Career, Interrupted – Acknowledging the Symptoms of PTSD

police PTSD

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.

My period of upgrading was… eventful. I was involved in a death in custody, two train suicides, a drowning suicide, a seven-hour siege and finally, a firearms incident that pretty much broke me.

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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.

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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?

© Triggered, 2017

69 thoughts on “Career, Interrupted – Acknowledging the Symptoms of PTSD

  1. That you are an amazing cop that has endured so much more than most and despite all that you were always supportive of those around you. It was a pleasure and honour working with you and wish you well on your journey as you beat back the beast that is PTSD.
    I also want to thank you for speaking out about your experience, I’m sure it’s taken a huge amount of strength & courage to share this with us all & I believe your story & your strength will be just what another hardworking cop who feels like they’re drowning need to be able to put their hand up and say those hard scary words: “I need help.”

    1. Well done in asking for help. I am an oldie but a goodie. Basically 14 years in gd from 82 to 96. Suffered what has now been diagnosed as complex ptsd which was carried for about 30 yrs prior to proper diagnosis. A long story but here is the important pieces to puzzle. frontline police work is a major disrupter of all three spheres of life. Mind , body, soul. All 3 must be healed in parallel to reach full recovery. Most programs a very thin on soul if at all addressed. First major stuff to remove is alcohol and/or other mind altering drugs. I have evidence based solutions concerning a full holistic recovery. Evidenced mainly by my own recovery. Would welcome any contact at any time

      1. Hi Mark, thank you for your feedback. You would’ve left the job the year before I started. Your approach sounds interesting, I’d like to hear more about it.

      2. I have written a 5 page document on my journey which I have filed as a word doco on laptop. I am keen to share but not sure how that can be achieved on this blog?

  2. Thanks for speaking out… miss your face and the times we spent rocking the truck together.. chin up and be proud of the service you provided to the state!

      1. You are incredibly brave for speaking out, and none of us will ever know how many others this will help.

        It is a sad reality of policing and I am glad it is finally being spoken about and recognized by command and the association.
        I worked in a vaguely related industry, attended many of the scenes, saw many things I couldn’t process and was treated twice for PTSD.
        Be proud of what you contributed and that you had the guts to step up and speak out.

  3. You taught and helped me and so many others while battling so hard yourself. You should be proud of all you’ve done and the literal 1000s of lives you’ve impacted positively, including mine. I’m proud of you.

  4. You’re not alone. I have travelled the same road and know the feelings. Your biggest strength is what you think is your biggest weakness, the ability to admit – to admit you need help. Reach out. Get the help you need. Look forward although it seems so hard. Acknowledge that the PTSD is there and that it is now part of you, and it always be there, the biggest hurdle is just the acceptance. Learn from that, you will grow from that, you will move on from that.

  5. Sorry to hear it’s got you. I’m off. Same job , same Force, same injury. Reading your words – well just wanted to say it felt like my words. Your brave and it eventually gets better. Just remember you are never alone. Even on sick leave, even in the middle of the battles there are members to reach out to.

  6. I have been a forensic crime scene investigator for more than 13 years. Attending over 300 deceased examinations, including fatal traffic crashes, murder scenes and the like. I am always hearing people say to me, “Oh that must be horrible, the things you see”. Personally, I am not bothered by it as it is a job which suits my personality. However, I usually explain that I have an enormous advantage over ‘first response officers’ (e.g: Generals, or ‘the van’ as your article describes) and what they are confronted with unexpectedly. I arrive at scenes, knowing what my job is likely to encounter. First response do not. They are the first to be confronted with the many devasting scenes I deal with. They are often ‘work prepared’, but not necessarily ‘psychologically prepared’ for what may be a truly traumatic scene or horrifying incident. We know to expect the worst in our job, but sometimes, nothing can prepare you for it. I have long held the belief that help should first be given to frontline police, before the focus of ‘announced support’ is put on specialists. Specialists choose the area they work in, traumatic or not. If they don’t like it, then they can leave that specialist area. But especially the sudden exposure for many frontline officers is ‘never’ addressed by the employers. They are often the nicest of people with the best of intentions who are left unsupported in their roles. This continual abuse of their emotional well-being will always have serious consequences. No person whose job is shuffling papers or enjoying business dinners to sell things can ever appreciate the continually mounting ‘slippery slope of damage’ frontline officers and their families are dealing with on a daily basis in their job. We lose too many good people from an organisation to a recognised illness (PTSD), as the organisation often relies on their continual kindness, but ignores their suffering. To those officers needing help. Please ask. Help given early can often reverse or ease and manage such trauma. It can help a fellow officer deal with the job better if you ask when you see it happening to you or another. We support each other and by that, we learn to be more aware even if senior management continues to deny the existence of the real issues.

  7. Hi, I am ex army and ex police. Thanks for blogging. Your symptoms are very much like mine. You are right in that most self reading about PTSD is military based but I now know that for me, it is from sustained stress – as in being in a state of fear, stress or behavioural every single day. When I left and got out of the uniform, instead of getting better – it got worse. It is almost as if your uniform was a protective shell – which is why you don’t want to seek help at the time. I felt like I was letting the side down and didn’t want to be ridiculed by my colleagues.
    I had a complete career change into teaching but even that became life or death for me – because I had already been conditioned into a behavioural,pattern of work from the army/police. Now – after 14 years of psychological help, I have learnt to understand why – for me this has been helpful. I had to quit teaching and am now doing a much less stressful job, I moved area and house and I turned my hobby into a little job on the side. I wish I could,say to you that I am ‘cured’ . Unfortunately I am not and it is usually a trigger which leaves me exhausted which then leads to depression and the call to lifeline – then starts the cycle of intense psych help again.
    BUT, what I can tell you is that years on, I have met up again via social media with some ex colleagues and they have beeen on the whole supportive, some of them also suffering. Some have been complete ***eholes though by playing the ”you are a female so man up’ card – I have dis-engaged with them and also disengaged from any social media or other groups to do with police or army. It has helped me.
    Part of me gets angry and I think “why SHOULD I not liaise with like minded people that I served with because that means that PTSD has WON”. Actually, it has been a big win for ME because I have understood that even the reminder of my job can be a trigger so I made a decision.
    I wanted to say Thank You and Well Done on writing your blog. You are helping not only sufferers of PTSD but also helping many to understand that in the emergency and defence services, you are literally dealing with non-normal, depressing and life threatening situations every day. And consequently for many of us, it is actually NORMAL for us to have this reaction. Good luck x

    1. Hi Dee. What an amazing story, thanks for writing about it. I agree with what you say about the PTSD “cycle”. I think the best we can do is seek help when we need it and trust the process. Best of luck to you too.

  8. Thank you.

    For your honesty and openness ~ there is so much here that resonates with me…. I just hadn’t put all the ‘bits’ together.

    Thank you x

  9. Been their felt the symptoms, got the diagnosis, left to flounder by the emergency agency, who in the end blackmailed me to the point i said rnough is enough. I ssid to them to stick their weekly compensation.
    same state Catherine, different organisation.
    Enjoyed your blog, its tough to let go of something you’re passionate about, as i was

  10. How brave and honest your story is. Thank you so much for sharing. No you don’t know me. I am a concerned parent

  11. Im at the end of a 3 month secondment in a DIU and you couldn’t have described my experience better, from feeling stupid and losing focus, right down to the daily headaches. I couldn’t wait to get off the van, now I’m looking forward to getting back on it.
    I’m sorry to hear you’re struggling so much. PTSD is the shittest of chronic injury. I’ve watched colleagues and friends suffer through it. It’s shit from the outside too. You know something’s wrong and want to help, but at the same time don’t want to intrude.
    As a member of your blue family I definitely dont think any less of you and will always support and be available for you.

  12. Hi Catherine
    Just read your article…. I can honestly say ….I thought I was reading my own story… I’ve also felt the shame, embarrassment, and self failure when I put my hand up seeking help… I tried to very early on to get a swap or a position elsewhere other than my current Hwp duties just to get a break away from the incidents I was attending ( 99% 1up). But was told by my bosses that it can’t be done… tried again and again but kept getting told no…. I didn’t realize at the time it was my body and mind crying out for help but I continued on until I almost crossed the line… I knew I was in trouble and had to seek help….. I did the very next day… that was the start of 18 months of hell…. but I’m almost seeing light at the end of this very dark tunnel.. unfortunately after 27 years I can count on one hand my true mates who have stuck by me and supported me… bit dissapointed but that’s life… stay strong and you will eventually get through this hell and come out the other side a better, stronger, wiser person who will be in control of your life… if need a chat contact via Matt anstee👍🏽👍🏽💙💙

  13. 29 years, 21 GD and the van right up to the end. Hopefully some people reading what you went through will recogonise it in themselves, and seek help. I denied it all, and when I attended group therapy I finally realised that what the other people were going through I was going through too. It made me admit to myself that I did have PTSD.

  14. Hi Catherine. Quite well written and ticks a lot of the boxes for me too – particularly the need to (re)gain control and the fight or flight responses. My symptoms were masked/heightened for many years by alcohol abuse so at my low points I just thought I was a hopeless drunk. It was only after I got sober that I realised there was some serious underlying dysfunctionality at play ..

    Am curious to know what your experience has been like after asking for help? Its generally such a mixed bag ..

    good luck take care

    1. Hi Luke, thanks for your support. As you say, it’s been a mixed bag for me, very much up and down for the last 18 months. Tried counselling three times, then on my fourth attempt found a terrific psychologist who has made a huge difference. Best of luck to you too.

  15. Thank you for your honesty and bravery. I’ve seen my husband go down that path and after 12 months he has returned to work… but its been a hard life altering road and things will never be the same. I worked the van for 18 years… and HWP since then. Damaged yes…. ready to go see someone… soon. I have a great support base in my hubby and lived his journey. I have found ways of working through things…. most times it works. Thank you again for your words… x

  16. Hey Catherine , good on you for verbalising things – I think you may help others come out . The old “Macho” harden up attitude seems to still prevail – that is sad , it prevents ( or discourages ) most of us for putting our hands up and asking for help . I have an idea of what you are going through , good luck and you have taken an important step in the right direction . Well done

  17. An inspiring story to hear. I’ve been in 26yrs and some of the names I recognize. I went off some 6yrs ago and looked at resigning, but made the choice to return to the job I had wanted from a young child of 9. I have come back stronger and more determined, but still suffer mental health days and will continue to have them for the remainder of my career. My husband was an officer of 35 yrs and left after suffering PTSD but he didn’t tell me he was seeking help as he thought it was a weakness – unfortunately that was and still is the cultural belief in some areas – still today. Well done too you and never feel embarrassed. I felt exactly like that when I returned and it took a long time to earn my stripes back (metaphorically speaking). Be proud of the service you gave – I am. When a politician gets a full pension and all the perks that go with it for only 10yrs of service – I’d like to see all emergency/armed service personnel get the same after a period of dedicated service. You aren’t the first and I’m sorry to say that you won’t but the last so take care and be kind to yourself.

    1. Hi Pam, thanks for your support. You’ve done so well to get on top of it. And your husband too. I can completely understand his wanting to keep it quiet. All the best.

  18. You write so beautifully about something so dark. The impact its had is awful but I am so proud that you have written this. You were someone i looked up to when i first started at the office and still do. Your bravery is mindblowing.
    #bluiesisterforlife

  19. I left the job in 2011 after 23 years its amazing reading your article as it triggered memories of the same feelings and symptoms. I remember seeing my hands shake when attending jobs I had done a hundred times before and was pre empting the job before I had even arrived. I to trieda desk job but it wasnt me and I felt even worse so I hit the streets again. One day I woke up and was going to kill the next person who broke the law…it could have been anyone for any small infraction. I knew I was done. I called the boss told him to pick up my weapon and I was gone. I still feel ashamed for developing PTSD and Depression. A cop thing I guess. Good luck with everything, you have done a great job, now live the good life. 🙂

    1. Hi Gerry. Thanks for your support and for writing about your experiences. You did well to acknowledge what was going on for you. That’s hard. Look after yourself.

  20. It is a great pity that the job we do makes us feel we have to be immune to the things everyday people either run away from, turn away from or refuse to face. On top of it all the continual strain of taking in the new processes of an ever changing job. My heart goes out to you and I think you have done a brilliant job in expressing what most people try to hide. Thank you for that it will surely help others cross the bridges you have done already.

  21. G’day again
    I am returning from overseas to Melbourne on Monday. I am very keen to share my experiences with police work induced complex ptsd and my road to recovery. I think that it is long overdue to put together a recovery program from mine and others experiences that can fast track recovery for others. I hear we in Victoria lost another one to suicide just recently. I hope Catherine that we can make contact next week. For information my phone number is 0400 212 284. Tal soon

  22. Hi Catherine. Thought I just do some sharing and hope it will help. So during my 14 years on the “van” I would often have times when I would withdraw and drink alcohol until I literally could hardly even stand. Many times when I could not get proper sleep and just a very irritable grumpy bastard to be around. Towards the end I really struggled to get out of bed and called in sick many times and just tried to hang in there until I got some leave or days off. So to help in identifying what it feels like I think you have expressed it well and is really what would be known as a very severe depression. You just feel like you are shutting down and you do not have any control on that. Your thoughts are all over the place and you just feel like you have no energy. I ended up resigning after taking all my sick leave but had really not had any meaningful treatment. I really believe there have been some miracles along the way to bring me to the health and well being that I experience today I will be sharing more about that soon. So stay safe and be kind to your self

    1. Hi Mark, thanks for your support and for writing about your experiences. Sounds like you’ve hard a very hard time with it, but I’m glad to hear you’re in a better space now. All the best.

  23. More sharing on recovery. So I did my 14/15 years from 82 until 96. 20 years have past since resignation. Now 55 and alive and well(probably a bit too much weight but hey I am now of mature age). Securing and keeping work has been challenging. I have done a lot of courses and training/development in other areas which has helped to prove at least to myself that I am a capable and competent individual maybe the job took a lot of that self confidence away. Probably most content when working for myself which means I can really use my talents to full extent not just to maybe keep a boss happy. I have now been completely off alcohol for 6 months and that in itself has made a huge difference. Wish I had done that a long time ago.

    Over the last few years I have spent a lot of time just grieving. Grieving for loss of career being the job that I really wanted to as a young bloke. Grieving for loss of lives that I was involved in when working te van. This has meant a lot of crying. Not an easy thing to do for a blokes bloke. Nearly 6 foot and 100 or so kgs but incredibly broken inside. All I can say is that starts off feeling shit but then as imovetrough process come out the other end feeling a lot better and a sense of closure. Tears really do help. Also very spiritual as I also pray and read bible helps to keep perspective. That will do for now and hope to hear more from
    Others

  24. Thanks for writing this Cath. Having read your story and some of the responses really struck a chord with the amount of similarities. PTSD cut my career short after 9 years on the van – but it would take a few years to realise that and put a name to this debilitating workplace injury (cause that’s what it is, but back in 2010 when I left – they couldn’t give a hoot if you were clearly broken, they just wanted to see a ‘troublemaker’ out the door).

    At least these days I don’t drink myself into a stupor most nights just to get through. And I can function at work better, but there’s still some ‘fixing up’ to be done. At least I can see that now.

    You are an incredibly smart and brave person Cath, and I always enjoyed working with you many moons ago. A ‘Good Operator’! Look after yourself.

  25. Thank you so much for writing this. I’m so interested in reading more from you. I’m a triple zero operator and my husband is in the job – GD. I worry so much about our futures and hope we can put preventative measures in place. These stories are so important. I hope we lose the stigma of ‘failure’ so commonly associated with PTSD.
    I wish you all the best through the next part of your journey.

    1. Thank you for your support. It is hard not to worry, but having and keeping good people around you is a great tactic. Wishing you and your husband all the best.

    1. Still in the job, but working part-time as an analyst. Still having some problems with depression and anxiety, but I think that will take a while to get on top of. Spend much more time on me now. What about you?

  26. I have my own business so doing ok…retired peer support service and wotking on some legislation change..mental health is my passion but as u said self is important

    1. Thank you for reading. Leaving the job must be a huge step to take, but mental health and family are absolutely the right reasons. I hope you’re doing well.

  27. Wow how badass! I was a cop in my short lived military career I couldn’t imagine going through anything as traumatic as the events you described. Thank you for sharing this with people and giving me a new blog site to read!

Any comments or questions?