By Jessica Porter

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It would usually be around midnight that Geoff Little would drive his royal blue Ford TC Cortina from work at the old Central Police Station, along the streets of East Perth towards Gloucester Park.

The rumble of his Cortina could just be heard above Johnny Cash and Gene Pitney being played from the cassette player.

The streets of East Perth were still at that time and not a soul could be seen.

That was until the Cortina’s headlights came upon a circle of cars with up to 12 off-duty cops mulling around their bonnets.

This was the Twilight Tavern.

Known to many in the 70s, 80s and 90s, the Twilight Tavern (or Choir Practice as it was also known) was renowned as a place that was always open after a long shift. A place for regular, and sometimes problem drinkers, to come and drown the stresses of their job.

Back then, according to Geoff, it was commonplace for officers to manage the demands of their work by sharing tales over a few quiet ales.

“That was what we did back then,” said Geoff Little, who retired in 2003 as a Senior Sergeant.

It was also what Geoff did after many shifts.

He would turn to alcohol as a quick and easy way to relieve stress, unwind and throw off the coating that police work enveloped him in. The traffic crashes, the sudden deaths, the domestic violence incidents. Geoff used to wash them all away with each sip.

With each stubbie of beer (always mid-strength, not any of that ‘hard stuff’) Geoff found himself relaxing into a nicer, quieter, non-police version of himself. His tension would simply melt away.

But over the course of 30-odd years, each stubbie and each sip would not only corrode the stress he felt, it would also start to destroy his health.

Even before his career in WA Police, Geoff was a constant drinker, especially after his National Service deployment to Vietnam.

Sent as a baby-faced 20-year-old, Geoff turned 21 on Vietnamese soil just one week after his deployment. It was just on a year that the young soldier was on active duty before returning to WA.

Upon returning from war, Geoff found it difficult to find the right job. Although he was trained as a boilermaker/welder, he couldn’t settle.

It was on a recommendation from a family friend that Geoff entered the Maylands Police Academy in 1973. After just three months, Geoff was a fully operational police officer whose first placement was Northam.

Although the job would entail some pretty rough times, it also provided the path leading directly to Constable Jan Lightbody, who would become his wife.

Geoff worked at many stations across the State; South Perth, Victoria Park, Brookton, Fremantle, Subiaco and Kensington.

But since his retirement, Geoff has undergone three major surgeries, and if the coin had landed any other way, he might not be alive to tell the tale.

He links using alcohol as a coping mechanism to a myriad of health problems he has now endured; two heart surgeries including a triple bypass and a surgery to remove his gallbladder in October 2018.

Geoff’s gallbladder surgery was scheduled on the same day as Jan’s birthday. It was only meant to be one night in hospital.

But one night turned into more than a month.

The gallbladder removal surgery was complicated by Geoff’s enlarged liver. Things also turned dangerous when an infection took hold in his chest and abdomen cavity, a condition known as Peritonitis.

The future started to look bleak, and doctors had to put Geoff into an induced coma for three and a half weeks.

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“It was a nightmare,” Jan said.

“I couldn’t believe this happened. It was meant to be a simple gallbladder operation.”

Jan said Geoff had the same look as her father, mother and grandfather before they passed. She felt she had to warn their two children that their dad might not make it.

The doctors told Jan Geoff was only a 50 per cent chance to make it out alive.

Luckily, Geoff fought the infection and came out of the coma.

However, he didn’t escape the lingering signs of infection and the toll constant drinking had on his body.

Even trying to pick up his beloved golf club was too much, let alone swing it. Geoff had lost the strength in his upper arms and legs. While he could walk and drive a car, it was a struggle to do much else.

Leaving hospital, Geoff asked the specialist if he could still have a few drinks over Christmas and New Year. In no uncertain terms, he was told that if he had another drink, there was no guarantee that he wouldn’t be back in that same hospital bed with countless beeping machines attached to him, again trying to keep him alive.

It was that day that Geoff knew he had to give up drinking forever.

On reflection, Geoff knows he used alcohol as an unhealthy pressure valve. It would be a constant feature of every celebration, every high, every low and almost any day ending in Y.

Retired US police officer and Executive Director of the Law Enforcement Survival Institute John Marx said was it common for officers to use alcohol in unhealthy ways because of the pressures of their job.

“Alcohol consumption has almost become a rite in law enforcement,” he wrote.

“It surrounds our social interactions, and it’s used to self-medicate and numb ourselves from the things that bother us.

“Stress is a critical challenge in law enforcements and despite what is commonly believed, alcohol is not an effective stress reliever. In fact its consumption may even exacerbate your stress problems, physiologically as well as emotionally and, like caffeine, can disrupt your ability to sleep effectively.”

Jan could see the problems unhealthy alcohol use was having on their family. It sometimes left Jan having to pick up the pieces of their lives without him.

On occasions, she would be tasked with picking up their children when Geoff had had few too many beers and would always be the skipper.

She knew that Geoff would have to realise the impact his drinking had himself, before he could change his behaviour.

“It was fairly frightening,” Geoff admitted.

“I was a constant drinker. It became routine and it was what I did. It’s like lighting up a cigarette; it becomes habit forming but not all habits are healthy.

“I’ve got two kids, 37 and 35, no grandkids at this stage, but I’d love to be around if they do have kids, and the way it was looking, I wasn’t going to be.”

Geoff doesn’t want younger officers to make the same mistakes he did and use alcohol to cope with the stresses that come with the uniform.

He wants others to learn from his mistakes.

“I only ever drank mid-strength beer. I never drank spirits, I don’t drink wine. I’ve never drunk high alcohol drinks,” he said.

But over a long period of use, it can all build up.

“The main message is to just let guys know, that extra drink can be enough to get you into some pretty serious strife.

“There are a lot healthier ways to unwind than drinking alcohol. Even a cup of tea, having a chat… just find other ways to unwind, relax and let go on the job.”