As I reflect back on 2011, I am overwhelmed thinking about the things that occurred over the past year in my life.  I experienced many changes in my agency, new commitments within my family and my community service, illnesses and the deaths of loved ones and friends.  I’m noticing some physical changes as I approach the golden anniversary of my birth.  Most of all, I have been observing law enforcement officers who self-destruct through unusual behavior on and off the job.   I am grateful for the many training opportunities, the maintenance of my fitness-eating plan, and especially my peers who helped prepare me to meet these challenges.

This time of year, people participate in the ritual of a New Year’s resolution.  Many people accept the initial challenge, but many of our resolutions succumb to an early death.  I stopped making resolutions annually because I felt discouraged when I could not keep my resolutions.

In the New Year of 1996, I had been a police officer about 10 years. I weighed about 350 lbs. I had a distorted view of my career, working nights, and had an adult beverage problem.   I had come to the point that I was so frustrated and miserable.  I was sick and tired of being SICK AND TIRED.

Some people and events helped me create small changes in my life that year.  The changes began on New Year’s Day as a dare from my (former) wife and a buddy who is a cop in a neighboring agency about what I was eating.  I was laughing at the changes they were making in their eating choices.  As I called their bluff, I discovered that I desired these food choices too.

I met people who taught me about good nutrition and the benefits of a low fat, whole grain Mediterranean style eating plan.  I slowly returned to exercising and reading wellness articles in magazines or books.  The regimen was slow, but I was committed and the little victories achieved reinforced this commitment.  By June 1997, I was weighed 200 lbs. and wore a size 36 waist which I maintain today.  My commitment to take better care of myself developed.  I was better not only physically, but emotionally and spiritually.

My career had its good times and bad times.  I always felt out of sorts while questioning myself and my career path.  I had a small circle of friends who would listen to my frustrations.  However, I had no understanding of the intense emotional (or lack of) feeling nor how to deal with these feelings in a healthy and productive way.  I felt that this is how my life as a cop was going to be and it sucked.

In 2002, I read a book review that changed my life.  EMOTIONAL SURVIVAL FOR LAW ENFORCEMENT: A guide to officers and their families by Dr. Kevin Gilmartin Ph.D.  It is an easy to read guide for law enforcement personnel and their families to understand the physiological effects of policing and the emotional effects in our relationships and our perception of people, place and things.  Dr. Gilmartin describes the hyper-vigilance roller coaster that we face daily at work and the effects it has on our relationships and our health.  He encourages us to change from a victim-based perception and take control of our own lives.  Some things we can’t control on the job include new duty assignments, personnel changes, scheduling etc. Other things we can and must gain control over; taking care of ourselves, developing our relationships, children and hobbies etc.

I have given copies of his book to many friends, co-workers, new recruits and retirees over the past 10 years.  Gilmartin’s book helped me develop a personal vision and an action plan for my life.  It is not a perfect life, but I am in a better place today.  I have options today.  I can make choices to improve my life and grow as an individual.

This improvement to my life became part of my action plan over the years.  It has strengthened my resiliency to cope and bounce back from the changes I mentioned earlier over the past 12 months.

MAKE THIS COMMITMENT: What Is YOUR Action Plan Going To Be In 2012?

  • Ask yourself: How do I feel? How is my fitness? When was my last medical check-up?
  • You can develop your own exercise-activity plan: slow progress is a great way to return to fitness.  Speak to your doctor before returning to an intense exercise program.  Go for a walk, develop stretching techniques.  Check out the www.fitresponder.com  website for public safety fitness, wellness and injury prevention tips and videos.
  • www.copsalive.com is another great website for nutrition, emotional, financial and wellness information focusing on law enforcement professionals.
  • Order Dr. Gilmartin’s book on- line. Read it to understand the emotional and physiological toll of our law enforcement career. This book will help reset your priorities, develop and improve your relationships and schedule your life away from policing duties.
  • Order Dr. George Thompson’s book on-line, Verbal Judo: The Gentle Art of Persuasion. A great book to help you improve your communication skills on and off the job.
  • Make an appointment with your Employee Assistance Representative, Department Chaplain, Peer Counselor, or a Mental Health Professional who has experience working with law enforcement personnel.   Retired St. Paul, Minnesota Sgt. Dennis Conroy Ph.D. stated at a C.O.P.S.: Trauma in Law Enforcement conference last February in New Hampshire that law enforcement personnel are the toughest for professionals to work with.  Dennis went on to remind us, “You’re not weak if you get professional help- you’re getting stronger!”  Remember: Professional counseling is confidential and it’s your hour to discuss the issues and things affecting your emotional wellbeing.
  • Training and self-improvement: Many agencies’ training budgets have been hit hard.  Take advantage of the many police websites that offer on-line training, save up and attend great training on your own time and expense.  Check in with your P.O.S.T. training in your area.  Make a commitment to your professional growth and improvement.
  • Check in with your family, friends and co-workers to see how they are doing.  Be mindfully present for your loved ones.  Stay focused on them with minimal or no distractions while you actively listen to them during the conversation.
  • Have a plan ready to reach out for help if you are caught in a sudden emotional tough place.  Contact: Safe Call Now at 206-459-3020 or www.safecallnow.org which is a nationwide 24-7 hotline for public safety personnel and their families.

You have the opportunity to take control of your life every day in the New Year.  Please remember that we can improve our lives daily while we have a choice to grow as individuals.

So, I’ll ask you again, what is YOUR action plan going to be in 2012?

Happy New Year!

Sergeant Mark St.Hilaire is a police officer in a Metro-west suburb of Boston, Massachusetts.  He is a police peer volunteer with a local C.I.S.M. team.  You can reach Sgt. St.Hilaire through this website or by confidential email: [email protected].  Follow him on Twitter:@NPD3306.