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Home as a sanctuary: The importance of home to a first responder

As a first responder, it’s easy to get disconnected from home and family; make your home a sanctuary and be present for your loved ones

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Mug with hot tea standing on a chair with woolen blanket in a cozy living room with fireplace.

Your home should be a place of respite from the job and the stressors you encounter.

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A house is not a home.
Home is where the heart is.
Home is what you make of it.
Home, sweet home.

We have all heard these sayings repeatedly, but how many of us have stopped to think about them and what they mean? More importantly, have you thought about what your home means to you and your family?

Is your home merely a place to eat, sleep and change for the next shift, or is it a place where you can truly disconnect from the job? Have your work life and home life become so enmeshed that you really cannot separate them from one another?

As a first responder, you may all too often find yourself checked out at home, not wanting to be bothered by anything having to do with your spouse or kids. You may even think of this disconnection as a necessary thing — a positive step to protect your loved ones from the stress you bring home from the job. But what impact does that have on your relationships, your career and your overall life satisfaction?

Haven or hotel?

When I talk about the home as a sanctuary, it should be just that — a place of respite from the job and the stressors you encounter. Your home must be a sanctuary for peace. It must represent a place that you genuinely want to return to at the end of your shift. Your home and the people there must be your haven to disconnect from your shift and reconnect with those who mean the most to you.

Regardless of your rank, the bottom line is that your job is just that — a job. At the end of a 20- or 25- or 30-year career, who is going to be taking care of you in your senior years? News flash: It won’t be your department. If you keep your priorities straight, it will be your family and those closest to you.

Now, I am not saying that you should not be dedicated to your job, but like anything else, you must set limits. You must embrace moderation in your life, whether that be eating, drinking, or yes, working. Many of you may be grabbing all the overtime that you can, but at what expense? You are making great money, but if you are exhausted all the time, disconnected from those you love, and using your home just for a crash pad, well then what is the use of all those extra earnings?

The overtime treadmill

If you’ve fallen into this mindset, your home is not a haven — it is a hotel to come and go from, and the people you live with might as well be other guests at that hotel. You are not enjoying your life, and your family is not getting the best of you. Rather, you are chasing the proverbial dragon, working non-stop to make more money so you can reward yourself with things to make you feel better because you’re working all the time and “deserve a fancy such-and-such.” Or you’re guilt-buying things and experiences for your family to compensate for not being there with them. So, you work more, and pay more bills, and so on and so on. You are living to work, not working to live.

If you’re finding yourself on this hamster wheel of work-life imbalance, the time is now to stop for a moment and truly take stock of why you’re working so much.

Work as smoke-screen

It’s all too common for first responders to fall into the overtime trap and find they actually enjoy the extra time away from their family. Officers may use their work schedule as a reason to avoid going home as well as remaining disconnected from loved ones. The job becomes the perfect excuse for avoiding dealing with relationship issues.

Some common excuses include: “I can’t deal with this now,” “I have to go back to work,” “I’m working late,” and “We’ll talk about this later.” Somewhere along the way, the lines of communication with one’s spouse have broken down. Maybe the marriage has been in trouble for quite some time, and the couple has been staying together for the kids. Whatever the case may be, spouses in situations like this are like two ships passing in the night. They are going through the motions of the day, of the relationship, of the marriage, but neither one is fully invested as they once were. Sadly, this may open the door to emotional as well as physical affairs.

Over the years, this feeling of disconnection can go from being a minor snag to a major rip — a rip that may become too large to fix. Case in point: I have seen several officers fall into this mindset where they put work above everything else. This is the perfect recipe for divorce, obviously, and we have all seen the scenario play out far too often. The first responder comes home, takes a shower, eats a meal (usually without the family), and then retreats to the basement, den, garage, or other secluded space within the home. This goes on day after day, and the family begins to live their life around the officer. They stop inviting them to go out to dinner, to come to a game, to be a part of the family until one day the spouse says, “I’m done … I don’t want to live my life this way anymore.”

Relationship life support

Honestly, who could blame a spouse for wanting their spouse engaged and active in their life? What is the point of marriage if it is no longer a partnership? Who can blame them for wanting that individual to be a parent and not just a provider?

Keep in mind that your spouse may become jealous of your work partners who get to spend more time with you as well as share meals with you. Fortunately, some officers realize what is happening and make changes to save their marriages and relationships with their children. Some also seek out counseling — sooner, rather than later — and have rescued their marriages before it was too late.

If your job has taken over your life, I want you to think about why that is. Is it truly because of understaffing or is your job a convenient scapegoat to avoid dealing with your personal life? If you were to cut back on overtime and reevaluate your expenses, what else can you do right now to be a better husband or wife, a more involved parent?

The spouse connection

Let’s start with your spouse. You need to connect with them, and I mean really connect. You must have an open line of communication that you both agree to and use. Many spouses want to know how your day went. Always saying “I don’t want to talk about it” is a cop-out (no pun intended). You must agree to talk about your feelings and emotions. It doesn’t have to be a graphic play-by-play of every call, but you must be willing to say, “It was a hard day,” or “I had a rough shift.” You need to be brave enough to ask your partner, “Look, I could really use a hug” or “Please, just sit with me on the couch for a while.”

There is nothing wrong with needing 30 minutes to yourself to decompress and clean up after work, but you cannot remain disconnected from your loved ones all night. You and your spouse also need to dedicate time to enjoying each other’s company, whether that means an actual date night, watching a movie together, hiking, cooking together, or whatever works for you. You must find ways to separate your job from your personal life to help foster connection and enjoyment at home. You need to learn to be in the moment and leave work at work.

When the uniform comes off, that’s when you leave the job behind and you go into “home mode.” Also, consider how your home space makes you feel when you return from work. Is it welcoming or is it drab and in need of some paint and brightening up? Here is yet another project that you and your spouse can work on together as a couple. Share your ideas, express your thoughts and design something that works for both of you to have a relaxing haven.

Being there for the kids

Your children need their mom or dad in their lives, especially with all the negativity children are subjected to in the media. If you make promises to be there, you need to be there, barring a genuine emergency at work. When you come home, your kids need to feel like they are the most important thing to you at that moment.

Sadly, just as your spouse will get used to you not being there, your children will grow accustomed to it as well. They will see that you are putting your job above everything else, including them. Think about what this does to your relationship with them. Think about what you are modeling to them about how married couples behave toward one another. Your unavailability speaks volumes as to what comes first, and chasing overtime and being distant at home confirms that your number-one priority is not them.

Family game nights, family movie nights, family trips and family routines can make all the difference. I don’t expect busy families to enjoy meals together seven days a week, but trying for three to four times per week is a good place to start. Even on the busiest week, take the family out for ice cream or another treat just to maintain that connection. Most importantly, be available to your kids when they need you for advice. Be their shoulder to cry on, quick with a hug or a kind word. These are years you will not get back, and remember: They will be the ones taking care of you when you’re older — not your department.

Home as a sanctuary

So, if you are struggling in your relationships, if you feel disconnected from your personal life, if your home is not a place where you feel comfortable, consider reevaluating where you are putting all your time and energy. Commit to making your home your safe haven, your sanctuary, while finding the balance that works to give those closest to you the best of you.

Until next time, stay safe.

Nicholas Greco IV, MS, BCETS, CATSM, FAAETS, is president and founder of C3 Education and Research, Inc. Nick has over 25 years of experience training civilians and law enforcement. He has directed, managed and presented on over 550 training programs globally across various topics including depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, verbal de-escalation techniques, post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout and vicarious traumatization. Nick has authored over 325 book reviews and has authored or co-authored over 35 articles in psychiatry and psychology.

He is a subject matter expert for Police1/Lexipol and Calibre Press, as well as a CIT instructor for the Chicago Police Department, CIT Coordinator and Lead CIT Trainer for the Lake County Sheriff’s CIT Program as well as other agencies. Nick is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), IACP, IPSA, LETOA and CIT International, Committee Chair for the IPSA Mental Health Committee, and a member of the Wellness support team for Survivors of Blue Suicide (SBS).