“When the night has come
And the land is dark
And the moon is the only light we see
No I won’t be afraid
No I won’t be afraid
Just as long as you stand, stand by me”
Ben E. King wrote that song in 1960 with Mike Stoller and Jerry Leiber (Wikipedia). It has been recorded over 400 times and is still a powerful and relevant song. What do the lyrics mean to you? Is the person in the song asking a friend to stick close to them? Are they praying that God stands by them through their troubling times? Maybe it’s a spouse who, despite their partner’s poor choices, habits and addictions stays with them and loves them unconditionally.
One of the beautiful qualities of music is that lyrics take on a completely different meaning for individual people. Even for the same person, in different settings, the words have a different message! I have sung “Another Child to Hold” by Ray Boltz for many baptisms and the words perfectly describe my hopes and prayers for the care of the child getting baptized. I sang the same song for the funeral of a young boy and instantly, the song took on a much deeper meaning for me. Call me crazy but I still consider “Puff the Magic Dragon” an innocent song about a boy and his imaginary friend and not an anthem about marijuana!
The Perfect Storm
The meaning of the song, “Stand by Me” in 2011-2012 became crystal-clear that I needed God, peers, family and friends to stand by me. I refer to May 2011 as the “Beginning of the year of the Perfect Storm”. It began a series of events that would challenge me personally, professionally and spiritually. My wife had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and had begun treatments. Our oldest son was preparing to graduate from high school and I was in the running to be the next Chief of Police for the Detroit Lakes Police Department.
Each of these events brought with them an element of fear, anxiety and excitement. Denise was receiving outstanding care for her cancer, Josh had a great senior year in high school, and I felt prepared and qualified to take on the role of Chief. Despite being a trying time, I could really feel my “Rhythm of Life”. It was a positive time and the future was looking great.
I got the job and was sworn-in to the position in July 2011. Denise was on the road to recovery and life was moving and grooving! Then, on May 13th, 2012 (Mother’s Day), the hammer fell. A very dear friend and Detroit Lakes Police Department partner of mine for 19 years finished his patrol shift, went off-duty and took his own life. As cops, we hone our ability to read people and body language and we become very good at it. None of us saw Chad’s anguish and his suicide completely blind-sided us.
It would be amazing if there was a chapter in the “Police Chief Manual” on how to properly handle a situation like this: How to be a leader for my team, a friend to my partner’s family, a good husband to my wife, an attentive father to my three sons, and take care of myself mentally, physically and spiritually. Unfortunately, there is no chapter in the book that will walk you through this.
One of the areas I excelled at during my career was networking. At every level, I developed friendships and working relationships with my peers. I am not good, however, at asking for help! I will make several trips to the chiropractor because I lifted something that I should have had help lifting but was too stubborn or impatient to get a hand with it.
This time was different. As I was at the location of my friend’s death and speaking with his grieving father, I KNEW that this wasn’t the time to be the I-Got-This kind of guy. I needed some serious guidance, so I turned to those whom I knew would “Stand by Me”.
Who ya gonna call?
My first request for assistance was a silent prayer to God for wisdom and clarity. The next was a call to other Chiefs and command staff of agencies that I had worked with throughout the years. I was pretty sure that there was a group that could help in critical incidents like this, but I honestly couldn’t remember what the heck they were called. I knew that my contacts would at least be able to point me in the right direction.
With the help of many people, we were able to get through the next few months as a team and a family. We had some more challenges that summer within the department and I again leaned on my support network. One of the Chiefs asked me if I had “Pissed off a Gypsy” because my first year as Chief had been a doozy!
All the support that I had received was incredible. I had been neglecting one piece of the equation, however: my self. At that time, I had been in the criminal justice business for 23 years. It was 23 years of the good, bad and the ugly. I had seen people at their ultimate best and witnessed true heroes making a real difference. I had also seen people doing horrible, unspeakable things to senior citizens, children, family members, complete strangers and to themselves.
Mental health professionals refer to something called cumulative stress – or stress that builds up over time. Chad’s death was another straw on the proverbial camel’s back and a lot of built-up junk started to bubble over inside my mind. That summer was filled with difficulty sleeping and images of past incidents that would pop into my mind randomly.
I didn’t pay much attention to these events in my mind until we hosted a regional Chief of Police meeting in Detroit Lakes. At the social gathering the night before the meeting, our Chaplain, a retired Chief himself, approached me and said, “How are you doing, Tim?” I said, “I’m great Dan! How are you?” He said again, “How are you doing, Tim?” I reiterated, “I’m GREAT, Dan, how are you?” As if he didn’t hear me the first two times, he asked me again, “How are you doing, Tim?” I had to ask him where he was going with this line of questioning.
Pastor Dan reminded me that I had been through some challenging events over the past year. He suggested that I may still be in “Chief mode” by taking care of others and perhaps I should consider having a professional examine my overall mental health.
The stigma and myths surrounding mental health are real and I was certainly not immune to having reservations about seeing a “shrink”. I thought the whole world would somehow know and they would think that I was crazy! I resisted calling anybody for a month or so and I finally made the call to “Doctor Jeff”, a local Psychologist and someone I had known and trusted for several years.
When I made the appointment to see Dr. Jeff, I felt like a junior-high boy trying to call a girl that he liked. I hung up the phone several times before mustering up the courage to actually talk to a person and make the appointment. I had chosen Dr. Jeff – a local doctor at our local clinic – instead of going somewhere where I wouldn’t be known. It was a conscious decision and I felt strongly that this was a big first step to making sure I was okay. It might have been easier to go to Minneapolis or somewhere else, but we all know that easier isn’t necessarily better.
As I walked up to the receptionist desk at the Sanford Clinic in Detroit Lakes on that October day, I had this perception that everybody was going to stare at me and think that I was nuts! It didn’t help that I was in full uniform (white uniform shirt, shiny badge, full duty belt, polyester pants!) and I had been in the community for over 20 years as a police officer and entertainer. People knew me, and, for some reason, that made it even more important for me to “own” this journey. I checked in and went to the waiting room on the left. Again, I was under the misguided impression that people who had a boo-boo on their knee went to the waiting room to the right side and the crazy people went to the left. I was sure that all eyes were on me and that they were questioning if I should be carrying a firearm!
I got in to see Dr. Jeff and we had a great talk. We talked about signs and symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and cumulative stress. He told me how the brain processes events and that the brain can get overloaded with trauma. It takes a while for our mind to break it down and deal with it. “It’s like a funnel”, he said. He explained that our life events get put into the funnel shaped hopper and our processed thoughts and feelings come out through the tube at the bottom.
It was such a relief to know that what I was going through was normal! It was important to monitor the situation and that if these feelings lingered too long, other forms of treatment may be needed. Dr. Jeff taught me that one effective way of dealing with events like this was to talk to others about them. So, I slowly began to share these experiences with other people and I found it to be very fulfilling. I also discovered that the listener received some benefits from my story. Maybe this was something they had been thinking about and it helped them to hear it from another perspective. The double-whammy effect of helping me process my trauma AND helping someone else was amazing!
Each one of us is here for a purpose. I don’t believe anything happens by accident or happenstance. Each person that we meet in our journey through this life is put there for a reason. We may never fully understand what that purpose is and it’s likely that we’ll never even know what impact we have on others. It’s imperative, though, to treat our relationships with strangers, friends, co-workers and family members with the realization of how precious these relationships are. We have all failed miserably at this many times and there’s a chance we will drop the ball again. By carefully considering our relationship with others in this relatively short time on earth, it will hopefully cause us to stand by others – when the night has come and the land is dark and the moon is the only light we see!