Retiring from police work was one of the most difficult things I have ever done. Quite a statement, right? But it’s true. Ask any cop who has left the job after twenty or thirty years in search of a “normal” life and they will likely tell you that it was much harder than they ever imagined.
Most departments try to prepare officers for the financial realities of retirement by conducting briefings with retired cops who have moved into non-law enforcement careers, and holding training sessions put on by state retirement employees. And the financial reality is this, unless you worked a ridiculous amount of overtime – i.e., spent the last several decades away from your family – you’re going to need a job, most likely one that includes benefits like health care coverage. But financial realities aside, the real challenge in retiring from law enforcement is psychological, and on that point, in my opinion, we do a pretty poor job preparing officers.
I have discussed this very issue with enough retired cops to know that it is a real problem. They all wish they had been better prepared for the mental adjustment. I had never experienced any issues with depression, suddenly I found myself floundering, on the outside looking in. Retirement wasn’t what I had envisioned. Oh, I had plenty of free time. That wasn’t a problem. The problem was I felt obsolete, unneeded. No longer was my phone ringing twenty-four hours a day with calls from someone who needed me to supervise a case, put out a fire, give advice or guidance. No longer did have to crawl out of bed each night and drive to Portland half-awake to start a new investigation. No one was calling. Those things I retired to get away from were the very things I missed. I began to wonder if maybe I’d made a grave mistake.
My life became a roller coaster of emotion. The good days were full of all the things I enjoyed, spending time with my wife and family, working out, golfing, hiking, fishing, writing. The bad days, usually accompanied by foul weather, I often found it hard to even get out of bed. At first I told myself that I was just catching up on lost sleep. It was okay to sleep-in, I’d earned it. But the reality was I felt like I no longer mattered. My police family had moved on without me. I had hopped off the big blue bus and was no longer sure who I was. My purpose in life, once so clear, had become a mystery. And to think that I retired of my own volition. What about those who don’t? Imagine being forced out of your police family, as many cops are, due to a mental or physical impediment.
I am lucky that I had the support of friends and family to get me through the most difficult period, which in my case was the first twelve to eighteen months. I try and reach out to fellow officers as they enter into their own retirement, giving them a heads-up about the feelings they may experience as they transition from their former life to the new. My purpose in reaching out is to lend an ear, and to validate what they may end up feeling. I tell them that there is life after police work, they just have to keep busy until the transition occurs.
Like most first responders, cops tend to be their own worst enemies. We are so used to assisting those in need that we are often the last to seek help from others. Most departments have employee assistance programs, critical incident debriefings, and peer support groups for active members. Perhaps the time has come for police departments to focus on those preparing to retire too.
I am one of the fortunate ones who found something I love to do after I left law enforcement. Unfortunately, there are too many still looking.
Have you experienced something similar? Do you know others who have?