You’ve all heard it said that “Police work isn’t a job, it’s a lifestyle.” Even in the Street Survival Seminar we talk about spending a considerable amount of your off-duty time in Condition Yellow, and we strongly advocate carrying an off-duty weapon. If you’re a cop, let’s face it, you tend to view yourself as a cop 24/7/365, and frankly, a lot of us do so with pride. However, even Bruce Wayne took off the Batman cape once in awhile and had Alfred bring him a drink and a nice dinner. But when you hang up the uniform and gun belt for the day, do you find yourself curling up with the new issues of Law Officer and Police magazines, surfing the Internet to check all the cop-related Web sites and blogs, playing the newest version of Police Quest on your X-Box or watching a “COPS” marathon or a rerun of “The Shield” on TV? In other words, even when you’re off duty, are you surrounding yourself with a little too much police-related information and entertainment? How are you spending what little free time you have?
There’s no question about it, police work doesn’t exactly lend itself to an overabundance of spare time. Between call outs, overtime details, court days, shift holdovers, extra-duty jobs and the myriad other duty-related things that we end up having to do before and after work, it’s no wonder so many of us fall victim to what Dr. Kevin Gilmartin (www.emotionalsurvival.com) calls the “I Usta Syndrome.” The “I usta” response is given by so many of us when we’re asked about our hobbies and activities outside of the job. “I usta” go fishing, “I usta” coach my kid’s soccer team, “I usta” go to church, “I usta” be a runner, “I usta” be into photography … the list goes on and on. With our odd days off, weird shift times and the long-term effects of hypervigilance (what Gilmartin calls the Hypervigilance Biological Rollercoaster®) it’s no wonder that we start to lose interest in the hobbies and activities that once brought us so much joy and relaxation. In law enforcement, we are totally immersed in a culture that, if we’re not careful, becomes all-consuming, and we can find ourselves struggling to maintain even a modicum of balance. In fact, sometimes the harder we try to be the best, most informed, most enthusiastic cop we can be, the more we risk losing sight of the nonpolice support systems that help us maintain that great attitude on the job. In the extreme, some cops lose interest not just in pleasurable activities, but in their friends, their families and eventually their own self-worth. If that happens, it’s time to seek professional help, now.
But let’s just say you’re like the majority of us who have “allowed” the job to dominate or eliminate your free time. Here are a few suggestions to get back on track:
Take back control
Sure, the agency controls when you work; the court system controls when you have to appear; crime, mayhem and the 911 center control what calls you respond to, but despite your perception to the opposite, work does not control your life 24 hours a day. Learn to practice what Gilmartin calls “aggressive personal time management.” Get yourself a calendar, a Palm Pilot, a computer program, something where you can view your schedule long term. I prefer to have two, a personal scheduler and one that the whole family can view at home. Plug in all your work days, court days, training days and so on, and then look at the days and hours you’re not at work, and take a second to feel good about that. Next, schedule all the family obligations, school events, church, doctor appointments and things that you can’t or don’t want to miss. Sometimes, just writing it down makes it more “real,” and it makes you feel more in control. See whether you can find some free time in there and then decide how you’d like to spend it.
Start small and prioritize
Think about the things you feel like you’re missing out on. Do you long for the days when you and the whole family went to a movie and then out for ice cream every Friday night, but now you’re on second shift and the kids seem even busier than you are? Pick one day during the upcoming month that you all can get together, then write on the calendar “Family Movie Night.” Give everyone plenty of notice, let them know that the date is sacred, that it’s on the calendar, and it’s a priority. Spend time talking about it, anticipating it; look at what movies are coming out and see if you can all agree on one. Even if you don’t see much of your family because of shift work and busy schedules, get in the habit of e-mailing your kids and your spouse or leaving handwritten notes about the upcoming event — in other words, make it a big deal, and then make sure that it happens, no matter how tired or distracted you are, no matter how crazy things have been at work, no matter how much time you’ve spent in court this week. If the members of your family see that you’ve made a night out with them a priority, they’ll do the same (although your teenagers may not admit it!). If going out is not an option, make the same effort to have family movie night at home, with everyone curled up on the couch in front of a scary movie. If you’re on nights, how about scheduling “Cartoon Saturday Morning” for a few hours before it’s time for you to hit the hay? Be creative! The family will just be happy to have your time and attention. If family time is what you feel you’re missing out on, start out small and make it happen.
What if you’ve decided to make getting back in shape a priority? Again, start small, and then make sure you be consistent. Write your anticipated workout dates on that calendar, and then, just for fun, write down what you accomplish each time you work out. Treat each scheduled workout like a high-priority doctor’s appointment or court case, and if something happens and you’re going to be late for your “appointment,” go as soon as you can. Twenty minutes on the treadmill (instead of the anticipated 45 minutes) is better than no minutes on the treadmill, and as I’ve learned from my husband, you don’t need to spend an hour or two every day in the gym to stay in great shape. Walking the dog, playing basketball with your kids or chasing your spouse around the bedroom can count as “working out” too sometimes. The point is basically to get your heart rate up and your mind off the job.
Be flexible and relax
I was really into scrapbooking at one time. I had all the cool tools, all the pretty paper, I subscribed to all the magazines and online newsletters, and I secretly felt superior knowing that all my family photos were neatly chronicled when most of my friends were throwing all their photos into shoeboxes and junk drawers. I was considered quite the “expert” by my family and friends, who would consult me about their own scrapbooks, and ask whether I’d help them organize their own pictures. However, once I became the big “expert,” I quit enjoying it so much. In fact, it just became one more “chore” that I had to get done, and I started driving myself (and my poor family) crazy trying to make time to get those damn photos into those stupid scrapbooks! I finally had to step away from my hobby for awhile. After a few months, I re-evaluated and figured out a way to make it fun again by turning it back into something relaxing and personal rather than a competition or an “expertise.” So if you used to be really into fishing, but it just seems like too much hassle to get out all those poles, lures, tackle boxes and all that high tech gear you’ve been amassing for years, try grabbing a bamboo pole and some worms, and spending an hour in a lawn chair tossing a hook into your subdivision’s little pond. We have a small “lake” behind our police department, and a few times a month one of my fellow sergeants takes a fishing pole and some worms out of the back of his Jeep and spends an hour after work fishing for whatever it is that is swimming around in that murky retention pond. His gear is low tech, it’s catch-and-release, and he’s not trying to win any contests, but he sure seems relaxed when he’s done fishing.
Let’s face it, police work can be an all-consuming profession, whether you’re a patrol officer, detective, correctional officer or dispatcher. Our hours are long and inconsistent, our job can be stressful and heartbreaking, and we tend to have so much going on that our “inner citizen” tends to get lost in the shuffle. Use those “take charge” skills you have to take control of your own time and your own life and learn to really anticipate and enjoy your time away from the job. Trust me, it will make your time on the job that much more productive.