Police Perspective: The impact of trauma on law enforcement spouses
Dec. 14, 2012, the day of the Sandy Hook school shooting, was very long. I did not expect my husband Mike to come home that night. After all, the police department had cots, uniforms and showers. When he did arrive home at midnight, he talked and talked until he passed out in the middle of a sentence. At 6:00 a.m., he was out the door. I offered to answer phones or email. His answer was “No, I got it covered.” I offered to make him breakfast, and the answer—which became a common phrase in our home—was “No, I got it covered.” He rarely needed me for anything.
This became the schedule: 6:00 a.m. to midnight. Mike was not available to talk on the phone, so our time was from midnight to 2:00 a.m., when he would tell me every detail of the day. Each night it was necessary for Mike to decompress, and I saw it as my job to be available, listen and do whatever he needed. He continued to fall asleep while talking. When Mike started yelling in his sleep, I could tell he was reliving the incident. This schedule lasted for about four months, and it became extremely isolating.
Many family and friends were supportive, but a lot of people couldn’t deal with the trauma. They would break down crying on the phone. Or people were afraid to call because they didn’t want to intrude. The last thing you want to do when something dramatic like this happens is dump it all on someone who can’t handle it. I relied on the people who called me to be my support system, because I didn’t dare reach out. I was isolated but at the same time saturated with the media. Newtown was on the news for three or four days straight. I couldn’t turn on the TV without seeing it.
Mike does not get upset. He is always cool, calm and collected. A few weeks after the shooting, he came home and was pacing and agitated. He was concerned that his officers might die by suicide. He expressed his concerns, and we came up with options for him to execute the next day. I listened, bringing whatever common sense I could to the conversation.
Those were the days when I would wonder, whom do you call for answers? After all, isn’t there always someone to call for help in life? When I get a flat tire, I call my dad. If my cake won’t rise, I call my mom. It’s what she would do personally, but doesn’t suggest what parents do in general. I realized there is no one to call when 20 children get killed in your town. I watched my partner struggle with these questions and no answers.
After 20 years as a hospice nurse, I understand grief and crisis. Without that experience, we probably wouldn’t still be married. Understanding the process of grief, I was able to identify a little anger this week, depression the next, bargaining, denial. Recognizing those stages allowed me to give Mike the room he needed and understand the changes that were happening.
He was suddenly in control of everything. All of a sudden, he was telling me what to do and when. It was bizarre from a man who never gave orders at home. Then I realized he needed to be in control, to maintain order. He was spending his days making rapid-fire decisions continuously for weeks.
I went to the police department the day after the event. When I got off the highway, life changed. There were officers and their town cars on every corner for the entire length of the town—hundreds of officers in a quaint country town, where they usually had no more than five officers on a shift. The police department was inundated with flowers, food and gifts—so much that they almost couldn’t do their jobs. Then I knew why Mike had everything covered: I suppose if you had 5,000 cops to call on, you’d have it covered too.
Finally in August (nine months after the shooting), Mike came home and said, “I got to something on my desk today that was on my desk before Dec. 14.” I thought to myself, “It’s August, and the trauma is finally over.”
A year after the shooting, I was mentally and emotionally not functioning, almost to the point of not getting out of bed. Even though I’m a nurse, I didn’t know about trauma—I didn’t know what trauma could do to a person or that there was such a thing as PTSD by association. I was so angry. I was mad at everyone and everything. I was depressed beyond belief, alone and isolated.
The first anniversary was a turning point. The media stayed away, and I realized it was going to start simmering down. I realized it was not my job to take care of Mike any longer. So I went online and searched “law enforcement spouses and trauma.” I found a treatment center called the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat in California. They had a week-long spouses’ treatment program a couple of times a year.
I called them but expected them to turn me down because Newtown was such a large incident—I didn’t want my trauma to overshadow someone else’s. Instead, they interviewed me on the phone and said, “It sounds like you could use our help. Come on out.” They taught me that the trauma actually changes your brain—you can see it on an MRI. In addition to five full days of intervention and counseling, they did a physical treatment on me called eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). It’s designed to reduce the emotion that goes with the thoughts about the traumatic experience. It was extremely effective.
The treatment was necessary, and it changed my life. I absolutely came back a new woman, and I got better and better after treatment. Today, we’re good.
I think education is so important. If an incident like this affects the officer, it affects the family. They may never talk about it, but it’s still happening. In some ways, I was lucky—many people react to trauma with alcohol abuse and out of control behavior that creates chaos. That did not happen to my officer.
When a trauma occurs, alcohol abuse, depression and chaotic behaviors can be symptoms of PTSD. Whether the officer or the family member displays symptoms, you need to know what it looks like and that it is a physical injury. There is treatment. You can and must do something about it.
Lori Kehoe, RN, is a former hospice nurse and advocate for her adult son with special needs. She is also the wife of Michael Kehoe, the retired chief of police who oversaw the law enforcement response to the 2012 Sandy Hook school shooting in Newtown, Conn.