My Law Enforcement Distress Syndrome (LEDS) Experience
Many of us spend a lot of time maintaining our physical health and well-being. We try to eat right, exercise, and do a myriad of different activities like grooming, dentist visits, doctor appointments, daily showers, and so on. When it comes to our mental health however, many of us don’t do much, if anything at all, to try improving that equally important side of us.
Having retired from a major city police department after 15 years of service, I have spent much of the last three years trying to understand, cope, manage and work through some of the mental effects being a police officer had on me. During my personal growth work, I began to notice many of the police officers I know and love struggling with the same issues.
That’s why I have identified and am doing ongoing research on Law Enforcement Distress Syndrome (LEDS). This occurs when police officers begin to exhibit one or more of the identified eight (8) symptoms, which result from prolonged durations of being under constant threat, bearing witness to evil, carnage, gore, violence, crime, and victimization. (There will be a link at the bottom to read more about LEDS and the symptoms)
Now let me tell you my story.
In my life, LEDS became far more noticeable after I retired and attempted to assimilate back into the civilian world. I noticed I had a much harder time making friends and meeting people than before I became a police officer. I didn’t want to know my neighbors and I didn’t want them to know me. I only trusted cops. I distrusted most of the new people I met. I was constantly analyzing them as if I was interviewing a suspect trying to find if there was anything I should be on guard against or to determine if they were telling me the truth. I would be constantly playing back what they had told me in the past and what I knew about them to see if there were any discrepancies. If I found any, I would confront the person. These are the identified symptoms of distrust of others and antisocial behavior as they pertain to LEDS.
I was overly on guard. While driving, at the store, or walking around I was constantly evaluating for potential threats. I wanted my back to the wall if I was at bars or restaurants. I felt uncomfortable on planes. I would often mentally prepare, step-by-step my plan and response for any criminal or violent event on a flight or elsewhere. While on vacation, many times I was more focused on not being a victim than on enjoying my trip. In all situations, if someone struck me as suspicious, I would keep my eye on them to assure they weren’t about to do something violent. I was on edge, anxious and disliked big events, crowds of people, and many holidays like the 4th of July, Halloween, and New Year’s Eve. This symptom is called hypervigilance.
One of the symptoms I struggled with most was fatalistic thinking. This one on the surface is not as easy to detect. I had high amounts of anxiety going on vacation or traveling. I was very anxious doing anything even remotely out of my comfort zone. I remember trying to snorkel on vacation and the moment I put my head down in the beautiful blue water and saw all the amazing little fish swimming around me, I got scared. My heart started racing, my breathing was heavy, my adrenaline pumped through my body and it took me almost 20 minutes to calm down.
It wasn’t just traveling or snorkeling. I was overly anxious about even simple things like a boat ride. I barely got through a zip line ride without chickening out in Las Vegas. The thought of more inherently thrill seeking activities like parachuting or even parasailing were completely off the table. I didn’t understand this was the symptom of fatalistic thinking, I just knew I was extremely anxious and also completely avoiding activities which would cause any of this angst.
What I discovered was the root of my anxiety was based on the fact that in my mind, if things went bad, I was going to be seriously hurt or killed. I was able to discover that over the years, I had seen so many activities result in injury or death to others and those memories haunted me into believing that the likelihood of those things happening was FAR greater than it actually was.
Also, I was paranoid. Not about aliens, but I thought that people were always out to get me back for various reasons. Even if I did something that was completely legit. Why? Because I had seen it happen to so many before. In my time on the job, I saw people who fell victim to acts of violence because of revenge or vengeance. Last year, I had an instance where me and/or my dog were attacked three times by another off-leash dog that lived on my street. In the last attack, my friend was walking my dog while I was out of town and this neighbor’s dog tore an 8-inch gash on my dog’s neck and almost killed him. I called the police and had the owners and their dog cited. They were so pissed at me and couldn’t understand why I hadn’t “come to talk to them” instead of calling the police.
My actions were reasonable, proper, and I was well within my rights to do what I did. Nobody would have faulted me for calling the police, especially since this was the third incident and discussions clearly were not working. Yet, when it was all over, and they had paid their fine and all my vet bills, I feared retaliation. I wondered if they would try to do something to me, my house, my loved ones and my dog as revenge. This symptom is called revenge/vengeance paranoia.
That’s just some of my experience with LEDS. I have personally witnessed these and the other symptoms in different police officers, both current and retired. I have seen a handful of these instances of LEDS progress to debilitating levels. I have seen officers lose their jobs and even their lives, I believe in part because of LEDS. My case never got to a debilitating level, but I can tell you now that I have worked through much of this and can see light at the end of the tunnel. LEDS was having a much bigger effect on me and my quality of life than I had realized. It got to the point it did because LEDS is sneaky and comes on slowly. It’s like when you have a child or a puppy and you don’t realize how big they have become until you look back at pictures.
Usually when I describe the effects I experienced with LEDS to people, they say, “Ya. That’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.” While there is some slight overlap, LEDS is significantly different from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. One of the main differences is that LEDS is not caused by a single traumatic event. There are also significant variations in symptoms between PTSD and LEDS. It is possible, however, for some officers to experience both, especially those involved in one or more critical incidents.
In my LEDS release, I talk about what the symptoms look like in their mild, moderate and severe forms, but it’s important to note not every officer exhibits every symptom. Because of the wide range of symptoms and possible severities of symptoms of LEDS, it’s not practical to describe how it could present in every possible scenario. Also, my research is trying to determine if my hypotheses about the syndrome are correct, how widespread the problem is, and a standard diagnosis methodology.
I’m determined to share what I have learned. It would be a tragedy to have come this far and not use what I have discovered to help those who need and want assistance. My main purpose is to find ways to help police officers cope, manage, prevent and treat LEDS as well as to improve their overall quality of life. Nowhere in the academy, continuing education, or wellness training did I hear about these symptoms. I didn’t know this psychological transformation was even a possibility. I want all that to change. While the nature of police work may always lead to issues like this, my hope is for widespread education so officers everywhere can recognize when and if this begins to happen.
Now that this has been released, the response has been overwhelming. The stories people have shared with me prove I am onto something very valuable for the health and well-being of the brave men and women who protect us every day with their own lives as collateral.
HERE’S HOW YOU CAN HELP:
GET THE WORD OUT! TALK TO EACH OTHER ABOUT LEDS AND THIS RESEARCH!
Steve Warneke is an award-winning author, writer, contributor, and speaker. Steve’s book and more are available at www.stevewarneke.com.