By the end of my year’s placement working for the Denver Police Department I was ready to hand in that pager and radio for good. It wasn’t that the intensity of my experiences was getting to be too much; it was more that a job like that ends up slowly corroding away those useful fictions—that you are safe, that life can be trusted—I mentioned previously.
I didn’t look at people the same. Instead of seeing strangers doing this or doing that, looking around my mind wondered quietly if what I was seeing was someone whose life was soon to be upended. My normally positive outlook was dipping in the direction of overly fateful. Even just driving became a haunted experience, those veritable threats leaning closer in on me now, less in my peripheral vision and more in the line of sight. My mind came to unconsciously scan the environment for settings similar to those in which I knew strangers had been hurt or died. Things now were just generally darker. I wasn’t digging that.
Which isn’t to say there weren’t elements in place that served to make the job doable along the way. I can’t precisely recall, but I think I only had 2 shifts per week. And it wasn’t like every shift involved some hairy ordeal. Maybe half of them involved some action, and of those, in many situations you showed up to provide support but the individuals involved didn’t end up needing much from you. When you were needed, it was heavy lifting. That you weren’t needed all that much, I guess you could say I got paid a lot for putting up with the tension of the possible (and for jumping at anything that sounded like a pager going off).
Perhaps the most helpful aspect of the program was what happened after any instance of intense work. In those situations, the expectation was that you would reach out to other crisis interventionists, find one that was available, and do a debrief discussion with them as soon as possible. This often meant meeting at a coffee shop somewhere and telling them the blow by blow of your experience. They’d ask you in particular to talk about moments when you didn’t know what to do, moments when you perhaps felt scared, or threatened even. Moments you felt helpless, those when you felt like what you did didn’t seem to help at all. As much as I may have wanted to just go home and crawl into—wait, under—my bed, I knew these discussions were a crucial flushing away of the intensity I’d just taken on that would not be good to carry forward.
Obviously the flushings were never complete, and across a year you took on enough to feel it. That you knew it was just going to be a year helped as well.
But cops, and EMTs, they don’t walk away of course after just a year. I ended up wondering a lot what it takes to stay in that space for years on end. I do respect the hell out of them for doing it. And I wonder what it is they must give up, or seal off, inside in order to do so.