It’s Sunday night and we are going about our nighttime rituals as we get ready for bed. Mike works 12-hour shifts which rotate every two weeks, thus resulting in 3 day weekends every other week. Being self-employed, I have a flexible schedule so I work long days Monday through Thursday so we can enjoy those weekends off together.
We had just topped off three great days of golf around the Chicagoland area with an Improv class at our local comedy theater taught by one of the founders of the famed Second City. It was a weekend full of belly splitting laughter, heart-to-heart conversations, making plans for the future, and taking full advantage of the outdoors as the weather was in the mid-eighties with extremely low humidity (a rare day for August in Chicago). We finished the weekend happy, satisfied, refreshed, and ready to start our work week.
And then it happened. In an instant my mood changed from calm, content, happy, to a pit in my stomach of wrenching dread. Unexpected, and just a moment in time and then gone, but it was there. All it took was watching Mike walk down the hallway connecting our bedroom to the main living area for my happiness to disappear. I don’t think what I saw happens in most homes, but is probably very common in most LEO homes. What I saw was Mike carrying his bulletproof vest and in that moment the truth of his job struck me like a kidney punch: There are people out there who are more than willing, and who maybe even want, to kill him.
When Althea first showed me the opening paragraphs of this article, at that point a seedling of an idea, my initial reaction was… shock. Not that she had such fears – she’s always been very open about how this job impacts her as a wife, the anxieties that arise from it, and how her close association as a writer for, and counselor and trainer of, cops has brought her into even closer intimacy with the dangers – but at how deeply the fear can go and how quickly it can surface.
September now has a enduring solemnity attached to it, and September 2011 even more as we commemorated the ten year anniversary of 9/11. It was a remembrance of loss and sacrifice and how our world has been altered in the decade since. The themes of the sacrifice of that day – all the officers who responded to the calla and paid the ultimate sacrifice - and the changes it wrought resonate deeply with law enforcers. Every May cops gather, locally and at the seats of state governments and in Washington DC, to honor those who have paid the ultimate price to protect society from crime. And every year, in communities large and small all across the country, officers are honored for their duty and sacrifice to protect their communities. We honor those who gave and continue to give, and rightfully so, but it seems it’s high time we honor those who gave, and continue to give, to their communities and country usually without ever pinning on a badge.
Ask yourself: What must it be like to watch your husband or wife, father or daughter, go out day-after-day, never knowing if this is the day they won’t come home? Wondering if answering the ringing doorbell will reveal a grim-faced Chief and Chaplain on the other side, here to deliver the most feared news of all? What is it like living with the knowledge it is your job – your duty – to seek, find, and capture the predators most people wisely flee? How does the spouse, the parent, the child reconcile the pride and fear so often connected with loving a cop?
The short answer is, it hurts and the hurt becomes a companion. Not everyone can be live with such a companion; our profession is littered with broken relationships, many stemming from the pain of fear being too much. But for those who bear it with courage and dignity, their willing acceptance of the pain is their gift to you. Accept it graciously.
Ask yourself: How does it feel to not be able to get hold of your cop – sometimes for hours on end – only to feel you mind wander to all the possible worst-case scenarios fear can carry someone?
A couple years ago I received a “silent dispatch” – a call put out only on the MDC and not over the radio – to respond to one of our local high schools. Strange, especially since it was far out of my zone and there were plenty of cars available in closer beats. I checked and was surprised to see almost every available car in the city, as well as a number of detectives, assigned and heading to the high school. Hmmm… something’s up!
Checking in with the SRO Sergeant, I learned there had been notes discovered detailing an impending school shooting - probably a crank, but maybe not, and who wants to downplay that threat if it’s for real? – and we needed to lock-down, secure, and search the entire building and grounds of an old, labyrinthine high school housing several thousand students. I had two wishes right then… first, that I had stopped to pee on my way and, second, that I had remembered to grab my cell phone when I jumped out of my squad.
Of course, as semi-factual information began leaking out of the school to parents and friends on the outside, and the news choppers began hovering, the rumor mill powered into overdrive (Hostage situation at Central High! Shooters roaming the halls! Explosives set to go off!); it was only a matter of time before panicked friends started calling Althea to get “the real story.” Jarred from blissful unawareness, she spent the next hours calling my untended phone.
The fear tied to not knowing is almost always worse than more defined, easy-articulated and specific fears. Those who love us become familiar – without ever really getting comfortable – with unanswered questions about what we’re up to, are we safe, is today the day? Watching a squad scream by sets imaginations in motion in ways most folks – and maybe not even you – will never appreciate.
And ask yourself: How must the ones you love, and who love you, feel when they experience the scorn, negativity, and lack of appreciation for what you do by proxy? When they watch the news, read the paper, listen to strangers and friends alike unjustly criticize you, your colleagues, or your profession, knowing they do so from bias or ignorance? It must be exhausting or infuriating.
And what’s it like to see and read stories of officers cut down by accident or assault - a new one almost daily, it seems – and feel raw empathy with the officer’s loved ones, searing pain and sorrow for their loss and guilty gratitude to not be going through it themselves? The wondering if whatever went wrong could happen to you wears deep.
Being a cop requires a lot of sacrifice, possibly even your life. This very fact means loving and supporting a cop requires a lot of sacrifice, too. Acknowledge, respect, and honor that sacrifice every day. Be grateful when your wife or your husband, parents and children, respect and love you enough to bear it, grudgingly or gladly, and know it is how you serve mankind. It’s how they serve, as well.
About The Authors:
Althea Olson, LCSW has been in private practice in the Chicago suburbs since 1996. She has a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University providing individual, couple, & group therapy to adolescents, adults, and geriatrics. Althea is also trained in Critical Incident Stress Management & is a certified divorce mediator.
Mike Wasilewski, MSW has been with a large suburban Chicago department since 1996. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from Aurora University and has served on his department’s Crisis Intervention & Domestic Violence teams. Mike is an adjunct instructor at Northwestern College.
Mike & Althea have been married since 1994 and have been featured columnists for Officer.Com since 2007. Their articles are extremely popular and they now provide the same training and information in person throughout the United States. This dynamic team was recently featured at the at the 2010 & 2011 ILEETA Conference & Exposition.
Out of their success has come the formation of More Than A Cop where the focus is providing consultation and trainings on Survival Skills Beyond The Street.