Janet Sandman's struggle is one to which a lot of us can relate.
"I was struggling. I was really struggling," Janet said describing her day-to-day difficulty. "I was not sleeping at night. I was grinding my teeth. I was constantly on alert... hyper-vigilant... on guard... looking for what was going to go wrong."
Stressed and anxious, Janet said she found meditation through desperation.
"I tell people i'm not 'woo-woo.' This wasn't my go-to by nature. I had to have it proven to me," Janet explained.
Details matter to this Army veteran who spent eight months deployed to Saudi Arabia in support of the 3rd Armored Division during Operation Desert Storm. She started researching.
"I didn't really know anything about post traumatic stress at the time," Janet said. "I know I had a hard time adjusting. Nobody really talked about post traumatic stress when we got back home. It just wasn't discussed."
Back home from her deployment, Janet worked as a cross-trained police officer, firefighter, paramedic in Highland Park.
"I tell everybody it was the best job I ever had until it wasn't," Janet said as her voice trailed off. "When I started to change and become someone that I didn't recognize anymore."
Janet retired as a Captain after 21 years on the force.
"A lot of the symptoms started manifesting more for me, surprisingly, as I went up in rank," Janet said. "Because of the responsibility, the fear that I was going to make a decision that cost someone their life."
Janet made a decision to start a daily meditation practice.
"I woke up one morning a year after I retired and realized I was still as stressed as I had been the day left," Janet said. "The research was there, and so I decided to give it a try."
Five weeks in, Janet said everything in her life started to shift.
"I have a better ability to access decision making in chaos. I'm more focused, I'm more engaged. I'm less emotionally reactive," Janet said. "So, with a regular meditation practice, it isn't a decision I make when I am confronted with something that makes me mad or something that I'm afraid of-- it becomes a part of who you are."
Janet experienced so much benefit in her own meditation that she became certified to teach it.
"I was so blown away by the difference in me," Janet said. "I really was able to reclaim my life. I see what it's done for me, and I want others to know that there is something out there that has the potential of helping."
Janet now leads public classes through her company, The Noble Dragonfly and she developed a curriculum specifically for first responders.
"In this line of work, our stress response is chronically activated. Constantly. And if we don't have tools to help our bodies release that stress, then it accumulates," Janet explained to a police academy class in Arlington. "That's when it starts causing all of these negative impacts on our lives like it did with me."
Research is finally catching up when it comes to law enforcement and mindfulness meditation. A study in 2013 found mindfulness was associated with less severe PTSD for police officers, increased resilience and decreased burnout. And research is getting more sophisticated to include functional MRIs-- scans showing how mindfulness meditation practices change the physical structure and function of your brain.
"I thought this would be something good to get into," said Tony Collins, a 911 dispatcher. He's one of the guys who picks up the phone when you have an emergency. We met Collins at his second meditation class.
"I've heard people take their last breath on the phone," Collins said. "I can't always talk about the things that I've said or heard or experienced, and I know a lot of people don't think about it, but we can suffer from PTSD just from the things that we hear."
Collins' boss, Chief Paul Sandman, is Janet's husband. He attends her classes, too.
"Our folks work 24 hours on, 48 hours off, said Chief Sandman. "I'm going to walk out of here in five minutes and go bury a brother. And that's tough." He paused. "For us, it's not getting to retirement. For us, it's living 20 years past retirement. And really have a fulfilling healthy life."
A healthy life -- inspired by someone who has made a career by serving others.
"If there's some way I can help, I want to help," Janet said. "In the military, in this community as a police officer, firefighter. And this is another way to serve."
For regular area meditation classes:
More about mediation for first responders, click here.