Welcome to my world of indecision!
I credit my recent flurry-thinking to having been diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) on April 29, 2016, following a psychological assessment that took a couple of months to complete. It was the first time I've had such an assessment and I suppose what's happening now is I'm having a hard time processing as it slowly sinks in.
I can tell you that I am having many “ah-ha moments” (as Oprah would call them) since my psychiatrist said it out loud and I read it in his report. And even though I've been facing challenges with depression for about five years now and I thought I had an idea of what PTSD is, I frankly didn't see it in myself completely. However, now many things are making much more sense to me.
I've thought all along I had elements of PTSD because I could see that depression is a large part of it, but as my psychiatrist put it to me, the wider picture has not been considered before. Now that it is, it's as though I now have permission to see clearly.
Some of what I realize is that PTSD is not only about how a person like myself feels, but it's also about how I see things and how I process things. I am beginning to make the difficult admission that I may be seeing some things, like relationships, trust and occurrences, in distorted ways.
I think in general that first responders can be vulnerable to distorted thinking because we have our feet in two worlds, more so than people with more usual careers or jobs. One world is our work life and the other world is “the rest” of our lives which includes family and friends outside of the job as well as outside interests like community involvement and hobbies. And the two worlds do tend to be separated because they don't often mesh well together. I mean let's face it, first responder world doesn't always make sense.
And while we may agree that it's hard to know at the time that we are not coping well with something, now add powerful denial into the mix. First responders are very proud and most want to deny as much as possible that what we love to do is sometimes more than we can cope with.
But we've all been around someone who is disproportionately angry about something dumb or is arguing non-sense. We watch knowing that what they are ranting about is not really what the issue is and PTSD among first responders tends to have a similar kind of effect on their lives.
Difficulty coping may begin to show in an individual's work ethic at first through increases in sick time off and lower productivity, but sometimes the ill-effects of what happens at work will unfortunately be blown out of proportion in their personal lives. Some first responders self-medicate with alcohol and/or prescription drugs; divorce is common as is social isolation; some engage in either physically or sexually risky behaviour; some become aggressive or fall into depression and some commit suicide. And while that can look like someone who just doesn't have their life together, the reality is these are actually dysfunctional coping strategies in response to trauma and stress.
While I certainly have seen my personal life come apart, some of what I think is also difficult psychologically for police officers is the many years of presenting the “police persona” that we are trained to operate under. We go to work and we are expected to be the calm, objective, impartial, dutiful, righteous, brave and appropriately aggressive person in any and all situations. And though we may not actually be that person at heart, the outward appearance is that we can cope well with anything and everything.
This is not to say police officers have disassociation issues, but for me, if I could not find myself in anything else in my life, I could always hold up my identity as a police officer to say this is who I am and it's substantial. This is proof that I am or will be alright because even as unpredictable and sometimes outright weird as my job is, the fact that I can do it must mean I am strong in spite of how I really feel. What's been hard for me to admit is that the balance point may be tipped and I'm ending up on the heavy side that says policing might be taking more from me than I have left to give.
I think many first responders would agree that the hardest part of being who we are and doing what we do is holding the balance between personal and professional life.
It's not like police officers go home at the end of our shifts and talk openly at the dinner table about the violence and suffering we saw that day. No, we keep that separated and compartmentalized within our police persona. And unfortunately supporting our police persona is very complicated and we – meaning we as a community - are still trying to make advances to figure out how best to do that.
I can see another complexity right here in my blog and that is - denial. I've written a lot about my personal life, looking for the fault lines there for my depression because I have been afraid to write frankly about my work. Afraid, in part, to be judged and misunderstood my colleagues; and afraid that writing about work will be used against me in some fashion I can't think of as I type. That is part of the police officer's lament, in my opinion. It seems many times the things we do or don't do are held against us in ways we just cannot imagine until it hits. It make us afraid to make waves, no matter the cause.
This, to me, is another line on the list of why it's so hard for us to get help. We are afraid to say out loud that we need help because someone, somewhere and somehow may use it against us.... even if it's only our own colleagues who will use it as reason to disassociate.
I know some of what I think about as I write this blog is that some officers won't want to work with me, or that I'll be brought up on charges under provisions of the Ontario Police Services Act or one day while testifying in court a lawyer will try to make my mental health an issue to exonerate someone charged with a serious crime.
The other part of my fears about opening up about work, is that it might just take away from something in my life that I want to hold dear. I started my 21st year in policing at the end of April and retirement is approaching. I don't want to get to the end of my career feeling like I've been a victim of what I worked so hard for and what has generally brought me so much pride in my life. I don't want to loose the feeling that I have had the courage to make a career of being a cop. And it really hurts to think I might.
And finally what I'm also thinking about right now, is that as this diagnosis takes the ripple effect in my life I'll be asked for the exact point where, when and how things started to come apart. I'll have to prove my breakdown. And while I do think I know when and where it started... I just don't want to talk about it because that will make it too real and I don't want to live it again.