The Spotlight series highlights individuals in first responder life who have felt an impact, made an impact, and shared an impact with others. We need to share our stories to know we’re not alone and we can do this… together!
Caroline: For our May Spotlight, I’m with Megan Albanese, former trauma counselor, current law enforcement wife, and one of our first responder life coaches. She grew up in law enforcement life as her dad was an agent and involved in 9/11. So, she knew how trauma played out from her teen years. Megan, so glad you could take the time to do this!
Today, we’re going to focus on the passion of first responder life. We’ll talk about how to move through trauma so we can continue that joy in our first responder lives. So, Megan, you did trauma work with children in the past. Talk a little bit about that and how your experience in a law enforcement family prepared you for that work.
Meghan: I worked in Baltimore and did a lot of work with children who either had parents in the court system or were in drug court. I did work with a sex crimes unit. I would work with the children as their advocate. Having knowledge of law enforcement and knowing the first responders involved were having big emotions secretly made it easier for me to connect with them when they interacted with the children. We have a community advocacy center where kids come in and tell what had happened to them. A lot of officers would leave the interview room and have a reaction to what they were hearing. In my mind, they have a trauma from this as well.
They’ve been on calls where one case a mom would put her baby in the oven. There’s officers and there are EMTs who have responded to those calls and taken that baby out. Other social workers and therapists would be like, “Oh, well, they just need to get it together while we’re trying to gather the information.” First of all, we’re all trauma-informed here. Pushing through is not helping and that’s going to cause them to shut down. I was able to take what I knew and apply it to the officers, never thinking I would eventually pursue something to help first responders. I always thought I would stay in the realm of kids.
Then the events of January 6th and my husband’s department played out. These officers I’m very close to, not just Maryland State Police or the officers I worked with, will have these reactions and will have that trauma and that brain work that will need to be done. It will affect their families forever.
What is the best way to help them work through that, so they don’t throw that all away in that trauma moment? You may only think about this moment right here, but there is this bigger picture of, “I will pass through this, and I don’t want to blow it, do something impulsive, or say something impulsively when I’m in that moment.” What does that look like?
With kids, it’s very different than adults. Kids aren’t thinking, “I’m blowing my career. I’m blowing my marriage.” Right? They get in trouble in the classroom. They had trouble in the community and it’s a little different. What does that look like when you have this triggered big firefighter who is well respected in the community and not letting him feel that “I need to get help.”? It’s a little more open [with] kids. “I’m going to a doctor. My counselor’s coming over for a walk today.” It’s very different. So how do we reach those people who need it also, but in a different capacity and get them into services that they can utilize, and their families can utilize? So, it was this big shift from being the child advocate and now seeing we almost need first responder advocates.
Caroline: That we do. And that’s kind of the role that First Responder Coaching is almost stepping into, not necessarily as their advocate, but helping them through coaching to be their own advocate. So, that’s quite the journey. You’re right when you say it comes around full circle. The work that you did with counseling children, it did you do all ages?
Meghan: Yeah. So, I did all ages. I don’t know if every state does this, but in Maryland we do transitional age youth. So, it’s like 16-21, then you go on to adult services.
Caroline: That was a great experience for you to get that first with kids because, like you said, kids are much more open and they’re not as ground in their habits. That’s like a steppingstone. I’m really glad you were able to be there to notice the first responders while you were counseling the kids, to be that person to say, “No, they can’t just move through this. They have to deal with it too.” You were able to bridge that gap.
You said that you had an experience that brought you away from counseling the kids.
Meghan: I had been counseling for years. I was fine counseling kids and having children. Then my daughter swallowed a button battery and needed multiple surgeries. We were in and out of the hospital. After that, I actually continued with counseling. As she started to get older, she realized what happened to her when she was two and a half and that she almost died. She actually goes to a trauma therapist now. So, I was like, “Okay, I need to step back because I need to be mommy and not be your trauma counselor.”
So, I took a contract position at a school, very benign position. I recognized in myself all those trauma triggers. Having your own child in trauma therapy and that law enforcement lifestyle, like being a single parent, taking her to appointments, doing all the family sessions, reliving my trauma from that experience… I was like, “Yeah, I just right now cannot continue.”
Caroline: We have to realize when we need to change hats and when we need to set a hat aside. So, then you stepped away from that role. How long has your husband been in law enforcement?
Meghan: 15 years.
Caroline: And has he always been a state police officer?
Meghan: He’s with the capital, US capital only. That’s the only agency he’s ever been with. Yes.
Caroline: Okay. That’s a long time on that agency. I’m sure he’s had lots of different experiences that he can’t help but bring home at times.
Caroline: Talk about the experience of when he was present for the January 6th events.
Meghan: Yes. He was present that day. There’s protests in D.C. all the time. I was explaining this to another law enforcement wife whose husband is a county police officer. She was like, “Oh, my gosh, leading up to the sixth, how nervous were you?” And I was like, “I wasn’t that nervous. There are protests all the time.” They just come out of nowhere. Sometimes he’ll text me, “Oh, I’m stuck here. We have a protest about DACA” or “We got a protest about immigration rights.” Leading up to it, it kind of was like, okay, we’re having a big protest. It’s going to be a big one.
And then I think I was on Instagram or something scrolling through, and I saw footage. Within minutes, I get the text message, “I’m okay, don’t turn on the news.” I was like, “I’m not going to turn on the news because I have two little kids here.” We’re still in the pandemic, schooling from home.
This is learned from my mom being a law enforcement wife. On 9/11, my mom picked me up from school. We hadn’t heard from my dad. She was like, “Shut off the TV, shut off the radio. We’re going shopping because we cannot help Daddy. Us getting traumatized watching this and listening to this is going to make it worse.” We went to lunch, we went to stores, and we just lived in ignorance. Cell phone towers are down. We can’t get a hold of him. We need to not watch footage and traumatize ourselves.
I took that from her, “Log out of school. We’re going outside.” We played, baked cookies, and lived in ignorance. I would occasionally check my phone and get sporadic texts, “I’m still good. This is where I’m located.” I put the kids to bed and made it through the day.
Then finally I was like, “Are you coming home? What are we doing? The city is locked down.” It was having gone through that experience as a teenager, remembering my mom’s response. I just went into my reptilian brain. I was like, “eat, breathe, sleep.” We just need to do our daily tasks. Then Jeff came home, and we talked about it and everything and he was like, “Everyone’s families are freaking out.” And I was like, “We should try to connect.”
Being at the Capitol, we have wives in Virginia, I live in Maryland, we have wives in Pennsylvania, or D.C., some in West Virginia. We don’t have a connection; we don’t know each other. We’re not all in the same county. We’re not all in the same state. So, the National Police Wives were going to do a call for all of the Capitol Police and Metro Police wives. I logged into the call and from there started finding other wives. I started reaching out, “Hey, would you guys want to do a Zoom call, because we all feel isolated. Our husbands or spouses are working 16 hours a day. We don’t know when they’re coming home.”
Then, we created this little network. We still do our every other week Zoom. Jeff [told me], “The wives connecting is really helping the husbands. It feels hard to know your wife and kids are scared at home and we’re stuck behind these gates.” They were literally behind fences, living in their trauma. [I was] listening to what he was saying and how it was multisensory, the smell of everything going off, the sound of the radio calls.
Taking that deeper look and being like, “Wow, you guys need services. What are they offering you? Who’s your chaplain?” He’s like, “Well, we don’t have a chaplain because it’s political. We borrow from the Senate and the House.” My trauma therapist heart is like, “What are you saying?”
Caroline: You you’re finding all these holes.
Meghan: Yes! So, on one of his 16-hour shift days, I googled who was head of their H.R. and I cold called him. “Hey, what services do you have?” And he was like, “Well, we’re working on some stuff.” And I’m like, “There’s all kinds of teams that can come in. All you have to do is have someone sign off, teams that have gone into Baltimore during the riots or into these other places. Why are you like not doing that?”
Caroline: They don’t have anyone telling them what to do. They need someone to push them in that direction.
Meghan: That was it, yes! And then, “Okay, well, if you don’t want that, how about a chaplain that’s just for them? So, they don’t feel like, ‘Well, I’ll talk to this chaplain, but it’s not like our person.’” We need somebody.
Just realizing that probably the most well-funded police department in the US doesn’t have any services except the three EAP (Employee Assistance Program) people who at this point are totally swamped was just eye opening. Then [I did] my own research and found there’s very little specialty area for first responders.
In Baltimore, we have a therapist who does a lot of first responder work. We have one or two in Frederick. Just looking at our own state, there’s nothing. If you have severe trauma, you want to do EMDR, you definitely want to do brain spotting, and all these specialties.
But [there’s nothing] for “I’m anxious after my workplace was attacked,” that kind of somebody-to-talk-to and maybe not wait on the list for these specialty things or try to go to Walter Reed. It really was this eye-opening experience because I know the resources, so there really is nothing out there. If I can’t find them, I can’t imagine a police officer coming home or a firefighter after 24-hour shift and being like, “Oh, let me look through who my provider covers and wait through that process.”
Caroline: Right. They don’t have that mindset. When they come home, they either want to sleep or turn their brain off in some other way. That’s, that’s the common trauma response, right?
Meghan: Exactly, until it infiltrates some other part of your life. So really going through that experience and saying to my husband, “You guys need help.” And he’s like, “I know. Well, we’re having some peer support teams come in.” And I’m like, “That’s great triage. But this is longer than triage. That needs to be your steppingstone to more services. You need to have a list of therapists. You need to have a list of life coaches, case managers, social workers.”
And just going through that with him, [I told him], “NYPD has this huge directory. That’s what every department needs, even if it’s our small county we live in all the way up to the Capitol, every first responder needs to have that.” It’s not fair to expect them to take on the trauma of the community and then go live their lives like. That’s not fair.
Caroline: Right. So, you really reached out and tried to open up all these channels to get support for that whole department. And what was the response?
Meghan: It’s a very political climate in D.C. They listened and were open to the ideas and then taking it and doing it their way, which I understand. I know nothing about Capitol Police protocol. Now they have a wellness center they’re working on. It’s like an actively moving machine.
But it came to the point where I said to my husband, “I have a list of providers that will do pro bono work. So, if an officer asks you, I am willing to hand out this list of my peers. And if you want to pass this list around, they are fine with it. Because until all of the i’s are dotted and the T’s crossed, the department can’t do that.”
So now we need like a back-channel way of doing that. It definitely is moving in the right direction, [but] it’s the capital. So, it’s never going to be how I think it should be.
Caroline: It’s probably full of red tape and you find a way to step over the tape once in a while.
Meghan: Exactly. Or if we call it this instead of that, maybe it’ll work.
Caroline: You’ve got to play the game. The bottom line is getting the resources and help that they need, which is not something that should involve jumping through hoops. This is a need now, whether you write the law this way or that way, it’s a need to be filled.
Meghan: That was the whole thing. At the capital, they have a capital physician, somebody for the senators and everybody, but also officers. That’s where they got their COVID shots. So why are we so invested in our medical unit? I mean, we’re so invested in that. I’m sure that takes a lot of funding. You all have great insurance, but there needs to be the mental health piece. Whether a wellness specialist or case manager who can help you and be like, “Okay, in 10 minutes, I’ll find you five providers in your area. And if you need me to give you a referral and I’ll call for you.” That should take the same priority as this physician giving you your COVID vaccine.
Caroline: That’s been the long, ongoing gap between mental and medical care. Nobody’s going to deny that if you cut, you bleed. Stop the bleeding; put a Band-Aid on it. If you get diagnosed with cancer, everybody comes out of the woodworks for you. But as soon as it’s mental illness, everyone’s like, “Oh, I can’t physically see that. I can’t stop the bleeding. What do I do?”
So, in the last maybe 10-20 years, we’re still trying to wrap our heads around making a good base for what mental health care needs to look like. It’s not just the Capital; it’s everywhere. They don’t have a good protocol for mental health because mental health is so far behind.
Meghan: Like you said, it’s not just the capital; it’s everywhere. Last week, I went to international firefighters, the IAFF. They had a peer support thing in just our county. And one of them asked me to come and explain First Responder Coaching. We’ve had three firefighters in our town die this year. And I’m like, “So, who have you guys spoken to? Who’s come out?” And they’re like, “Oh, no one. We’re being peer support trained.” And I’m like, “Well, that’s great. Let’s talk about that. But have you talked to [these] two providers I know who do a lot of community-based work and like have you spoken to so-and-so?” They’re like, “We don’t even know who that is.” And I’m like, “Don’t let me leave here without writing these things down.”
Caroline: Yeah, the awareness is low. Definitely. I love the passion, the compassion that you have for first responder life because you’ve been in it forever, literally. I love that you went out to represent First Responder Coaching and bring that awareness. That must have been a nice eye opener for them.
How do you hang on to that passion? How do you hang on to your love for first responder life despite all the things that are up against you, the stigma, people not understanding, and the lack of support and awareness?
Meghan: I think a big part of it is we are the helpers also. And self-care for us, I can come away from meeting with people and just being like, “Wow, that’s really heavy,” and be able [to be] self-aware to kind of step back. “I’m going to go for a hike” or “I’m just going to go clear my head for a little bit.” And see the bigger picture.
I grew up in a law enforcement family and now my dad’s retired and they have this great life together. They fought through; it was worth it. Seeing those battles, those marriage battles… my mom did everything for us. My dad was rarely home. And maybe in the moment she was not happy with him, but overall, now we’re out of the house, they have all this time together that they didn’t have before.
Seeing that piece of it, seeing the importance of first responders in the community, doing community mental health… First responders are everything in community mental health.
Those communities we work with don’t have extra money to go out and do all these things. So, police departments will throw little fairs and little parties. The fire department will come by a little kid’s house when he gets out of John Hopkins Hospital. Seeing the need of law enforcement and first responders, even the dispatchers, help make that connection… That can change community mental health, which is my real like underlying passion.
Just over the past few years, seeing how the mental health of all those first responders has rapidly been declining and the morale is down really got my passion for them even more. How unfair. We set this bar for first responders that is completely ridiculous. You’d never ask a CEO to not have his golf outing. That’s his mental health check in. And [first responders] aren’t making six figures. Still, they put their lives and their families on the line every day to better the community.
Caroline: They have that sense of responsibility. First responders are born. Of all the first responders I know, and probably you too, they’re just born with this desire to serve. It’s just that sense of responsibility that they don’t ever look away from it. And a lot of times they don’t ever look inward either, which is part of the problem.
Meghan: I’ve found that the more I’m talking to first responders, there’s stuff from their childhood. Now, they are the saver. They need to save everybody. I want them to realize if they could just work through that, there’s people here to save them now. When they were kids they weren’t saved, but there’s people here for you now to support you and surround you.
If you break your leg and have a crutch for six weeks, nobody looks down on you. So, if something’s a little broken inside and you use a counselor or a coach for ten weeks, no one should look down on you. It’s getting that strength back to where it needs to be.
Caroline: That’s actually a great analogy because sometimes we just need to put on that cast, put on that support, and have that for a certain number of weeks. People have physical therapy from injuries. They have to keep going back, maybe the gap gets larger in between visits, but they need it. Coaching or therapy is the same. We should be looking at mental health care the same way that we look at medical. If something is broken or needs healing, it doesn’t speak to the integrity of the person. It’s just the injury itself.
Meghan: Exactly. No one would say you’re a terrible firefighter because you broke your arm. It’s that same idea. Why would you not use something to make you even stronger? It can be that same way with mental health.
Caroline: Do you have any advice for those in first responder families who are really struggling with the stress of either the trauma they have experienced or their loved one has experienced in the first responder world in order for them to regain their passion?
Meghan: My biggest advice would be to take a break for a minute. Sometimes when you allow your mind to spiral down, see the stop sign. You’re going too far down the rabbit hole. Take a break from it. You can have a lot of perspective if you go out in nature, or you go do something else and come back. Your lifestyle’s not going anywhere. You can pause. I like to say I get down to my true Meghan. Get down to your true self. Say, “Yeah, in this moment, things are pretty awful. I’m parenting alone. My kids are driving me nuts. I can’t work.” That’s in this moment.
From there, “What are the moments that I wish it was more like?” You’ve had those moments before. How do you get back to them? Always find someone, even if they don’t understand, that will listen. You can’t hold it in; it’s going to come out. If you just let it out, you can say, “Okay, I emptied that bucket. Now I can go do something else.” Use a trusted person who’s not judging you, not judging your marriage, not judging your parenting, not judging the choices. Having that confidant is really important.
Caroline: I love what you said about emptying the bucket. It takes a weight off. Whether it’s done through journaling or someone. I think it’s better to say it to someone, but if someone can’t bring themselves to do that or they don’t think they have anybody, they can just write it down and get it out. That’s great advice. I hope everything comes to fruition for your husband and his department.
Meghan: Thank you. It is slowly. So now he’s in the Wellness office. He is their officer liaison. They have two wellness dogs. They’re working on crisis management training. It’s coming together.
Caroline: Good. It’s all happening because things were initiated. So, kudos to that.
Meghan: Yes! For everyone involved!
Caroline: Yes, absolutely! All right, well, thanks so much, Meghan.
I hope this inspires our readers to speak up and reach out when they see a care gap in their communities. Initiating that change can start with any of us. Also, I hope we all find ways to keep our first responder passions alive while keeping ourselves well. We deserve to love what we do, so take care of you and don’t lose that passion.