Rookie Mistakes, Part 2 – Adapting to Work Around Stress and Trauma

Warning: this post contains details some may find distressing.

Not all my confrontations were face-to-face.

One of my earliest investigations was a road-rage incident. A man driving a delivery van got into a altercation with another motorist, who was driving a little black sports car. It was one of those pissy incidents that happen a thousand times a day, the kind that any normal person would just walk away from. Someone cuts you off, you honk them, you move on.

This incident ended at a set of traffic lights, when the driver of the sports car got out with an extendable baton and smashed the rear windscreen of the delivery van. He then got back in his car and calmly drove away.

The victim reported the incident to me and I started to track down the driver. The sports car was registered to a business so I rang the manager and asked him who had the car. He told me it had recently been sold to a male by the name of Stuart Gamble*.

Gamble was not recorded on our system, was what we’d call a “cleanskin.” So I decided to contact him by phone and ask him to come in for an interview.

The conversation was… bizarre. Gamble admitted his involvement straight away, admitted smashing the windscreen, but seemed to regard it as completely normal. He actually seemed quite cheerful when discussing it.

“I’ll need to interview you about it,” I told him. “Are you able to come down and see me?”

“I don’t think I can be bothered doing that,” he replied.

I hesitated. “Okay… Well, it’s probably easier if we make an appointment. Otherwise you’ll be arrested.”

“Yeah, that won’t be happening.”

This went on for a couple of minutes and I ended up just hanging up on him. He rang me back within a minute and in that very short space of time, had managed to work himself into an absolute rage.

He stopped screaming at me just long enough to tell me he was on his way down to the station to “sort” me out. I remember being so unnerved by this phone call that I went and told the sergeant about it and asked for some assistance to deal with Gamble when he arrived. I thought there was good chance he’d come in with some kind of weapon.

Gamble didn’t show up, but he did go on a six-day rampage that ended when he was pulled over by police in the eastern suburbs. Gamble had a gun. He took it out and shot Senior Constable Chris Paxman* in the chest. Police then returned fire. Paxman survived his injuries, but would never be the same.

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I was on nightshift the day of the shooting. I remember waking up late in the afternoon, switching on the early news and seeing the report of the shooting. The moment that little black sports car flashed up on the screen I instantly felt the blood drain from my face. As soon as I saw that car, I knew it was him.

Gamble wasn’t as clean as he first seemed. He was a heroin dealer from interstate who’d changed his name when he made the move here. We just had nothing on him in our system.

After he’d recovered from his own gunshot wounds, Gamble was interviewed for attempted murder. He said he did what he did because he thought police were out to get him. He said I threatened him. And this was days later. Somehow, after everything that happened, after all the fucking mayhem, somewhere in his drug-fried brain, he’d found some space to file away my name.

In terms of interactions with people, I know this was hardly anything. Really, it was just like brushing past someone on the street. But it had an effect. I felt responsible for Chris Paxman being shot. I felt that he’d taken a bullet that was meant for me. I suppose this is when I developed my fear of being shot. Not just a fear, but a belief that one day I would be shot. After talking this through with Kara*, I felt sure that this was why I reacted the way I did to the gun in the cells. After all those years, it was as if fate had finally caught up with me and was going to claim what was owed.

The other incident that really stands out wasn’t even a confrontation, just a car. I think it was a blue Mini. We’d been asked to go to a local tow depot and search this car, which been involved in a double-fatality the night before. It had slammed into the back of a parked truck trailer and the driver and passenger were killed instantly.

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The car was probably half its original size. The entire front end was completely compacted and the windscreen was gone. I vividly remember opening the passenger door of the car and seeing all this blood slop down onto my boots. It was fucking everywhere. It was pooled on the seats, on the floors, in the little cavities on the door handles. And not just blood, but all these little lumps of what I initially thought was raw chicken mince.

Why would they have been driving around with chicken mince? I wondered. And then I realised. It wasn’t chicken mince, it was little bits of brain. There were bits of brain all over the inside of this fucking car. The smell was unbelievable, it was just like a butcher’s shop. Even now, I still can’t look at raw chicken mince.

It was the first time I had ever seen anything quite like it. When we were in the academy we were fortunate enough to observe an autopsy, but this was different. This wasn’t behind glass, this was right in my face. I wasn’t prepared for it and it was completely overwhelming.

The next day, I broke out into a rash. There were little red dots all over my chest and neck. I thought maybe I was allergic to something, but I just couldn’t work out what it was. Then after two or three days, it was gone. It wasn’t until years later that I realised hives can be caused by stress and then it all made sense to me. I’d had a physical reaction to what I’d seen.

Like those other early incidents, this one left its mark on me, mentally. It altered me, left me better-equipped to face the dozens of death scenes I would be attending over the next 18 years of my operational career. And the way it altered me was to make me prepare for the worst. I went to those jobs thinking, “This is going to be horrific, but I have a job to do. I will see things and smell things that no person should, but I can handle it.” Then, anything less than horrific actually seemed like a relief.

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(Photo by Scott James)

If we had a welfare unit back in those days, I don’t remember it. Certainly, I never talked to anyone in an official capacity. The only counselling we ever had was from each other and usually, it was down at the pub. If you were in any doubt as to just how bad your day had been, you could always get some idea from the number of drinks that were shouted for you. I remember sitting there one night with five drinks lined up in front of me. Which is kind of awkward for a non-drinker.

When Kara asked me to recall my early years, these incidents all came to mind fairly easily. I suppose they stood out because of the effects they had on me. But then she asked me to keep going, to talk about the years that followed, and that was when it hit me. I had absolutely no recollection of my middle years in the job. I could not remember a single incident from 2002 to 2011. Not one.

I knew I was functioning during this time, because I was promoted. Twice. And no, I wasn’t drinking and no, I wasn’t on crack. I also don’t think it was me repressing anything particularly traumatic that may have happened during this time. I just think whatever I was doing to cope with the job, whatever strategies and mechanisms I had in place, they prevented me from making any new, non-essential memories until the old trauma had been processed. How amazing is the human mind?

“The disk is full. Free some space on this drive or save the memory to another disk.”

When you become a cop, they give you a uniform and all the equipment, but it’s up to you to provide your own armour. Nobody can see your armour, but it’s there. It will protect you from all the things you’re going to see and all the hatred you’re going to face. But there are negatives. Your armour is heavy. Once you have it on, it’s hard to get off. And it distorts your view of things, of pretty much everything.

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You will assemble your armour in those first few years. Everyone’s armour is different and yours is unique to you. But you have to look after your armour. You have to check it often because sometimes cracks will appear. They are hard to see, so you have to check carefully. A small crack left unchecked will only get bigger and that can be a problem. That’s when things turn to shit and before you know it, it’s all falling apart.

Take it from me, don’t let it get to that stage. If you see a crack, just tell someone about it. Look after your armour and your armour will look after you.

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

© Triggered, 2018

2 thoughts on “Rookie Mistakes, Part 2 – Adapting to Work Around Stress and Trauma

  1. I dont know if its because i know you, or because i can relate to 1% of your blog … but i love reading what you post. So honest, straight to the point, clear cut and simple to read. No big words or terminology to Google the meaning of. Perfection.

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