Struggle Well program evokes roller-coaster of emotions – and the coping skills officers need, says Miami sergeant

by Sgt. Orestes “Tico” Guas Jr. - City of Miami Police Department

“I used to drink a lot. I would drown my sorrows in a bottle of whiskey. I no longer do that. I don’t look to alcohol to take care of my issues.”
 

I can actually pinpoint the day I decided to become a law enforcement officer. I was 15 years old and I saw a call where my father was on TV. A guy had broken into a house and my dad had to go in and find him with the dog. He was a K-9 office

When they came out and I saw everything they had done, that was the day that I decided this was what I wanted to do.

I'm a sergeant with the City of Miami Police Department in charge of the Allapattah area. I have seven officers and three public service aides working under me. I've been with the City of Miami Police Department for 18 years. I'm a second-generation police officer. My father was  with the city for 20 years.


From call to call to call…

As an officer, you're jumping from call to call to call to call. You have to complete these reports. You have to write accident reports. And sometimes my guys don't get a chance to finish one call before they're going on another one.

For me, the stressors are my guys. Are they safe? Is this a call that I need to go to?I have seven officers working under me. Realistically, it's more than that because everybody who works on day shift I consider mine. So you're talking about 25-26 people working on day shift. And I go to anything that I consider a hot call because I want to make sure that everybody makes it home.

One of the things that I do at roll call every morning is make sure that I make everybody laugh before we go out on the road. You don't know what's going to happen that day. You don't know if it's the last time you're going to see that person. So I want to make sure everybody leaves with a smile on their face and I set the happiness for the day.

I learned this through the Struggle Well program.


Learning about Struggle Well

When I first found out about the Struggle Well class, I was forced to go. I'm one of the sergeants in the peer support unit. And they told me, “Hey, you're going to this class.”

And I said, “Man, I don't need to go.”

And they said, “No, no, you're going.”I went in with a very bad attitude. I was in a dark place in my life. But after the first couple of hours, I said, “You know what? Maybe these people are on to something.” And I started listening.

I'm a very vocal person. I'm not afraid to speak my mind. So I think I surprised the instructors a bit with how rash I am. By the second day, they approached me and said, "Hey, listen. I think you would benefit from going to the full week program."

I went home and I told my wife, "Hey, listen. I think I might want to do this. These two guys suggested I should go to this class."

I told her, "I'm pretty ------ up." She agreed and she told me: "Fill out the paperwork. What do you have to lose?"

So I filled out the paperwork and we went through that class. As that week went on, we all started opening up to each other. To this day, these are some of the people that I trust the most, because of this class. I learned a lot about myself. I learned a lot of coping mechanisms. I've shared a lot of that with other people.


Before Struggle Well

I used to drink a lot. I would drown my sorrows every day in a bottle of whiskey when I would get home. I no longer do that. I don’t look to alcohol to take care of my issues. I don't look for those horrible methods, anymore. I actually listen now at home. Before I would shut down. I wouldn't speak to anybody.

The only downfall I think is now when I'm asked, “How was your day?” I always ask, “Do you really want to know? Or do you want me to tell you what you want to hear?” So now my family has the option of really knowing what my day is or a fruity story.

They always choose the reality. Before, I would never tell anybody what my day was like. I would just swallow it.

The only person that I had that I could talk to about it was my dad. I talk to my dad at least two or three times a day. It never fails. By 10 a.m. is the first phone call: “Hey, how's your day going?”

Thankfully, I have that support. But I never wanted to burden my wife and my kids with the reality of this job.


A dark place

There's stressors at work not only on the road but from within the job. Things you have to do. Reports to clear. Trying to make everything easy for everybody who works under me. Trying to make the right decisions on the road. Second guessing yourself afterwards. It’s a lot on a person.

Hearing officers running to a call. And you can't get there fast enough and they're fighting for their lives. Driving to a call when you're running with lights and sirens and people don't get out of your way.

All that while dealing with the stressors of paying a mortgage. Paying for your car. “Are my kids okay? Did my kids make it to school? Did she pass that test for chemistry?”

All these stressors add up. And if you don't have a way of speaking to somebody, or coping with what's going on, you keep bottling it in and bottling it in. And just pushing it down and pushing it down, until one day, you blow up.

And sometimes that could be on somebody on the street. Most of the time, it’s something that happens at home and it causes a lot of tension in your house.


Finding a balance

My wife deserves a monument for putting up with me and the things that I've done – for putting my family second and my job first. You have to learn to balance it and the darkness. It’s learning that fine balance of your family life with your work life and not letting one overpower the other.

The most memorable calls for me are when I get to help children with special needs. We had one recently about a six-year-old boy found in the middle of a busy street. He was on the autism spectrum. We had to go for blocks knocking door-to-door to find where he lived.

I didn't know when he had eaten last or when he had bathed last. So I bought him a meal. When the parents finally showed up, we found out it was a miscommunication where one thought the other one was taking the child to school.

Being able to help the special needs community is very big for me. I have a 21-year-old son who's on the autism spectrum and a 19-year-old daughter who's a cancer survivor.

I was applying for the police academy when my son was diagnosed with autism. A month later, my daughter, who was 6 months old, was diagnosed with cancer. They're two years apart.


An unforgettable day

I'll never forget the day. We were taking a practice test for the state exam. It was my daughter's last surgery and I had to choose whether to take this practice test or be at the hospital.

My wife and I spoke about it and she told me, "Listen, you need to take that practice test because you need this job."

So, my instructors would stop us every hour, on the hour, give me a cell phone, and I would walk out and call my wife to see what the progress was on the surgery. And then I'd walk in, give my class the thumbs up and we'd go back to our test.

They were, all 40, my support group during that time. And we have a very close bond still to this day.

My daughter's surgery was successful. She had a neuroblastoma that they found by mistake. They were doing an x-ray. And instead of getting her from the neck down, they got her from the chin down. They found the tumor wrapped around the subclavian artery, where it branches from the brain to the left arm. The tumor came off her artery without any other issues and it was a success from there forward.


Mental health awareness training: Necessary

I couldn’t begin to describe the need for mental health awareness for first responders in one word. I think it’s absolutely necessary. We're having the highest suicide rates right now that we've ever had with police and fire. A lot of our first responders are also prior military. They're veterans.

I'll never claim to know what they've been through, but I know what they go through on the streets. And if you don't have an escape route where you can deal with your emotions and deal with what you see daily, that's where we end up with suicides and all these issues, as well as marital issues.

Now we have something that can help us – where we can actually learn to speak and it’s okay to speak about our emotions.


Roller-coaster of emotions

When you go into the training, you're at the bottom. Then they bring you up. And as you're going up, you realize that you're worse than what you really thought, so you go back down. And then they bring you right back up where you can stay on top.

So if I had to describe the Struggle Well training in one word, it would be a rollercoaster.

Everybody is going to experience it differently. But Struggle Well is one of the best trainings I've ever been to in the police department. I would venture to say it is the best training because it’s about how you’re gonna get through this.

It's never been how do you take care of yourself. It's how do you get through things. It's how do you do things. And for the first time ever, it's about me.

Sgt. Orestes “Tico” Guas has 18 years’ experience in law enforcement. He is a supervisor with the City of Miami Police Department and has worked in multiple units, including patrol, undercover jump downtown, the gang unit and the assaults unit. From the assaults unit, he was promoted to road sergeant and then canine sergeant, serving on the canine unit. He’s been a sergeant in patrol for the last six years.