Connected Through Trauma: A Police Officer’s Story of PTSD, Suicidality, and Hope
Listen to Executive Director Gabriel Nathan read this post aloud:
My trauma journey began in 2008 when I set off on this path of being a police officer. I spent three years in uniform patrol and four years in our Narcotics Unit. Following that I spent three-and-a-half years off work as a result of post-traumatic stress disorder. After years of simply surviving I was forced to finally look inward and be honest with myself and say those words we fear to utter in this heroic profession: “I need help.” By uttering these three powerful words, I was eventually brought to a crossroads where I had to make a decision: be defined by the diagnosis or defy the diagnosis.
In the beginning I was flourishing. Every aspect of this profession identified with who I was. I had a steady partner and I believed there was nothing I could see, hear, or experience in this profession that could affect me. Little did I know that just after two years on the job I would face a call that would forever alter the course of my life.
It was in the early morning hours on a cold, winter night. My partner and I responded to a homicide in progress. A man called the police saying that he just killed his roommate. We broke down multiple doors to get into the unit. Once inside, we found that the homicide was valid and that a murder had just occurred. The person responsible for this vile act made the decision to attack my partner and me with a knife in hand. He ignored our instructions and continued towards us. We were faced with a decision: use lethal force or gamble with our lives. As a last resort, we were forced to open fire.
The smell of gunpowder filled the air as spent shell casings bounced on the floor. I could hear the screams of agony as the bullet rang through his body. It all seemed to be happening in slow motion. Our back up arrived moments after and we were escorted outside. I do not remember the walk but the moment the fresh night air hit my face, I smiled. I am not really sure why. I had not yet comprehended what just happened. I suppose in that moment, I was just grateful to be alive and to feel the air on my face.
We both were separated and brought to the hospital with the instruction to not talk to one another. My partner was brought to a back room away from prying eyes while I was brought to a sitting area directly across from the operating room and instructed by a superior to sit and not move. As I sat there still in denial of what just occurred, I could hear a commotion to my right. I looked over to see the man that I had just shot being wheeled in by a stretcher and placed in the operating room right in front of me. I sat there in dismay as the curtains were drawn and the medical staff began the process of trying to save this man’s life. Minutes later, I heard the doctor utter the words: time of death. The ballistic report would later show my partner fired four rounds while I fired two, and that my two shots were deemed to be the fatal ones.
We had taken a life in the line of duty in order to save our own. After the dust settled, I began to tell myself, “I did as I was trained to do”; “this is all part of the job”; “I signed up for this”; “I AM FINE.” But I wasn’t fine. However, being young, prideful and ambitious, I refused to be transparent and show the real human underneath having an emotional reaction to a real life human tragedy. I felt like if I allowed myself to be human, I would be perceived as weak or broken by my fellow officers. I believed emotion and vulnerability was a sign of weakness. This attitude was never directly stated, but you could feel the stigma in light of this renaissance mentality of suck it up and do your job. This is what you signed up for. So I traded my emotional turmoil for a smile, a dark sense of humour, and a competent work ethic.
In the first year following the event, two monumental things happened in my life. I became a first-time parent and I was promoted into our Narcotics Unit. Although I was achieving both my family and career aspirations, I slowly began to unravel at the seams. I experienced powerful emotions and symptoms with complexities very foreign to me. Within me lived an incomprehensible level of sadness, fear, anger, and guilt. Symptoms like hypervigilance, flashbacks, recurring nightmares, and even suicidal ideations. If I was not fueled by the negative symptomology of PTSD, I was numb to all things I was experiencing courtesy of self-medicating with drugs and alcohol.
My marriage was beginning to feel the repercussions of my inherent denial. I was present in body, but I was absent in mind and heart. I was unable to enjoy the beautiful experience of being a parent due to the fact that my mind was stuck in a single event and I was unable to find the present moment. My demeanour became self-centered and explosive with a rage that I have never experienced. I victimized myself and I allowed self-pity to become a daily identity. I refused to let my wife in and I began to put up walls to keep her out because I didn’t want her to know how badly I was hurting out of ego and pride. I believed I was protecting her by shielding her from my true self and my experiences. But I later came to the realization I was only protecting myself out of cowardice and by doing so, I was making her life unbearable causing new trauma to form.
Being a part of the Narcotics Unit created a constant feeling of hypocrisy with me. I was using cannabis and alcohol daily to numb my pain and I was taking away peoples freedoms who were simply trying to do the same. As my trauma grew, it allowed me to experience and put in motion two core needs that were developing within me. The first was the need for adrenaline. I thrust myself in any dangerous situation I could find because the adrenaline was one of the only things that could offset this numbness and depression that I was experiencing. I took unnecessary risks and pursued undercover work. I searched for anything that gave me that emotional high and allowed me to forget, even for just a moment what I was going through. The second was a death wish. I longed to die in the line of duty because I was at a point of accepting that this disorder was the be-all and end-all of who I was and I felt powerless to stop its progression. I felt weak and to die in the line of duty, I would be perceived as strong. I would be immortalized as a hero. So I risked my life time and time again. I was never willing to risk another officer’s life, but I carelessly played Russian roulette with my own. I was always first in the door or first on the scene. Making arrests on my own or going into drug buys blind with minimal preparation or cover. I was leaving it up to fate. But as time passed, death never came. My sheer competence won out.
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As the years went by, I continued to fool the world. I embodied a family man and a cop who had his shit together; all the while, suicide was on my mind. Daily I thought about how I would do it, where I would do it, who would find me?
This all brought me to one fateful night. The pain from trauma had won. I felt like I had lost the battle and had nothing left to give. The weight of PTSD was crushing and I had no more fight within me. I was on surveillance detail when I made the decision to end my life. I can still feel the cold muzzle pressed against my temple as I unloaded my gun put it to my head and squeezed the trigger. I then loaded the gun and slowly held it to the side of my head. I had tears rolling down my face, praying to God for the strength to pull it. In that moment, my prayer was answered. But it was not the prayer I asked for, the prayer I needed. In that very moment I saw my daughter. I saw my purpose. Something I saw as being larger than myself and this disorder. I began to think about her life. What effect this act would have on her. By taking my life, my trauma would inevitably trickle into her life and suicide would be forever a prevalent and painful part of her story. She would be forced to always refer to her father in the past tense by clinging to childhood memories and never being able to escape the question of why? I wouldn’t wish this affliction on my worst enemy let alone my child. In that moment, I holstered my firearm and made a vow to endure this pain, so she didn’t have to.
I continued to live with the crippling symptomology of post-traumatic stress. I clung to my vices, and was angry and resentful towards life. But somehow this jaded behaviour seemed normalized. I fit in. I knew how to work and live this police lifestyle far better than I knew how to ask for help. I would have continued on this path and I truly don’t think there would have been a happy ending. Fortunately for me, life had other plans. In the midst of the chaos, I suffered a physical injury by rupturing my Achilles tendon.
This was the first time I was off work and life as I knew it stopped. I found all that was left was silence and stillness. For someone with unresolved trauma, that silence can be deafening and that stillness can create mania in your mind. I no longer had the distraction of police work to keep my mind occupied. With no distraction, I was forced to deal with my subconscious. Everything I had tried to suppress was now at the forefront of my conscious mind like a flood. I learnt the mind is like water; it can flow or it can crash, and mine crashed.
I couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t leave my home. I alienated myself and lost touch with everyone close to me because I felt guilt and self-pity. I felt guilt for taking a life, guilt for not being at work while my brothers and sisters were putting their lives on the line, and I felt powerless to help, and guilt for putting my wife and family through such chaos. I eventually hit rock bottom. I had been off work for years with an endless cycle of drugs and alcohol. I was losing my marriage and divorce was a constant topic during our heated exchanges. I had lost my friendships, my career, and myself. But on that rock bottom floor, I had an awakening. I saw that there is collateral beauty on that floor because it is transformative. It forces you to self-reflect and decide. It forces you to look deep inside yourself and find who you truly are meant to be. It allowed me to understand that someone with outward courage dares to die, but someone with inner courage dares to live.
On that floor, I made a definitive decision that I was going to live and heal. I was willing to lose everything to endure the pain of growth in order to save myself. And when you make a definitive decision in life that nothing will stop you, it truly has a redemptive quality that can carry you through life’s darkest moments back into the light.
I began in search for the right mental health treatment. It took me a handful of doctors until I was blessed to find the one that had the skill set to challenge me. I completed over a year of immersion therapy completely submersing myself in my trauma. That was the key. The only way out is in. It was a painstaking process that tested my resolve and my sanity. But the more I invested, the more honest I became with not only my doctor but myself. I began to feel the weight lift and I laid my first puzzle piece of healing.
I met with a police chaplain. I have never been a religious person or affiliated to a particular religion, but I have always had an unwavering belief in God. We talked, we cried, and we prayed. We prayed for my strength and for my forgiveness, but not my forgiveness from God, but for my ability to forgive myself. I embraced the beauty of the moment and I was able to feel the love in the spirituality that was being bestowed upon me. I let someone in, and that pure human connection lifted me and I felt the weight continue to lift and puzzle pieces of my healing were beginning to fit together.
I made a conscious choice to take massive daily action, to commit to mastery of my own mind. I fully embraced fitness and nutrition. I knew the mind is hard but the body was easy. I didn’t have to re-invent the wheel. I could not control my mind but I could control my body and what I put in my body. I began to understand that the body is an extension of the subconscious mind and if my body felt good, my mind would follow suit. Daily, I would inflict the most possible amount of physical pain on myself that made the emotional pain bearable and by doing so, I began to build a resilient mindset.
I made it a point to listen to as much positive content as I could find. I knew my mind was working against me so I needed new language to overthrow my negative mindset. So I listened to inspirational and motivational speakers every single day. Their mindset had to become my mindset. Their words had to become my words.
I made a conscious choice to distance myself from people who I perceived to be negative. My focus had to be inward. I was on an uphill climb and I couldn’t have people bringing me down. I understood who you surround yourself with you reflect. I had to reflect positivity and growth. I began to seek out people who I believed embodied these characteristics.
I learned in this process that self-talk is the most powerful form of communication in life because it either empowers you or defeats you. I found by embracing positivity in my life daily, I forced a mental shift and I began to speak to myself with compassion, forgiveness, empathy, and strength.
In completing my puzzle of healing, I believe I became mindful. I learned that anxiety is the future, depression is the past, and we can’t control either one. All we have is now and there is nothing more important than what you are doing this very moment. I began to simplify and just win the moment. I embraced the momentum of healing and fully encompass the magnitude and limitless beauty of post-traumatic growth.
Today, I am no longer in therapy. I no longer take any medication. I made it a point that where I was going, self-medicating could not be a part of the equation and I decided to stop immediately. I let go of my vices and my trauma is merely a chapter from the book of my life and no longer my prelude. In my healing, all things around me healed and flourished once again.
I was able to take my trauma and use it to transform myself into someone who is in the position to educate others. I developed a position as a wellness coordinator within my service that has allowed me to have a voice, to provide peer-to-peer support for those suffering. It has given me the chance to reach out and connect in order to give officers a perspective and a truth of the hardships of mental health in policing. I have been able to promote a message of strength and self-reliance in vulnerability. A message that says I have failed time and time again and that is why I succeeded, because I never stopped trying to try and I never stopped hoping for hope. When nothing is certain, anything is possible.