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Columns : In My Sights

Post-Traumatic Growth

With a healthy outlook, harrowing experiences can make you stronger, not destroy you.

September 02, 2011  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author

Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship
Illustration: Sequoia Blankenship

Well, I just got back from the vet. Tough trip as it was to drop off the body of my little Cairn Terrier that died last night from cancer. I know, I know, it is just a dog, but it was my dog. The Sarge discovered a lump on our sweet little terrier shortly after our 12-year-old Greyhound had a stroke and died-just two months ago-so  it kind of feels like "piling on." I know, I know, it was just a dog, but it was my dog. I am sad but I was sadder a few months ago when they found a tumor in my dad and he died. I know, I know, he was just a dad, but he was my dad.

Each of these events causes little or large wounds to our hearts and to our spirits, and we all face them, it is just part of life. But it seems we have become a society that spends a great deal of time thinking about how bad we feel instead of actually living. I remember when Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder first came into vogue in law enforcement, right after it was "discovered" in 1980. Folks were giving classes, writing articles, and generally worrying about how bad we are supposed to feel after this or that critical incident or traumatic event.

I remember one article in a popular law enforcement magazine that described, second by second, the symptoms of PTSD you were surely going to experience after a shooting. It seemed like a dysfunctional script from "The Twilight Zone," and that's when I really got into studying this stuff.

It seems very few people actually suffer from PTSD; though everyone gets traumatized, the issue is how you deal with it. Folks in our line of work, or in similarly high-stress, high-risk ones, have had to develop attitudes and understanding about this for thousands of years.

A Roman centurion, for instance, carried a copy of "The Enchiridion" by Epictetus in his tunic throughout a campaign. This is a short little text whose theme has been co-opted by hundreds of writers and philosophers since it was written in 98 AD. Here it is: "Control the things you can, let go of the things you can't"...period. You control your aim, your desire, and your opinion; the things in your heart and your mind ... that's it.

Wow, pretty stark, right? But, then he reminds us to understand the nature of things so we can enjoy them, experience them, be rewarded by them in the time that we have. All living things die, so each day a dog is with you find joy in that moment, in that time. We all age (if we are lucky), so find joy in being able to do what you can right now, not fret about aging or what you won't be able to do tomorrow.

The nature of police work is one of great adventure, great crisis, great horror. You will see more and experience more, both good and bad, in five years on the job than the average person will in 70, so don't fear it; embrace it, accept it. It is your path.

Does this mean you're not going to suffer, not going to feel bad, not going to have trauma in your life? Of course not. But everyone suffers losses, as well as joys in life. How we react to all of these things is, in many ways, up to us to choose.

Al Seibert, PhD and author of "The Resiliency Advantage," believes life is filled with stresses, both good and bad, and each one is like an exercise for your soul. As pushups strengthen your arms and chest, stress develops your resilience, your ability to bounce back from the big and little traumas of life. He believes the popular focus on how stressful our jobs are makes the vulnerable among us more vulnerable; they fixate on how bad they feel instead of living, growing, and healing.

I challenge you to think about these things the next time you pet your dog, or hug someone you love. If they bring you joy, be thankful; if they love you, recognize the gift given to you in that moment, and keep it with you. Dr. Seibert believes if we do these things, if we live life fully and focus on what is important and not the bad, then when bad things do happen we will not have Post-Traumatic Stress, but rather Post-Traumatic Growth.

Dave Smith is the creator of "Buck Savage" and a retired law enforcement officer from Arizona. Currently, he is the lead instructor for Calibre Press' Street Survival seminar.

Comments (6)

Displaying 1 - 6 of 6

Keith Jackson @ 9/4/2011 7:42 AM

Sarge, you've done it again. Another paradigm shift for me for the better. Your article's have always hit home; this one just a little more. I retired several months back and have really began to stop and smell the roses so to speak. I miss it everyday, buy you're absolutely right; my career taught me so much about life and humanity. I know I've seen more in 20 years the average person will see their entire life. I have grown and now plan to appreciate life at a slower pace. I pray can impart my experiences and life lessons on to my children.

eltee @ 9/5/2011 8:50 AM

I am sorry about the loss of your Dad. I lost mine 8 years ago from a brain tumor. I hated that part but was thankful he didn't suffer a long time with it. He retired from LE and embraced life. I am also sorry for the loss of your dogs. They become part of our family and to lose them does hurt. You are also right on about life as it is all up to us. We see people all the time who choose to be trapped re-living the same negativity everyday continuing to focus on it. Yes, bad things happen and it is sometimes hard to get back up, dust ourselves off and move forward learning. Thanks for the reminder we can choose to look for and be reminded of the blessings and be thankful everyday.

Morning Eagle @ 9/5/2011 12:07 PM

This is an excellent article and very timely. PTSD is very real, more so for some than for others. It has not been particularly helpful in recent years for the "experts" that have never actually been there to pontificate on how one is "supposed" to feel in the aftermath of the event, especially for one that had to use deadly force. These expert shrinks successfully convinced too many that even though such force was ruled justifiable they still ought to feel guilty and remorseful and if they didn't then there was something "wrong" or inhuman about them. This can cause additional inner turbulence and confusion. Even though one knows they did what they had to do, they wonder if there really is something wrong with them for not feeling 'bad' about themselves for having done it. That can become a vicious circle and the unqualified support of family and co-workers is crucial. But the bottom line is that it is how the individual chooses to deal with the situation that will determine how long it takes to heal, or if there is anything that actually needs healing. Epictetus was absolutely right.

Russ Taylor @ 9/6/2011 5:37 AM

I'm sorry for your losses. I almost lost my wife last year during the holidays. She's recovered and doing much better now. It took me several years and a few lawenforcement casualties(divorce) to find her. Now I can't imagine how life would be without her. She makes me a better person. Your words and those of the centurion are so true. We need to learn to appreciate what we have for the short time we do and be leaders not followers and focus on the positive things life brings us. Our jobs can be negative enough as it is, lets not add to our already hefty stress loads. Take care of yourselves and those you love. Great Job! Keep up the good work.

Will G. @ 9/6/2011 8:13 AM

Great article for our population in Law Enforcement. Whether it is a professional or personal trauma, we can process it to a healthy outcome. I first heard the term "Post Traumatic Growth" at Defense Center of Excellence (DCoE) conference 4 years ago and was impressed how the military was embracing the concept of resilience. Since then I have incorporated the principles of PTSGrowth into a program for NYC cops that return to police work after one or more deployments overseas. Coupled with the work of two books . On Killing and On Combat by Ret Lt. Colonel David Grossman, the resilient nature af law enforcement and of military personell has began to emerge as a common growth for both very similar agencies. The spill over has developed a purposeful POPPA Resilirency Support Program for active and retired police . Keep up the good work and thanks for sharing your strengths.

DaveSAM25G @ 9/7/2011 2:44 AM

Mr. Dave Smith (Dave)...Wisdom-strength from within is always most valued! Sorry for your losses - it's much more than just a dog it's family- been through 12 years together...And your little Cairn Terrier was part of the puzzel of life made it whole! Thing about all the good times and memories together - a tribute perhaps?: (Times of your life- 1975 Paul Anka)...Remember LETN "The winning mind." Just finished re-reading a policemarksman article Titled "Winnin isn't everything: It's the ONLY thing by Andrew J. Casavant (The difference)..March-April 1997...Thanks for all you have done for others including me I am still listening and learning why I have two ear's and only one mouth!! You always carry in one hand and give away freely in the other native days out of AZ no doubt...:-)

God Bless Stay Safe and continue the wisdom/message!


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