Pod Kat Pope
Deb: Welcome back to the alcohol tipping point podcast. I am your host, Deb Masner. I am a registered nurse health coach and alcohol free badass. And today on the show, I have Katherine Pope. She has worked as a crime scene specialist and forensic investigator, and she is now happily alcohol free and she's coaching others to let go of their habits and hold them back.
Katherine started forensics fan to help first responders manage burnout and navigate a fulfilling personal and professional life. So welcome to this show, KA. It's so nice to have you here.
Kat: Thank you for having me.
Deb: So, where are you based out of and like maybe fill in the gaps of the intro that I just did.
Kat: yeah. So I am originally from Maryland and grew up in the DC Baltimore region. My dad was actually a DC fireman paramedic and my mom and he met at a hospital. He asked her for a pen and love at first. Whatever trauma call . So I grew up outside of there in like a responder heavy family. And then I actually went to college in Colorado graduate school in Texas, and then my husband Went and got his PhD at Columbia.
So we lived in New York city and then for some, you know, kismet reasons, we ended up back in Maryland. He got a job at Salisbury university, which is on the Eastern shore of Maryland. So we live like 30 minutes from the beach. That's pretty nice. I didn't expect to come back to Maryland ever, but here we are about, I think, nine years later this year.
Oh, lovely. Yeah.
Deb: For those that don't know, you know, you mentioned that you come from a family of first responders and you, you work with first responders. So what, what is a first respond?
Kat: Well, so anyone that responds out into the scene of an emergency.
I consider a first responder. So firefighters, paramedics trauma nurses you know, doctors, law enforcement, detectives, anybody that goes out there and runs into the, into danger. And I consider myself a last responder. So I am a death investigator for the medical examiner's office and we kind of come in after all that crazy dies down and try to figure out.
You know, what's happened. We handle a lot of the interactions with family members. After the fact, we photograph the scene, we interview witnesses and law enforcement or nurses and doctors that help handle the situation. And then we kind of try to pick up the pieces and figure out what happened in the scene.
So other last responders are like funeral directors social workers. Really anybody. I consider a responder that, you know, falls under this umbrella of responder first or last would be somebody that's out there kind of in the community doing this really hard job. So like even teachers, you know, I, I consider teachers a responder mm-hmm because they're out there in the community, kind of trying to.
Change things for the better and, and help folks out and, you know, love people, give 'em hugs, you know, fix 'em up, put on the bandaids, figure out what's going
Deb: on. Yeah. Yeah. Thank you. I mean, as you know, I'm a, a nurse too, but now I'm. I'm on a whole other realm of nursing with my wellness nursing, but sometimes people aren't familiar with that terminology but a definitely like a stressful, important job.
Just the responders, having just erratic hours, having difficulty with work life balance and having, you know, a lot of issues, frankly, with drinking. So what was your experience like with drinking and, yeah, when
Kat: I was a kid Like I said, I grew up in this like public service, responder family, and, you know, like my dad would be at work on Christmas or my mom would work these, you know, 48 hour shifts at the hospital and then be home for the rest of the week.
But so drinking wasn't a big deal in my family, but it was what was a big deal in my family was always kind of being in service for other people. And I don't think even from a young age, I never really developed the habit. And the tools to take care of myself or put myself first. So drinking, wasn't a big deal.
When I was a kid in college and graduate school, like, you know, everybody drinks, I was drinking, it wasn't really getting it. Wasn't interrupting my life. But when I started to get these professional jobs that required me to now show up for other people and. You know, then I had babies, I have two kids, you know, you get a house, you get these responsibilities.
And then slowly I started ticking down onto like the low part of the, the turtle pile. If you're familiar with Dr. SU's pile of turtles, I went down at the bottom. Oh gosh. So you have to read it. I can't remember his name now, but. You know, all these turtles are stacked on top of this one turtle. It's the name of the book.
And you know, he's gotta hold all these people, all these other turtles up, and it's a lot of pressure. Right? So for me, I guess I just, I had never even considered taking care of myself and like how to do that and what exactly I should do. I shouldn't do to make sure that I can, I can step forth into the day and do my job.
Best, you know, as my best self. And so, you know, I, I did, so my husband and I moved to New York city and he was doing his PhD program and I started experiencing some blackouts while drinking. I'm gluten free. So you know, it, our friends would be drinking beer all day watching the football game and I'd be Downing gin and tonics.
And just like, obviously that's not sustainable. Or going to bottomless, mimosa brunches. And, and in the back of my mind, I'm like, oh, this is fun, but it's really not that fun. And then I started having kids, you know, and you you're, I was nursing, I was pregnant, I was nursing. And then the kids are little.
So I didn't really have time to be intoxicated all the time, but once that's sort of started to subside and these other things The traumatic experiences, the the responsibilities, the stress started mounting, my drinking got worse and worse, and it wasn't a lot of people talk about like a rock bottom moment.
I don't think I had that. And it's really easy to say, like, you know, like I wasn't that guy, I wasn't this bad. I knew that this was not a sustainable practice for me in my life. So I don't necessarily have like a, a worst of the worst story, but I did know, like, you know, the blackout started getting more frequent, the you know, the habit.
So like, instead of talking about the tough scene that I went to, or the stress that I was having, working on call and not seeing my family for a few days, cuz I'm working. 48 hours in a stretch. I started turning to drinking wine and having like a bottle of wine instead of doing something that was a little more useful.
And so my habits, you know, my exercise habits fall away. I was eating like crap. I wasn't communicating or sharing vulnerably and I was just drinking wine so I think that's, that was where I started to realize that I needed to make some changes. And that was about, that was actually like two years ago, right around this week.
Which is huge. Right? So I've heard research shows that it takes about six years for people to independently kind. Kick their drinking to the curb. If they're doing it by themselves or enrolling in some sort of program, if you're going at it by yourself, it takes like six years to, to really get to where you wanna be.
And for me, I took this thing by the horns and I. Just kind of knocked it out of the park. And really, I, I feel very strong in my alcohol freedom. Like you said, I, I feel like an alcohol free badass, and I love to just shout it from the rooftops. Because for me it was like this one big domino, it wasn't everything, you know, taking it away, didn't cure all the PTSD symptoms and it didn't fix the burnout.
But it did help me actually like recognize that there was stuff underneath that, that I was just numbing out too. Yeah, so that's, that's kind of my story.
Deb: Well, how did you quit? How did you change your drinking?
Kat: Yeah, so I bought the naked mind by Annie grace probably a year before I opened the book.
and I don't know if you did this, like in middle school or high school, but I took a paper grocery bag and covered the book. .
Deb: Yeah, we had to do that. So
Kat: I didn't want anybody to see, I didn't want to you know, admit that this was something I needed to do for myself. And around that time too, I had talked to my primary care doctor about my Sy, my PTSD, like symptoms. I said, I think I'm, you know, I'm anxious. I'm not so depressed, but like I'm drinking a lot.
I'm really uncomfortable. And she gave me two options. She said, or she gave me two suggestions. Go to AA and quit your job. And I was like, well, I'm not quitting my job. I love my job. I went to school for this. I'm really good at it. Fills me up, you know? And I'm certainly not going to AA. I'm a member of my community.
I didn't. And I have, this is not based on any fact or experience. In my head, I was like, there's no way I can show my face at an AA meeting and still feel like I'm a, a respected death investigator. And so so I bought the book. I started to start to think about not drinking. And during that time, that first like kind of year, I was like, I can't go one day without.
A glass of wine, you know, three glasses of wine, five gin and tonics, whatever it was. It was like all of my time at that point in my life was spent like waking up hungover. And then by like 4:00 PM, like thinking about what my next drink was gonna be. And then by the end of the evening you know, blacking out or not remembering what I said or starting a fight or all these horrible things that I didn't wanna do the next morning, but would end up doing.
Again, anyway, so yeah, so I guess it was July, 2020. I enrolled myself in one of the live alcohol experiments that the naked mine runs and jumped in, like I said, with both feet, you know, and totally like made it a part of my routine every day. I would listen to the live coaching. Every day I would walk my dogs and listen to the content that they email you.
I participated in the community. So I started looking for people like me out there, responders, nurses, you know, cops, death investigators. I found no death investigators that weren't talking about this. Right. So but I, I participated and, and it was huge and I didn't, you know, I didn't go 30 days that month.
But I did string some time together and I learned a ton. So over the next about year, I did a total of four live alcohol experiments. And each one that I, I did I learned a little bit more about myself and about booze and what it was doing for me and other people. And I got stronger and stronger, and that's when I started kind of stringing some days together and.
Kind of the thing that tipped everything on its head was I was like, this feels so lonely. There's plenty of people out there talking about sobriety, but there are no people like me, no death investigators no last responders. So I was like, I wanna be that guy that talks about this and starts to talk about being vulnerable and the stress that we see and go through.
And so. I signed up for coaching training and ended up becoming certified as of the snake mind coach and from all the kids met and all the universe. I was offered a spot to be a coach in the July, 2020 live alcohol experiment. So next week I get to bring my perspective back two years later after I started my journey for other people.
Deb: Oh, that's great. That's so, I'm so happy for you. So what do you think is unique about the first responder community and drinking? And you, you mentioned one thing that was that I hear a lot. It sometimes doesn't even matter what job you're at, but like, yeah, I can't go to AA. I can't show my face and still have my job and be respected.
So. Can you talk a little bit about first responders and, and drinking?
Kat: Yeah. I mean, it, I think this has always been a problem for first responders. But suicides in law enforcement, ER, doctors, you know, any really first responder careers are the suicide rate is through the roof right now. And there's been.
Research that shows that individuals who are on that career path don't feel comfortable accessing the mental health resources that they have at their disposal. So your job may do this. I know mine did. We had, what's called an EAP, an employee association,
Deb: something employee assistance program.
Kat: So no one ever used it that I knew of.
This is not true in. You know everywhere. I do know some people that did go to theirs and they were great, but when I tried to access mine, I felt nervous that just calling them would negate any sort of like career progress that I would make. And there's actually studies out there from psychologists that show that this is a common belief, you know, it's not true.
Clearly you can still progress in your career and you're not gonna get fired if you use your EAP. But it's a worry for some people that they're gonna be seen. Weak or you know, wimpy, I've heard people say like, you know, what you signed up for? Why are you complaining? So what I know what I, and what I'm learning is a lot of people feel very alone when they start to feel like they're You know, they're struggling with what's called what people call work life balance, which I think is kind of bullshit.
when you're working in a job where you're constantly on call or in the public view. So I think I, I want to bring alcohol freedom to first responders because I think that there's a lot of focus on. Kind of that, like the crisis of suicide right now and the mental health crisis and like people that are very bad and kind of down at the, at the bottom of the barrel.
And, and gosh, I, I can't, there's so many stories about police officers who just like. Commit suicide because they have, they don't know what else to do. They can't handle their feelings and they can't, they're just drinking all of the time and numbing out. So if I can get, if I can interrupt that cycle and I can get at folks way sooner so we can start to just like, be comfortable talking about, oh man, I just had to like wake up at 2:00 AM.
I'm really sleepy. I haven't got a chance to just like rest for an hour. Yeah. That really sinks me too. Or. You know, I had another drug overdose today. I'm really getting sick of these drug overdose calls. Yeah, me too. They're really, it's hard to be patient and kind to the families after you start having so many of these cases, when I start to say that to other investigators and saying like, oh yeah, me too.
Then we're no longer looking to alcohol to numb out. After those sort of calls or like, I don't know how to process my feelings. So instead of numbing them away, I'm talking to somebody about it and just feeling like I'm not alone has really changed the way I interact with my cases and my families and myself and my kids.
Deb: Yeah. And you had mentioned PTSD. Can you talk a little bit about what that is and if there's any links to alcohol use or whatnot?
Kat: Yeah. So I'm learning, I'm not an expert at PTSD other than my own experience. And I'm slowly part, part of my kind of journey over the last two or three years was began because I got diag diagnosed with PTSD and I was just having these weird.
Experiences that I couldn't really explain. And my doctor immediately said, oh, well, that's post traumatic stress disorder. And your brain kind of gets stuck in this kind of hyper drive. Right. So if you have like back when we were cavemen, you know, you have an intense experience and basically your brain goes into hyperdrive.
You either want a fight or. And some people argue there's also a freeze mode in there, but a normal brain presses the break after a while, once the injury or the bear or whate you know, whatever the input is, goes away and you can start to relax and calm down. And that's a normal brain, but when we are exposed to traumatic events frequently and over time and things that don't get resolved necessarily in a normal.
Manner. We have a really hard time pressing that break and calming down and bringing ourselves back to homo stasis, which like all of our bodies want to be in and our brains too. So when we're always on high alert, which is what I was feeling after a while I started expecting the worst to happen every time I would see like my kids would follow my husband out when he was driving away.
And I would see them get stuck underneath the car and like get run over or we'd be in the backyard. And I would watch a tree land fall onto them, you know, or just imagining things that weren't gonna happen. I mean, maybe they would, but I don't know that. And I just started expecting the worst situation.
I was full of anxiety dread. wasn't sleeping. You know, and I, I wasn't talking to anybody. I was just numbing out with booze all the time. And so I'm sure there's connections between PTSD. A lot of individuals, you know, veterans as well. We haven't even discussed veterans, but a lot of folks in the military field who are exposed to a lot of these loud noises all the time, traumatic events They will numb out because they don't know how to turn things off and start to shut their body down into a restful relaxing state.
And so I think a lot of our medical community is still looking at it from like an, an input kind of perspective. So, you know, like my doctor wanted to give me drugs. An anti-anxiety medications, which we know if you take them while you're drinking, they don't do anything. . So I kept drinking and my anti-anxiety meds didn't do anything for me.
So I think a lot of the work really needs to start to come from within. And I think if we start to give responders and veterans and nurses and, and police officers, the tools to kind of turn around. What they've seen and what they've heard and teach them how to bring themselves back to a calm state, they'll be way more empowered to actually wanna do so.
Instead of being like, Ooh, bad emotions, I'm scared and I'm frightened. I don't like them. Let me turn them off. They can use them. Right? Like I'm not, not sad anymore. I'm certainly, I feel sad. I get angry still, but now I start to, I can think about how I can use that. How it's a gift. And it's certainly all in all, like my PTSD journey has made me feel more like a human being, because I know now that I reacted to all that death and destruction in a totally normal way, my brain works great.
Deb: yeah. Yeah. It's trying to protect you. How, how has like your anxiety and PTSD changed since you stopped drinking?
Kat: It's a complete turnaround. So you know, I don't take anti-anxiety medication anymore. I was, like I said, I was in this cycle of where I was just only thinking about alcohol all the time.
I would wake up in the morning with a racing heart. I would shame myself and feel guilty about, oh, why did I do this again? I'm such a horrible person. I don't feel that way at all anymore. I find the gift in almost everything. So, you know, my kids are eight and 10 and they have very big emotions all the time and they love to talk with me about them.
So we, when I was growing up, we didn't talk about feelings at all. . And now my kids they'll cry with me. They'll tell me about how they're scared. They'll tell me about how they're just very happy. They're nervous. And we talk through that sort of thing. And, and I think that that in itself just engenders and creates more of a, like a comfortable, welcoming Preparatory, I guess is a good word.
Like I feel more prepared now to handle nervousness and worry rather than let it build up to be anxiety because you can't plan the future. No one can, we don't know. We love to guess what's gonna happen based on experiences in the past. But I don't know. I know that I've now created this life that I don't wanna numb to, but I, you know, maybe I will drink again.
I don't know that, but I do know that right now, I love my life so much that I don't wanna have a glass of wine that I know it doesn't taste good. You know that I know it doesn't, it's not gonna help me process my feelings that it's gonna make me sleep like crap. And that in itself is just like such a gift.
My life is so very different and amazing now
Deb: yeah. Yeah. I can tell you're glowing. Yeah. Well what's some of your tips or advice for people when they are dealing with anxiety or work stress, what are some things that we can do besides turning to drinking?
Kat: Yeah, I I started to create a toolbox for responders because we're never gonna change the job.
Right. Death in my job at the medical examiner's office death doesn't happen from, you know, nine to five, Monday through Friday. It's always going to be all the time. And other things that we can't change are Our resources. Right? So hospitals police departments, medical examiner stuff is we are chronically understaffed and underfunded, and it always does seem like the management is terrible.
we can't change that. And what we can change is what we do with ourselves and our feelings and our thoughts. So I think my dream, you know, the, the big goal is to be able to. Offer this toolbox for responders to be able to kind of control themselves. And that means setting yourself up for success every day.
So you wanna be sure that you build sleep into your daily regimen, right? So, yes, I know you're gonna be on call for five days straight, but if you can. Be sure to include an hour on each end of your case, you know? So your kids, no, this is not the time to see me just cause I'm walking in the door. We're not gonna interact just yet.
I need to go home and go to bed. Or in the summer months they knew that they weren't allowed to give me a hug until I took off my clothes. because I probably smelled terrible. But so sleep is a big one. Sleep is kind of is the number one goal for when I started coming down from this thing was like really fixing my sleep habits and that's, I mean, that's hours and hours of podcasts and reading and
Learning how to kind of integrate your sleep into an on-call life. And that's just making boundaries eating and drinking is also a big up there, right? So at, when I was really twirled up with burnout and PTSD, I was not sleeping and I was also eating junk from gas stations. . That is a no, no. Now that is a non-negotiable.
I will not eat anything that is sold at a gas station. And that is something that I certainly recommend my clients consider as having like their go bag with their work boots and their uniform and their flashlights and their, but they also have food already that is healthy and will give you energy a bottle of water, you know, I never learned this stuff.
When I was in my field training with my FTO, they never told me to prepare myself snacks. They never told me to like, think about sleeping when you can. And so when I introduced this sort of thing to responders, they're like, oh, whatever, no. And how, I mean, I don't wanna be rude, but how many firefighters or police officers or nurses you've met who are obese and they're not sleeping and these are medical professionals, right?
I mean, I know better than anyone that life is short because I handle death every day. And I also know that natural death is one of the leading causes of death. So I should know that eating healthfully and exercising is very important for longevity. So teaching and actually speaking out to professionals in the responder community about like, yeah, you actually do need to eat a salad.
that Snickers bar tastes awesome. Right this second, but it's not gonna sustain you for your 12 hour shift. Let's have a salad. And kind of, I, I have learned that, like just saying that really helps people kind of like, oh, you're right.
And the one other big thing for me is being vulnerable. So if, if responders don't feel comfortable talking to somebody else, like a therapist, their EAP um, a coworker. Or even a coach like me starting to write down their thoughts in a journal is really huge. So you don't feel like you're, you know, holding this stuff inside the there's actually a community of, of folks that work with PTSD survivors and they call it mindful decontamination.
Oh, which I just love. So, you know, just getting that crap outta your head and onto a piece of paper or sharing it with somebody. Those are my big things in my toolbox.
Deb: Those are great. And they're, I mean, those all sound helpful for any anybody, no matter what you're doing. But definitely being aware of like, if you're working shifts and long hours and responding to these high stress calls have you seen a change in, in the effects of alcohol, in the kind of Like patient population, the kind of like what kind of deaths you're investigating or those kinds of things.
Like, how has that changed in the last. However many
Kat: years since COVID yeah, we've heard. So, I mean, alcohol has always been a thing and the opiate use epidemic right now is, has really increased since like 20 16, 20 17. We've had a lot more drug over doses. In the community. The problem with opiates is like, it affects everyone, you know, like young, old across communities, white, black, rich, poor that is a very tragic issue that we see a lot of.
But alcohol has just always been there. You he's been there and. Alcohol is kind of at the baseline of a lot of other things. So car accident, you know, we handle a lot of car accidents. One of the first questions we ask is if there's alcohol on board, do you smell any booze? Are there any bottles in the car?
Suicide, one of the first questions that I ask, is there any alcohol bottles nearby? Is this person a known drinker? You know, and then, like I said before, the natural death, so alcohol related disease is considered a natural death for the medical examiner on the death certificate. So if an individual has you know, pancreatitis or end stage liver disease, any of those things that may be a result of years of chronic alcohol abuse.
You know, we do, we explain and we present that case in a report to the medical examiner, but he'll list that as a natural death. So it's amazing how I see it. Permeate kind of very many cause and manners of death.
Deb: Yeah. So is a natural death. Anything that's not caused by an accident? It's likes the definition.
Kat: Yeah. for the, the kind of the reason why the medical examiner or the coroner exists is to sign the death certificate, right. And to so that you can have a funeral, you have to have a death certificate to have a funeral. The death certificate is signed by your primary care doctor. If you're old and sick and die in a hospital Et cetera.
I can go on and on about that. But the medical examiner, the coroner will get involved if there's an accident, suicide, homicide, a death that's unattended. So if you die at home, if you're under a certain age if there's any sort of decomposition present, which leads to questions of identification.
If you're outside, if you're a child you know, if there's a public health risk, some offices were inundated with COVID while it's a natural death, right? Cuz it's a disease process. Some of the offices around the country were actually handling those cases and signing death certificates. And it varies everywhere.
There's about 3000 medical examiner and corner offices in the us. And there's about 3000 different ways to do things. Oh. So it's a it's a complicated field to get in which leads to a lot of stress for investigators, right? Because there are many different ways to do things and there's no one career path.
So the way I do things, maybe different from a colleague in New York or Kansas or something. So anyway, the natural death Question the medical examiner might get involved, cuz there's a lot of alcohol at the scene in those cases and we wanna make sure the person didn't fall down and hit their head.
You know, they may be very young people that are in their thirties and forties can die from natural complications of alcohol use disorder. And when we have somebody that young, we can't really say like they had heart, you know, heart attack and they're in their sixties or they had diabetes and they're in their eighties.
We wanna make sure that we rule out anything else, suspicious or unnatural.
Deb: Interesting. Okay. So that kind of helps. What would you say, like to anybody who's listening and they're wanting to change their drinking and they're in a high stress job.
Kat: Yeah. It's completely doable. It may seem like you can't go one day without a glass of wine or that you're just so tired that you can.
Add one more thing to your plate, but all you have to do is begin this process and believe in yourself and you'd be amazed at how far you can come.
Deb: Yeah. That's a, like a real message of hope. Like you can do this
Kat: so worth it
Deb: for sure. You can do this and it's worth it. Yes. I love that. Well, how can someone find you?
Kat: Yeah, I have a website forensics found.com on the Instagrams at it's called responders last call and creating a course that should be launching at the end of July. I hope. That's gonna be called the burnout protocol. That's gonna take people through this kind of toolbox that I've created with some bite size videos, very you know, easy to follow, just some tools and tactics to kind of integrate this sort of thing into your life.
And then I'll be coaching in the live alcohol experiment in July. So if anybody's interested in just taking a little 30 day break, join me.
Deb: Super exciting. I'm, I'm so glad you came on here and just talked about what you're doing and, and just the unique situation for first responders. And sounds like it needs to be, we need more people to talk about it.
We need more firefighters and police officers and ER, workers and medical investigator, you know, everyone like. To be more vocal about it and, and just know that it's not weak, that it's actually making you stronger
Kat: a hundred percent. That's exactly what I've learned over the last couple of years is I'm not alone.
And as soon as I start talking about it, people are very excited to talk about it with me. So I, I have to be that mouthpiece and the one that breaks the ice, I'm very happy to do it.
Deb: That's so great. Well, thank you. Thank you for sharing your story and helping others. And I just think it's fantastic work.
You're doing so. Thank you. Thanks.