You are not alone! According to Ellen Kirschman, Ph.D., in Psychology Today (June 2017), 19% of police officers have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Approximately 34% suffer symptoms, but do not meet the standard for full diagnosis. Speaking to some of my colleagues, they too, suffer many of the symptoms. Therefore, I believe those numbers could be much higher since cops just do not like to talk about it. Today’s policing is far different from when I started 25 years ago. However, standard policing stressors have not changed for example: schedules, contracts (or lack thereof), and just the everyday challenges of police work.
In its simplest definition, PTSD is an anxiety problem that develops in some people after extremely traumatic events, such as combat, crime, an accident or natural disaster. People with PTSD may relive the event via intrusive memories, flashbacks and nightmares; avoid anything that reminds them of the trauma; and have anxious feelings they did not have before that are so intense their lives are disrupted (Adapted from Encyclopedia Psychology. Web Retrieved 6 November 2017, http://www.apa.org/topics/ptsd/). For me, March 14, 2016 was my breaking point. I had been having nightmares and panic attacks for months leading to my meltdown. I have had panic attacks in stores with a cart fully loaded and had to run outside and try to get to my car in a state of confusion. But, that night in March, I somehow wandered out of bed and curled up on a tile floor in my office and fell into a deep sleep, unknowingly. My wife was leaving for work, thinking I had already left but saw my tactical bag by the door (I was scheduled to work that morning). She panicked, and started screaming for me and searched the house when she came upon me and could not wake me up. Thankfully, she is a registered nurse, got me awake, made a physical assessment of my well-being and realized this was much more than we could handle without professional psychological help.
By this time, I had been a police officer for 23 years and had witnessed some traumatic events in my career; just as most first responders do. When I was a young patrolman (off duty) in 1996, my future wife and I were at a local driving range, hitting some golf balls. We witnessed a small plane in distress and then crashing past the golfing range into the woods. After running through the woods and through the acrid smell of airplane fuel, we came upon the crash site. To me, it looked like a movie set, quiet and still. Moving toward the plane, it looked like someone took a can opener and just peeled back the aluminum fuselage, exposing the three occupants. Unfortunately, all three were gruesomely killed instantly. As time passed more people arrived and I tried to contain the scene until the police and fire arrived. We spent that night and the next day talking to the FAA and NTSB. This incident left an indelible mark on me, although I did not know it, yet.
Over my career, I suppressed my feelings of these types of incidents and basically became numb; thinking this is just what cops do. I should have dealt with them after they occurred. These are some of my symptoms that surfaced: constant migraines, state of being in a very dark place in my mind, lack of sleep, night/terrors, panic/anxiety attacks, distancing myself from friends and loved ones, incapacity for intimacy, “seeing” my victim’s faces in shadows, fear of large spaces and large crowds, hypervigilance, over/binging eating, bouts of crying, uncontrollable tremors, chest pains, black outs (loss of sight and/or hearing) during these panic attacks, paranoia, feelings of hopelessness, and suicidal thoughts.
I started doctoring about 10 years ago for the physical illnesses, not knowing if they were physical or psychosomatic. I then started psychiatric counseling privately. This is when it was determined that I was suffering from depression, an eating disorder and other health issues due to cumulative post-traumatic stress disorder. Some PTSD’s may be from a single violent event such as in battle, a shooting, a car crash, etc. My PTSD was from many “smaller” events that built up over the years. Sometimes, just work-related issues or the work environment producing much of my anxiety. Lastly, little or no debriefing after critical incidents earlier in my career played a major role in my depression.
In the past, the way I dealt with my fears was to immerse myself into them e.g., water; I became a lifeguard as a teenager, fire; I became a volunteer firefighter, school; I went on to get my graduate degree, crime; entered law enforcement career. However, with PTSD, now trying to desensitize myself by immersing myself into situations as I did in the past, only backfired and caused more mental trauma and prohibited my healing by creating setbacks.
There are other stressors in the lives of people suffering from PTSD. Much stress is put on their partner/spouse and their families. They may feel like an outsider or grow distant. There is a financial stress; from the constant doctoring, therapy, and different drug therapies. Especially in the beginning when the doctors must find out which psych drug “cocktail” works best for your body. Learning to live on a disability paycheck can be stressful, as well. Lastly, learning to navigate the paper trails of doctors, insurance companies, human resources, etc.
There is no “quick fix” for cumulative PTSD, it may take years of psycho-therapy to help you to feel better or more like yourself. There is no magic pill for a cure. Many trial and errors with medication and many with ill effects are compounded with other physical problems. In my case, hypertension and degenerative disks and arthritis in my back from wearing our issued equipment and sitting for long periods of time over 25 years only added to my problems. Many officers turn to alcohol, drug use, promiscuity/risky behavior, which only leads to more problems instead of seeking help. Myself, I turned to food to self-medicate causing not only more health problems (I blew up to 350 lbs., needing gastric surgery), which made me feel insecure and inadequate as a police officer.
There is a lack of knowledge officer’s face with PTSD; there is a lack of trust, the lack of empathy from the public and even the court system to see this as a workman’s compensation issue. Many judges see PTSD as a side effect for first responders and “we” are culpable of our own issues because “we knew what we were getting into when we joined the force.” Meaning; to normalize abnormal situations, critical incidents, blood, gore, suicides (of citizens and our brother and sisters in blue) and death in general is just part of the job. I lost too many friends and co-workers to suicide. Somehow, we must find a way to end the stigma of mental illness. Not only within the police population, but in the civilian population, as well.
Seek help! Stay away from that dark side. Talk to someone who listens and understands. Many departments have an Employee Assistance Program, (EAP) affiliated with a hospital. You can go through your Union for direction. You can do it privately, as I did, outside the department. It has been a long road to recovery, but I am in a better place and instead of feeling hopeless, I am now hopeful. Educate yourself, there are many good books on the subject, and books for family members dealing with someone with PTSD. Godspeed!
You can contact New Jersey’s Critical Incident Stress Management Team:
Retired Police Officer Gino Giorgi served 25 years in the Patrol Division for a Bi-State Police Department. He earned a M.S. from St. Joseph’s University in Criminal Justice and Sociology and a B.A. from Eastern University in Organizational Management and Business.