For addicts, who we tend to deal with fairly often in public safety, the physical manifestation of the effects of various drugs is usually pretty easy to spot. Amphetamine and cocaine users often appear haggard and drawn-out, hyperactive or psychotic. Oxycodone and heroin users are usually sluggish and have constricted pupils. The list goes on, with each specific drug presenting with its own telltale signs and symptoms which we use to help figure out what’s going on with a particular person in order to best perform our jobs as public servants.
Many of us are addicts in our own way, too, but not necessarily in the sense that we’re abusing a drug or medicine (although far too many of us do): we become addicted to the job itself, with the highs and lows that it offers to us paving the way for our bodies to become accustomed to the stimulus it provides, and keeping us ever in search of the next great “high” that comes with a “good” call.
But there’s more to it than just being an adrenaline junkie (not a great thing to call yourself, by the way). Just as the with addicts who are our “clients” — who look to their drug as a means of escape or a coping mechanism — we can come to rely upon the concept of having a call that will go well, in order to make up for one that didn’t go well at all. We keep ourselves hooked to the supply (going to work) in order to leave open the opportunity that we’ll be there when someone really needs us, even when the reality is that we could just as easily face a complete tragedy that throws us even further into the “need” to offset things. And even when we do have those “good” calls, we often find that the effects are only temporary, and that we are once again stuck looking for that next possible call to help us feel better.
“It’s Not the Same”
Most of us believe that we are in the job to help others. For many of us, that’s true, but it’s not the whole reason why we keep coming back to something that repeatedly exposes us to the worst of humanity, day in and day out. We accept the trials and tribulations that the job brings (including the administrative headaches) because of the access that it provides us to our medication of choice: making a difference.
In the long run, however, this system of rewards can become problematic, resulting in something we see all the time in coworkers: burnout. Again, the analogy to the drug user is unfortunately an apt one, as we become unable to find a sufficient “high” without taking unnecessary risks, and so plod along in maintenance mode, searching for the little doses which keep us on the ride. We become so accustomed to those doses that even taking a vacation, for many of us, leaves us craving our return to work as opposed to “doing nothing” while on our own or with family.
The worst of this withdrawal, however, doesn’t come until we retire. Suddenly, our access to our medication is shut off completely, and we’re lumped in with the guys who “used to do the job.” No longer do we feel that we are actively making a difference, and we are left searching for something to fill the void. (The same thing is true, incidentally, for many who choose to leave the job before then.)
Is This The Real Life?
All of this underscores the need to have an outside life which provides fulfilment away from those hours behind the wheel of a cruiser, apparatus, or ambulance. In the absence of other joy in our lives, we may come to rely too much on our jobs (which ultimately owe us nothing more than a paycheck) as our source of happiness, when in reality they may not provide positive reinforcement more than once or twice a month, if we’re lucky.
The unfortunate reality is that in some ways, the Nicholas Cage quote from Scorsese’s “Bringing Out The Dead” is far more representative of what we actually do – “After a while, I grew to understand that my role was less about saving lives than about bearing witness. I was a grief mop. It was enough that I simply turned up.” If you’re traveling down the dark road we trod without some source of light, you will most likely be attracted to any source of light that exists, even if it’s not enough to truly see clearly by.
In turn, those sources of light may become your addiction, because they are the only thing you have, but I challenge all of you to be brave enough to find, and bring, your own true flashlights to bear on the role that we play, and the lives that we live, every day while out in the field. Seeing better is never harmful, in the end, and you may find that some of those things missed on the peripheral darkness are more powerful than any temporary illumination provided by the opportunity to do what we believe we signed up for in the first place.
Greg Bogosian is certified as a Reserve/Intermittent Police Officer by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, and spent twelve years working as an EMT-Basic, including four years as a field EMT and dispatcher for the City of Boston EMS. He was additionally a member of a Federal medical disaster relief team for ten years, with experience responding to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the pre-deployment of resources for Hurricane Ike. Greg currently has a passion for educating public safety professionals about matters which impact their lives every day, and welcomes feedback and suggestions in the spirit of ensuring that best practices make it out there for all to benefit from.