What's it like being a CO spouse?
Nothing can prepare you for when your spouse becomes a CO
Nothing can prepare you for what your family is about to experience, starting when your spouse attends training academy. You will feel like you're single again but your heart is still with them. If you're fortunate enough to have kids, you'll feel like a single parent. You will be going it alone for all the parenting decisions, care-taking and answering tough questions like “Is Daddy coming home today?” The first year of my husband's new career was full of startling revelations for me as a CO spouse. It took time to accept all of the changes in our family and social lives because of his new job.
In the beginning I was shocked when my husband said, “Hey, I have a great new career option.” I didn't like it. We fought. I cried. I didn't want our family having anything to do with dangerous criminals, in or out of prison. At the time, we lived in a city where it was unlikely we'd run into his new clients in our neighborhood. There was some comfort in being anonymous but I was still scared to death of being targeted by former inmates. That feeling was intensified by the fact that we had an infant daughter who could also be a potential target.
I didn't realize how lonely being a CO spouse would be. I was expecting 60 hour weeks, sometimes. But that “sometimes” turned into most of the time. Night shift automatically put us on opposite schedules with different days of the week off. We never saw each other except in passing. Twelve-hour shifts and mandatory overtime, additional required trainings and weapons qualifying, being called in on his day off, rotating and unpredictable schedules – he is truly married to his job as much as he is married to me. When we did get to see each other, he was utterly exhausted with the weight of his commitment and the disturbing nature of his new duties.
If new recruits were aware of how daunting the statistics for corrections officers are, they probably would never have applied. CO's have a 39 percent higher suicide rate than any other occupation.* Their life expectancy is only 58 years: that's 20 years less than the average American. CO's have high rates of heart attacks and alcoholism. Add to that a higher-than-average divorce rate and a higher prevalence of mental illnesses such as PTSD, anxiety and depression, and you can clearly see how job stress directly affects your loved ones and your relationship. You start to feel like the odds are stacked against you and your spouse.
Despite these statistics the hardest part for me is knowing that my spouse, this person I love as much as my children and life itself, could be assaulted at work and sustain a life-threatening injury from doing his job. Every day he goes to work with the intention of protecting staff and inmates from harm. He takes pride as a public servant who keeps the worst of the worst behind bars to keep society and his family safe. As I watch him iron his uniform and walk out the door in his boots and epaulets, I hold my breath and pray that today won't be that day.
I came from a family that didn't hunt and never owned a gun. His family didn't either. I was stunned when he started qualifying with weapons and manning a tower with a rifle at his facility. Who was this person I married? When did he learn to shoot a gun? Then the discussions started at home about owning a weapon. We debated every side of the issue in terms of personal safety. I was concerned about having a firearm in my home with young children. My other, unspoken, concern was the wisdom of mixing a dangerous weapon with my husband's mentally taxing career choice. A quick Google search will show that for some people this is a bad combination.
In other lines of work that have equally high demands such as law enforcement, fire, or military personnel there are already established support networks for families. There is also more community support for uniformed men and women that garners immediate respect, as it should. I have found that introducing my husband as a CO in a new group of friends gets one of two responses: “Oh” and awkward silence or “Wow, that's horrible.” People aren't sure what to think of CO's outside of prison walls. I have never heard someone say “Thank you for what you do to keep us all safe” or “Thank you for serving your community.” They don't realize that our spouses are also uniformed, have taken an oath to serve their community and protect a vulnerable population (inmates), and that their dedication to this profession takes a toll on their families and their own well-being.
It didn't take long to realize the strength it takes to be a corrections officer and CO spouse. You will lose friends along the way. You will have sleepless nights waiting for him/her to come home safe. You will answer your kids' questions while holding back tears. You will answer the door with pepper spray in your pocket. But along the way I hope you find your inner strength and resilience as a couple and family. I hope you find gratitude for the opportunities your spouse has just stepped into for a lifelong career. You are not alone. Welcome to the family.
-"Suicide Risk Among Correctional Officers", Archives of Suicide Research, Stack, S.J., & Tsoudis, O. 1997