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Friday, August 18, 2006

My Conversion Story Chaper II

My faithful readers will remember the first part of my conversion story, which is found here.

Tonight I'm going to share with you a very painful part of my which still hurts and likely will for the rest of my life. It is a tale of failure, yet even now, as much pain as it causes, I realize that what I perceive as failure really was a great blessing from God, one I likely have not fully ascertained. And because I know that everyone has experienced failure, maybe this is a story with which all can identify.

I apologize in advance that this is so long, but I have found that once this story has begun it must go on until the bittter end.

If you'll recall, at the end of Part 1, I had described how I was in tears whenever attending Mass with my friends, and I had wandered for a long time like this. So I will begin with my first career:

I graduated early from college as I had spent a summer in Law Enforcement Skills training as part of my B.A. degree in Criminal Justice. So it was that I was able to take the MN State Licensing Exam, (P.O.S.T. Peace Officers Standards and Training) that spring and by May, the formal graduation with my University class, I had a job offer with a suburb of the Twin Cities Metro Area here in Minnesota.

It's important to note here that not a single member of my family, immediate or extended (save my brother), was supportive of my chosen career as a Police Officer. Since my Dad had passed away a year and a half before, and he was the only one who was really "proud" of the fact that his daughter was embarking on this endeavor, I was pretty much alone when I moved to my new city of residence...the city in which I was to work. In fact, a cousin was approached by certain members of my extended family (to include my Godfather) and asked to discourage me from my career. As though the lack of support wasn't discouragement enough!

I moved into my first apartment and I was living alone...a small town girl in the Twin Cities. Thank God I had another friend in the area, and for the first few weeks of employment I lived with her because I was required to have a working phone, and my apartment did not have such immediately. I had no one else. It was me 'n God, and I really wasn't giving a lot of attention to God at that stage.

I still remember my swearing-in ceremony: I remember standing before certain members of the City Council in the briefing room, my Field Training Officer (FTO), my Mom, and my uncle, (himself a Park Ranger), and some other officers, raising my right hand to swear to serve and protect, and clipping my badge onto my belt. I had not yet qualified at the range with the .45 Smith & Wesson semi-automatic carried by the department, so I was in street clothes. It wasn't long before I qualified, and I'll never forget the pride I felt when I donned the symbols for which I had struggled all the way through school: The uniform of the department of which I was now a part - so new I could still smell the dark blue-black dye; the shiny badge, pinned right over my heart; and the shiny gun, settled in the black leather holster over my right hip.

Because I didn't have a vest yet and I was no dummy, I became more aware of my mortality and that I had forgotten God for too long. I knew I had to pray, and indeed, I knew I needed God.

I had never really left God...I had only left the Church. Sorta. I didn't see why I couldn't just worship on my own; I didn't see why I had to go to Mass. But I knew that I needed to pray and that the Bible was the Word of God. I had actually read something once which had discussed two police officers; partners who had prayed Psalm 91 together, and so I took up that practice and read this Psalm every day at the start of my shift. I prayed for protection; I prayed for God's hand to be upon me and to guide me and to keep me from death at the hands or weapon of a criminal. Even today I am convinced God placed that little story into my hands and helped me to keep tight to His hand via the humble words of scripture.

In the beginning, things went well. My first FTO called me a "sponge" and I learned a lot. The geography of the city was no problem for me. But even then, I recognized a problem; I started my new career on day shift, and they used to joke that the officers were "retired on day shift." Every morning, when I arrived in the briefing room, I remember this sense that a black cloud hung over everything and the cynicism was so thick I could hardly breathe. I remember one officer, an investigator, actually telling me that since I was so young (22), I could retire at 42 and have a second career, along with my pension.

His enthusiastic words faded into the background as I thought to myself, "20 years? 20 YEARS? I have to do this for 20 MORE YEARS!?"

It was only my second week on the job. Already the life I had thought I wanted was losing its shine.

It wasn't long before everything went all to hell. I became very nervous before my shift, wondering what I'd be thrown into for the day; I began to struggle although I'm not really sure why. I hesitated, I was terrified of making mistakes, even small ones, and whole areas of the city seemed to "disappear" from my mind when we rushed from one place to another for an emergency. I began to make really dumb mistakes and really second-guessed myself in everything I did.

It didn't help that the department had exceptionally high standards; they usually hired from within, but with a lack of Community Service Officers (CSO's) and a need to fill positions immediately, they had to hire out of their ranks. Normally they didn't hire those fresh out of college as their program was tailored to those who had experience. One Captain, seeing me struggle to overcome my rookie-ness and newbie weaknesses, actually told me that had a certain officer (hired ahead of me) not been a CSO first, then she never would have made it through the FTO program. And officers I knew outside of my city told me the same thing; that officers even with five years of experience or more had failed with that department. I still can't figure out why my Captain thought that this bit of information would be an "encouragement" to me...rather I believe it was a not-so-subtle discouragement...just another blow to weaken my cracking foundation.

I quickly grew tired of carrying my stomach and heart in my throat...there just wasn't enough room in that small space.

Then came the formal second-guessing and undermining perpetuated upon me by those who were supposed to lead me to success. One FTO had some major family issues (father-in-law was dying) and was, as a result, was forced to take time off. What of his rookie? No matter. I was switched to different shifts and different FTO's on an almost daily basis. Thankfully, one experienced fill-in FTO in particular was very helpful and on days I worked with him everything I touched turned to gold. He explained that he was trained as a teacher and had learned that for every criticism, we need 10 affirmations in order to balance that. He did his best to fulfill this and predictability, I relaxed with him and my days were a success.

Unfortunately, he was a substitute only. The committed FTO's seemed bent on my destruction. Other female officers in the locker room confessed to me that they had sometimes actually broken down and cried while going through FTO; but they assured me I'd get through it.

I wasn't so sure. I remember one incident in which my FTO had been telling me to stop second-guessing myself and commit to my decisions. We went to a loud party call in which, surrounded by four other officers, I explained to the offending tenant why we were there. I let him vent in the hallway about how he worked nights and other people were noisy during the day. I pointed out to him that it was 3:00 am and we worked nights, too, and the ordinance was a 24 hour ordinance. He actually began to calm down and understand we weren't going to ticket him and the visit was only educational. He nodded calmly and started to ask a question in a normal tone of voice. My FTO suddenly leapt into the man's face and began shouting at him. The man was naturally startled, offended, and placed on the defensive by this unwarranted attack. He expressed that wanted to continue to talk to me. While my FTO screamed at him and threatened to take him to jail, he dodged, trying to make eye contact with me in order to continue our productive conversation. The FTO finished the "conversation" with a shouting match and we all departed. All I could do was shrug at the poor guy as we went on our way.

When we got to the squad car I asked my FTO why he had jumped in. Usually he did that when I had screwed up once again. Having gone over it and over it in my mind, I never saw my alleged error.

"What did I do wrong?", I asked, honestly confused.


"But I must have done something wrong. You jumped in." I was perplexed

He told me I had done nothing wrong and that he just wanted to start a fight.

So at that point, thoroughly confused, my second-guessing increased, terrified he would undermine me yet again. I thought I had things figured out...he taught me that night that I had no idea what was even coming.

I moved on to a different FTO for another phase of the program. Same thing; I continued to be forced to work a rotating schedule.

The stress, the constant criticism, all was wearing on me. I left every single night wondering if I'd done anything right all day (or night) long. I never heard a positive word or any sincere encouragement. And since we departed at 3 A.M., the FTO didn't want to go over my critique for the day; he saved them for first thing in the morning.

Let's look at this psychologically; starting each new day with the mistakes of the day before. Who wrote this program? Who could succeed? What I was taught to view as a form of mercy (note the hour of Mercy) was really the hour of the ultimate punishment and I didn't even have the gumption to protest.

I started forgetting the smallest details. Roads I had known in the past began to "disappear" in my mind, especially when driving to an emergency. I couldn't answer questions and I had no idea how to respond to some situations. I couldn't sleep at night and when I did, I was plagued with nightmares. I prayed every single day before my shift for approximately half an hour, paging through the Bible, especially the Psalms, for the right words. I cried myself to sleep each night, struggling with this career to which I thought I had been called. You have no idea the anguish I felt as I wondered if I should just quit or continue on? But somehow, I continued, knowing that, having worked so hard, fighting against chauvinism, fighting against my very family..I could not quit. And of course the ultimate reason...I had grown up on welfare and I REFUSED to ever be forced to live as an adult on that terrible system. I could not quit...I had nowhere to go.

The meetings began. The remedial training began, with the platitudes that they wanted me to succeed. I was pulled into the conference room, faced with the shift commander, the assigned FTO, the sergeant in charge of FTO's, and told how awful I was. They explained to me that no one else in my circumstances could do it and that I wasn't "getting it" and that they wanted me to succeed. They went out of their way to tell me that no other officer in the history of the department had ever been put through this remedial training and this should prove that they were working for my success. I saw through their words, though, and I realized that the eyes are indeed the windows to the soul. I could see the lies for myself, but through my own pride, I wanted to believe; and so I continued. But it was plain by their actions that they did not want me to complete the program. And it was clear to me that I no longer wanted to succeed myself. Yet there was no easy way out of this cross I had chosen to bear. Even as I fought the current of blood, sweat, and tears, I was drowning and I had no one with whom to share my struggle; no one knew, no one understood, and not a member of my family thought I should have been there in the first place.

It was obvious that I had to remain to the end, whatever sort of garrote awaited me.

I couldn't quit; I rationalized to myself that maybe I was just having a temporary crisis. Maybe it was the fact that I was living in my first apartment alone, footing all my bills without a roommate and didn't know many people in the city. Most of my co-workers were married or had other things going on so I never became close to them. I was trying to learn the real world when fresh out of college. I needed to give it a chance and continue...maybe the bulb would go on and I would pull through. Then, at least, if I still wanted to quit, I could do so with my head high and options open.

So I'd go in to work, my stomach in knots, and again told to work the shift, leave, and return only 12 hours later. I did not have regular days off; I did not have regular sleep. I was made to feel that what they were doing to me in that training program was normal. I have compared notes with other rookies in other places; what happened to me was far from normal.

But I never quit. I felt that I had to see it through until I was beaten to a bloody pulp. And so it was.

I remember my last night; I was going home early that night and we were called to a violent domestic. It was a rainy, freezing night the week after Thanksgiving and icy slush covered the roads and cars. I got out of the squad, asking my FTO if he wanted me to stay to go to the call. The FTO shook his head, did not look at me, told me to go ahead and end the shift as planned. I knew that it was over.

The next day I went in to work, specifically called to the Captain's office. He delivered the news; they were letting me go. He explained to me that I was being fired, but I had the option to resign and they would pay me for two more weeks. Call it severance. The record could reflect that I left voluntarily or I left because I had no choice; it was my option to choose what the record would reflect although we both knew the truth.

I took a deep breath and listened as he preached that they were concerned about me and wanted to be sure I turned over my weapon. I thought to myself that if they were really concerned they would take the one I had at home, too. The one not assigned, but purchased when I was in college. If I wanted to do something stupid, I could do it without their weapons and without their useless platitudes.

I remained silent.

It was the moment I knew had been coming. I was being stripped of the symbols that I used to define myself. Being a cop is an identity unto itself; it is a way of life, a way of thinking which permeates ones very soul. It is a calling, and even the experience changes the individual forever. I had come to see myself as cop first, woman second, and all else...following. It was who I thought I was, but as it turned out, I was wrong; I didn't know who I was or where I belonged...only that it wasn't what I thought.

So I first removed my badge and handed it to the Captain, although he started to tell me I could turn it in later. I just shook my head; I didn't want to remember that I would never wear it again. I carefully removed the .45 from the holster, pointed it down and away from him, dropped the clip, ejected the round from the chamber and handed the gun to the captain; unloaded, slide back, butt towards him; a proper hand-off. It was one of the first things I learned in relation to gun handling. If nothing else, I was going to do that correctly.

I stood, shook his hand, and left his office in silence, completely numb, not allowing myself to feel what was just below the surface. I was taken to the Chief's office, seated, and he closed the door.

"Have you been happy here?", the Chief questioned, honestly concerned.

I had no beef with him; the Chief had had nothing to do with my training and at the moment, he was the only person in the hierarchy I actually liked.

I wanted to be honest with him; I wanted to tell him that I'd never been so miserable in my entire life, and that included the suicidal days of my early teens. I wanted to tell him that I might have succeeded--in some other department, but that the rug had been jerked out from under my feet and that his very FTO's had trampled me underfoot like so much trash. I wanted to tell him that any confidence that I had so carefully built through college was only a remnant of a thought.

"Yes." was all I said.

I can't recall the rest of our conversation...I was too focused on willing the tears back into their ducts. I remember my strained voice and the control needed to maintain my composure...I remember the direct gaze of the Chief, a good man as far as I could tell, a puzzled man near his retirement who likely couldn't understand what had gone wrong with such a promising candidate and who likely knew I was lying through my teeth. Happy cops don't get fired.

There was nothing left to say. I stood, shook the Chief's hand, thanked him for the opprotunty (as I'd shaken the Captain's hand after I gave him the gun), turned and walked out of his office, a condemned woman. The station seemed abandoned. It seemed that everyone was gone. I'd faced my judgment, had faltered, and I was not going to fall any further than I was; there had to be something left somewhere.

I remember feeling the weight of the world lifted from my shoulders, the heft of the weapon gone from my hip, the drag from the badge safe in the Captain's desk. But never before had my heart been so heavy or my steps so final. Never before had I felt so crushed.

Ironically, my badge number was 72. In police radio 10-codes, a 10-72 is a DOA (Dead on Arrival). Such was my career as a police officer.

I walked down the stairs to the locker room for the last time, still holding my tears as I cleaned out my locker. There was nothing left of me; I had defined myself by my goal, and was destroyed completely in the process. Everything I knew and thought I believed went up in flames and fell as dust at my feet...and it was a long time before I was able to pull my life together again and find my true identity.

Even now, when I think back to those days, all I can do is sing a shattered lullabye to the person I worked so hard to become; the identity I tried to hard to impersonate, only to crash to the ground, completely smashed to smithereens.

I will never forget the drive home that morning, realizing that I had been fired from my "dream job".

I didn't even want it was a matter of pride and it was the sense of failure I'd never before experienced. I had always worked very hard and doors had always semed to open for me..although that's not to say that there wasn't effort involved. Yet I had been completely humiliated and I wondered, where, in all this, was the God I had been praying to all along? Where was he? Why hadn't he saved me from this mess? Why hadn't He helped me to succeed?

It was a turning point in my life, and as such, this is the place to end the chapter. My conversion story continued on, however, Blue Coyote that I am, but since none of you wants to read a book tonight, I will leave you to ponder the brokenness of falure; the humiliation of knowing that one does not actually die from this type of tragedy, but life goes on in spite of our feelings and sensations, and somehow, that is worse than death. True death leads to true judgment, and in that is hope; for the Lord is merciful and someday I will fully understand the mercy suffered on my particular day of deathles judgment.

More importantly, ponder this; even in the midst of such suffering, there is redemption, and I promise to show you how that happened to me; pathetic, broken, prideful soul that I was there in the hard winter of 1996-1997 in my 22nd year of life.

For even when we forget about God, he does not forget about us.

To be continued....

Conversion Story Chapter 3

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