Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder's Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart

Bulletproof Spirit: The First Responder's Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart

by Dan Willis


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781608682614
Publisher: New World Library
Publication date: 09/23/2014
Pages: 248
Sales rank: 430,726
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

For the past twenty-five years, Captain Dan Willis has been a police officer for the La Mesa Police Department near San Diego, California. He has served as homicide detective, SWAT commander, and instructor for the San Diego Public Safety Institute, the county’s police academy, where he provides emotional-survival training. He lives in San Diego with his wife and two stepsons.

Read an Excerpt

Bulletproof Spirit

The First Responder's Essential Resource for Protecting and Healing Mind and Heart

By Dan Willis

New World Library

Copyright © 2014 Dan Willis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-60868-261-4



He who has health, has hope; and he who has hope, has everything.

— Thomas Carlyle

La Mesa, 1986. It's the end of another busy noon-till-midnight police shift punctuated by numerous calls from all over the city, requiring endless accompanying reports. Officer Troy wants nothing more than to go home and fall into bed. With just five minutes left till he clocks out, he drives toward the city gas pumps to refuel his police car. The area is isolated at this time of night, the few surrounding businesses closed and dark. He sees a car parked by itself in a dark alcove near an alley. In the faint yellow streetlight, he automatically notes that its windows are steamed up, making it impossible to see inside. Just some teenagers making out, he thinks, driving past. He will never know exactly why, but a nagging sense that something is out of place — that something is wrong — makes him stop, turn around, park, and approach the car on foot.

He shines his flashlight directly into the rear window on the driver's side, trying to see through the haze on the steamy glass. Squinting, he can barely make out a silver shimmer in the weak beam. His heart races as he realizes that the shimmer is a large knife blade — one being held to the throat of a partially nude woman. She is lying on her side in the backseat with her hands tied behind her back. He has stumbled upon a brutal rape.

Troy draws his handgun and yells at the man to drop the knife. His repeated orders are drowned out by the shrill screams of the victim. Her assailant jumps into the driver's seat and jams a key into the ignition. Troy tries frantically to pull the locked door open. Keeping his handgun pointed directly at the rapist's head, he uses his flashlight to pound against the driver's window in a futile attempt to shatter the glass. "Don't start the car or I'll shoot! Hands up in the air! Get out of the car now or I WILL SHOOT!"

The engine turns over, and as the car is slammed into drive, Troy knows he has no choice. He fires one shot directly into the man's left temple. The rapist slumps over as shattered glass and blood spatter the officer's face and uniform. Momentarily blinded, he wipes his face and then moves to try to assist the battered young woman in the backseat. She is completely hysterical, screaming and fighting and pushing him away as he tries to reassure her and assess her injuries. When backup arrives, with lights flashing and sirens screaming, Officer Troy looks like he's been through a war.

The entire confrontation lasted for less than thirty seconds. In thirty seconds Officer Troy saved one life and took another. The police academy never taught him just how life changing a few seconds on the job can be. As is the case for many first responders in life-threatening situations, these few seconds will adversely affect the rest of his life. From this night on, he will be plagued by sleepless nights, nightmares during the few hours he can sleep, and periodic anxiety attacks, leading to problems in his marriage and an inability to effectively perform many of his job duties. In no time at all, Troy will develop a classic case of (undiagnosed) post-traumatic stress disorder. His life will become defined by this one moment, and Troy will feel imprisoned by the helpless feeling of not knowing how to heal.

Officer Troy's spirit was vulnerable because he never had emotional-survival training. In contrast, an officer at an adjacent agency has recently been involved in seven shootings, five of them fatal. Although he experienced some difficult issues related to these shootings, he has fared far better because he has had training and learned wellness practices that prepared and protected his spirit. His story introduces chapter 10.

I was a young police officer new on the job when Officer Troy's shooting occurred. The department reacted by doing absolutely nothing for him. Actually, they did less than nothing: for the first few days, as the required investigation that follows an officer shooting was conducted, Troy was treated like a suspect. He was shunned, not even talked to. It was quickly established that the dead man had been released from prison just one week earlier and had abducted the young woman. The investigators ruled that the shooting was justified.

Troy was cleared of any wrongdoing and, in fact, had done excellent work. As soon as that was established, his fellow officers and superiors acted as though the shooting had never happened. The whole incident just wasn't talked about. No one meant to be uncaring or cruel by leaving Troy on his own to just get on with it; episodes such as this shooting were, unfortunately, part of the job, and it was thought best to try to simply move on as quickly as possible. Officer Troy did not know how to constructively process such a traumatic incident and put it into the proper perspective.

He was tormented by vivid images of that night and panic attacks that eventually became almost crippling. I watched Troy go from a well-liked, friendly, and dynamic part of the force to a reclusive, despondent officer who could manage only the bare minimum on the job. He became negative, bitter, and angry toward the police department. He would bad-mouth every directive, every new initiative from management, with contempt. He would handle the calls for service that he was sent to but would do nothing in between those calls. Several years later he retired, a broken and angry man who moved out of the country.

The superiors in my agency might have tried to prevent this kind of outcome, but what should they — and we, his fellow officers — have done? At that time no one in my police department had any knowledge of how to support and care for the spirit of an officer involved in such a critical incident. And the soul-poisoning incidents that the average emergency first responder witnesses over the course of a career are many and varied. As a rookie officer, I had no idea of the kind of evil I would witness over the next decades. I would eventually learn that the first step was to become aware of the warning signs in my behavior and to recognize how the job was affecting me and what I could proactively do to shield my spirit.

First Principle, Part 1: The Nine Warning Signs

There are numerous specific warnings signs that should alert you, as an emergency first responder, and your family members to the fact that you are becoming a victim of your profession. These warning signs and associated problems never simply go away on their own. Instead, they progressively, insidiously, worsen over time if not corrected. You need to become self-aware, realize when you are displaying these danger signs, and then choose to proactively address the problem in a constructive way, before it becomes too late and the problem irreparably harms the quality of your personal and professional life.

Any one of these warning signs is a serious indication that you are having difficulty processing the acute stress and trauma of the job. These warning signs do not typically occur in a progression; any or all can occur if you have not worked to bulletproof your spirit.

1. Isolation

Over time there is a natural tendency, in all first-responder jobs, for the individual to become increasingly isolated. This involves withdrawing — preferring the company of work colleagues or being alone to associating with other friends, family, and their related activities. You develop the tendency to disengage, not wanting to make decisions away from work, and preferring not to be involved with others — even spouses and children. Eventually, you can become distant and reclusive. Close work bonds are desirable, but you need the counterbalance of other friends more than you need anyone else. Hanging out exclusively with first-responder colleagues tends to reinforce any negative aspects of the profession's worldview. "Outside" friends will help keep you from developing a victim mentality (feeling victimized by work, by society, the agency, and so on) and also from thinking everyone is a criminal. As we isolate ourselves, we increasingly become disconnected from others. As we become more disconnected from people, we begin to lose our conscience.

2. Irritability

When affected, you will develop a shorter-than-usual fuse, fly off the handle for seemingly insignificant reasons, respond to questions in one-word sentences, usually say you are "fine" just to stop any further conversation, and keep everyone near you walking on eggshells for fear of how you will react. You may seem to be on edge, restless, and agitated. It is essential to let your life partner know how important it is for him or her to tell you how you may be changing. It is your job to listen to them and create an atmosphere where they will feel comfortable giving you much-needed feedback. This will help you to keep from damaging your relationship. Chapter 8 explains in detail how a life partner plays a vital role in the emotional survival of a first responder.

3. Difficulty Sleeping

Having difficulty consistently getting a good night's sleep — either because of sleep interruptions several times each night or because you are only capable of sleeping for a few hours — is a sign that you are not effectively processing stress.

4. Anger

When seriously affected, you begin to develop a pattern of taking out your stress and frustration on others, often those you care about most. You will tend to try to create a buffer around yourself, a safe zone where people will just leave you alone. You'll use anger to control others, to keep them at a distance, and to avoid taking a real look at yourself to examine what is actually going on inside.

5. Emotional Numbness

Becoming emotionally numb is inevitable, at least initially, and you'll need to consistently work to prevent it from overwhelming you. The job will naturally tend to make you want to shut down emotionally as a way to no longer feel the frustration, stress, pressures, and emotional pain of the job. However, this inevitably leads to seriously damaged relationships at home.

6. Lack of Communication

As you increasingly withdraw, you will tend to make the mistake of keeping everything inside. This becomes serious because, as your communication skills diminish, you will refuse to talk about how work is affecting you. Feelings of depression, anxiety, helplessness, anger, fear, and other negative emotions will then intensify.

7. Cynicism, Distrust, and Loss of Work Satisfaction

If any of the previously mentioned warning signs appear and are not addressed, you will likely become highly dissatisfied at work, extremely cynical, and distrustful of everyone in the world. This cynicism and negative outlook will send you into a downward spiral that eventually affects every aspect of your life.

8. Depression

Ignoring any of these warning signs eventually can lead to clinical depression. Left untreated, this may worsen and become potentially severe depression, resulting in substance abuse, broken families and lives, and a host of other debilitating problems, up to and including suicide.

9. Drinking as a Perceived Need or a Habit

Drinking, or consuming other substances, because of a perceived need or by habit is a major warning sign. Alcohol abuse among U.S. police officers is about double that of the general population, with 23 percent of them seriously abusing alcohol. The military is even worse, with one study showing that 39 percent of veterans screened positive for probable alcohol abuse. Studies of firefighters demonstrate that 29 percent of active duty firefighters have possible or probable problems with alcohol abuse. Drinking because of a need or habit tends to only intensify already serious problems and emotional issues, and it delays the resolution of real problems.

All these warning signs present a sharp contrast to the outlook of the idealistic, positive, and enthusiastic officer who graduated from the police academy with high hopes; the firefighter who joined his engine company bursting with pride and a desire to serve; or the soldier who dreams of protecting her country. Any of these symptoms can and will become debilitating enough to change a first responder into someone their family no longer recognizes, unless they do the work to bulletproof their spirit to survive emotionally by adhering to the concepts described in this book.

First Principle, Part 2: Self-Awareness

Part 1 of the first principle is a recognition of the warning signs. The second part is to become more self-aware, so that you will know when your spirit is suffering from the toxic effects of the job. I have experienced firsthand the tremendous change that can be achieved through the practice of emotional-survival principles. My personal story, though, is not unique. All the wellness initiatives described in this book have been shown to significantly enhance overall wellness of the mind, body, and spirit.

The solution starts with recognition of the problem and an awareness of the nine warning signs. But in order to become aware of how the job is really affecting you, you must first become aware of your inner strengths and weaknesses; what you have traditionally neglected that has hindered your wellness; where you draw support, healing, and inspiration from; and where you may need to apply more effort in order to fortify your spirit.

However, as a first responder, you are likely thinking you're fine on your own. You're probably thinking that becoming self-aware is something only weak people need to do. Yet that is the core of the problem. Your spirit is the foundation of your wellness and coping ability. If neglected, the harm to your spirit will affect every aspect of your life.

Emotional suffering or otherwise being adversely affected by the job is not a weakness but an injury ingrained in the nature of the work — one that is both fixable and preventable.

The first and most important question to ask yourself as you work toward having greater self-awareness and protecting your spirit, is this: "Do I think my job has negatively affected me and my life in any way — my health, relationships, outlook on life, and quality of life?" The two follow-up questions are, "In what ways have I been adversely affected?" and "What can I now do about it?" During the emotional-survival presentations that I have given to hundreds of first responders, in which I ask these questions, I have yet to hear a single person assert that they have not been adversely affected by the job. Whether they are still on probation as a new hire or a twenty-five-year veteran, the answer has always been the same: a very solemn "Yes." Knowing this, do you simply ignore this fact and become resigned to your fate? Or, as is the inherent nature of first responders, do you become determined to take action, solve the problem, and not allow the nature of your work to degrade your quality of life?

It is critical that you know there are effective ways, as detailed in the forthcoming chapters, to minimize your tendency to personalize the pain, suffering, and emotional trauma you will experience throughout your career. Otherwise, you will be extremely vulnerable to suffering from one or many of the nine warning signs that your spirit is in serious trouble.

Self-Awareness Questions

Now that you have asked yourself if and how the job has adversely affected your health, relationships, outlook on life, and quality of life, the next step is to determine how you can mitigate those negative effects. Beginning here, and continued at the ends of other chapters throughout this book, are some questions listed with the intent that you take them to heart, contemplate them slowly — maybe only one at a time — and use them to ascertain the needs of your spirit. Only then will you discover a path to address those needs.

For example, consider this first question:

How do you deal with loss, pain, suffering, and a sense of helplessness? What is most effective? What else could you try?

If you have never seriously thought about this, now is the time. One of the best ways to mitigate the effects of trauma is to be prepared for it. If you have no idea how to constructively deal with suffering, loss, pain, and feeling helpless, it's important to begin working on what would be effective for you. If nothing is in place and you have not developed any coping abilities to deal with these inevitable challenges, then your spirit is unprotected. There are many different ways to deal with suffering, loss, and helplessness, many of which will be described in chapter 2. Your work is to determine what is, or what will be, useful for you. The first responder's job is replete with frustrating helplessness. We are often unable to save a life, protect a child, catch a perpetrator before he victimizes another, or turn a life around. If you are not able to face helplessness and come to terms with the limits of what you can do, then the job will consume you.


Excerpted from Bulletproof Spirit by Dan Willis. Copyright © 2014 Dan Willis. Excerpted by permission of New World Library.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface xiii
Introduction 1

Chapter One
The Warning Signs and Self-Awareness 9

Chapter Two
Spiritual Wellness Effective Methods to Shield, Nurture, and Sustain Your Spirit 21

Chapter Three
Emotional Wellness Overcoming Hypervigilance 39

Chapter Four
Survival Lessons 61

Chapter Five
The Psychology of Trauma, Acute Stress, and PTSD 77

Chapter Six
BeSTOW Philosophy Beyond Survival Toward Officer Wellness 95

Chapter Seven
Peer Support 121

Chapter Eight
Support from Home 135

Chapter Nine
Effective Use of Chaplain Services 149

Chapter Ten
Faith in Service 165

Chapter Eleven
One Officer’s Survival Story 181

Conclusion 201
Acknowledgments 203
Wellness Program Survey 205
Endnotes 209
Resources 211
Index 217
About the Author 227
Training and Seminar Information 228

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