Seeking Safety – Finding the Right Mental Health Treatment

In July 2015, I went and saw a psychologist. This was the second time in my life I’d sought counselling, the first was when I was going through a bit of a rough patch back in 2012. It’s funny, I thought I was worn-out back then. It was probably about a quarter of what I was feeling now.

So I sat in the psychologist’s office, fidgeting nervously and telling myself to stay composed. Just don’t cry, I told myself, over and over again. You can do this.

“So, what brings you here today?” was her first question, and that was it. I started to cry.

She handed me a box of tissues and I started to tell her about work. I told her about the death in custody, I told her about the gun incident, I told her about the drowning, I told her about the train suicides and how I couldn’t get the smell of human flesh out of my nose. She took notes as I talked and it soon became clear that she’d never spoken to a police officer before.

She stopped me every few sentences to get me to explain whatever it was I’d just said. I had to explain the different ranks. I had to explain upgrading. I had to explain shift-work. Then I’d lose track of whatever it was I was just talking about, which only made me feel more flustered. It was like trying to speak to someone over a really bad phone line. The conversation faltered at every turn. It was disjointed, unnatural and awkward.

I have never been a big talker, never. I have always been on the shy side and it takes me a while to warm to people. To go into a situation like this, to sit down with a person I’d only just met and to try to talk to them – really talk to them – went against my every instinct. To me, it made about as much sense as speed-dating.

I tried to tell her how lost I felt. I tried to be honest. But then, I think I must’ve been a bit too honest. I was talking about some messy scene I’d been to when, all of a sudden, she recoiled, like I’d just thrown something at her. It was a fleeting reaction, but it was there. She flinched. I actually made the psychologist flinch.

We made an appointment to meet up again the following week, but her clinic rang me one day prior to let me know she was unwell and would have to cancel. I didn’t bother rescheduling, I just didn’t see the point. I made her flinch, for fucks sake. Where do you go from there?

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So I put counselling to the side and carried on as best I could. A few months later, I made my move into intel. I lasted until May 2016, when it all became too much.

In consultation with my GP, I decided not to stop working, but to reduce my hours. I feared that if I stopped work I would never want to come back. I also worried about having too much time on my hands.

My new working arrangements were not lost on my workmates or my family and some form of explanation was soon necessary. I told them I was having some ongoing health problems which hadn’t really been diagnosed, but were causing me a lot of fatigue. By keeping it all very vague, I was able to spare myself from lying to those closest to me. I don’t know, I think it just seemed important at that point that I not add “liar” to my list of defects.

It was around this time that I decided to give counselling another try, so I got a referral to a psychologist who’d been recommended to me by a workmate. It started off quite well and after a couple of sessions, I felt I was able to talk to her about most of the work stuff. Then she got me to do the tapping thing.

I still don’t know what this particular kind of therapy is called, but I know how it felt. Ridiculous. The psychologist had me tapping various parts of my body – my elbow, my chin, my forehead – while repeating aloud certain details of some of the critical incidents I’d been to. As I sat there tapping my head and repeating, “I did all I could that day, I did all I could that day,” I felt… Well, I felt like an idiot.

The thing is, I have this idea that any kind of treatment, be it physical or psychological, has to make sense to me. It has to make sense to me.

So instead of just saying, “I don’t think this particular approach is working,” I did what any cop would do. I got the hell out of there and cancelled my remaining sessions. I felt embarrassed.  What’s wrong with me? I wondered. Why can’t I just talk about this stuff without feeling like a freak? Is it because I’m too difficult? Am I beyond help?

I’d pretty much given up on counselling until I found out about a specialist trauma service. Though I wasn’t optimistic, I was willing to give it a try.

But as I sat in the waiting room on that pivotal day in November 2016, I felt certain it would only end in failure. I almost felt like I needed to go into my first appointment and apologise in advance. “This probably isn’t going to work,” I would say to the psychologist. “But it’s something I have to try. I’m sorry for wasting your time.”

Cops are a suspicious, sceptical and somewhat negative group of people who don’t give their trust easily. But if you saw what we had to deal with every day, you’d understand why. We become that way in order to survive.

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(Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash)

Kara* had my trust within the first half hour. I didn’t feel like I was being judged or that I had to censor what I was saying in any way. I felt safe. I actually remember thinking, it’s okay, you can talk to her. You can trust her. And in that moment, it was like someone had lifted a pair of sandbags from my shoulders. It was an unbelievable feeling of lightness and relief, something I hadn’t felt in years.

I always had this idea that there was stuff I just couldn’t talk about, certainly it was the case with the first three psychologists. There were things I felt were just too private. But then I realised, if I start picking and choosing what I’m going to talk about with Kara, it kind of defeats the purpose. So I decided I was going to just let it all out, no matter how uncomfortable.

The things that were hardest to talk about, I wrote down. I’d write a couple of pages about something, leave it with her, then we’d talk about it the next week. These were things I’d never told anybody before. Things I’d swore would never see the light of day. But by bringing them out in the open, they actually seemed smaller. Certainly, they seemed less formidable.

It’s kind of like when you’re little and you think you’ve got a monster living under your bed or in your closet. So you tell your parents and what do they do? They put on the lights, lift up the bed covers and throw open the closet doors. “See, there’s nothing there,” they’ll tell you. “You have nothing to worry about.”

Sometimes just talking about the monsters in your life is enough to take away their power.

I noticed changes in myself within weeks. First thing to go was the awful skin-picking thing. Then Kara got me started on meditation and that took away my anger. I felt calmer and more rational and driving no longer felt like all-out war.

It was Kara who helped me understand and accept what was going on with me. PTSD. Depression. The fatigue I felt, the sadness that I just couldn’t shake, eventually I was able to liken to an extended state of mourning.

I was mourning the loss of my career. I was mourning the loss of my identity.

 

Featured image by Ben Blennerhassett on Unsplash

(*Names have been changed to respect the privacy of those concerned.)

© Triggered, 2017

16 thoughts on “Seeking Safety – Finding the Right Mental Health Treatment

  1. Thank you for sharing your story. It takes so much to take that first step, then the next but then, before you know it, you’re walking.. We are with you, by your side, some of us walking the same path. As long as that journey is always forward, you (we) will get there. ❤️

  2. Its emotional to read your blog Cath….so much you have hidden for so long.
    Do you even realise how many people you will be reaching out to and helping?
    I hope your are healing through your blogging experience too.

  3. Oh Babe, I had no idea. How you managed to go on keeping such a beautiful brave face, I don’t know.
    Always loved our shifts together. Your quiet, quick witted sense of humor, exquisite taste in coffee, reserved frankness & common interests made my day, ( not to mention the night shift feasts).
    I wish you all the best in the short & long term. I hope you continue on your recovery journey. I know you have, currently are & will continue to help others in the future. Not to mention bring the organization out of the dark ages by educating us & sharing so honestly.
    Much love to you 💙👮🏽‍♀️

  4. Catherine, your personal experiences are aligned so closely with those of us who have ended a policing career due to PTSD. I left the job (after 15 years) knowing fully that I couldn’t ever go back to working the van and I had spent nearly six years in the Sex Offence Child Abuse unit. I’d had enough and left the job and headed to the country for a tree change. I’ve changed jobs many times since and have been carrying with me, much of what had affected me during my policing career. I have seen psychologists for a short period of time, but this was related to my current work as much as anything and there was not time to unpack what I needed too. I now know the triggers and have to avoid them which means sometimes I don’t get things done to the best of my abilities (at work or at home). I have spoken to some about my PTSD but don’t think anyone actually understands how this makes some days so difficult? Reading your blog helps me to know that this is real and that we are not alone. Thank you

    1. Hi Phil. Thanks for writing about your experiences. As you say, it takes time to unpack everything. I’ve been in counselling seven months and I’m still chipping away at it all. You can always get more help when you’re ready. Drop me a line if you ever need. All the best.

  5. It is a complex issue which is why it has been named complex ptsd. A single life threatening incident can cause ptsd. Multiple will lead to the complex vareity which I believe most if not all frontline police will have eventually. At the core is unresolved grief and I have come to understand that most shrinks are just not equipped to deal with the build up
    In coppers. Needs a special one which I have found and then a good “buddy” to go through it with you. The best equipped is another copper who has been there and recovered. On top of all this is the mourning the losses of identity and career as you have stated. All this can be a killer without the right help Looking forward to further contact soon
    God bless

  6. G’day Cath.

    I think a lot more members have issued with PTSD than most people realise. I didn’t have a clue what was going on when I left and it wasn’t until a few years later after being assaulted at work that the demons and skeletons really started to come out of the closet. But like they tell you in the job, I kept trying to ‘suck it up’ and battle through, but things just got worse and worse. I ended up punishing myself and also my taking it out on my daughter who was 2 at the time. That was the straw that broke the camels back. Thankfully when I went to the GP she referred me to a psychologist who had done a lot of work with police members.

    I can’t imagine what would have happened without seeing Lindy (the psych). That was some time ago (about 18 months) and life is a million times better now. Even still – there are the days that come around every so often when the triggers start and it’s a reminder that you need to always look after yourself. I should probably go back and see Lindy as there’s still some healing to do no doubt.

    Travis.

  7. Well done Catherine for your courage and honesty. You are not alone, you are normal and you will get there with the right therapeutic relationship for you and your strengths.

Any comments or questions?