Mental Health Month: One Officer's Life with PTSD
Editor's note: In honor of National Mental Health month, we are using this opportunity to shine a light on mental health issues related to law enforcement with a four part series. Supporting Minnesota law enforcement officers and their families is a cornerstone of our mission. A very special thanks to the Backing the Blue Line Family Support Committee leadership for all their work bringing these stories to life, researching mental health issues and gathering resources to share with our community. Trigger warning: This post contains reference to a critical incident involving a police chase and resulting accident. Read Part 1 of the Mental Health Series here. Read Part 2 here.
My story starts at the very beginning of my career. IT ALL STARTED WITH A STOLEN VEHICLE I found a stolen vehicle that was just taken. I ended up in a pursuit with it, going very high rates of speed. It reached over 100 mph when it left the roadway. The car hit a field approach and then crashed in a grove of trees. There were two occupants originally in the vehicle: juvenile runaways from a shelter.
The passenger was pinned in the car and the driver was ejected. At first, we couldn't find her. We started hearing moans and followed them. We found the young girl with massive injuries to her body.
I was young myself, just starting out my career. I didn't know what to do other than to look at the girl. I'll be the first to admit, I was scared and I froze. Paramedics quickly got her shipped off. I just knew in my head that this girl would never survive. Looking at where she landed, you could see where she was ejected up over the tree tops and came back down. You could follow the path she came down by the broken branches. The car struck the tree at 40 feet up in the air after vaulting over the field approach. SOME OF MY FIRST THOUGHTS I ended up leaving the scene thinking, "Oh my God. I was chasing this girl and made her crash. It was because of me finding her in the stolen car that she is going to die."
I went back to the station to do the report and the I got up to the point where she crashed. And I couldn't remember what happened. I literally sat there getting angry at myself because I couldn't remember what happened just two hours beforehand. What was wrong with me? I'm well aware now my brain was trying to protect me from that and wouldn't let me remember. SUCK IT UP, BUTTERCUP Afterwards, I went to give a statement to a trooper and it must have been very noticeable that I was bothered by this incident. A cop came over to me, stood face to face with me, grabbed my badge and said, "You see this? You're a cop now, you better get used to it." It was in that moment that I made the decision to never let anyone know when something was bothering me ever again. Obviously, I was in the wrong for feeling bad here. My senior officers weren't bothered and were telling me I need to get used to it. So...I sucked it up.
I never did follow up to see if the young girl made it or not. I just couldn't. I didn't want that confirmation. For 6 months I did alright. I didn't think much about it. But then, suddenly, it just all came crashing down. FIRST, THE FLASHBACKS; THEN, THE NIGHTMARES I started having the flashbacks and the nightmares, I couldn't get it out of my mind. I kept thinking, "Oh my God. I killed someone. It's because of me some family doesn't have their daughter. All because I found her and chased her." It was internally eating me alive. Yet, I couldn't talk to the cops about it because then I'm weak and can't handle it. I can't talk to my friends about it, they weren't in law enforcement so they didn't understand. They just wanted to do what a lot of young guys do - go to the bars and chase girls. COPING MECHANISM IN A BOTTLE So what do you do to cope? I drank...and drank..and drank. I would go out with my friends and get all tuned up and want to talk about how I killed this girl. They kept telling me to shut up and started to tell me, "When we go out tonight, if you are going to talk about that chase you aren't coming with us." They didn't know. Heck, I didn't know. I was hurting so bad inside that was me crying for help. It continued to compound more and more. My girlfriend at the time would tell me, "That was how long ago? You need to get over it." Okay, noted...so I can't talk the cops, I can't talk to my friends, and I can't talk to my girlfriend...who can I talk to?
The pain got so bad and the alcohol wasn't helping. It was only making it worse. So how do you get rid of the pain? Suicide. It's the only way to make it end. It's the only way to get those images out of my head. I had put my handgun up to my temple multiple times for years. I wouldn't talk to anyone about it though. I bottled it all up and kept hitting the booze and trying to forget it. WHAT I REALLY NEEDED WAS SOMEONE TO LISTEN What I needed more than anything was just a friend. Someone I could talk to. Someone I could say this stuff to and not have a crazy reaction from them. Someone who wouldn't try to fix the problem. Just to listen to me. Just to let me talk. That's all I wanted. I needed to just unload and for them to let me know they heard me and it's okay. AND THEN I MET HER
I ended up meeting my significant other and getting married when I was dealing with this. She saw me at my worst. She saw my emotional outbursts when I drank. My mood swings. My short temper. It got to a point where she said "you need to get help or we are done." It was time to fix me. So, I ended up going to a place for individual counseling. My counselor worked well with me and took her time and I finally was able to open up about my chase. Before that, I couldn't talk about it without crying or completely shutting down. I would tell my significant other some, but I just couldn't fully open up about it. Still, I wouldn't talk about it with the cops, because then you're just too weak. I was known at the office as the person that absolutely nothing bothered him.
I was literally dying inside, but there was no way I'd let them know it bothered me, or anything else for that matter.
While in counseling I was getting help, but my marriage continued to go downhill. We were living as roommates. No communication. Didn't want to be around each other. I can look back now and realize a lot of that was on me. It was from me not talking, not opening up, having trust issues and feeling I was going to be judged.
It finally got to a point where my significant other said we needed to separate. I was against it, but it was the only option. I was very alone. It was totally quiet in my new place. No kids running around playing or making noise. I hated feeling alone. I already felt alone for how many years? My biggest struggle was dealing with all this by myself and now I was living alone. I started drinking heavy again. I was getting more and more depressed. The suicidal thoughts came back full force. It was a long, hard road but I somehow pushed through.
GETTING HELP AND MOVING FORWARD
I continued with my individual therapy and started couples therapy with my significant other. We are together again because of it. I have the diagnosis of PTSD and, to be honest, I know I have it. But it's hard for me to accept it. I have a hard time saying I have it. I should have been in war or something for that diagnosis, not just some car chase that went bad. I went through Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. EMDR was the greatest thing that ever happened to me. It worked me through so much where now I'm able to open up and talk about my chase. I never thought in a million years I could talk to people about it. I've since been in front of groups of up to 200 people staring at me while I tell my story. I feel happy again. I am back in control of my life. I've worked through that incident pretty well. I don't have the anxiety attacks like I used to. When I do, I can control them better and work my way out of them faster. They used to totally paralyze me. I felt so lost and all over the place. I honestly think that now it's the cumulative trauma that is really getting to me. All of the stuff is really taking a toll on me. After 20 years in law enforcement, I can't wait to get out of it. It's changed me from a sweet innocent naive person to someone that hates the world and is convinced everyone is out to get me. The constant thoughts of "Why are you being nice? Do you want something? Did you just do something I don't know about?" I don't trust people and struggle to find the good in people.
That's not normal, that's not right.
Something needs to be done to take better care of our officers. The repeated trauma and everything else we see that goes on gets to be so overwhelming.
You can't possibly deal with all that we do and not expect it to impact you. I think law enforcement needs to be educated more on PTSD and what to expect. I didn't want to tell people some of the stuff that I thought I was off the wall about. Here I find out later that it's normal to feel or act that way as a result of the PTSD. It's not some wild or crazy disease or something. It's the body's reaction to a traumatic event or built up events. How your body reacts is totally normal. It doesn't mean you're weak or nuts. I'm well aware of that now, and that's after years of therapy and educating myself on it.
The only time I ever hear officers talk about their calls and how it impacted them is when we are sitting around with drinks. Usually at that point we are well past the state of intoxication where it comes up and even then it's rare it's discussed. One of my friends/coworkers killed himself with his duty weapon. The signs were all there but no one stepped in and reached out far enough. You would ask, "You doing ok?" and then get the typical, "Oh yeah, sure I'm doing fine."
Take the help.
It's no fun battling it alone.
I wish I knew how to get that through people's heads. It's ok to reach out and show your vulnerable side.
I have to learn that for myself still.
It's not being weak, it's being human. THERE IS HOPE AND HELP AVAILABLE Backing the Blue Line is committed to connecting Minnesota law enforcement officers and their families with resources. Please visit our LE Resources page for several options. If you or a Minnesota law enforcement officer you know are struggling with PTSD, please reach out to the Backing the Blue Line Family Support Committee and fill out our confidential online Request for Assistance. We can't help if we don't know a need is there. Additionally, legislative initiatives related to PTSD in police officers are happening at the state and federal level. We will be monitoring the developments and updating resources as available.
About the writer: This Minnesota law enforcement officer wishes to stay anonymous. He has served as a police officer for 20 years and has been married to his wife for 15 years. Join Backing the Blue Line: We invite MN police wives/significant others to become members of Backing the Blue Line to take advantage of all available membership benefits and have additional opportunities to give and receive support. We also invite MN police wives/significant other to join our private Facebook page to belong to a community of support through friendships, networking, and discussion. It is also for raising awareness of the need to support our unique lives and share the bond that comes with being a law enforcement family. Find out more on our About page.