Longform

Teaching cops how to de-stress for success

Michelle Hastie was a top cop in the Henderson, Nevada, police department, a hostage negotiator and peer-support officer with an excellent service record. But in November 2007, she reported a colleague for wrongdoing — he was opening mail that didn't belong to him and threatening not to back up other officers — and her life changed forever.

"It was just like a light switch," Hastie remembers. The officer found out who'd pointed the finger at him and started harassing Hastie. Someone broke into her locker at work, and a hole was punched in the badge on the business card identifying the locker as hers: Death to an officer. Her husband, also an officer in the department, was told to make his wife "keep her fucking mouth shut."

Although many of their fellow cops supported Hastie, there were enough detractors in the department that the stress started getting to her. "I was breaking out in hives, and I wasn't sleeping," she says. "I was cutting myself off from my friends and family. I wasn't going outside and running anymore. I was afraid to go outside, which was...I mean, really? I'm the ultimate tomboy who's a cop, who specifically picked the worst side of town because I like it, and I was afraid to be outside by myself."

She was seeing a department-assigned trauma therapist, but that didn't help. "He didn't give me any tools to deal with the stress," she recalls. "The only thing he gave me was, 'If you're really frustrated with them, count to ten and breathe.' That's really not going to work."

But then Hastie's mother, who owns Ram's Horn Village Resort in Estes Park, met a woman who was visiting there: Lisa Wimberger, the founder of Trance Personnel Consulting Group, a Denver-based outfit specializing in stress relief. A member of the National Center for Crisis Management, Wimberger had worked with such Fortune 500 companies as Accenture and Bellco, but she was interested in getting stress-relief techniques into the hands of people who really need them — starting with police officers.

And although many cops dismiss touchy-feely techniques such as creative visualization and guided meditation out of hand, Hastie was desperate. "I'd never experienced that kind of stress," she says. "I would have been willing to do anything at that point."

In August 2008, she began working with Wimberger over the phone. "The breathing techniques really worked well with me," Hastie says. "And finding a place that I could escape to, a place of peace, was something that I really needed."

Hastie continued consulting with Wimberger through March 2009, and credits her with helping save her marriage as well as her sanity. "It could have been bad," she admits. "I could have been one of those recluses who winds up with newspapers all around their bed." A lawsuit that Hastie filed against the Henderson Police Department was settled out of court, and she's no longer with the department; she's now back in school, studying international affairs.

"I'm still having a little bit of an identity crisis," she concedes. "These are huge changes for me." But Wimberger's tools are helping her roll with the punches.

If Wimberger had her way, cops like Hastie wouldn't need to get help over the phone; their departments would already offer stress-management training as part of a preventive program. Through Trance Personnel Consulting, Wimberger has offered several such workshops at metro area police departments, teaching rooms full of cops how to ground themselves, create a safe space inside, clear their personal boundaries of external influences and fill their bodies with positive intention and light. "People who gravitate toward these techniques are really good at gravitating toward other coping techniques that they need," she says. "I wanted to bring this to organizations that need it desperately but wouldn't know where to find it."

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Lisa Wimberger settles cross-legged on the stage in front of her hang drum — one of the rarest drums on the planet — and rearranges her flowing, embroidered skirt. Across from her sits her husband, Gilly Gonzalez, who creates the backbone of Lil Sum'n Sum'n with his wife; the two are also the percussionists for local gypsy-funk group Lunar Fire. As they draw melodious tones from the hang drum, Wimberger closes her eyes and smiles, losing herself in the beat, swaying back and forth; later, when she takes her place behind the larger congas, she reveals her background as a dancer as she pounds out the rhythm, spinning out an extended conversation with Gonzalez that's worded entirely through beats and melodies, supplemented by guest throat singers or world-renowned violinists.

Wimberger has been drumming for fourteen years; while others turn to meditation as a relief from the day-to-day world, Wimberger uses music as an escape from the daily business of meditation.

She discovered meditation when she was just a kid growing up on Long Island. An older brother was taking a college-level self-hypnosis class, and he shared his lessons with his twelve-year-old sister. "The minute he taught me these self-hypnosis techniques, I knew they were necessary tools for my life," she remembers. "At a young age, I didn't understand them, but it was like a fish to water. Out of all the things you go through when you're a teenager and all the drama, these self-hypnosis techniques were what made sense to me. I didn't do any drugs, I didn't misbehave, I didn't smoke cigarettes or drink alcohol. When other people were escaping, I was going into meditative trance."

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Amber Taufen has been writing about people, places and things in Denver since 2005. She works as an editor, writer, and production and process guru out of her home office in the foothills.
Contact: Amber Taufen