this visual medium to capture the world around me.
I was raised in the American Southwest. I grew up enjoying the gentle summer rainstorms that brought life to the desert. I also became aware of damaging flash floods and the danger they possessed simply by too much water being dumped in too short of a time. The desert soil was not able to keep up with the downpour.
I have returned to the deserts I love in retirement. As I look at my career, I see many comparisons to growing up in the desert. The storms of work life were very similar to the storms of the desert world. Some of the rains were gentle and refreshing. The desert had time to soak in the blessings of the rain. Other rains were too fierce and fell faster or harder than the desert was able to handle. At the time I was aware of some of the damage, but not all.
I do believe that my career changed me, and at times had adverse effects on me and those around me. I also believe that I am improving, even if slowly.
I would strongly suggest to others that have chosen this unique career to be aware of the “weather” around them, and to protect themselves from what the extreme flooding can do to us all. Help those around you if you see they need a life-vest or raft to help them through the latest flash flood.
Please find healthy avenues of escape and hobbies to keep your time occupied on other aspects of life besides your career. You and those around you are worth the effort. Please seek help if the extreme flooding has you feeling overwhelmed and drowning. Seeking assistance is a sign of strength. I hope these words and images provide some relief in the storm.
Feel free to explore the resources at Desert Waters Correctional Outreach.
Let us know,
Let us pursue the knowledge of the Lord.
His going forth is established as the morning;
He will come to us like the rain,
Like the latter and former rain to the earth.
T.C. Brown retired from the Federal Bureau of Prisons and is a DWCO Board Member.
How a Pet Helped Me to Survive PTSD
Heading towards 20 years as a Correctional Officer in Australia the last thing I dreamed would ever happen to me was to come to the realisation that I had “lost the plot.”
I was a former British Army veteran who had had a very demanding job (Recon Section Commander), and who, while serving on Active Service, had been under fire, and had seen horrific scenes of human destruction and unforgiving and relentless persecution of others in the name of religion. I had survived some fairly horrendous accidents while amateur motor racing and gone through a broken marriage at an early age post military. I had been unemployed for some time, lonely, no future on the horizon and no purpose in life. I had been “through the mill” so to speak in facing many of life’s challenges.
But these were nothing compared to having a breakdown while serving as a Correctional Officer and doggedly refusing to accept I had a problem.
But! . . .to the rescue comes one 2-year old Border Collie called Tako. He is my son’s dog who lived at my home while my son was establishing where he wanted to live. (By the way I still have him!! Called it a hijacked pooch.) I was not a very religious person and did not go to church or speak to God except when wanting help. (Please, God, get me out of this ****!!) But, without realising it, I had found a guardian angel.
When I felt that my life was worthless, and found myself trying to make sense of what was happening to me, this faithful hairy hound, just by his presence, seemed to give me the strength to rationally think out the problems surrounding my condition, and to give me something to smile about.
If not cuddling up to me on the outdoor swing chair, at odd hours of the day or night, he would appear with a ball in his mouth wanting to play. How could I not leave my woes behind and tumble on the ground with him, or throw the ball for him to retrieve? He was my best friend, and in my mind at the time, my only friend. I had distanced my workmates, my friends, even my wife and kids, but I grew closer to my furry friend. He would look into my eyes with a sense of knowing that I was struggling, and that gave me a sense of hope. He would roll on his back and demand a tummy rub or push his head between my legs to have his ears rubbed. But more than anything, he seemed to calm me and give me a sense of happiness. If I cried, he actually pushed harder, which made me gain control a little better.
I would talk to him about how sad I was and how the world was against me, why my employer seemed to be uncaring, how I felt I had let my family down, how worthless I felt and how angry I was at those around me. He would rest his head on my lap and unconsciously I would stroke him, tickle him and have his unconditional love transfer from his furry body to my own spirit. Sometimes, without notice or reason, I would have tears in my eyes and feel a huge emptiness in my stomach. But as soon as I sat down anywhere, Tako would be there at my side, looking into my eyes, licking my hand, snuggling closer and pushing his way into my locked world. The world I had shut tightly from everyone. No one could enter my world. I seemed to work hard on being miserable, to be alone, to be suspicious, to find fault in everything and everyone around me … that is, except my furry friend. He cracked open that titanium lock like butter.
I had heard of therapy dogs used in various areas from palliative care to mental support, but never thought much about it until my own experience. From being a casual sceptic about anything outside mainstream care, I am now a firm believer of pet power. So my advice is to those who are experiencing troubles and feel alone, lost, failed, hurt, sad or whatever—if you can’t talk to your friends and family, talk to the dog.
You might be pleasantly surprised. I certainly was!!
Phil Haskett worked in corrections in Australia for 20 years before he medically retired. After serving and loving Phil perfectly for over 14 years, Tako went to be with his Maker in 2021, at the age of 14 yrs 6 mths. He will forever missed but never be forgotten.