Episode 32

The Guardian Initiative for Veterans and First Responders, Part One

August 26th, 2022

Kira Arrillaga: Welcome to Addiction and the Family, “Episode 32: The Guardian Initiative for Veterans and First Responders, Part 1.”

Casey Arrillaga: How has addiction affected your family?

Female Speaker: It robbed me of my father.

Female Speaker: Addiction's affected my family in absolutely every way.

Male Speaker: It has caused a lot of turmoil.

Female Speaker: It goes back to what I understand is at least three generations.

Female Speaker: It robbed my daughter of her mother. It robbed my mother of her daughter.

Female Speaker: Addiction has made our family quite challenging.

Male Speaker: Addiction has affected my family tremendously.

Male Speaker: It's affected my relationship with my sister where I wouldn't – I'd go for months without talking to her. It's a very difficult thing for everybody involved. It doesn't just affect the one individual. It's a disease that affects the whole family.

Male Speaker: Addiction is spread not only genetically through some of my relatives and I assume ancestors.

Female Speaker: It's generational.

Female Speaker: I think of him every day.

Casey Arrillaga: Welcome to Addiction and the Family. My name is Casey Arrillaga, and I’m a clinical social worker and addiction counselor at both Windmill Wellness Ranch and InMindOut Emotional Wellness Center in Texas. I’m the author of the books Realistic Hope: The Family Survival Guide for Facing Alcoholism and Other Addictions and Spirituality for People Who Hate Spirituality.

Kira Arrillaga: I’m Kira Arrillaga, addiction counselor intern and recovery coach at Windmill. Casey and I were in our addictions together for over ten years and have now been in recovery together for almost twice that long.

Casey Arrillaga: I’ve led hundred of family workshops, but just as important is that Kira and I have lived the experience of being family to addiction as both children and adults.

Kira Arrillaga: Join us as we offer experience, strength, and realistic hope about how you and your family can find recovery together. This is the first of a two-part series on the Guardian Initiative for first responders and veterans. We’ll hear from Erika Unberhagen, founder of the Guardian Initiative at Windmill Wellness Ranch and a 15-year law enforcement veteran in recovery. Erika talks about why the Guardian Initiative is so important, what makes it different than treatment as usual, and some of her personal experiences that inspire her to do this work. All this and more after a break to hear from one of our sponsors. [Commercial] Welcome back. Here’s Casey’s interview with Erika.

Casey Arrillaga: I want to welcome you to our show, Addiction and the Family. If you want, take a moment and introduce yourself.

Erika Unberhagen: My name is Erika Unberhagen. I am a therapist at Windmill Wellness Ranch. I specialize in the treatment of veterans, first responders, and their family members. I’m also the creator of the Guardian Initiative, which is a program that is designed specifically for veterans, first responders, and their family members, their loved ones.

Casey Arrillaga: That’s wonderful. Can you talk a little bit about what drew you to do that kind of work?

Erika Unberhagen: Absolutely, I’m a 15-year veteran of law enforcement. I had some preexisting mental health issues that I didn’t realize at the time that were exacerbated by added trauma in my years of service to my community. I was forced to medically retire due to, at that time was unknown to me, I had post traumatic stress disorder and I was self-medicating with alcohol.

Casey Arrillaga: How common would you say that is among veterans and first responders, first of all, not knowing conditions going in, and how much they get exacerbated during service?

Erika Unberhagen: It’s kind of a two-part answer to that question. A lot of people tend to gravitate towards career fields where there is some sense of helping others. Oftentimes that’s born out of their own pain from earlier experiences. It’s not uncommon to have a veteran or police officer that grew up in a home that had a lot of chaos, violence, drug abuse. That’s not always the case but it’s far more common than most people are aware of or want to talk about. Then of course, you get into these careers where you are absolutely exposed to life and death events and oftentimes more than once. You, because of early experiences, may already be vulnerable to trauma and then you enter career fields where trauma is almost a given. It creates more damage. It’s very common.

Casey Arrillaga: Do you ever notice within the culture of the military or law enforcement alcohol use is encouraged or condoned?

Erika Unberhagen: Absolutely, I would go with encouraged versus condoned. I’ve worked with many, many veterans over the years. I grew up in the Killeen, Fort Hood area, so my father and my stepfather were both active duty in the army. I’m very familiar with that culture. A lot of alcohol is involved. You drink before deployment. You drink while you’re on deployment. You drink even more when you come home from deployment. Same thing with first responders. There is even a term for it. It’s called choir practice. If you have a bad shift or a bad call, it’s not uncommon for officers to get together and drink copious amounts of alcohol, but even if it’s not copious, if you’re working a midnight shift, it becomes normal to, let’s say, get off shift by 7 a.m. You’re at somebody’s house lighting up the grill at 7:45 in the morning. You’re eating breakfast while you’re drinking your beer. That culture’s beginning to change because we are seeing the historical damage that that’s causing within the first responder communities, but there’s still a long way to go. It’s still a fairly common practice. It’s not just accepted. It’s encouraged.

Casey Arrillaga: As somebody who’s spent some time in that career, how common would you say it is for someone to develop an alcohol use disorder from that?

Erika Unberhagen: I would say that it’s far more common than people want to admit, which unfortunately skews study results. I can speak personally and professionally on that matter. Personally, looking back knowing what I know now, I would say probably 15% to 20% of my department was struggling with either maladaptive alcohol consumption or actual addiction to alcohol. Then of course, professionally, I work with first responders. I hear their stories. They enter the field. Drinking is encouraged. It’s talked about on a regular basis. It’s engaged in. It’s causing a lot of problems. Unfortunately, because the stigma is still so prevalent, people don’t talk about the downside to these activities. You don’t want to admit to somebody I’m drinking too much or I lost control of my drinking or I don’t want to go and tell my buddy, hey, I’m worried about you. It sure seems like you were drinking a lot last night or this morning after shift. We’ve got a lot more work to do in that area.

Casey Arrillaga: Looking at that idea of it’s hard to admit or there’s stigma attached to it, does that go with the culture of the military and first responders around showing weakness or anything like that?

Erika Unberhagen: Absolutely, and again, I can speak personally and professionally on this. The last thing that you want to do with these types of careers is appear weak or unable to manage that you’re not doing well. It’s not talked about but there are a lot of legitimate fears. If I go to my chief of police or I go to my captain or I go to my lieutenant or my sergeant and I say, “Hey, I think I may be drinking too much, or hey, I think I may have a problem with alcohol,” there are a lot of fears inherent with doing something like that. I don’t know how my department is going to react. I may just be told, “Hey, what can we do to help you out with that?” I think that’s becoming more common but I think it’s still a rare occurrence. Here’s the flipside of it. I think I’m drinking too much. I don’t feel like I have control over my drinking anymore. Now my fear is I’m going to be asked to turn in my badge and my gun. If I’m not safe and I’m drinking too much, then there becomes a question of whether or not I’m fit to remain on active duty. That means I’m now worried about my finances, my ability to support my family, I’m worried about the people that I work with finding out that I may be struggling with this or I am struggling with this. Now I’m worried that I’m going to become a pariah or I’m going to be viewed as weak or incapable of managing the job. One of the first phrases that I heard and I heard it repeatedly over the years in different circumstances was, if you can’t hang with the big dogs, get off the porch. The last thing that somebody typically wants to do is “help themselves.” Yeah, I’m struggling. I’m aware that I’m struggling with this or I’m concerned that I may be doing this a little too much or a little bit too often. Maybe I’m even beginning to see effects with my relationships or with my health or even my mental health, but the fear of going and losing that career that I’ve worked so hard for oftentimes is a huge roadblock to people actually speaking up and seeking help.

Casey Arrillaga: From what I can see from the outside, and I appreciate you being able to give an inside view, a lot of people also seem to see it as identity that goes beyond, hey, how am I going to get a paycheck or what’s going to happen in five years.

Erika Unberhagen: Absolutely, so I really do appreciate you bringing up that question. I was never introduced as, hi, this is my friend Erika, or hi, this is my daughter Erika. It was always, hi, this is my friend Erika the cop. You don’t hear that in other professions. I’m not denigrating other professions. It’s just that you normally don’t hear things like, hi, this is Erika my friend the cashier. It’s not just a part of your identity. It can actually take over your identity. This is not just what I do, but it is who I am.

Casey Arrillaga: How much would you say that comes up in parallel in military?

Erika Unberhagen: I don’t think there’s any difference. I’ve worked with clients that have been out of the military for 20, 30, 40 years and they still very much identify with what that career was. The marines have a saying. Once a marine, always a marine. It’s pervasive. It’s pervasive in the veteran community. It’s pervasive in the first responder community. There are some upsides to that, right? There’s this degree of pride in serving your country or serving your community but there’s a detrimental side to it as well and that’s when you can’t separate what you used to do with where you’re at in life now.

Casey Arrillaga: What kind of effect do you see that has on people that struggle with alcohol use or any other drug?

Erika Unberhagen: It’s all encompassing. I see depression. There is a grief process. It is the death of a career, so to some extent, it’s the death of that person’s identity and if left unchecked, it can result in major depression, just like the death of a family member would. There are a lot of parallels between those two situations. Higher levels of anxiety, because if you don’t know who you are, then who are you? That in and of itself can be the basis for really high anxiety. Post-traumatic stress disorder, I hear it all the time. I experienced it myself. Even though a lot of the traumatic experiences that I was exposed to were in the course of my duties, I had my brothers and sisters. I knew that I had their support. Now, I wasn’t talking to them about what I was struggling with, but I could on some level as we’re drinking coffee or we’re drinking a six-pack and we talk about the call that we were on last night and how screwed up it was. I have that ability to do that and there is some comfort in knowing that you’ve got that support in law enforcement, I’ve got your six. What happens to that individual when they’re no longer active? Their support system tends to go away. They may have a few buddies that they stay in contact with, but they’re not showing up for shift or they’re not showing up for PT and having that social support that they previously had, which of course, contributes once again to depression and anxiety which tends to exacerbate drinking, or in some instances of course as well using substances outside of alcohol. There may be effects of post-traumatic stress disorder while somebody is in active duty. What I tend to find is the effects become even more detrimental once that individual leaves their chosen career field because now I don’t have anybody that understands. I can’t just sit at a family gathering and talk about the autopsy of the child that I worked a case on three years ago. That’s not something you bring up around people that aren’t familiar with that. You hold it in. You keep it to yourself. That is so damaging.

Casey Arrillaga: You mentioned often we think in terms of alcohol but certainly other drugs come up. How prevalent is drug use outside of alcohol? Because I’m only assuming alcohol may be condoned and encouraged but other drug use is not or not openly spoken of. What’s really happening behind the scenes?

Erika Unberhagen: I’ve certainly worked with clients who used while they were on the job, veterans and first responders alike, all with a common theme. It’s typically not, hey, we were doing this because we wanted to have fun. It was literally I needed something to help me feel like I didn’t want to jump out of my skin or jump off a bridge. I’m not aware of study research that looks into that but I can tell you that it does happen. At the end of the day, veterans and first responders are human beings and they’re going to do the best they can with what they have at that time. Now, both career fields, you’re subject to UAs, particularly I can speak for the first responder community, law enforcement, fire firefighting community is subject to [14:34] UAs. It’s firmly a condition of your employment. That does have some effect, but what happens to the individual when they’re no longer employed with that agency? They’re realizing that the amount of alcohol that they’ve been drinking is not fixing what they feel is broken inside of them. They’re drinking more and more and there’s more and more devastation being caused in their personal life and maybe also in whatever career they may be in now, but just like any other human being that’s struggling with addiction, there are some that are going to come to realize that alcohol is not producing the same effect it once did. It’s no longer working to self-medicate. You become so miserable in your own skin that you’ll do whatever it takes which creates more problems. Now you’re looking at moral injury. I was a police officer. I served my community with pride and integrity and here I am smoking marijuana or doing lines of coke or smoking meth or any other number of substances because I just can’t handle the pain that I’m experiencing by myself.

Casey Arrillaga: Would you mind talking a little bit what your own journey was like in this and then move into how did you find recovery?

Erika Unberhagen: Yeah, so part of what I just spoke about is based on my own story. By the time I left law enforcement, I was an alcoholic. I just didn’t have the diagnostic label to go with it to shed, but once I left law enforcement you would think that, because there was less stress, that my drinking would’ve decreased, but that’s not what happened. Now I’m dealing with the moral injury. I know that I’m drinking way more than I should. I’m that person that used to arrest people for public intoxication and driving while intoxicated. Now I’m that person engaging in those behaviors. I’ve now come to realize that the alcohol is not doing what it used to do. I reached a point where I would have taken or done anything. In law enforcement, I absolutely hated drugs. I absolutely hated the fact that I was arresting people multiple times for alcohol related offenses, drug related offenses, and now I’m engaging in both. It’s this never ending ever widening abyss and I got lost in it.

Casey Arrillaga: How did you find your way into recovery?

Erika Unberhagen: It was a long time coming. It actually started back in 2004. I was recognizing or seeing behaviors in myself that I had grown up with and didn’t like what I was growing up. This is going to date me but I pulled it out of the phonebook. What I started looking for was alcohol meetings for police officers. As you can imagine, those did not exist back then, but what I did run across was a telephone number for Alcoholics Anonymous. I bent the page. I put it back in my desk. I didn’t think about it for a couple of weeks. I didn’t know where else to turn. I drove to my first meeting. I probably drove around the block of where that meeting was located 10 or 15 times. Then finally, worked up the courage, parked my car, and went in. That meeting was literally one city over from where I was in law enforcement. I spent the majority of the meeting terrified that somebody was going to recognize me and be like, hey, you arrested me. A couple of months later, once again, I reached a point of desperation and went to another meeting. At this point, the alcohol is actually beginning to affect my job. I was a detective so I had a little bit of wiggle room. I would literally walk through the door, go straight back to my office, close it, lock it, and wait for the effects of the night before to wear off, but I wasn’t as good as I thought I was at hiding it because now I’ve got friends coming over to me saying, “Erika, we’re worried about you. We’re concerned about you.” I brushed them off because now we’re right back to what we talked about in the beginning of this. I don’t want to be perceived as weak. I don’t want to be perceived as I can’t handle the job. I certainly don’t want to lose my career. If you fast forward, I finally got to a point where I realized this was not a secret anymore so I made the decision to have a sit-down meeting with the chief. The view at that point was you don’t go and talk to the department shrink, because if you do, you’re going to walk out, hand your badge and gun over, and your career is pretty much over, because anything you share is going to go straight into the chief’s ear, but I didn’t feel like I had much choice. I went to my chief. I told him, “Chief, I’m drinking too much. I don’t know what’s going on.” He had one question for me. He said, “Are you drinking on duty?” Then I said, “No, sir, I’m not.” Technically, that was true. He basically told me to handle it and excused me from his office. I don’t think I will ever forget when I walked out of that office. I knew that my career was over. That’s after 15 years. I think it was maybe a year or two before that, I had been selected as officer of the year, and I now know that my career was over. I spent 13 and a half years in active addiction. The drug use got worse. The alcohol got worse, if you can imagine that, because it was pretty bad when I left. If I fast forward over the course of 13 years, I was in and out of treatment. I would get loaded the day that I got out of treatment. I did that with treatment center Number 1, 2, and 3. I wasn’t ready. I wasn’t ready to face my demons. The couple of times that I actually tried to open up and talk about some of the things that I was struggling with, I didn’t feel like I was understood. It shut me back down. I certainly wasn’t going to share in a group therapy environment the things that were going on inside my head. I didn’t want to hurt anybody else. I was hurting enough with the memories. I didn’t want to share them. You fast forward. It is 2013. It’s March the 10th and I’ve been out of law enforcement for a very long time, many years at this point, and I am drinking nonstop. On March the 10th, something clicked. I can’t really pinpoint specifically what it was other than I remember having a conversation with myself, a very drunk conversation, but there were some good insight in it that said if I didn’t start learning how to stay sober that I was going to die from this. I’m homeless at this point. I lost everything. I ended up in a homeless women’s shelter. I ended up being there for about six months. It was 12-step-based. Ironically, the lady that ran that home is a three-time convicted felon who had found God and had dedicated her life to helping other women find themselves out of the abyss and addiction. Stayed there for six months, actually learned how to invest in myself in working those steps because I’m stubborn, but what I had come to realize is showing up to those meetings sporadically off and on over the course of 13 and a half years of active addiction and not doing anything that was suggested in the program as recovery, it finally hit me that those people, those people were getting sober. Those people were getting clean. I was still dying a slow death. My friend was able to punch through my defenses, finally got me to let my ego down, which is another irony. How can you have – how are you driven by ego when you feel like you are absolutely less than and not deserving? She managed to get through to me and I haven’t had a drink or a drug since. The day that I got out of the homeless women’s shelter, I went back to that meeting. I knew an individual there from showing up to the meetings off and on. I liked what he had as far as his recovery was concerned. I’d been told to look for that a long time ago. I’d just never done it. I approached that individual and I asked if he would be willing to be my sponsor. He made me agree to doing 90 meetings in 90 days. He said, “If you won’t do that, I won’t sponsor you. You’re going to call me every day.” I was resentful. As defeated as I was, I was resentful of that, but I did it because at this point my misery outweighed my resentment. That individual is still my sponsor today.

Kira Arrillaga: Let’s take a break to hear from one of our sponsors and then we’ll hear the rest of Erika’s interview about the Guardian Initiative. [Commercial] Welcome back. Here’s the rest of Casey’s interview with Erika.

Casey Arrillaga: Turn around and here you are today. You’re a master social worker. You’re a counselor who works with people with some of these same issues and it’s been said we’re all best suited to help the person we used to be. Can you talk about how you do that in the Guardian Initiative at Windmill Wellness?

Erika Unberhagen: Yeah, so the Guardian Initiative is a program that has been designed specifically for first responders and veterans. I do know that there are other treatment centers out there that have first responder tracks. We are the only one that I’m aware of that was developed by a 15-year veteran of law enforcement with her own history into addiction and trauma. I took a lot of experiences from my years of going in and out of treatment dealing with different therapists and different styles seeing what actually worked for me and what didn’t. I took my experiences as a police officer and developed the Guardian Initiative. It’s tailored to veterans and first responder. There are so many similarities in what we deal with on the outside as well as what we deal with on the inside. The Guardian Initiative focuses on trauma. It focuses on things like moral injury. It focuses on identity loss. It focuses on veterans and first responders being able to come together as a group and talk about their experiences. There is something powerfully healing in hearing somebody else say, “Me too or I understand,” after you told a part of your story or you’re telling your story and you’re waiting for that judgment and what you see in your battle buddies is recognition and understanding. We deal with tools that can repair relationships. We deal with the different communication styles that often come along with these types of professions. When I go home, I can’t bark orders at my husband like I used to bark orders at suspects, but I still do that on occasion. I have to be brought back in line, but for the most part, I’ve learned much healthier ways of communicating. Taking that knowledge and information and passing it on to other people that come through the Guardian Initiative. Working with grief, when people hear the word grief, you can instantly connect with, yeah, my partner died or my battle buddy died on deployment or I’ve had multiple battle buddies die. The Guardian Initiative also focuses on the grief that is associated with the loss of identity, the loss of that career, the loss of what you perceive is the loss of your moral values or your moral compass. We help people reconnect those. They didn’t go away. They were just subverted by the need to remain alive and do whatever it took, subverted by drugs, subverted by alcohol and other addictive activities.

Casey Arrillaga: Can you take just a minute or two and talk about the sound healing that you do because I know that’s a specialized thing?

Erika Unberhagen: It is. The way that I do sound healing here at Windmill Wellness Ranch is a technique that I developed. It’s not done like this anywhere else in the world. When you get down to it, it’s not the memory itself that is traumatic. That sounds crazy, right? It’s the reactions to the memories that create the damage. For instance, when I tell my story today, any number of stories within my trauma history, it’s like reading the pages out of a book. I know I was there. I know what happened. That high emotional content is no longer associated with those memories. With sound healing is based on something called polyvagal response. It’s about reducing the high emotion associated. When that high emotion is still attached, the brain is still very much in crisis mode. That’s why those emotions are there, to protect the individual. When we’re doing sound healing, the person has an opportunity to tell their trauma story in a very safe, individualized environment. Then we involve sensory input, visual, sound, tactile. I use to Tibetan singing bowls. I have a crystal bowl. I have something called a [27:40] that I use. The introduction of sound healing is that individual letting me know which of those tools produces the most relaxing effect for them. That’s the tool that we generally go with and we can do more than one. While they’re telling that trauma story, they are at the same time engaging in an activity that actually produces feelings of calmness. We begin to reduce that high emotional content associated with the memory. What often happens, sometimes even in the first session, is the second time because it’s a multiple telling of the story but the second time that they tell the story they are now providing more detail, which lets you know that, in laymen’s terms, the brain is backing off of crisis mode. It’s a little bit safer now to release just a little bit more detail about what’s going on. It’s a short-term therapy. I’ve never had to do more than four sound healing sessions. That’s not to say that the person is never going to think about these things again. It’s just that when they think about them, it doesn’t have the detrimental impact that it once did. When we can reduce the trauma response to the memory, what’s interesting is what typically happens at the same time is the person’s baseline anxiety levels are decreasing simultaneously. The anxiety related to the memory is reducing or decreasing. The baseline anxiety is beginning to decrease. I take measurements, so to speak. The beginning, I’ll find out what that person’s anxiety is at. Maybe they are at a nine or at a ten or maybe they’re at a five. Halfway through after they’ve told the story, I get their rating again. Nine times out of ten, it’s exponentially higher because at this point they just retold, or in some instances in their own mind, relived what they had previously dealt with. Then we introduce the sound healing and something beautiful happens. They tell that story again, you would think that the numbers would go up, but they don’t. They come down. The more they engage in sound healing, the lower the numbers become. My goal in every sound healing session is to get, and in not just sound healing, of course, with psychotherapy as well, but my goal is to get that person to the point where they can recall the memory but it doesn’t negatively impact their life. They know it’s there but they’re no longer in crisis and they have a healthy response to the memory itself. Sound healing produces what alleviates nightmares, because if the brain has processed the memory effectively, then the brain no longer needs to engage in the reliving of situations or content or themes through nightmares. Sleep becomes better because now the anxiety is reduced and people are sleeping better because they’re not being interrupted by the nightmares. Exaggerated startle responses, which is another criteria that we look at for post-traumatic stress disorder, decreases significantly. Now, if I’m honest in my own story, do I like people coming up behind me unannounced? I don’t. I still don’t like that, but I also don’t turn around and bite their head off or end up clinging to the roof because my anxiety ran through the roof from the unexpected entrance of somebody else in my personal space.

Casey Arrillaga: Beautiful stuff. Thank you so much for the work that you’re doing for the people that have done so much to serve everyone else. I would love to have you back on a few other episodes to talk about some of the issues that come up within families and how family members can deal with some of this stuff if they have a loved one who’s been first responder or military veteran or is currently active in either of those. Once again, thank you so much for being on the program. We look forward to having you back.

Erika Unberhagen: My pleasure, Casey. Thank you.

Kira Arrillaga: That’s the interview. Learn more about Erika and the Guardian Initiative at windmillwellnessranch.com. Be sure to check out Part 2 of this series next month.

Casey Arrillaga: Thanks for being with us through another episode of Addiction and the Family. As they say in many recovery meetings, take what you liked and leave the rest. Go out and explore the possibilities for recovery in your life and give your loved ones the space and dignity to make their own choices. If you liked this podcast, please subscribe. It means a lot to us. If you know anyone else who could use what we have to offer, please tell them about Addiction and the Family. If you have comments about this podcast, have a question you’d like answered on the show, or want to contribute your voice, or just want to say hi, you can write to us at addictionandthefamily@gmail.com. We’re also happy to be your friend on Facebook and we can be found tweeting on Twitter.

Kira Arrillaga: Addiction and the Family is produced, written, and engineered by Kira and Casey Arrillaga, with music by Casey.