Author’s Note: I would like to thank this brave officer and their spouse for sharing this article. I know it was not easy for them to lay out their lives as they did. If they can help one officer or first responder get help, the mission was accomplished. I encourage all who read this article to please share it with an officer or other first responder you may know. You may be saving a life.
I can’t un-see what I have seen
Ever since I was a little child, all I wanted to be when I grew up was a police officer. My parents would listen to my tale over and over again. After graduating from college, I accepted a position as a Director of Finance. My parents questioned me about my career choice knowing finance was not what I aspired to do. At 22, I knew this wasn’t going to be my permanent career as most people who just graduate take a transition job until the right one comes along.
Fast forward 10 years and I thought it was time to live the life I was meant to live…..to finally achieve my dream of being a police officer. I worked in a busy police department and eventually made rank.
Throughout my tenure, I never thought the demons that chewed at my soul would eventually lead to a life of hopelessness, despair, sadness and sometimes, even thoughts of suicide.
I felt broken and unrepairable. As police officers, we are taught to never discuss our feelings because, after all, we had to pass the “fit for duty” yearly testing. I sought professional counseling and was so paranoid my department would find out that I paid cash, so as to remain undocumented while getting the help I knew I needed.
I’ve spent almost 17 years of my life in law enforcement where I’ve been in patrol, a detective, a hostage negotiator, and taking care of people who were in their own crisis. I got the adrenaline rush when responding with lights and sirens to calls, only to find people ejected from their vehicles, dead on the roadway with gruesome injuries that no one should see. Those mental images, smells, and scenes are embedded in my brain. Those images are seared into the memories that I will carry to my grave. I can’t un-see what I have seen.
Horrific flashbacks, nightmares, lack of sleep, and trying to live a happy life with my family, have led to crushing feelings of low self-worth, minimal happiness, and isolation.
It’s so much easier to hide behind the badge and not talk about anything than actually face the demons that tried to destroy me on a daily basis.
Some people would say, “this is what you signed up for” which is true; however, I never knew the self-destructive path all these feelings would lead me to. I took an oath of office I swore to uphold as a police officer and to carry those burdens of my service; however, I have chosen to do it alone and I have come to realize I don’t have to.
I’m one of the lucky ones as I didn’t resort to chemical dependency; however, being diagnosed with PTSD has crushed my inner self and spirit. I long for a day where I can find peace and tranquility from the invasive thoughts that rattle my brain and the feeling of my heart and soul being ripped out of my body and placed right back into a scene where I can remember everything.
These invisible wounds no one knows about because I don’t talk about them. They hurt more than I can describe and the anxiety and punishment I put myself through daily have led me to thoughts of killing myself because I can’t find a better way to live.
About 8 months ago, I decided to take this journey to heal my mind, body, and soul and with the help of my loved one who inspires me to get healthy. It’s a hard life to be the spouse of a first responder as the phone goes off in the middle of the night or you’re held overtime because a brutal murder or sexual assault has landed in your lap.
I’m honored and privileged that my spouse understands and supports my career; however, there are times when no love they provide can calm you when you have to leave a grocery store because you feel unsafe…..too many people around you that you can’t see all the exits signs or how can you protect everyone around you when you can’t protect yourself.
There have been days I’ve worked 16-20 hours straight trying to concentrate and hold myself together as I couldn’t let my thoughts and feelings about what happened get in the way of doing my job. I remained quiet but a huge storm was always brewing inside of me and all this anger, hostility, guilt, shame, and remorse for the things I’ve done or didn’t do gnaw at my very being and the thirst for being in control of every situation grew even stronger.
No one knew my suffering as I went to work as an officer, did my job and kept my inner, private thoughts to myself. When I went home, I would often cry and let my spouse hold me and tell me it’s going to be alright after describing crime scenes that would horrify most people. Off to bed and begin the next day…..like nothing happened. I couldn’t tell anyone that when a fellow officer took her life, I had to investigate the incident and remain stoic and professional. I told myself, “I’m good”. I would try to convince myself even though I knew I was dying inside.
Trauma can start as early as childhood and for me, it did. I always assumed I was a survivor. Becoming a police officer only exasperated the emotional demons held over me. There are times when I feel this emotional rollercoaster is overwhelming and there is no way out….no help….a sense of being trapped within my mind which is a terrible place to be.
I have been diagnosed with PTSD, depression, and anxiety. I’m hypervigilant and when I’m not working, my brain keeps reminding me of my past. I could be watching television with my spouse and an intrusive thought, image or smell radiates my mind, body and soul and I begin to cry as I relive that same scene. I have felt ashamed and embarrassed my entire life and feel my mind and soul have been tortured. I often feel there is no help for me.
I could continue with so many other stories that have defined my life as a police officer; however, the intent of writing this article was to share my struggles with PTSD and the toll it has taken on me and my spouse. The good news is, there is help out there via treatment centers or private therapists who specialize in trauma. As police officers and all first responders, we have learned not to trust anyone, not to take care of ourselves and forge on. I have been lucky enough to find a therapist who actually cares about me and my inner demons and we are working towards processing these events that have left me paralyzed.
I’m not going to lie, it sucks to feel, and not easy work to do. There have been fleeting moments that a smile comes to my face and I think about how nice it feels to be “human”. My hope is those moments turn into hours, days, and a lifetime of happiness and solace.
I asked my spouse to write the following as I thought it was important to get their perspective of what our lives have been like.
“My spouse is a police officer. I am proud of this person who wears the badge, whether it’s on the uniform getting ready for the next shift or during a shift. Many people sign up for careers such as police officers because of earlier hurts, and injustices that they believe can be addressed by getting the bully out “there” that’s doing the sexual assaults, robbing, or any other crime you can bring to mind.
“What’s really happening is that the bully in my police officer’s life didn’t get caught. So as a police officer, there were many attacks on people that don’t deserve it, just like mine didn’t. The really interesting thing is that you start to identify with the victims, and often they don’t survive. So what made my police officer even want to survive?
“I think one day there was a light that flickered at the end of a tunnel. There was a way to get help and maybe feel better. The real problem is that some people don’t understand how hard it is to go through the steps of getting help in order to fight that first original sin against you, the bully that got you,. The real one that helped you to feel unworthy, sad, and not knowing that life was and is worth living.
“The work is hard, the police officer in my life is working hard for the first time ever. It’s difficult for a person living with that person who does seek change to get to know that 3rd, 4th peel of the onion. Its hard work for all, but it is worth it to beat that first bully, who started it all. Just don’t be frightened, as the work is not for the weak, but then again, ‘my cop was never weak’.”