If I Only Knew - The Power of Stress Management

Rodger Ruge

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With age and experience people can also gain wisdom if they take the time to reflect on the people and situations that have shaped who they have become. With wisdom also comes the responsibility to pass it on to others, as a parent lovingly guides a child, in order to help them grow. Shared experiences can serve to enlighten those who are starting on a new path and, if people take the time to really listen, can help them avoid things that caused pain and suffering.

Chances are that no matter what stage of life you are in, you can look back on events that unfolded in your life and wish that you had known then what you know now. That is essence of wisdom. What you are about to read may be one of the most important and valuable pieces of information you have ever received. Not because I’m some Guru filled with self-importance, but because I’ve been to the dark places. I’ve been to the edge of the abyss and from the things I experienced I can help you to recognize, and possibly avoid, the pitfalls that can quite literally steal pieces of your soul. The question is; will you listen?

When I started police work no one would have every dared talk about how the job can cause problems. To talk about such things would have been considered a sign of weakness by my peers and the trust that is necessary among warriors would have been eroded. It was expected that you would just “suck it up”, let everything just roll off your back and that you would simply move on, like a Dirty Harry movie, with no baggage. We all tried to act like that, but I will tell you this; everyone suffered at some point, usually in silence.

Employee Assistance Programs (EAP) were rare and if they did exist they were almost never used. “I don’t need a damn shrink!”, was a common battle cry! Never let ‘em see you down…stay strong…never show weakness. And so the culture prevailed and very few were brave enough to seek any help. And, for the record, this type of mentality is not limited to police officers. I have many personal friends who are not involved in the police culture who have fallen into this trap.

Years later, the system started to change. EAP became a component of the department, like it or not, and a few people started to use this tool. Still, quite rumblings about how the weaker officers were involved in the program and how they could no longer be trusted to “have your back” could still be heard. This attitude was even reinforced by several respected “Old School” supervisors who just could not grasp the real issue. I counted myself among those who still saw seeking help as a sign of weakness. I was a warrior…why would I ever need help! I survived plenty of critical incidents. I saw enough horrors to last several lifetimes, but it was just part of the job…nothing unusual, it’s just what I did. No big deal! Denial became my mantra.

But then the little warning signs started to pop up. Friends who had not seen me in a long time would ask; “Are you OK? You look tired…stressed…pissed off…depressed”. I’d tell them not to worry, I just wasn’t sleeping well, or I was working too much, or I had been sick, or my family was having problems, or I was injured again, or…the excuses never ended. Friends would tell me how much more fun I was when I was younger and not so serious. Little things started to bother me and my temper, especially with my family, started to grow short. Everything irritated me if things did not go exactly as I expected, but I kept this building rage to myself, deep inside. Occasionally, when I reached my saturation point, I would explode and I thank God I took it out on workouts and property, not people. I began to worry about this anger and my ability to control it.

What is important to understand is that these changes happened slowly, over the course of years. There were no big, sudden changes, just small ones that started to accumulate and alter the happy young man I used to be. The changes were so subtle, that I did not recognize them, or I would simply justify, deny or suppress the reality of these changes. Even many friends and family members just accepted these changes with me, disregarding our intuition that something was wrong. But something was wrong and it was slowly getting worse.

I began to really like high risk activities like motorcycle road racing, sparing in my kung fu classes, bonsai mountain biking, racing to high risk calls for service or anything that stopped my mind from being restless. These activities forced me to focus on the present moment with incredible clarity. I liked the rush of these activities because the flood of adrenaline and endorphins made me feel alive. However, for every high there is a low. And when I came down I felt tired, depressed, apathetic and irritated. So work and high risk activities became a drug, something that made me feel good, and when I was home and calm, I felt depressed. I started to associate these feelings with my family and I began to see them as the source of these problems. I was nearing the abyss.

My real wakeup call came when I reached spiritual bankruptcy. I found myself no longer caring if I lived or died. I was not suicidal, it was nothing that dramatic. It was just reaching a place where I did not care about anything. I was just going through the motions with no reason to go on. My passion for life was gone. The events I had experienced had finally caught up to me and I was floundering on the edge of the darkness. Then I caught myself. I began to realize how dramatically I had changed and I started to look deeply into the darkness that was closing in on my life.

As all this was coming to a head I happened to be developing a course on wellness for law enforcement. I had found a handout that measured a person’s stress levels that I was planning on using in my classes. I decided to take my own test and I was honest about answering the questions. On this particular test if you scored 300 points you were at the highest levels of stress and more than 90% likely to develop a serious stress related illness. My score was 456! I was off the chart and it was like a slap in the face. I started really looking at my life and that’s when all the little red flags I had ignored stood out. I realized I had some problems and I truly needed help.

I did seek help through the departments peer support system and EAP program. It was by far the best thing I ever did for myself. I believe it literally saved my marriage, my relationship with my children, and quite possibly my life. It pulled me back from the abyss and I finally realized that the EAP program was there to help. The most rewarding part of all was that everyone I told at work gave me 100% support. The stigma of weakness I was so concerned about simply did not exist. I still had the respect and trust of my peers, and best of all I started to gain my own self-respect back. The darkness was being replaced with light and I started to feel alive again. It was nice to be back and many people commented on how much more relaxed I looked and acted. It was an amazing change I could not have done without the help I received.

Morgan Freeman, in a movie called the Shawshank Redemption said this; “If your not busy living, then get busy dying. Damn right!” I’m happy to report I am back among the living. If I had known what I know today when I started as a police officer I would have paid better attention to the warning signs. I would have been better prepared to recognize problems when they were just sprouting and I could have sought help before they became firmly rooted. I could have saved myself a lot of grief and suffering and I would have realized that seeking help is not a form of weakness, but rather an expression of strength. Never forget there are people who are ready to help you in your moment of need.

Rodger Ruge is a retired police officer, martial artist and author of The Warrior's Mantra, Barricade Books, June 2005. Rodger teaches stress management to emergency services personnel and civillian groups. Rodger can be reached through his website; http://www.readyforce.net .


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