When I started writing about PTSD and depression, I had three reasons. Firstly, because it was cathartic. It was a way for me to raise things with Kara*, my psychologist, that I knew I was never going to just broach in conversation. I’ve always been more comfortable on paper than in person, so this was really the only way it was ever going to come out. It was also very helpful to me to put everything that had happened to me over the last 20 years into some kind of order. A lot of things made much more sense to me after I’d written about them.
The second reason was, I wanted a way to tell my family what I’ve been going through. I still haven’t told them about the PTSD or the depression, I’ve told hardly anyone. A couple of people inside the job know about it and a couple of friends outside the job, but that’s it. I always felt it was something I had to keep hidden, at all costs.
Initially, I think that was because I felt ashamed. I didn’t want to appear weak to my colleagues and I didn’t want anyone in my family to feel they had to protect me or worry about me. But also, I just didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for me. It would have only made me feel worse.
But then I realised it was more than that. Over the last couple of years I’ve managed to create two very distinct worlds; my working world and my other world. My safe world. Here you’ll find no evidence of my working world. My home has been completely cleansed of it all. The few framed certificates and graduation photos dotted around have disappeared, one by one. My service medals are hidden in a drawer somewhere. My uniform is tucked away in the back of my closet.
I wanted a space that was free of all my work problems and I needed to have people in my life who weren’t going to ask me about them. Occasionally, someone would ask me about work and my answer was always the same. “It’s okay.” I became very good at steering conversations away from the subject or just shutting them down completely.
Now I think maybe it’s time I started talking to people again. Really talking.
My third reason for writing this was that I thought it might help someone else. And this is not the part where I say, “This is how I beat PTSD and depression,” because I haven’t. Not yet, anyway. But I know I’ve made a hell of a lot of progress. I feel like I’m on top of my triggers. Trains and train lines no longer get to me and I’ve even started catching the train to work one or two days a week. Blood still bothers me and I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to look at chicken mince again, but I know what to expect now when I’m faced with these things and I know how to deal with it.
One of the hardest things for me has been trying to pinpoint exactly when it all fell apart. I remember when I was filling out my paperwork, there was a little space for, “Date of Injury”. What the fuck am I supposed to write there? I thought to myself. Can I get a larger form?
There was no one date for me, no one incident. It was just a gradual wearing-down. I suspect I was burnt-out as far back as 2010, then the Eliza* thing happened and before I knew it, the depression had well and truly set in. I think those later incidents, all that stuff that happened during my upgrading, well, that just finished me off.
I still have low days, but they are just days, as opposed to weeks or months and I know I have ways of fighting it.
Exercise is my number one remedy. And another thing I’ve found to be helpful when I’m feeling down is just to be around someone I care about. Before I started doing this, my instinct was always to withdraw further, to be on my own and worry and be sad about everything. Then one day I decided to just do the opposite.
My little niece is so good at cheering me up. I sit down with her and we talk about whatever pops into her head. Colouring between the lines. Copying the letters of the alphabet. Potato chips. The stripes on Knightley’s tail. Talking with her forces me to focus on the here and now. My niece is six years old and has already mastered mindfulness.
Finally, I allow myself to be vulnerable, which is really not such a bad way to be.
There was one session with Kara, where I was trying to talk about the Eliza thing. How I’d been hurt and how it still bothered me, and how I didn’t want to go through any of that ever again. Kara then suggested I watch a TED Talk, given by American scholar and author Brene’ Brown. The talk was entitled, the Power of Vulnerability.
Brown talked about shame, which she describes as the fear of disconnection to other people. “Is there something about me that if other people know it or see it, I won’t be worthy of connection?”
For me, that shame was, I’m not smart enough to work through all this on my own. I’m not good enough to progress my career. I’m not strong enough to cope with everything that’s happened.
Brown argued that in order to achieve human connection, we have to allow ourselves to be authentic. To be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen. And to know that we are enough.
I watched the talk three times in one day, because it was a beautiful message and in my heart, I really wanted to believe it. But my cop brain wouldn’t let me. My cop brain kept saying, in its typically cynical way, “That’s all well and good for her to say. But what does she know about shame and vulnerability? She has a successful, rewarding career. She has a happy marriage, she has healthy kids. When has she ever felt vulnerable?”
Like all things I really don’t want to hear but probably need to, Brown’s message took a while to sink in.
A couple of weeks after watching the talk, I was at Crossfit and started chatting with one of the girls, who I hadn’t seen in a while. Beth* is an osteopath, who actually treated me a couple of years ago for a shoulder injury, before we both started training at the same gym. She knew what I did for a living.
Anyway, she asked me how work was going and I gave her the usual line. “It’s okay.” Then, without really thinking, I added, “I’m only working part-time at the moment.”
“Oh, why is that?” she asked.
I hesitated for moment, then thought to myself, fuck it, let’s just see what happens.
“PTSD,” I told her. “I’ve been having a really shit time for a while.”
Beth stopped what she was doing and looked at me. I don’t really know what I expecting. Maybe that she’d change the subject or just slowly back away.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” she said and it was with genuine empathy. There was no judgement and no pity.
This was a huge step for me. Being open about what was going on with me and discovering that it really wasn’t such a horrible thing, after all. On the contrary, it was just a massive sense of relief.
We talked about it for a few more minutes and then she told me, “My brother’s a cop. Sometimes I really worry about the things he must have to deal with.”
And that also made me feel good.
If someone reads this and it prompts them to pick up the phone and call their friend, or their brother or their sister and say, “Is everything okay with you?” I’d be really happy about that.
And if someone else reads this and it motivates them to seek help for something they’re just not coping with, I’d be really happy about that too.
It’s hard to speak up, I get that. But just do it. The rewards are there.
(*names have been changed to respect the privacy of those concerned)