On New Year’s Eve 2000, Mike Savard and his girlfriend, Laura, were enjoying a quiet dinner out at a local restaurant. Dressed to the nines, they were waiting for coffee and dessert when Laura reached into her purse, pulled out a little white box, and slid it across the table.
“A little gift,” she said.
Inside was a silver medallion with the United Nations peace dove engraved on it. At first he thought she wanted to honour his time as part of the recent mission in Kosovo, which he had just returned from six weeks prior. It had been a difficult and traumatic time for Mike, having just lost his dear friend and colleague Dan Rowan in a plane crash.
But it wasn’t that.
“Will you marry me?” she asked.
Mike was surprised, but didn’t hesitate. He said yes on the spot.
Having started working for CSC as a correctional officer on July 16, 1984 at Saskatchewan Penitentiary, Mike’s résumé was already lengthy and impressive, one that had taken him from the institution to staff colleges and eventually NHQ. He and Laura met in a chance meeting at the staff college when Laura was there for training and Mike was visiting a friend.
Prior to their engagement, Mike and Laura had been together for 11 years, but marriage was never part of the plan. He figured they were as settled as they would ever be, but the events in Kosovo changed things. Mike had been on that same plane just a few weeks before the crash, and ever since returning to Canada, he’d run into people he knew and see the same stunned reaction: “You’re alive!” They thought he had been on the plane that day.
The trauma of losing a close friend took its toll on him.He had a hard time “unscrambling” his head after that. He found himself forgetting things he knew like the back of his hand before Kosovo. His favorite TV channels at home, people’s names, and subject matter he was teaching at the staff college were suddenly gone. He just couldn’t remember. That’s when he sought help.
“I used the Employee Assistant Program (EAP) big time,” he says. “I don’t remember ever thinking that I was going crazy or that something was wrong with me, but I do remember wanting to know if this was normal and if it would go away.”
Over the course of his 31 years with CSC, Mike can list six incidents that caused him to seek assistance from the EAP and Critical Incident Stress Management programs.
“A favorite TV personality of mine uses the slogan ‘Sick Not Weak’ for mental illness,” he says, “and I identify pretty strongly with that statement. It’s easy to show your incapacity when you break your arm because it’s easy to see. But anything inside your head is invisible. The impacts of the broken arm are temporary, but if you don’t deal with something going on in your head, it can consume you. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It means you need help.”
Mike is proud of the career he’s had with CSC. The camaraderie he had with colleagues while working as a Correctional Officer can’t be beat, he says, and despite having played on countless hockey teams over the years, he will always say that the best team he’s ever been on was the Emergency Response Team at Millhaven. But with that comes the challenges of working in a correctional environment.
“It can be hard. You live with a heightened sense of awareness,” he says. “It’s not a question of constant paranoia or impending doom, but you become so used to watching, observing, and paying attention that it’s almost like you can’t shake that when you’re away from it. Some things just stay with you.”
This is something that both Mike and his wife learned to manage over the years, but it didn’t come easy. There was a time when Mike was more irritable, tense, and short with the people around him.
“It was the sort of behaviour that makes those around you feel like they have to walk on eggshells out of fear of you going off like a grenade,” he says.
A turning point came when Mike came home from a night out with the boys, playing hockey. His knuckles were bruised and bloody from a fight he’d been in. Laura had enough. She called him on his behaviour, said she could see that he was letting things from work pile up rather than dealing with them, and that he needed help.
For Mike they are like file folders in his mind. Each folder represents a difficult event that took place. Kosovo is one, and there are five others. One was an attempted escape by an offender where Mike was forced to fire several warning shots to stop him. The situation escalated so quickly that he can still remember the tension in the yard as it took place. He didn’t get home until 3 a.m. that morning and recalls the physical toll that it took on his body over the following days. The body shakes, the fatigue, the lack of appetite, the mental fog. He knew he should check in with someone.
“I think you know when it’s time for a tune-up,” he says. “It’s an opportunity to talk about the folders in your mind. Sometimes one will pop open, kind of like a hundred pieces of paper falling onto the floor of your office. You just have to pick them up and put them back in order again.”
The key to making it work as a couple who both work in this field is simple, says Mike. Communication and honesty. He learned the hard way that letting things fester can only make them worse. That’s why he and Laura implemented their ’30 minute rule.’ It meant that every day after work they each had 30 minutes to vent about anything that was weighing on them. It relieved the tension and prevented the arguments that would often follow a long and difficult day.
Mike and Laura just celebrated 26 years together. In August 2015 Mike joined her in retirement. There are aspects of their careers that will always be with them but, he says, they are committed to staying on top of them. ‘Tune-ups’ will continue as needed, and open and honest communication as well.
“Not only was I lucky enough to marry someone that I love dearly, but I married the smartest person I’ve ever met. She was the one who told me to get help. She was the one who said we’re going to get better. That’s the way we’ve rolled ever since.”