Note from Jason: Brian’s story is one that must be shared. He has been through hell and back. His story is similar to so many other first responders who are suffering in silence. Brian has chosen to break that silence and share is story. That might just be his most heroic act of all.
In October of 2004, I was the first police officer on the scene of a fatal motor vehicle collision. The collision involved a minivan and a pickup truck. The minivan had rolled into the ditch and was almost destroyed, with every piece of glass and plastic being broken out of it. The witnesses at the scene hadn’t seen anyone move or climb out of it after it rolled. Based on what I was told when I arrived at the collision, things did not look good.
When I arrived, I waded through a muddy ditch full of waist-high water to get to the van. I cut my palms and knees climbing into what was left of the vehicle and was met with the sight of a single male amongst all the debris, lying on his back with one hand out the door. He was bleeding from a severe wound to his throat and rapidly losing blood. I applied direct pressure to the wound and in doing so, had to get almost face to face with the victim. When I got that close, I quickly realized that the driver, who was bleeding to death before my eyes, was a close friend from university. I began to use his name, asking him to hang on, to stick with me.
At one point, he simply breathed his last and died in my arms as I was preparing to perform CPR. The paramedics who attended the scene ultimately did revive him, and he lived for a few days in an induced coma. I spent the rest of the night at the scene and I also had the responsibility of telling his wife, who was just about to give birth to their son, that he had died and the circumstances. It was the worst night of my career.
In the days immediately following, I coped the way that many first responders cope with stress and trauma – with alcohol and a strong desire to bury the experience. I didn’t get any after-care at the time, didn’t explore the experience and the feelings it created, didn’t let anyone know what I was going through. I tried with one officer, an old, crusty Sergeant who was supposed to be mentoring me – his advice was simply that I should toughen up because that was life. So, I told myself it was part of the job, something that a cop should be able to deal with, and locked the demon of growing PTS away in a cage way in the back of my brain.
Basically, I did everything wrong:
-I never sought out any kind of debriefing or professional assistance;
-I buried myself in my career, striving for promotions and accolades and seeking acceptance and redemption through success at work;
-I systematically pushed away my family and friends, creating a bubble around myself, living with the fear, the guilt, the anger, and the despair. I cut myself off from the people who were in the best position to help me and turned to video games, the internet, and unhealthy addictions to cope;
-at work I was cool, calm, put together. At home, I lost my temper, raised my voice, and was a less than ideal dad and husband. I equate it to masks. At work, I had one mask on that hid everything nice and neat and gave everyone the impression that I was in control. At home, my real face came out, and it was an ugly, hurtful thing. (It tears at my heart that my sons will have the memory of their dad during those years as being detached, angry, and isolated. They deserved better and I have done everything I can to explain to them what PTS is and what it did to me, and to repair my relationship with them and my wife);
-for a while, just before I completely crashed, I turned to alcohol on a daily basis to cope. It was so much easier to feel drunk and numb than to deal with the blackness;
-at the end of 2011, I finally got into a spiral that ended with a complete breakdown and hitting rock bottom. I was burned out physically, emotionally, spiritually, and mentally. I contemplated suicide twice during this time.
It took that total collapse to show me that something was wrong and that I needed professional help. I was at a place I thought I never would be at in my life – broken, battered, scared, and completely directionless.
Here’s what I did to start to climb out of that pit.
-I decided that I wanted to fight. Finally admitting that I had a problem that needed to be fixed was probably the hardest step, but the most critical one in my healing process;
-I began seeing an excellent psychologist who specialized in PTSD treatment for first responders / military. My time with her consisted mostly of cognitive and ‘talk’ therapy; but also included writing, reflecting, and coming to terms with the burdens I had been carrying around for so long. My experiences with her were at turns enlightening, angering, sad, and rewarding;
-I let the walls I had built between myself and my friends and family fall down, which let me start to make amends and rebuild relationships I had come close to destroying;
-I fought the battle for workman’s compensation and got it. It was a long and complicated battle, but when I finally saw that letter with ‘Claim Approved’ written across it, the battle became worth every minute I had put into it;
-I rebuilt my reputation at work and ‘came out of the closet’ about my PTS. It started with a simple email to my staff in support of the release of the Ontario Ombudsman’s report on PTS in policing, but led to becoming a very vocal advocate at my workplace. I began to help guide other officers through their own struggles with trauma and rebuilding their lives;
-I requested, and received, a transfer to a different work location where my family would be more comfortable, even though it meant stepping back in rank from Staff Sergeant to Sergeant, taking a pay cut and a cut in responsibilities and duties.
That turned out to be one of the best moves I ever made for myself and my family.
Now, a few years later, I’m in a very good place. I’ve started speaking about my experiences and training both first responders and civilians about PTS, resiliency, and getting through trauma with your mind and body intact. I write regularly on issues around first responders and psychological health and have created an audience of both uniforms and civilians.
I’m enjoying work and even though there are still some tough days, I’ve found new love for my job and have renewed pride in being a cop.
What I want people to take away from my story is that there IS life after a PTS diagnosis, if you’re willing to fight for it. You can continue to do the job you love, you can rebuild your ties to family and friends, and you can actually become a greater, better person through tapping into strength you never knew you had.
You can tame your demons.