by Capt. Andy Carrier, DPS Safety and Wellness Officer
To many, the words “anxiety and depression” do not belong in the same sentence as the word “retirement”. The general consensus would be that retiring after a long career in law enforcement would be met with open arms. Goodbye to shift work, public scrutiny, and the cumulative horrible images and stressors. No more internal red tape or politics. You’ll never have to miss a holiday, birthday or family gathering again because of work. You can dedicate all of the time you want to hobbies, friends, and family. You can stay up late and sleep in. For a few weeks, it’s like a long vacation, and life is great. But, then what? No patrol car in the driveway, and no getting a new uniform ready after a two-week vacation at the beach. No need to call to find out when you are 10-8 the next day. You are no longer “needed”. The identity that was yours for so long is now relegated to pictures, war stories and memories. Yeah, there will be the retirees’ gatherings, but it won’t be the same. So, are you really ready to retire? I mean, REALLY ready. Retired GSP driver instructor B. J. Holley used to say, “It’s not how fast you go, it’s how good you go fast.” Retirement can be looked at much the same way; It’s not about retiring, it’s how “good” you go into retirement.
It’s been said that when we first begin our careers in law enforcement, we are innocent, curious and compassionate. Over time, these three traits can turn into cynicism, arrogance and callousness. All six of these traits or reactions may or may not be directed at one’s agency, as well as the general public. With this, we can become so “ready to leave” it becomes the primary focus. So, after that last ride to HQ begins the journey into the unknown. Leaving something that you’ve known for 25-30 years can be very anxiety provoking. It is magnified exponentially when you leap into the “unknown” and didn’t have a plan for what comes next. Part of “going good” into retirement lies in having a definitive plan. Generally, anxiety comes from thoughts pertaining to the future, while depression is associated with the past. Not having a plan is akin to uncertainty. Uncertainty is a bi-product of anxiety. Not having a plan is the number one reason for retirement anxiety and depression. If you are planning on retiring soon and don’t have a plan for after, you may want to rethink your decision.
Our careers are often defined by major, life-changing events and the roles that we played during or immediately after those events. The events were typically negative, sometimes harrowing events that happened to others. When we witness others’ worlds shatter, we become secondarily impacted and even traumatized, ourselves. We see more tragedy in a month than most will ever see in a lifetime. We suppress what we see and put it in a box in some dark corner of our brains. Year after year, trauma after trauma. We don’t have time to dwell because the next train wreck is around the corner, waiting for us to take action. Then, comes the solace and silence of retirement. We now have time to think and ponder about the last 25-30 years. Suddenly, the box we stored away years ago jumps out into the light and opens itself. You are suddenly living in “trauma time” as if the incident happened yesterday, when it was actually a fatal crash from 22 years earlier. You never dealt with it then, so now it’s going to deal with you. The incidents we don’t deal with and process in a healthy way, serve as ghosts that can come back to haunt us decades later. Before you retire, make sure you are “good to go” and have opened up the boxes on your own terms, in non-maladaptive ways (excessive alcohol, anger issues, domestic violence, etc. are not the answers).
In law enforcement, we want to be in control of situations and the actions of others. When we lose control of a situation it’s an uncomfortable place to be. When we lose control of ourselves, it can be devastating. This is not uncommon during retirement, especially in the first two years. Staying in control is possible when we have a plan and when we have dealt with or are currently dealing with what has been dysfunctionally stored or suppressed through the years. The first step in dealing with “it” is by talking about it with those we trust. Talk to and stay close to those who get it.
With our profession, it has been a long-standing idea the “only time we see many retirees is at retirement parties and funerals.” One of the most typical signs of depression is isolation. A basic foundation of resiliency is social support. If you retire, do not isolate. Stay in contact with friends, family and co-workers, both past and present. Stay engaged, regardless of whether you get paid once a month or twice. Retirement does not give you the right to check out, especially if you’d like to live to see past the age of 64. The Georgia Department of Public Safety is only a chapter in your life, not the whole book. Surround yourself with others to help with the chapters following your career.
Some of us have not maintained our optimum level of fitness throughout our careers. Whether you are 21 or 71, it’s never too late to start. Regular exercise can release endorphins into the bloodstream. Endorphins are only one of the many “feel good” neurotransmitters released when you exercise. Physical activity also stimulates the release of dopamine, norepinephrine, and serotonin. These brain chemicals play an important part in regulating your mood. Kill two birds with one stone; exercise (release of neurotransmitters) with a friend (social support) to combat anxiety and depression. Stay active and stay connected.
Many who work in law enforcement only have friends who are also in law enforcement. If you are winding down your career, and you fit into this category, it may be a good idea to branch out and meet others who aren’t in our profession. Diversity in retirement can breathe new life and purpose.
In a career as meaningful as law enforcement, many go into retirement feeling they no longer have purpose in their lives. It’s not a bad idea to enter retirement by not fully retiring. Take on something that is fulfilling and purposeful. Knowing we can still make a difference in others’ lives can serve us well, no matter our age or work status.
Entering retirement will bring with it, many adjustments. Some ease into it with no issues, while some have a lot of trouble adjusting. Much of the work we do on the front end will determine how successfully we navigate retirement. Preparing for retirement means a whole lot more than financial planning. We have to be psychologically and emotionally ready for it. We must be socially connected and improving ourselves, physically. We must continue to do for others and live our lives with purpose and intention. Retirement is like anything else. It’s what you make of it. The first step is to realize whether or not you actually want to leave. If you decide to retire, make sure it’s for all the right reasons, and begin doing the things necessary to live a long and happy life. You owe it to those who care about you, and you deserve it. You’ve earned it.