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Crawling into the bottle
By Barry Evert, Sergeant
Published: 10/08/2007

Bottle Most of us in corrections know someone who is a “hopeless alcoholic.” Sadly, rarely do we do anything about it to try to help these officers. The stereotype I think we can all relate to is the older supervisor with many years in the department. He/she is probably well liked, and would give you the shirt of their back to help you. This person is the first one to respond to an incident; and the last one that goes home at the end of the night. Sound familiar?

I don’t have enough room here to discuss the root issues, as I have in my book, but I will try to address some key issues. First of all we need to define alcoholism. This can be very difficult to define. If you go by some standards, most of us are alcoholics. The key is that there is an abuse or dependence on alcohol for daily living, or alcohol has become the exclusive coping mechanism.

For example, I enjoy a good drink most days after to work to help me unwind. Not to excess, but just enough to make me relax. So by definition I am an alcoholic, as I depend on this to relax me after work. The difference is that if there were no alcohol in the house, I would rely on other relaxation techniques to get me ready for bed or for family time. An alcoholic stops at the liquor store on the way home and makes sure that there is alcohol in his reach at all times. Often, when this person does not get alcohol they can be unpleasant or downright moody.

People have told me that if you drink to help you relax, you are an alcoholic. I take exception to that, as we all drink alcohol to get some desired affect. If this wasn’t true we’d just have an iced tea or water. By it’s very nature, alcohol enhances some senses, while it numbs others; this is the desired effect, ergo, not a definition of alcoholism.

The alcoholic officer will rely on alcohol to avoid dealing with trauma or stress. They will eventually begin coming to work immediately after drinking. The officer will take great care not to drink too much to where he will be noticed, but enough to “help” him get through the day.

The alcoholic officer is often very open and friendly at work, but has few friends outside of work. Few people have ever been to his house, and less will even know where he lives. This officer will often avoid contact with people outside of work in fear of being “found out.”

They pose great threats to themselves and co-workers. His alcoholism often leads to other vices that can be detrimental to his well being, and often illegal.

The sad thing is that we ALL know an officer like this. I am confident that everyone reading this who has some time in the department knows at least one officer that fits this description. This is not a mold of every alcoholic officer out there, just an example that I have found common throughout my experience and research.

So what to do? Most of us feel we would be violating his privacy somehow by trying to intervene. There is also a fear that we could get the officer fired by exposing him, especially after coming to work smelling of alcohol several times. With all the risks in our job in regards to getting fired, we don’t want to see bad things happen to other officers.

We need to set this thinking aside for the benefit of the alcoholic, and the people he works with. Like I said before, this person is often well liked, making the idea of exposing him unattractive to most. What needs to be understood is that not doing anything enables addiction, and puts the lives of your partners at risk. Although he may have his heart in the right place, and be the first one to an incident, if he has been drinking, he is a liability.

Most departments have a system in place that is under appreciated. First we need to appreciate that the alcoholism is more than likely caused by work trauma and stress in some way; so the employer has an obligation to help. In most of these programs, the employee is placed on some type of leave while the employee attends either inpatient or outpatient treatment for his addiction. This is done very inconspicuously, and law viciously protects the employee’s privacy. Rarely is an officer fired just because he has an alcohol abuse problem, unless there has been an incident related to his drinking.

While in treatment, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, the officer learns the skills to cope with life without alcohol. As the employee was probably never shown how to do this before, this will be a challenge; however when they realize that other officers have intervened, he will understand he was a liability. This officer knows in his heart that fellow employee would not have taken action if they didn’t genuinely care for him.

There may not be cause to run to the administration at your department right away though. If you are a friend of the affected officer, take him out for lunch one day and approach him with your concerns in private. Give him the chance to seek his own treatment, with the assurance that you will be there for him every step of the way. This will take great personal sacrifice, but you will have saved a career, his life, and possibly the lives of others.

Let me reiterate that this short example is not finite, there are many different types of alcoholics out there; and some can be violent and dangerous. If you choose to personally intervene, make sure you get some advice from a counselor on how to proceed. Alcoholics Anonymous is a wealth of information.

The officer will not quit drinking until he is ready; and he will need a lot of support of his peers. I knew a supervisor who was a serious alcoholic, but we all loved him. I told him “brother, if you keep crawling in that bottle to hide every night, you’re not going to make it long after you retire.”

This supervisor retired two months later, and was dead six months later. Don’t let yourself live with that kind of guilt. Do something to help him or her, even if it means “exposing” them to save them.

If you are struggling with alcohol abuse, I implore you to get some help. You are not crazy, you are not weak; you are sick and need help. If you won’t sober up for yourself, sober up for your friends, family and partners. Your partners at work already know you’re an alcoholic, and are tortured every time they see you because they want to help you but don’t know how. See someone today; your partners will be there for you even if you have no one else.

Sgt. Barry Evert began his corrections career in 1999, and is now a Correctional Sergeant at California’s Pelican Bay State Prison. He has been with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation for eight years. His specialty lies in teaching, tactical emergency response, riot tactics and officer safety improvement.

He is a firm believer that a good home life breeds a good officer, and is currently writing a book, which supports that idea and details the essential skills and techniques new COs should learn in the first two years of their job.

Other articles by Evert:

Know your body language, 8/1/07

Treating an infection within, 7/11/07


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