The things we’ve seen find a way of following us…
The nightmares used to be nightly.
There are several variations of them, all stemming from incidents that I experienced during my career in the Baltimore Police Department.
Gratefully, the frequency of these nightmares has decreased dramatically. Sometimes they are only once or twice every couple of months. Time away from police work has helped, but I’ve also learned things to do to help decrease their frequency. However, nothing seems to take away the sheer intensity of these nightmares.
The dream that awoke me like a thunderbolt last night was from the ‘Burning Man’ incident. I’m not one to try to find a reason to attribute to all these incidents. But, I’ve learned over the years that if I want to get better sleep there are things I need to be aware of and things that I need to do. I’ll get to those in a minute.
The Burning Man Incident
I was a rookie officer in the Baltimore Police Department, about 6 months out of the academy. I was 21-years-old at the time.
It was a beautiful spring day. My side partner, an officer from the neighboring post to mine, received a call from dispatch for a man that was threatening to set himself on fire with gasoline. Even as a rookie, I had learned that there were certain calls that immediately stood out from the non-stop calls for service. And this one got my attention immediately.
While driving to the call, my thoughts were racing… I hope and pray that the call is unfounded… what should I do… how can I talk this man down from a suicide attempt… I hope the call is unfounded… what are the procedures and general orders to follow to handle a situation like this?
We were never trained to deal with a situation like this…. what am I supposed to do if the call is real?
As I turned the corner in my marked police car, I could see thick black smoke coming from the front yard of a house down the street. I’m no expert in fire, but petroleum based fires create a lot of dark smoke.
Driving closer, I could see the burning silhouette of a person partially engulfed in flames, still moving around in a very spastic, uncontrolled manner.
My mind was screaming out a non-stop barrage of thoughts and utter revulsion at what I was seeing. I have absolutely no idea what I said on the radio… I have no clue if I was calm, professional or not.
As I pulled up and started to exit the patrol car, the body fell to the ground. That’s when I noticed the smell…. I can’t and won’t even try to attempt to describe it, but I’ll never forget it.
There were a couple of people on the porch of the house screaming and crying; we later learned that they were family members. It took a few moments before I could even tell what they were saying. My hearing was off, it wasn’t working correctly… their voices seemed to have come from a television or radio that was inside the house.
When the man fell to the ground the flames were almost out… He died a few moments later as we were by his side…
Other than calling for an ambulance and the fire department, there was absolutely nothing we could do for him.
I remember thinking, ‘what first aid can I do… where can I touch him?’ before he died… I hate to say it but part of me was relieved that he passed, because, other than putting out the fire, I had absolutely no idea what to do.
Nothing prepared me for that.
Once he died, I knew what procedures to follow: notify my supervisor, call homicide, protect and preserve the crime scene. We treated all unnatural deaths as homicides until they were proven otherwise. Those things had been drilled into me since day one.
But, the same strict guidelines and procedures don’t exist for the human, emotional side of these traumatic incidents. Talking with the family afterwards, trying to help them with their emotions, etc. And most importantly, at that time there were absolutely zero policies or procedures available for us to process the aftermath of the incident.
Fortunately, this was not the type of incident where we would encounter daily reminders, or for lack of better words… triggers.
I won’t go into details about the nightmares that jolt me out of bed… they are far too disturbing. It’s important to note that the nightmares don’t always mirror the actual incident. They often feature a very dark, different series of events.
But, I have learned that there are a few things that I can do which help reduce the frequency of the nightmares.
1.) Acceptance. I’ve learned to accept that the nightmares come with the job and the traumatic experiences. I no longer try to fight them, make them go away, or engage in thinking that I shouldn’t have to go through them. I’m not alone. I’m not the only one that goes through these.
2.) Developing a healthy plan of action for when they occur. If I can fall back asleep, great. If not, I get up and do something else until I can. A distraction like television or a book is useful. What I don’t do is take a pill or drink to try to go to sleep.
3.) Meditation. I used to be very close-minded to this concept, but not anymore. For some people there are many advanced ways of meditating. For me it is far less complicated. I try to make sure I have a half-hour of quiet time, not rushing around or trying to frantically get stuff done before going to bed. When I get into bed, I try to clear my mind and quiet my thoughts. There are many different techniques. I tried many and failed until I discovered a way that worked.
4.) During the day, I do my best to avoid stress, conflict and arguments. I know that is not always possible, but when I live a more peaceful life in the daytime, I sleep much better at night.
5.) Be easy on yourself. I had to learn to stop with the ‘could have, should have’ talk. I should never beat myself up for not being able to handle it better. Just like the day of the incident, I did the best that I could with what I had available. And I’m doing the best I can today. Some days I do better and others not as much. But it is far better today than it used to be.
6.) Talk to someone who understands and has either been through or is currently dealing with post traumatic events.
For me, writing about it seems to help. If you would like to do the same, send an email to [email protected].
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