Loving a Law Enforcement Officer When you Have PTSD
Guest Post by Alicia
This month (June) is PTSD Awareness month and what better way to bring awareness to it than to understand someone who lives with it. I am a police wife and I have had PTSD since I was 14 years old. I went undiagnosed until I was 19 and mostly untreated until I was 27. I am obviously not a therapist and far from an expert. However, I have spent years living with this, trying to find things that work for me, and being the sister of a wounded veteran fighting his own battle with TBI and PTSD. I also have the unique perspective of living with an LEO while having this illness. So, if sharing my thoughts and experiences might be helpful to someone else going through the same struggles, it is worth it. Here are the pros and cons of living in a law enforcement family while battling PTSD. I’ll start with the cons, because I like to end things on a good note.
The need to feel in control
I don’t believe I have ever met anyone with PTSD who did not struggle with this. To be clear, this does not necessarily mean the need to be overbearing or controlling in a relationship, although it can sometimes manifest in that way. It can pertain to anything. It is a defense mechanism of the brain when re-wired by trauma to feel as if you can control every aspect of a situation, you can make yourself, and those you love, safe. We carefully plan every little detail of our lives, from vacations, to grocery trips, to the way we lock up our homes at night. If something alters one of those details, we feel like we lose control of the situation. When you have no control, bad things happen. That is simply how our brains have been altered to think. That is, of course, not realistic, and we know that. People often think those with PTSD lack the ability to be rational. This is not true. We can be very rational and fully recognize that we are being irrational in a moment, but our brains are hard wired to react in a certain way and it’s often very difficult to override that.
This brings me to the challenge of living with an LEO (law enforcement officer). You can imagine how stressful it is for anyone to send their officer out that door every day to face unknown risks and dangers. For someone with PTSD, if we aren’t careful, it can set our nervous system into a crash course. Simply put, it is something we cannot control and that feeling can be unbearable if it is allowed to engulf us. We send them out to do a job that we do not know how to do (I may catch criticism for that statement, but I stand by it. I don’t care how long you’ve lived with one or how much you think you know. If you haven’t worked in law enforcement, you can’t possibly understand it all). We have absolutely no control over what may happen, how they may react, what situations they will be in and often, we will have very little communication with them until a situation is over.
Bad things certainly CAN and DO happen and we are on the sidelines, left at home with nothing we can do except pray and wait. That produces a very scary and helpless feeling. It can be something that is very challenging to get accustomed to and as stated before, I am no therapist, nor do I think what therapy works for one may work for all. For my own part, I have found distraction to be the best mode of managing this particular challenge. I tell myself “Okay. I can’t control that and that’s all there is to it. He’s trained, he’s a good cop, and I have to trust
to his skills and God’s grace to bring him home.” Then I refocus my energy on what I CAN control. What I CAN do is make sure I’m here for my children. I have control over the fact that I can fulfill their needs, spend time with them, take care of them and the house and “hold down the fort” while he’s gone.
The need for routine in the face of constant change
This could probably fall as a subheading under the need to control. Having a steady routine is one of the things that makes us feel like we are in control of our lives. Routines, repetition and constants make us feel safe. Normally, people with PTSD face change with varying degrees of apprehension. Someone not receiving treatment or therapy techniques living with PTSD can be sent into terrible spirals of anxiety over the slightest change in their daily lives. To the outside world, it may appear that we are just being unreasonable or difficult, but inside our heads, alarm bells are going off telling us whatever change this is, is going to mean something bad or dangerous. Sometimes we don’t even realize that’s what is happening in our minds. All we can recognize is the anxiety and anger this new wrench in our routine is causing us. For anyone married to, or living with, an LEO for any amount of time, you know that schedules change often and without warning. As soon as you get accustomed to one shift or rotation, they are switched to another.
I have had years of treatment and therapy for my PTSD and I still have a hard time with this one. It’s hard to think of the possible benefits of said new schedule, because with PTSD, your mind immediately goes to the absolute worst possibilities and aspects of any situation. Then when you get a schedule that you really like and works for your family, you can’t enjoy it properly because you spend your time being anxious about when it will change again.
When I first moved in with my LEO, he was on nights for almost a year. Then he went on days and has been for quite a long time. We just found out two days ago he may possibly have to go back to nights and I panicked. All of my therapy and training went out the window and I got irrationally angry. I didn’t get angry AT him but it came across that way. Luckily, I’m blessed with an absolute gem. He recognized what was happening and sat calmly down with me going over the benefits to the switch, the fact it may not even happen and reminding me that I survived it before and that we would revisit the techniques we used before to help adjust me to sleeping in a home alone at night. I had managed to adjust myself quite well to him being on nights, but after he went back to days, I regressed. PTSD is a constant challenge and need to work through and process things. There is no cure and you’re never “fixed”. It means working at it every single day.
Faulty fear triggers and hyper alert switch
This is the obvious one that I’m sure would occur to anyone when reading the title of this article. Without bogging you down with the scientific details of the brain, I’m going to attempt to simplify what happens with the brain after PTSD. Long term PTSD does not occur with everyone who experiences trauma. It’s still not clear why some people develop it and others don’t. Some people’s brains can recover after a short time and resume their normal function. But the brain of someone with PTSD has “re-wired” itself following the trauma. The brain’s natural receptors that control emotion and fear and when to activate those different emotions has become faulty. Your fear trigger switches on before your other senses and emotions have a chance to work the situation out and determine whether or not fear is appropriate. And once it is activated, it’s difficult to turn it off again.
People with PTSD get stuck in the mode of hyper-vigilance and struggle to deactivate it. For example, you see someone looking at you getting into your car at the grocery store. While this might make a normal person’s hair stand up on the back of their neck for a moment, they’ll exercise a healthy level of caution and awareness, get in their car and move on. Or, they may ignore it all together. The receptors in our brain will completely skip the questioning awareness and go straight to activating our sympathetic nervous system (“fight or flight mode”- the bodily numbing fear response). Our brain will convince us in that moment that the only possible conclusion for that person looking at us is to do us harm in some way. Rationally, we will tell ourselves the person is no threat, but our bodies will already be in the grip of adrenaline and will likely stay that way for some time until our parasympathetic nervous system takes over and we “crash”.
The other fear trigger aspect that makes it difficult in the LEOW (law enforcement officer wife) lifestyle for PTSD is we spend our lives being consumed by a need to keep safe. We do everything in our power to keep ourselves from being a target of danger in a time when merely being part of an LEO family makes you a target. This is counter productive to everything we strive for. The fine balance we have to reach in so much of our therapy consists of trying to recognize not everything is a threat, but we still have to maintain an awareness that some things are. Taking precautions with your LEO to make sure you’re safe and secure, that your social media accounts are private to the best of your ability, that you don’t advertise yourself as being an LEO family in places where it isn’t wise, etc. are ways to make you feel more in control of this particular aspect.
By now you’re probably thinking how we make this work despite all of the difficulties. Let’s discuss not only how it can work, but how it can actually be an immense blessing.
Sharing your life with someone who knows trauma
One of the hardest parts of PTSD treatment is having to drag up your trauma from the recesses of your brain and discuss it. None of us like to take it out, look at it or talk about it. Talking about it is especially difficult, but without talking about it, you can never begin to process it. One of the things that makes it so difficult to talk about, aside from having to remember, is it often involves feelings of shame, embarrassment, fear, etc. Even with therapists, we fear we will shock or even repulse the listener. With my therapist, we found it best for me to write it out. I wrote entries prior to sessions and she read them and we went from there. By odd coincidence, my therapist was also married to a police sergeant. She made the suggestion to me that I might find it easier than I thought to talk to my LEO.
My LEO is the first and only person in my life I’ve been able to discuss details with and though very difficult, it has helped me immensely. It has made us stronger as a couple, strengthened our bond and made the both of us feel like we truly know the other in a way no one else can. Aside from the fact that we had been friends for 19 years and I love and trust this man, the fact that he’s an LEO made it easier for me to open up. His words of encouragement were perfect and I’ll never forget some of the things he said to me and how they made perfect sense in the early days of our relationship. He told me no matter what it was, he’d likely seen the same or worse. If you have PTSD and are with an LEO, I encourage you to take advantage of that gift. It’s highly unlikely you will shock them. Sure, it’s upsetting to hear of someone you love having went through trauma and it’s different hearing it from someone you care about than a victim you have never met. But, they can face it head on. They’re trained and conditioned to deal with trauma and you aren’t going to scare them away with your story. You can feel free to talk to them in a way you might not ever feel with anyone else. And once they understand the nature of your trauma, you may just find they have some very useful information to help you feel safe in the future.
A feeling of protection
As I’ve said several times, our number one driving factor is the need to feel safe. I honestly can’t think of anything better than knowing you have a trained police officer, who has focused their entire career on keeping people safe, sharing your life with you. Even when they’re at work and not by your side, you’ve suddenly gained a personal access to an entire brotherhood who are only a phone call away. I used to not be able to go anywhere without being hyper alert. I watched everyone and everything for signals of danger. I could never relax and enjoy myself away from home. Being with my LEO has given me an overwhelming peace and freedom. I gladly hand over the reins of vigilance to him and when we are out, I honestly don’t even look over my shoulder now. I trust him to keep us safe and that is an amazing feeling after so many years.
Being with someone who knows how to talk through and deal with intense stress
Constant stress and anxiety can drain you mentally, physically and put an enormous strain on your relationships. Having someone who is trained and understands how to manage stress and high intensity situations is an enormous benefit and one you should take advantage of. Sit down with your LEO and discuss ways that might be helpful to you when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Ask him how he copes when faced with stress and danger. Be open to his suggestions and explain to him what things trigger you and when you’re having a difficult time managing situations. Lean on him for support and understanding because chances are, he can probably understand you better than anyone else you know.
If you have PTSD or think you do, please, reach out to someone. There are resources available to help you and while that first step may terrify you, it’s the best step you’ll ever take. You CAN learn to live a healthy and happy life, and you deserve to.
If you have any questions about this article or are looking for resources, please don’t hesitate to contact us and we will put you in contact with the author of this article.
About the Author:
My name is Alicia and I’m a mother of two (a 3 year old daughter and 12 year old step son), married to the love of my life, a police Sergeant with 10 years in law enforcement. I met my LEO in grade school and we were good friends for 19 years before we realized we were meant to be together. We have been a family for two years and raise our two children together in the same rural southwest Virginia town we grew up in. I have a B.A. in Mass Communications and Marketing from Emory and Henry College and focused my career on non profit development before leaving it to be a STAHM. I’ve spent most of my life riding, training and showing horses. On the rare occasion I have free time, I enjoy reading and writing. Despite the numerous challenges, we are proud to be a blue family and enjoy navigating this crazy thing called life together!