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Cop: Let’s talk about the mental health of female vets and first responders (because nobody else will)

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Rebecca Hendrix is from Stigler, Oklahoma.  She is a retired police officer who worked 20 years in law enforcement – 17 as a police officer with 4 years as a civilian military contractor. 

Let’s Talk about the Mental Health of Female Veterans and First Responders.

Why? Because no one does.

There are multiple programs for male veterans and first responders and there are even programs geared towards their spouses, but there aren’t really any that are aimed at helping the female warrior herself.

Why is that?

Mental health has become an important topic over the last few years, but when it comes to law enforcement or the military all the help seems to go to the men – and there’s even still a stigma attached to that.

You work this high risk job so you are supposed to be able to handle anything that they throw at you. I feel like when you are a female you are expected to have an even higher stress tolerance than the men.

Why? Because, let’s be honest, woman handle life differently and usually with more grace. They have learned to work with the hand that was dealt and when a curveball is thrown at them they adapt and overcome and usually do it so that you would never even know something was wrong.

Women train themselves to keep going regardless of the cost to their mental health. We take the punches and just roll with them – but there is only so much a person can handle.

From my experience, when it comes to women, most of us who go into law enforcement or the military will already have a pretty heavy baggage load of trauma we are carrying around.

Most of the women I’ve known who go into these lines of work are women who had a bad childhood, bad experiences and are in it to make changes and help those who are like them and couldn’t help themselves.

No, that may not always be the case – but it’s the majority. I’ve seen it in so many women but I can only speak for myself as they have their own stories to tell.

I want to normalize healing for women who have PTS (Post Traumatic Stress), also known as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), women who have been through some stuff and back.

We should be able to talk about it, we should be able to speak up and advocate for ourselves without the stigma attached to it. I believe that PTSD is mislabeled. I call it PTS, instead of PTSD because I don’t believe it should be labeled as a disorder.

That adds to the stigma and when you tell people that they have a disorder it makes them less likely to reach out for help, when it reality it’s not a disorder at all. It’s a normal part of life. More and more organizations are dropping the word disorder and just calling it PTS.

Most men who come home from overseas deployments, especially combat zones come home with PTS of some sort. Most woman already have an overflowing baggage of PTS before they ever get there and they may not even realize it.

Most of it being stuff from childhood they never fully dealt with.

While they may deal with it in small doses, each new thing just gets packed away and compartmentalized on top of the others. While you are pushing those down, you may let feelings escape momentarily of things that are in the box but you deal with them briefly and then back in the box they go.

At some point that box is going to rupture and you are going to need to deal with the trauma. The problem is that most people feel like when they start talking about it they are going to lose their jobs or be labeled so the cycle continues and often leads to even bigger mental health problems and at the worst suicide because it all became too much.

I’ve struggled with depression and suicidal ideation for years. Most people never would never know just how much life in general for me is a constant battle.

My very first childhood memory is of my dad pointing a gun at me, and no, I’m not overreacting. I was about 3 years old, maybe younger and my parents were fighting as they always did, I was in bed and my mother came to lie in the bed with me. When she did, he followed and aimed a pistol at me laying in bed.

My dad was an abusive alcoholic all my life. My mom was a drug addict and these things were just a normal part of life for me. I didn’t know it was wrong. Being used as a pawn between my parents was normal to me because that was all I knew. My brain compartmentalized it all and put that in my “box”  of stuff to deal with later in life.

Seeing my parents hit each other and destroy each other was a big part of my childhood.

I remember one time my dad and his brother having a falling out that included beating each other half to death with crow bars and baseball bats. That was the first time I was introduced to law enforcement, I got to know most of the officers in the county on a first name basis over the course of my childhood.

All of these little things continue to add up as they are piling in to that box of stuff you still don’t know how to handle.

As you start to grow up you begin to realize that most of this stuff isn’t normal but since you didn’t know any better you think you will be ok.

I never felt like I was good at anything. I never felt good enough for anyone. Including my parents. I felt like a pawn in their war against each other so because of that I acted out and as I ventured into my early teens I was looking for acceptance and “love” and it didn’t really matter what form.

My mom went to prison for drug trafficking when I was 14, I had just moved in with her and lived by myself in a party house for 2 weeks before I was forced to go back to my dad and grandma.

My grandmother raised me but she had a hand in my self doubts and low self esteem as well. She would often compare me to another cousin my age and tell me that she was going to go places, and I was not. I wasn’t good enough.

By the time I was 18, I had slept with 17 men and had had 2 miscarriages. I lost my virginity at 13, just 3 days before my 14th birthday in the middle of a hay field to a 17 year old who I thought I was head over heels in love with.

I was wrong of course, but at that age I was always looking for an out, always looking for someone who would accept me as me. Small breast, cankles and all.

I can still remember some of those insults. Boys were mean but those boys were my escape from the hell I lived in and I used sex as an escape to my problems.

I was always looking for the one who would love me back so of course I over-loved and always ended up alone. The truth was, I didn’t have a clue what real love was.

I started working as a sheriff’s department dispatcher when I was 18. Shortly after I got pregnant and married and then pregnant again. I had 2 babies under 2 and a husband that was cheating on me every time he got the chance.

It wasn’t long before I  started learning what it was like to work with all men and be an attractive female in law enforcement. People start talking and rumors spread whether you did anything or not. I learned early on that it’s a hard job for females and the longer you are in it the harder it gets.

It didn’t help that women officers weren’t really a thing where I came from. We were few and far between.

At 21 years old I was finally old enough to go through an academy and be a police officer. Between my childhood and my years of dispatch, I wanted to make a difference in peoples lives.

I was sent through a reserve academy with a small city department after being fired from the sheriff’s office due to a State Trooper telling the sheriff that I had been texting him.

What the trooper failed to mention was that he had started those conversations and then got caught by his girlfriend that I wasn’t aware of and it got him in trouble.

I loved my new department though, I graduated reserve school and my very first night on patrol I had to pull my gun on a drunk guy with a knife. Fun times.

What made that so comical and why it sticks with me in my mind was that it was a brand new level 3, glossy leather holster that was way to snug around my gun and wasn’t broke in or adjusted correctly yet.

At the graduation I was struggling getting my gun out of the holster so when I had to pull it that night I was shocked and thankful it worked when I needed it most.

Even though that doesn’t sound like a traumatic event pulling a gun on someone is not a small thing. Eighteen years later, I can still see his face. I didn’t have to shoot anyone that night and fixed my holster as soon as I got home but that was the first night of my career and I didn’t know it at the time but it was going to be a long road ahead.

That same year, I started having panic attacks and didn’t have any idea of what they were, but they resurfaced several years later in Iraq. I loved being an officer and I wanted to do it full time.

That was always my dream. I went to work for another, larger sheriff’s department where reserve units had their own patrol cars that they could take home. I was supposed to be in line for the next full time position that would send me to the full time academy.

What I didn’t know was that my Patrol Captain had other plans. We went out as friends one night and I had gotten a little intoxicated. On the way back to my house, he was telling me that if I kept hanging out with him, he would get me one of the newer patrol cars to use.

When he dropped me off at my house that night he pushed me against his truck and tried to force himself on me. He was a big guy but I pushed him off of me and told him no. The next day, I no longer had a patrol car and he had told the sheriff I wasn’t interested in going to the academy so I was pulled from it.

Everything happens for a reason though, right? The fact that I used sex as a way of making myself feel worthy of myself didn’t mean that I was going to use it to get ahead in my career. I wasn’t that person.

I had seen other female officers do that and it got them nothing in the long run but a bad reputation and that wasn’t what I wanted. I wanted to earn my place and I knew I eventually would. I never slept my way anywhere contrary to some of the rumors.

Are you seeing a pattern of all these little things adding up and being pushed down into that “box” of all these other little things? Eventually it’s going to blow up but I wasn’t there yet, or at least I didn’t think I was. Those panic attacks were my box overflowing but I was still under the assumption that this was normal. This was how you had to prove yourself as a female officer.

When I went to Iraq as a civilian contractor it was a whole different ballgame but it was still the same rules. Military and law enforcement go hand in hand when it comes to the way the female is the minority and the way we can’t talk about the stuff that really needs to be talked about.

I left Iraq with PTS, but what I didn’t realize was that I already had it before I ever got there.

Once I started dealing with the big stuff in Iraq, like almost being blown up, being shot at, almost being kidnapped, being deported among many other things it all triggered those little things from my childhood that weren’t such little things after all but I still didn’t know how to deal with them.

I’m not sure why I ever thought my dad shooting at my car while I was driving down the road was normal but hey, it was what it was.

I left Iraq with a new sense of self. All those years of being told by my dad and my grandma that I would never be good enough were behind me and I finally felt like I was somebody who deserved to have a good life.

I went home and became a full time deputy with the first department I had ever worked for. Someone finally took a chance on me. I was home. I loved it. I was finally fulfilling my dream of being able to help people full time. I was ready to be the person I needed as a child.

My second night as a deputy I worked a murder/suicide and it was brutal. Those images don’t ever go away.

There are nights where every dead body I’ve ever seen flashes through my dreams and believe me there’s been a lot of them. I can still hear one guy begging me to save him as he died in my arms on the side of the highway after a horrific car wreck.

It wasn’t all bad though, even good things can stick with you. There are things that can cause happiness and sadness at the same time. I also remember the faces of those I helped along the way, adults and children alike.

I remember Skyler, a young boy that died from cancer. That boy was my hero, even more so now while I deal with my own cancer diagnosis. All he ever wanted was to grow up and be an officer.

He died young but I got to make his dreams come true by allowing him to ride in a patrol car and play with the lights and sirens.  Those are the moments that make the job worth it, being what he needed in that moment. His smile and laughter is something I’ll never forget.

There are things we do in this job that may seem like small things to us but are huge to others. We make an impact on peoples lives without even trying. Those are the things we need to focus on, they are why we do this job. Getting justice for those who can’t help themselves.

One of my best friends lost his son in a very brutal homicide. Our families were close and his son was also a good friend of my children. I didn’t work the case but I stayed close to it and when the time came to make an arrest I got to be there and I placed my pink handcuffs on this evil monster for my friend.

It was something so small but recently he told me that the fact I did that meant the word to him and it was something that stuck with him. Most of the time we never really know the impact we have on the people we are called to help.

I’m medically retired now but all through my career there have been challenges and trauma and things that would trigger PTS, and I mean real triggers, not someone winning an election that I didn’t like and needing a safe space.

I’m talking real, dirty, trauma. I’m talking getting raped by a male supervisor and then them threatening to kill you, but having to go to work and act like it didn’t happen the very next day. I’m talking getting shot at, in my case, not just in Iraq or as an officer but also by my own dad.

We need to start making these things normal to talk about. We shouldn’t jeopardize someone’s career because they need help. It’s our job to help others but how are we supposed to do that if we can’t help ourselves?

How do we normalize this? While this snippet of my story is mine and mine alone, can you imagine how many other women have their own stories they are scared to tell?

We need programs where women warriors can go to get the help we need and not feel like we are lacking because we aren’t the spouse of the warrior…WE ARE THE WARRIOR!

It took me going to a few faith-based programs geared towards the men and their spouses for me to learn how to handle my trauma. Don’t get me wrong, those programs changed my life.

The problem is that while the men’s programs are geared towards them and the battles they have faced, both in combat and on the street, teaching them how to be a God-fearing Christian man and husband the women’s programs are focused on how to help your warrior husband and be a good Christian woman to the broken man.

I agree whole heartedly that combat veterans wives need that program. I’m not arguing that at all, but what I will argue is that the women who are the warrior need different things. They need the same program as the men. They need somewhere where they can deal with their own battles, both in combat and on the street.

Women warriors are often just as broken as the men – if not more so.

The programs I went to absolutely saved my life and taught me a lot about PTS. I probably wouldn’t be alive without them. It’s where I learned that my PTS didn’t come from my deployments, it came from all of those things I had stuffed into that “box” that I never learned how to deal with.

There should be more programs out there to help first responders, both men and women. Departments should do more to help those in need.

Large departments have peer support programs and the military has help for those seek it out but because of the stigma attached to mental health most people won’t go for help within their own organizations because years ago it was taught that if you had mental trauma you were messed up and weren’t fit to do your job.

We need to do better. We need to change the outlook surrounding mental health and PTS. We need more programs geared towards the needs of both men and woman. We need more training on crisis intervention because more and more we are called to help our own coworkers and not just the public. The most important thing we can do is normalize reaching out and helping your peers and we need to learn that it’s ok to not be ok.

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