I had a mentor of mine kill himself a few months ago. We weren’t the best of friends and truth be told, I only saw him once every 6-9 months or so, as he was all over the country doing undercover operations. When I was a younger officer, I was intrigued by narcotics investigations and wanted to learn the ins and outs of how to work a street-level narcotics deal up the food chain. He taught me a lot; proctored several of my scenes when I went through undercover school, later on took the time to teach my previous team and me about close cover, different modes of surveillance, and so on.
When I started to do my own street level dope buys as a new undercover officer, I felt safe knowing that he was running the case, was calling the plays, and had coordinated multiple sets of eyes on me as I fumbled through the operation. It took time, but I gradually started getting better, and it was in large part due to all of his coaching. He was widely regarding as THE guy, THE undercover guru that everyone strived to be like.
He once worked a case where he was in role for an extended period of time, and by that, I mean well over a year. Back then, being a newer father and consumed by how to protect my child while working in the profession I chose, I asked him how he was able to maintain his balance, his perspective, to be able to differentiate himself from his roles and maintain a healthy sense of self.
He responded, “I have an amazing family, and a very close relationship with God.”
I thought that was a pretty awesome answer, and he seemed so grounded, so rooted.
Several years later, he was gone.
The Things We See
I experienced my first partially-decomposed, maggot-filled, bloated, nearly-decapitated hanging victim on the second day of my first field training rotation. Fourteen years later, I can recall virtually everything about the condition of that poor man’s body. Oh, and the smell. The smell.
Just over a year later and barely off of probation, I frantically scrambled to try to put pressure on multiple stab wounds incurred on a young woman lying in the planting strip outside of her apartment. I’ll never forget her agonal breathing as she died in front of me, or the desperate feeling of helplessness as I realized I was failing to save her. What I remember even more, is the moment her breathing just stopped.
Within the time span between those two incidents in my rookie first year, I saw a lot of dead bodies. Saw a lot of things on the outside of people that are supposed to remain on the inside. Saw a fellow officer down on the ground, eyes ablaze as he struggled from a shot to the stomach that hit him just below his vest. Junkies lurching about wooded campsites with gangrened limbs due to repeatedly injecting heroin into their abscesses. Cruelty, cold indifference, people taking joy in the misery of others, and just an overall absence of good.
Physical, Mental, and Spiritual Armor
I had a ritual. When I was in patrol I would stand in front of my locker before shift, and take a deep breath. Inhale. Exhale. I would then settle my mind, strap on my body armor, uniform, and duty belt. This was my physical armor that protected me.
I also cleared my mind as I geared up. Home was home, work was work. I was now at work with a job to do, with people to help, and bad guys to put away. For the next nine hours of my shift, that was my focus. If my mind was on home – bills, a wife, a toddler, fears of what may happen during the day, if my attention was divided, that could mean the difference of me going home or not at all. This was my mental armor.
Once my mind was clear, I intentionally filled it with positive self-talk and imagery. Not in the “Saturday Night Live,” I’m good enough-smart enough-and gosh-darn-it-people-like-me sort of a way, but I would visualize positive encounters. I would visualize getting in a fight and winning. I would visualize a lethal force encounter and making all the right decisions. With my body, mind, and heart aligned, I would calmly step into roll call, and start my shift.
Fast forward nine hours later, and I would reverse the process; the physical armor came off and was hung back up in my locker. I would consciously make a mental shift from “Officer,” “Warrior,” “Guardian,” and power down to “Chris, “Daddy, “Sweetheart.” On the drive home, I would void my mind of the ugliness I saw during the day; the smells, the anger, the nastiness, all of the “Fuck you, Pig,” comments, the condemnations, the accusations, the insults toward my character and integrity.
Once I stepped through the front door, I would immediately launch into a game of Hide and Seek. It was our Daddy/Daughter ritual. My daughter could hear me coming up the front porch stairs, and she would drop whatever she was doing and scramble off to find a place to hide before I came in the front door. If I opened the door before she was properly hidden, she would howl at me to go back outside until she was ready.
I would then have to find my pajama-clad little monster tucked underneath a blanket, hiding behind the window curtains, or squatting behind an easy chair. She would squeal with laughter and joy when I found her, and my evening would start off with snuggles, tickles, and kisses with a toddler who had been waiting all day for Daddy to come home.
Since I worked day shift, by the time I got home, my wife and daughter had already had dinner, and I would get to do all the fun stuff; bath time, story time, and tuck my beautiful little girl into bed, nestled between her favorite stuffed animals. Often times, I would just sit with her and watch her fall asleep as she held onto my hand and forearm resting next to her as she slept.
I would make myself as little dinner, spend some quality time with the wife, chit-chat about the day, we’d maybe watch some TV, and go to bed. I had it pretty figured out; I had two distinct lives and personas, and I felt that I had achieved a healthy balance between the two. I had effectively compartmentalized both of them from each other, so the toxicity incurred on me as a police officer wouldn’t spill over into my personal life.
Five years later, my daughter was gone, I was divorced, and crushed under a seemingly insurmountable mountain of pre-marriage/post-marriage debt, child support, spousal support, a forced new position at work, a pending federal lawsuit, underwater in a house during a bad economy, and a sewer line collapse that caused an additional $25,000 in debt overnight on top of everything else.
I thought I had it all together. I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Stay tuned for Armor of God Part 2: The Reckoning