Revisited: A Police Officer’s Tango with PTSD and Complex Trauma
Ed Pila’s story starts, as all of ours do, when he was a kid. What he learned then, what he witnessed then, affected the trajectory of his life. Ed grew up in a home that housed domestic violence. He was there when his father abused his mother. He also was there when the police came to help settle things at home.
“Often, they would pick me up and they would hold me. I could hear their leather moving. They were wearing cologne, and it just felt like a safe place, and they would always tell me ‘Everything’s gonna be all right.’”
That early experience with police officers was one of the reasons Ed decided to pursue a career in law enforcement. He wanted to help. He wanted to make a difference in young people’s lives. And sometimes he did. However, he wasn’t prepared for the impact that repeated exposure to trauma would have on his own mental health.
“When you attend so many domestic violence runs as a police officer and shootings and so much trauma, I think you start to wear it.
“You don’t realize what’s happening to you when you’re going through the years of layered secondary trauma and then one day you feel it. It’s a ton of bricks. It’s depression. It’s isolation. It’s a heaviness you can’t bear on your own.”
Ed sought help from within his department in the Detroit area, but there was no support for mental health within the institution.
“Many police departments are good at continually preparing their officers for the daily physical and report battles they face. But most of these same departments are inadequate in knowledge, and even unaware, of what is going on beneath the vest—in the heart, mind, and soul of the police officer,” he says.
Ed was on his own. He retired from the police department, but his mental health got worse instead of better. A chance glance into the window of a neighborhood dance studio where people were dancing Argentine tango was a pivotal moment in his life.
“I saw those people so close, and so full of life, and moving, and the good energy, and some of them were smiling and laughing. I knew I needed that. I had to have that, and I walked in that door.”
He started lessons, and his life improved dramatically. Dance was a saving grace to Ed.
In addition to the Argentine tango, Ed entered into counseling for the other areas that PTSD affects in the soul of a person. “I knew I did not want to end up like three of my police department associates—a victim of suicide. I wanted to continue to get better and assist others in this same journey.”
I am so glad Ed reached out to me to share his story when he learned I was working on a first responder mental health series titled “Beneath the Vest.” It was a thrill to document his story and to film Ed and his instructor Mae Armeni at the Philly Argentine Tango School moving together closely, with grace and precision. He looked happy.
I’m very glad to share this video with you again.