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4 strategies to become the supportive family member your loved ones need

Families can offer the essential support and understanding needed to navigate this challenging profession, but only if you let them

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By Cory McLaughlin

The heavy clank and jingle of a Folger Adams keyring echo down the hallway, followed by the familiar sensation of the key sliding into the lock. Each door opens into a different life, one hidden from society. Here, you are not a doting spouse or loving parent — you are a stoic keeper of the shadows so that everyone else can stand in the light.

Corrections is a unique job, intentionally hidden from view. Walls, locks, razor wire, and towers keep what lies within contained, but they also repel the light, keeping everything in and out.

Violence, or its threat, is a constant presence for corrections employees. If you do this job long enough, violence will become a reality. These are the shadows that can envelop you.

For many of us spending so much time in the dark, the light can start to become less attractive. You grow accustomed to those things you see in the shadows and with each new day it becomes more difficult to switch roles. Open, close, open, close…each transformation chips away at you. Over time, the locks, walls and bars start to affect all areas of your life, including your relationships. The patient and kind person you once were can feel trapped inside those walls, even at home.

For corrections professionals, this is the toll of moving from shadows to light. High levels of domestic strife, depression and other issues are common, but they don’t have to be. Families can provide the support and understanding needed to navigate this challenging profession. With their help, you can stay connected to the light. Here are four strategies to become the supportive family member your loved ones need:

1. Communicate

You don’t have to succumb to this cycle of silence that has befallen so many others and taken so much. I believe the first defense against this is to do exactly the opposite of what you want to do: talk about it. Talk about all the things you have bottled up and know that the people who love you want to keep you. They need you, and they will listen to you. You also need them. While they can’t be on the tier with you, can’t smell the pepper spray, or hear the ratchet of the cuffs, they can listen to you. Hearing the sadness, anger, concern, and emotion in your voice can at least let them share in understanding what you saw or had to do. Sure, you can spare some details, but you need to talk because they need to know just as badly as you need to unload. Take those keys off your belt, open that mental lock, and let them in.

2. Get physical

No, I am not going to preach to you about the gym or cold plunges, though I believe those are immensely helpful. What I mean is to go do something hard, something physical, something that will challenge you. There is power in struggle, and while we face this mental struggle, it can be hard to find something tangible to relate it to. So, move that rock, hike that hill, redo that garden. Find something you can put your hands on and do the work. Channel the mental struggle into a physical struggle and make progress. You don’t have to succeed every time — sometimes it’s better if the hill remains unclimbed or the stone unturned. Physical struggle gives you a goal and something to work toward, where you can see tangible results. Take the small victories and use them to build more.

3. Drink

Settle down, this is not permission to get off and hammer a bottle of whiskey. This is also not me preaching that you shouldn’t enjoy a whiskey or beer. All things in moderation, as the saying goes. What I am saying is that water is your friend, and yes, I know there is water in beer. I have used that same quip when trying to poke fun at those who push this idea. The crazy thing is that water, or as Bobby Boucher would say, “High-quality H2O,” is much more important than I ever knew. Water flushes out cortisol, the hormone that lingers with us and brings the negative effects of stress. Less cortisol means a more balanced and hopefully happier you. The science is that you can help flush this stress by simply drinking water. I’m not telling you to do anything drastic. However, if you’re open to experimenting, try upping your water intake and see if you notice a change. I know I did.

4. Outsource

While it is impossible to completely erase the gap between your professional and personal life, it is possible to bridge that gap. In fact, “Bridging the Gap” is the title of one of the segments of a program called Stronger Families, which is designed to assist people struggling with living in two worlds. They even offer couples retreats to help enhance the understanding of the challenges couples face while dealing with these changes.

Another option is the “Finding Strength” podcast with Matt Quakenbush. I know it sounds like counseling, and you might think, “Yuk!” But this is not counseling. In fact, it’s tailor-made for those of us in this line of work who hate counseling. It provides information and tools that we can use in ways that best fit our unique personalities, allowing us to maintain control. I understand all too well how important that is.

When I speak about outsourcing, I mean utilizing the many resources available to help us navigate the tumultuous relationship between our two worlds. For us modern correctional professionals, awareness is gaining momentum. We are at a time where staff support teams, training, and open conversations are becoming the norm. Gone are the days of accepting that the best way to cope with this life is through a bottle or a pill. What was once fought with a glass of whiskey is now combated through education and acceptance, by normalizing the emotions necessary to process the horrors of the darkness we endure.

Do not be afraid to use these resources. Think of them as a new battery for your dimming flashlight. You have the tools and the power to brighten the room again — you just have to use them.

It is OK to be the strong and stoic representation of toughness — the hard man or woman who must fight through the darkness day in and day out. It’s OK to want to feel in control. It is also OK to admit when things are spiraling out of control, to ask for help, have hard conversations, and use resources. I encourage you to fight on and push upward. Don’t allow the shadows to pull you into perpetual and permanent darkness. Keep your eyes trained on the light and stand in it as often as possible — you are worth it!

About the author

Cory McLaughlin is an Army veteran and 18-year Department of Corrections employee. Cory is an Assistant Team Leader on the Washington State Penitentiary’s Resilience Support Team and active advocate for staff wellness. He is a father of two, husband, friend, coach, writer and an avid outdoorsman. He understands the challenges faced by working in corrections and the challenges of maintaining a healthy family life.