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First off, and right up front, I am no so-called fitness or mental health expert. I'm just going to tell you what it is that I have discovered over the years by trials and tribulations. We all know, because studies have shown us as well as the experts telling us, that diets don't work. And what do they do next? They try to sell us on THEIR diet/weight loss plan! Counting this, or adding that, you shouldn't eat this or you should eat that. What is that all about? I have a hard enough time counting as it is without having to take my shoes off as well as my wife's! I will agree on one thing with them though: it is a change in life style that works.
Once upon a time (or as they say in the South, y'all check this out!) I couldn't go out to a club with my friends because they were afraid that if they set their drink down without looking I might walk away with it balanced on my rear end and not even know it. I have worked as a Correctional Officer or as a Police Officer Since 1994 (and for 7 years doing both at the same time) and have realized, as many of us in this profession has, that we need to stay in some type of physical shape in order to do our job. And no, although round is a shape, it's not the one we're looking for here. At some point in our lives we have an epiphany that changes who were are. Some times for the better and some times for the worse. Mine occurred in late 2003.
While working as a Correctional Supervisor at a newly opened prison (approximately 2 months by the time this happened), I responded to a fight in progress at the farthest housing unit at our facility along with 4 other staff members. Now to give you an idea of how far I had to run, from where I was located in the main building to the building we were responding to was approximately 400 yards. I was the first one to get to the outer door to the building. As the door opened up, I held it for all the other responders, not because I was trying to be helpful, but because I couldn't breathe. I was gasping for breath and was totally useless at that point in time. My first thought was a huge reality check: What if it was another officer that was being assaulted and I couldn't do anything about it? That's when I finally got off my lazy rear end and started doing something about the way that I looked.
Motivation to exercise had never really been there for me. Then again, its not really there for many of us to begin with. Of course I thought about going to the gym, or maybe running or anything else that the fitness guru's want us to do. I thought about this all the time, while sitting on my couch eating potato chips or ice cream (there's nothing better than Ben & Jerry's on those depressing days!) I'd stuff myself full of food until I had to undo my pants and get a little extra room in there. Now that I had made my mind up that I needed to do something, I just had to figure out what to do and where to start.
LET THE CHANGE BEGIN!
My great-grandfather was always rail thin. When he passed away in 1986, 6 months shy of turning 100, he was walking almost 1/2 mile every day. I'd watch his plate when my great-grandmother would give it to him and it would not even be 1/2 full. I thought he was nuts for not eating. By the time that he was done eating, he still had food left over on his plate. One day I asked him why he didn't eat everything on his plate (geez, I had to!). He taught me the most important lesson that I had ever learned and I didn't even know it: "Bryan, I eat until I'm not hungry anymore, just not until I'm full." At first I thought he was crazy but after that pint of ice cream in late 2003 it all made sense. Starting the now I'd do what he did.
Now, like many of us that have ever had a membership to the gym, it is completely useless unless you go. Well, remember how I said that the motivation to exercise had never really been there for me? Well it still wasn't there for me. I knew that getting the membership was going to be worthless since I would not be going. Not just because of the lack of motivation, but because of my work schedule. I was working not just as a Correctional Supervisor, but also as a Police Officer on my days off. Add into that a wife and two kids and I just couldn't find the time. I did the next best thing I could think of. I started to not wear my jacket while I was at work. Keep two things in mind: 1) I'm living in Vermont and 2) its winter. Yep, froze my two brain cells off.
As a supervisor, I was required to go check on every housing unit that we had at the facility. At this facility, there were a total of 4 building total that were spread apart. I'd get to work, hang my jacket up and then take the LONG way around checking every housing area. Needless to say, when its 15 degrees outside and the wind is blowing, its COLD. Since I was not raised in this kind of weather, I found myself walking faster getting from point A to point B. Or more precisely, from point A to point D, then B, then C then back to A. I saw that the faster I walked, the faster I'd be warm again when entering the next building. My legs would start to burn from the exercise I never really had and before I knew it, I had lost 45 lbs and gone down from a 42" to a 34" waist. I could breathe again after running.
Now what was I eating to help me get there? Anything I wanted. I have been on diets before and they never worked for me. For me, I always noticed that when I couldn't have something I wanted it even more. And when I did have it, I'd overindulge. They say that 85-97% of all diets fail. It's no wonder, you have to cut out the things you enjoy! No more pasta, mashed potatoes, cake, chocolate, ice cream, etc. Let me tell you something, you tell me I can't have my ice cream, chocolate or cake and I will slap you faster than an OB-GYN with a newborn at childbirth. Those are fighting words my friend. What I did do was moderate myself. I learned the following things: Hershey kisses are individually wrapped; cake comes in smaller sizes than a half pan; and that God invented the ice cream scoop for a reason.
Exercise is important at every stage in this change. Minor every day changes make all the difference. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. Walk the extra 15 parking spots when you go shopping (ever notice the person that's waiting for that car to pull out of the #2 spot is still there when you walk into the store and you parked farther away?) The key to exercise that I have found is doing something that you enjoy doing. More importantly, something that you WILL do again! You have to walk, don't you? You can't go wrong.
Now that the body is better...
Now that my physical well being was taken care of, I needed to get my mental well being taken care of also. Most of us in the Law Enforcement/Corrections know that our divorce rates are far higher than anyone else. No one knows this better than our families. We go to work, have a bad day, come home and snap and the spouse and kids. We refuse to talk to our spouse. We start to distance ourselves. At first you ask us how are day was and we make the fatal mistake to tell you when we've had a bad day. We sometimes don't realize how much you worry about us when we are at work until it is too late. We start to spend more time with people at work because they understand what we are going through. It's not that you don't want to understand, it's just that the things that we go through and see would make your gag reflex go into high gear and force you to run to the bathroom.
You don't want to know that a fellow officer was injured. Or that we were assaulted. Or how close we came to see our final moments on this Earth. You just want to know that we made it home, and more importantly, alive. Due to our inability to communicate effectively with you, aka talk, you start to distance yourselves from us. And so the pattern begins...
The elderly couples that I have spoken with over the years have all told me the same thing: You have to talk if it's going to work. All the divorced officers that I have spoken with have all told me the same thing: they stopped talking and grew apart. There's an old saying that goes "If you don't take care of what you have at home, someone else will." As human beings, we need companionship. Someone that makes us feel needed and wanted. When we don't find it at home, we will find it somewhere else. Not just the officer, but the spouse as well. Who's to blame for this? We are...
Now back to the story...
I was going through a really rough time at work, and at home. I found myself working more and more hours on a daily basis, not because I didn't want to go home, but because we needed the money. My wife believed in a dual income family (that's why I had 2 jobs) and she worked also. I wouldn't talk about anything going on. I kept things bottled up. Things that I had no control over were taking over my life. The stress was starting to become unbearable. I did everything that I could to make it go away. It is now 2006 and I was having a hard time finding reasons to live (that's how bad the stress was and it almost won). I moved from Vermont in an effort to save my marriage (I knew it was a lost cause but we were moving closer to my family also and needed an exit strategy anyway- hey 8 hours away is better than 3 days). I can't blame her for everything that happened. I was just as guilty when it came to the communication. And I needed to find ways to cope with stress.
I had never really realized what I had lost throughout all those years. So many days that I didn't see my daughters. So many things I didn't do: put them to bed at night, be there for soccer or softball games, or recitals. So many things that I can't take back or make up for. So now I had another lesson to learn: how to take care of myself mentally.
First lesson learned: You can't do anything about the past. Learn from it and don't make that mistake again, and more importantly, don't let it consume you (stress loves it!)
If you can do something about it, and chose to do it, do it. If it didn't work, try something else. If that still fails,its OK to complain about it.
If you can do something about it, and chose not to, don't bother to complain because you are part of the problem, not the solution.
If you can't do anything about it, LET IT GO! Why let it take over your life if there is nothing you can do to change it? Don't let the stress get to you.
Now that I had learned these lessons the hard way, I was starting to feel much better about myself. It didn't matter that I had had a successful career. My self esteem had been in the gutter and had drowned 3 times over. Not any more. Once my marriage had finally ended I was able to take a step back and see that things were, for the most part, not as bad as I thought they were for me. Oh, my marriage WAS that bad, but me personally? No. She might have been a good woman, but she wasn't a good woman for me. In our profession we find ourselves using different coping mechanisms, both good and bad.
Lets start with the bad ones:
1. We turn to self destructive behavior. Have you ever had such a bad day at work that you say to yourself "I need a drink!"? We all have (OK, most of us have said it). The difference is whether we have that drink or we choose not to. And if we do, how many do we have? If one turns into either a fifth or a 12-pack, that's not good.
2. Others resort to drug use. Although some go with the "hard stuff," others go with the pain killers. Pill poppers. Medicine cabinet raiders. We fail to realize that stress, although mental, does have some serious physical effects: Chronic pain, high blood pressure, heart disease, just to name a few. Does it make sense that if you are in chronic pain you may go to the doctor and they might prescribe a muscle relaxant? Of course it does. But use can lead to misuse and abuse.
3. We take our frustration out with our families.
4. We choose not to talk therefore starting a downward spiral that is almost impossible to escape from if we don't correct it as soon as it starts.
5. We become involved in self destructive behavior at work. We sabotage other people's work. We become involved in the rumor mill (some people ARE the rumor mill).
6. We call in sick to work therefore forcing others to pick up our work load, which in turn causes them to call in sick.
Now for the good ones:
1. We learn to communicate (go figure!)
2. If you are too tired in the morning (or your "morning" for you graveyard folks) when you get up, go to bed 30 minutes earlier. See if that helps.It may just do the trick.
3. Have a routine every night. Doesn't matter if its watching TV, reading a book, listening to the radio, doing a hobby. Its whatever you want that relaxes you! And no, the bottle doesn't count.
4. Become involved in community activities. You would be surprised how much this can help some people. Not just about giving back to the community, but the feeling you get when you have done something for someone else.
5. Exercise! Even though most of us hate the idea of working out, ask someone who does how they feel after they do. They will tell you that they feel great!
6. Find a hobby that you enjoy doing. It doesn't have to cost money for you to enjoy it.
7. LAUGH! The old saying that laughter is the best medicine is so true! Have you never noticed how good you feel when you have laughed so hard you had to go to the bathroom? Exactly my point.
This is one topic of conversation that has been around for years and has been discussed even more. Yet somehow we still can't escape it's grasp. In order for the body to be healthy, the mind must also be healthy. We must learn to communicate. Not just talk, but COMMUNICATE. Listening is the biggest area that we fail in. We have to make the conscience decision to stop talking and start listening if we want to succeed. I learned it the hard way, just as others have. I can only hope that you don't have to.
PS: We may not always show it or say it, but believe me when I tell you that you are the reason why we get up in the morning and come home at night. You are the pillar of our strength when we feel like we have nothing left in us. We may not say that we are hurting inside, but we are. Sometimes terribly. We may seem cold at times, but its not you. Its what we have to see and deal with daily. And finally, and if we haven't said it recently, or enough, WE LOVE YOU!
Bryan Avila started working as a Police Officer in 1994 while attending Norwich University in Northfield, VT. In 1999 he began working for the Vermont Dept of Corrections while still working as a Part-Time Police Officer. In 2007 he left public service until 2009 when he began working for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. He is currently a Correctional Training Instructor- Sergeant of Correctional Officers, at the TDCJ Region I Training Academy located in Huntsville, TX. He is also the owner of Dydrostorm Sales ( http://www.dydrostorm.com/ )