Every police officer is ready to fight to the death. This seems like an extreme statement but it’s the truth. We all know that we may need to fight to defend our life or another’s life at any given time. We practice never giving up and constantly being aware. We are trained to be prepared for any situation imaginable. On the job we are constantly assessing threats and have been told since we started that anyone can be a threat. A child, an old lady, it doesn’t matter. In my academy training they had scenarios that were no win scenarios to drive this point home. “You cleared that house, what about the small guy in the ceiling, or the woman in the fridge. Boom, they just killed you.” What does this constant awareness do to us? What happens at the end of the shift when we take off the uniform and go home? We still have our badges and guns. We are still prepared to be engaged in the fight if need be.
There is a current vocal minority that is putting a lot of pressure on law enforcement officers. I admit that there have been some tragic situations and even criminal actions by police officers. However, if you took any career and looked through every member of that job you would find criminals among them. These individuals are rare and are terminated from employment and criminally charged. I think a lot of people don’t understand what police officer’s sacrifice for the job. Each officer started working to help people. He or she agreed that their life would be placed in harm’s way for the benefit of others. It is more difficult to be an officer now than in any time before. There are celebrations when officers are murdered and social media allows officers to have a constant feed of radical opinions thrown at them.
There has been a widespread campaign of awareness that I have witnessed in the past 14 years. When I began in law enforcement, I had never heard of PTSD or understood its deep connection with clinical depression. I understood PTSD only from movies and television. Like the others in my military past and my police academy compatriots I felt I was immune from such traumas.
The Diagnostic and statistical manual for mental disorders, 5th edition, explains that PTSD is a history of exposure to a traumatic event. The classification has four main symptoms of intrusion, avoidance, negative alterations in cognition and mood, and alterations in arousal and reactivity. The DSM further relates the person can directly experience a traumatic event, witness a traumatic event, learn about it happening to a person close to them, or experience first-hand repeated extreme exposure to aversive details of the traumatic event.
In morning lineups, approximately 5 years ago, we began having training on what the signs and symptoms of PTSD were. Each person around the table shared experiences from the mundane discomfort in crowds to the retelling of catastrophic on the job events. As we each shared I felt confirmation that my anxiety outside the job was normal. We each shared similar stories. I told myself it was part of the job and therefore not something I should be concerned about.
I was living everyday as a raw nerve. I couldn’t stand watching cable news because I perceived it as a threat. The tone and rapid pace of the banter triggered my fight, flight, or freeze response. With years of training engrained into me, I leaned more toward the fight response. It would cause me to be irritable and aggressive. This was simple to fix; I could just change the channel or turn off the TV. But the feeling of being attacked continued to grow and take over other aspects of my life. I couldn’t go to a store during peak hours. I understand that few people enjoy crowds but I would have a physical reaction to my anxiety. I could feel my body temperature increase, my forehead would begin to sweat, my back would start to ache, and my hands would tingle. I would be irritable and ready to attack at a moment’s notice. The result was a constant appearance that I was angry or in a bad mood.
It continued to spread through my life. When I would return home from work, I would be greeted by the dog that was just happy to see me. I would feel attacked and angry that the dog would be in my personal space. I just wanted her to leave me alone. In the morning meetings we would share our story and I would think to myself that I was normal. I would think that it was part of the job.
When I was a child, my stepfather had PTSD. He spent 5 years in prison for selling cocaine. He would wake in a panic ready to defend himself. He had lived in a constant state of fear that he would be killed at any moment.
In 2003 I spent a year in Iraq. During my time there, I was engaged in firefights and other situations that put my life at risk. I had to accept that at any moment I could be killed. When I returned I had difficulty sleeping through the night. I had to ensure that my bedroom door was locked and barricaded with a piece of furniture. I would wake many times throughout the night with my heart pounding. I had what I understood was PTSD. After one year I could sleep with the door open. After three years I didn’t have the sleep attacks. I believed I was done with PTSD.
When I started working on the police force, I was working a 12 hour shift that would frequently turn into a 14 or 15 hour shift. I had 7 years on the job and two tours in Iraq under my belt. I was performing well at work. I would get home and crash. I would watch TV and do as little as possible. I would have four days off and the first of those four days would always be sleeping in and then sitting in front of the TV for the entire day.
When my daughter was born this behavior did not change. I would spend time with her and try to play with her. I would give her a bath and tell her stories. I wouldn’t show that I was annoyed by the effort it took to do each of these tasks. With every chore or pleasantry I would cringe inside and think “God damn it, just leave me alone.” It could have been the wife, the child, the dog, the friends, the boss, the dispatcher, or the citizens. It didn’t matter. I just wanted to be left alone. In the time that I was alone I didn’t want to do anything at all.
I had an idea that something was wrong and I needed to speak with a therapist. I was a member of peer support and thought I should talk with the department therapist. I told myself I should make an appointment with her. This internal dialog lasted for over two years.
Meanwhile, I didn’t want to do anything when I wasn’t at work. I never wanted to socialize. I didn’t do the grocery shopping, or clean the house. I cared for my daughter and am glad I never skirted my parenting responsibility.
I was under the impression that PTSD only took root from one specific incident. What I learned is that when I went to Iraq with the military we would go on missions. During the missions we were “switched on” meaning we were hyper vigilant. When we become cops we decide that were are going to be on mission full time. The constant hyper vigilance wears on your mind.
I realized how bad I had gotten at a small brunch spot in the trendy part of the city. I was waiting with my wife and daughter on the sidewalk. The restaurant was small and didn’t have any waiting area. I was in a group of people standing on the sidewalk and had to constantly move to allow the pedestrian traffic pass through. I could feel my anxiety growing at how close people were to me. I was very unhappy and just wanted to leave. I thought that we could go down the street and eat somewhere that isn’t as good but then not have to be in a crowd. A family walked buy and I looked them over just like I look everyone over on the job. I checked from head to toe assessing the person as a threat making sure to check the hands, waistband, and pockets. I did this to a twenty something couple and their 4 year old child. I realized I had just checked a 4 year old for weapons in front of a café. I thought “wow, I need to talk to a therapist.” Even this incident, which seemed like an epiphany, was not enough to shake me from my complacency.
The condition was eroding my marriage but I still managed to perform well at work. I received awards and commendations. I was also going to college full time and getting straight As. I would justify not going to get help by saying I couldn’t have a problem because I am functioning at such a high level.
My wife would tell me that we were having problems and that she couldn’t stand that I didn’t like her friends, didn’t want to go anywhere or do anything. I would think that the problems were insignificant. My idea of what an emergency was had been warped by responding to priority one calls. Surely me not wanting to go to dinner with her friends, whom I don’t care for, isn’t a priority one call. I can focus my energy on wanting to be left alone.
My marriage ended and that was the catalyst I needed to finally get help. Even though I was on peer support, and have a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology, I ignored all of the signs that I needed help.
I want to share that this is normal. We all need help. Each of us sharing the same stories didn’t mean it was part of the job and that I could accept it. It meant the job has done this to us and we need help to mitigate and repair the effects of our job.
I spoke with other officers who had gone through divorces. They aren’t a hard group to find. I heard similar stories from each person I spoke with. The complaints were that they didn’t want to do anything, they didn’t like the significant others friends, and so on. Each divorce seemed to be a visible symptom of the underlying problem.
I did go to a therapist. She helped me a great deal. I continued on to work with another therapist and a psychiatrist. I was diagnosed with PTSD and Severe Clinical Depression. I started taking medication and working on things with myself.
After two years of working out my issues I am now medication and depression free. I do have some of the effects of the job. I don’t like to have my personal space encroached in and I wouldn’t go to Costco on a weekend but I understand that I could do it without having an anxiety reaction. I still dislike my ex-wife’s friends, but I like my girlfriend’s friends. I will have to continue to self-evaluate because leaving the job isn’t something I want to do. However, I shouldn’t have to give up who I am to be able to serve.
What I know now is that you can get PTSD from a long sustained trauma. Living every minute of your day thinking the next moment you may need to fight for your life qualifies. Unfortunately this is a reality of our job so all of us will experience some symptoms of PTSD. Once PTSD is rooted it can cause you to slip into a deep depression. Depression prevents you from getting help. It makes the simplest task seem like more effort than you are capable of. The solution is to prevent these issues before they take root. If you are irritable, stressed, and have anxiety in normal social situations. Listen to yourself. Yes it is normal, but it doesn’t mean that it’s not something that should be fixed.