You Are Not Alone: We Are in This Fight Together
By Peter Femia
In 1994, I did my first “walk through” as a rookie at the Union County Jail, in Elizabeth, New Jersey. I walked onto the tier and felt the eyes of the inmates weighing heavily upon me—studying, examining and scrutinizing my appearance, my stance, or any sign of weakness or Achilles heel to exploit. I turned to look into one of their faces and our eyes locked. I could tell he wanted to see if I’d look away. I didn’t. As I came off the tier and the heavy steel door closed behind me, I heard an inmate yell, “Welcome to the Jungle!”
Twenty-four years have passed since the day I received that sarcastic greeting. Over the years I’ve gone from an eager, bright and shiny rookie, to an older, wiser, and seasoned veteran. My body is somewhat ransacked from a career spent “behind bars.” The deep wrinkles in my face and the graying of my hair read like a map of violent jail incidents from days gone by. The years pass, but the memories remain. The ever-small audible sound of pain when I rise from my chair speaks volumes about the aftereffects of the life I’ve chosen. Still, through it all, I remain vigilant, always aware those eyes are still upon me. They are younger eyes, mostly those of “Bloods” and “Crips,” and other violent gangbangers, living by their separate code. They follow the rules of a counter culture that earns more respect with each drop of blood spilled, with no blood being more highly esteemed than that of a corrections officer.
We train our bodies to prepare for the rigors of the profession. Our initial academy training and supplemental classes over the years help us to perform our duties in the manner required. But what about the psychological impact of the job we perform? What about the residue of every violent and stressful encounter we’ve endured throughout our careers? They linger, like a shadow in the corners of the subconscious.
Those of you not in Corrections may not realize how much of our duties include “acting.” Not in the sense of being a phony or someone you are not. The “acting” comes into play when you are not at your best, but you still portray the part of being completely whole. Physically, you may try not to make a nagging limp quite as pronounced. Or when a cold has you feeling like something that the cat dragged in, you carry yourself as if you are at the top of your game. But what about when you go through a traumatic incident and you are still dealing with the mental trauma left behind? Do you simply “act” like everything is OK?
The worst thing you can be, in any branch of law enforcement, is a coward. To not be there for your partner in their time of need. To put the lives of those who depend upon you in peril, due to your lack of action. The coward stigma is the scarlet letter of shame that murders and buries beneath it any honor that comes with the badge. Understanding this vital, all-consuming truth is the prevalent and most important factor in dealing with the ramifications of law enforcement stress, depression and PTSD.
This is the reason why law enforcement officers cannot ask for help. The appearance of “weakness” in the smallest of ways often serves as a chink in the armor–that crack in the dam that eventually leads to destruction. For years the “old school” attitude of “grin and bear it,” reigned supreme. The image of a tight-jawed, .44-Magnum holdin’, squint-eyed Clint Eastwood figure, unstoppable, indestructible, became a deity to be emulated. This mode of thought has directly led to massive amounts of suicide in the law enforcement community.
Many in the general public see us as “machines,” designed at the academy like parts on an assembly line. Then we are sent out like some robotic, militaristic response unit devoid of emotion, completing all the things necessary to secure public safety in a cold, efficient manner. It’s simply not the case. We are only human, despite the super heroics and events we participate in or witness. We carry with us every harsh word, every moment of danger, every fist raised in violence, every cruel or horrific act we’ve seen. If you are feeling the effects of that, then talk to someone today. Let that be a sign of your newfound strength! Overcome the stigmas of the past. Reach your hand out right now, and find that light that chases out the darkness within you.
We are in this together. We are here for each other. No officer suffering from any issues involving mental health should be alone. We can and must come together to solve the staggering problem of law enforcement suicide. All of you reading this are worth it. If you are in a state of despair or are contemplating suicide, reach out and you will find you are not alone.
Peter Femia is a 24-year veteran Corrections Officer at Union County Jail. He is a former PBA State Delegate for PBA Local #199. He is the present Charity Coordinator for the “Heroes4Heroes” program. He is the founding member of the Law Enforcement Cigar Club, “The Brotherhood Of Ash.”