My last day of operational duties was October 3, 2015. Grand Final day. I filed my paperwork, packed up my locker and finished my shift at 2 pm. After 18 years on the van, that was it. Done.
For a cop, general duties, or quite simply, “the van”, is where it all begins. Of all the calls to 000, ninety percent are dispatched to the van. General duties is the coal-face of policing. The frontline.
I was once told the average amount of time police officers spend working general duties is about five years. I had done nearly four times that. I actually suspected I was burnt-out as far back as 2010 and knew I really only had two options: promotion or transfer.
In late-2013, I put my hand up for some upgrading and was offered a position pretty much straight away at my own station. I felt that this made the transition to acting sergeant a little easier. I knew the station and the surrounding area like the back of my hand and had already worked alongside most of the members stationed there.
When I reached the stage where I couldn’t get the smell of death out of my nose, I knew it was time to get the hell out.
My options were limited. I needed something that was largely non-operational and something that didn’t involve dealing with people. I needed a position where I felt safe.
A few years earlier, I did a three-month secondment in intelligence. It involved analysing crime trends; what was happening and where it was happening, who was offending and what was driving them to offend. It was interesting work and I enjoyed my time there, but it was a desk job and just didn’t feel right for me. Back then, anyway.
But in May 2015, I felt it was exactly what I needed. So I waited for a vacancy and about two months later, an analyst’s position was advertised. I applied and another month or so later, found out I got the job.
I had mixed feelings about the move. On the one hand, it was an unbelievable relief for me to know that I wouldn’t be operational anymore. I wouldn’t have to work in the cells. I wouldn’t have to deal with all the hatred and abuse. I wouldn’t be going to any more suicides. I wouldn’t have to go to work wondering, “Is today the day I’m going to die?”
But on the other hand, I knew I would no longer be a cop. Not my idea of a cop, anyway, and that made me sad. For nearly two decades, my office had been wherever the 000 calls took me. Now, my office was… an office.
I thought that once I started working in intel, I would start to feel better. That the stability of a regular Monday to Friday position would reset whatever it was in me that had gone haywire. I thought that I would be returned to a state of normality.
But starting any new job means learning new things and this was one of the first hurdles I ran into. I would be shown how to do something and minutes later, that information was gone. I had to write everything down, step by step, and would constantly have to refer to those instructions to perform even the simplest of tasks. I had always been a quick learner, so this was a strange feeling for me. I felt like I was incapable of retaining any new information.
Another thing I noticed very early on was that I couldn’t concentrate on anything for longer than about 20 minutes. Any longer than that and I’d be staring into space, not really thinking about anything in particular, but just drifting. Then I’d have to physically jolt myself out of it by getting up and walking around.
There were other things I noticed in myself, physical symptoms, I suppose you’d call them. Headaches became a regular occurrence, and by this I mean I was getting them every day, without fail. I also started to get earaches, which would come on quite suddenly and would hit me with the ferocity of a thunder storm. Once they started, it felt like I was being stabbed in the ear over and over again. I was convinced it was an ear infection, but my GP checked me over and ruled that out. He thought it might have been something called the temporomandibular joint (TMJ), so I went and saw my dentist who confirmed that I’d been grinding my teeth and clenching my jaw, which causes pain in the TMJ. Even though I’m aware of it now, I still do it when I’m wound-up. It’s hard to switch off.
I was constantly fidgeting and had trouble sitting still. I also started to pick at the skin on my face and my arms. This was something I didn’t even know I was doing until I developed bleeding sores, which I then tried to cover with make-up.
I became obsessed about germs and cleanliness. I was washing my hands dozens of times a day and had hand sanitiser within reach at all times. At work, I refused to touch any of the door handles unless it was with a tissue or paper towel. My workplace felt dirty, hazardous.
I also became super-fussy about my food. I prepared pretty much all of my own meals, just so I would know what was in them. I worried about getting sick. Take-away food was a big no-no and the very few occasions I ate out were problematic. I would scan the menu and select dishes with the fewest ingredients, things that I could actually see on my plate. A well-done steak with plain vegetables became my go-to dish.
I think the germ thing and the food thing were all about control. I felt I had lost control in so many other areas of my life, but these were areas over which I still had a degree of power. So I was going to control the fuck out of them.
But above all else, I was tired. Tired like I had never been before. I had been struggling with physical fatigue for a while, but this was something new. It was a complete mental and emotional fatigue. It’s a weird feeling, being so tired but at the same time feeling unable to sit still long enough to rest.
I didn’t want to do anything and I didn’t want to see anybody. Once I finished work, I went home and that was it. I stopped answering my phone. I didn’t return calls and if I did have to communicate with someone, it was by text message. All I wanted was to be alone. I avoided public places and started doing my shopping at 7 am every Sunday, just so I wouldn’t have to interact with anyone.
I felt like parts of me had shut down. The best way I can explain it is to get you to imagine working in an office building during a power blackout. The generator kicks in and you get some systems going, but not all. The lights go dim and you basically get the most essential operating systems working and that’s it. You have just enough power to get by and that’s exactly how I felt. I was running on back-up power. I had enough energy to basically function and that was it.
On my worst days, I felt like I was on the verge. On the verge of bursting into tears. On the verge of losing my shit completely. I became angry, usually when I was driving. My sense of safety felt so completely out of whack that any time someone cut me off or tailgated me, I’d just completely lose control. Every time it happened I felt a rush of blood to my legs, that feeling you get whenever you get a sudden fright. By the time I got wherever I was going, I’d be shaking all over and my legs would feel like jelly.
This all went on for about six months, then I finally had to acknowledge that things weren’t getting any better. I wasn’t getting any better. I was unwell. I had been unwell for a long time and it was time to do something about it.
Putting my hand up and saying the words, “I think I need some help,” was one of the hardest things I have ever done. It was terrifying. Cops are not supposed to cry out for help, cops are the ones who come running when other people need help.
As a police officer, you are expected to endure. You are expected to deal with the trauma, the violence, the abuse and the resentment. Not to absorb it necessarily, but to brush it all off like it’s nothing but a few drops of rain. You are not expected to show weakness.
When I finally sought help, it was with the deepest sense of shame. I felt like a failure. I told nobody apart from my direct supervisor, but I knew it would only be a matter of time before word started to spread.
What would my colleagues think of me?