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The positive side of PTSD

March 2019

Awareness of PTSD has never been higher today, but we are still needlessly loosing first responders and military veterans to suicide at alarming rates. 

In March 2019, it was reported that OPP constable Roch Durivage had become the fourth member of the Ontario Provincial Police to take his own life since July and the 13th reported suicide of an active or retired member of the police force since 2012.

Sergeant Lori Rice of the Chicago Police Department recently became the seventh officer in eight months to commit suicide with that service.

Many, many military veterans have taken their own lives, especially in the wake of the Afghanistan War.

I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say we have a crisis here.

An internal report on the recent rash of officer suicides, ordered last year by outgoing OPP Commissioner Vince Hawkes, and authored by two chief superintendents, is expected to be handed in June. Although I wasn’t an OPP officer, I was invited to take part in the roundtable discussions that will form the basis of this report. I certainly had a few things to say. More about that below.

Recently at my PTSD support group, Wings of Change, a support group for first responders and military, one of the discussion topics that came up was the positive side of having PTSD. At first I thought, “What positive side?!” It seems counter-intuitive that such a debilitating illness could have a positive side of any kind. It’s an illness that can and does kill those suffering. In a lot of ways, it’s a silent killer.

As I thought about it, I realized that suffering from PTSD myself has made me more alert to the fact that you can never tell from the outside how much someone may be suffering on the inside.

One of the things that kept me from getting help was the fact that it’s not often an illness that can be seen. If you break your arm, people can see the cast on your arm. People can’t see what’s going on in your head.

I too used to judge people claiming to be suffering from PTSD, especially when they seemed to be functioning fine. This is because those suffering from illnesses like PTSD and addiction frequently only let people see what they want them to see.  We learn to hide our suffering.

We put on a brave face, maybe a chemically induced brave face; we fight the urge to stay in bed all day or to isolate ourselves just so we can maintain an appearance of being “normal.” This can frequently be exhausting as we “suck it up” and try to function. We are afraid of being judged; of being thought of a weak and that we just “can’t hack it.”  We don’t want the ridicule that will only serve to further destroy our fragile self-worth.  Maybe we’re afraid that admitting we are suffering will limit or derail our career.

It wasn’t until I started attending regular AA meetings that I realized what I was really sucking up was a lot of booze, just like that first-responder or military veteran we all know who used to say over a bunch of beers at the Legion, “In my day we didn’t cry or go to a head-shrinker and talk about touchy-feely stuff! We just sucked it up and got on with the job!”

My friend Natalie Harris, a retired paramedic and founder of the Wings of Change chapter in Barrie, Ontario, wrote this on the Wings of Change web site: “I sadly discovered that mental illness was running rampant in my profession, and that the fear of stigma was causing so many of my peers to secretly suffer until their bodies and minds could no longer bare the toxic silence they believed was necessary to keep their jobs; jobs which deep down most still dearly loved. I was among heroes who believed that asking for help equaled weakness, and I vowed to myself that when I was finished my treatment, and healthy enough, I would work hard to change this belief.”

Yes, frequently we “suck it up” until our minds and bodies can no longer keep going. That’s essentially what happened to me and led to the end of my career. After fighting for over two decades, I just couldn’t fight any longer. That’s what frequently frustrates me about my struggles with mental health; this belief that you are weak if you find yourself sinking and ask for help.

The truth is that I was strong enough to fight for as long as I did; to not put my service pistol in my mouth or down a whole bottle of the sleeping pills that were losing their effectiveness due to being on them for so long, something that led to me abusing alcohol because I found it gave the pills “a kick.”

By the way, if it says on the bottle, “Do not consume alcohol when taking this medication,” it’s not a suggestion!

I can only guess that my now 10 year-old daughter is only reason that I’m still here.  As much as I was suffering, the thought of my daughter growing up without the daddy that she loves so much was just too much for me to bear and gave me the strength to keep fighting to live.  However, for a while I did continue to harbour a sense of, “I don’t want to kill myself, but if someone else was to kill me………”  For a while I even stopped wearing my “bullet-proof” vest, just in case someone wanted to shoot or stab me at a call.

Speaking of being judged, it was particularly disheartening to hear an ex-fiancée and fellow officer call me “tick-tock,” as in a bomb ready to explode, or to have a another officer and friend of almost three decades not only turn his back on me, but ridicule and belittle me for years before finally throwing me under the bus, something that was particularly egregious given that I did what I could to support him when he suffered a traumatic event years before that almost ended his life and career too.  Maybe I didn’t do enough to support him, but I seriously doubt that’s the reason.

I also saved this supposed friend from some serious trouble, when a mutual friend contacted me and asked me to speak to him about his behaviour at the time. You’re welcome, by the way, so don’t you sit there and judge me.

The only ones who seemed to understand best what I was going through were two fellow officers who were also suffering from PTSD at the time.

Having PTSD has made me more aware of the suffering that is out there. When I used to see a news story about a police officer being arrested for impaired driving, I would think of how stupid they are to do something so careless, especially since police officers see the carnage that impaired driving causes. Although I’m not saying that anyone who drives impaired, police officer on not, deserves to escape the consequences of their actions, my first reaction now is to wonder if there are any mental health concerns involved.

Those who are suffering don’t need ridicule or their friends and/or co-workers turning their backs on them; they need compassion and understanding; they need someone who cares enough to say that they want to help and they won’t judge them or seek to punish them.

Speaking of “consequences,” in a para-military profession such as policing, too often senior officers place more of a priority on disciplinary measures for “problem officers.”  While good order and discipline must be maintained and mental health issues must never become a “get out of jail free card,” too often there is more of a priority on Police Act charges and punishment instead of finding out what, if any, underlying causes may be present for the “offending” officer.  This is one of the points I raised with the OPP roundtable discussion into the suicides of their officers.

I would regularly show up to work having consumed 2 – 3 drinks on my way in and then continued drinking after work.  I would even occasionally sneak a beer into my duty bag.  I desperately wanted to quit drinking and feel better about myself and my job, but I felt so alone and emotionally destroyed.  Most nights I’d drink until I passed out, not having much of a hangover the next day due to my high tolerance.  I was never falling-down drunk by any means when I showed up for work, but there were mornings I showed up at work and secretly tested myself on the Drager.  One morning I registered a Fail, although I certainly didn’t show it!

Only once did a co-worker challenge me about the smell of alcohol on my breath.  I don’t know exactly why he didn’t report me to the Sergeant, although I heard through the grapevine that he’d had similar issues in the past, so maybe he took pity on me.  While I’m obviously glad he didn’t report me on the one hand, maybe if there had been a compassionate senior officer to whom he could have reported me, one who understood that I was sick and needed medical attention instead of Police Act charges, I would have gotten help long before I went completely off the rails.

I’m fortunate that I was able to stop myself and get help before I ended up charged with impaired driving or worse, but many people who were close enough to me that could have made a difference turned their back on me.  Also turning their backs on me were WSIB and my service’s insurance provider, but that’s another story.

For the record, two of my platoon mates came to me after I’d come back from a brief stress leave and asked me if I was Ok, but I wasn’t ready to admit at the time that I had a problem and unfortunately, I didn’t feel comfortable coming out to them even if I had been ready. 

I look back on those dark days now and wonder if I had a guardian angel watching over me.  About seven months after I finally quit drinking I inadvertently dodged a RIDE spot-check.  The officer who caught me demanded that I blow into a roadside screener, which I did.  I didn’t identify myself as a police officer and I certainly didn’t look like one as I was on sick leave and had let my hair grow to shoulder length (a result of having to cut it short for 29 years).  It was after I surprised him by blowing a complete “zero” that I told him who I was and that if he’d caught me seven months earlier, I would have been under arrest as I regularly drove drunk back then (once again, not falling down drunk, but at least in the 3-day suspension range).  I know because I was a breath tech and know generally how much it took to get me legally drunk.

At least my career didn’t basically end after a gun-point arrest following a high-speed chase like retired police officer and Badge of Life Canada Director Gary Rubie’s career did.

I’m glad that the climate is changing regarding mental health struggles, especially in the usual “suck it up” professions, but it’s still far from perfect.

Visit Wings of Change at http://wingsofchange.wixsite.com/wingsofchange and Badge of Life Canada at https://badgeoflifecanada.org for information on these support groups for first responders and military personnel suffering from PTSD.

************************************************************************

An edited version that will be appearing in Blue Line magazine, a law enforcement magazine, in October 2019, which for legal reasons at the time, was written under the pseudonym of Mark Pilkey:

One of the discussion topics that came up recently at my PTSD support group for first responders and military members, Wings of Change, was the positive side of having PTSD. At first, I thought, “What positive side?!” It seems counter-intuitive that such a debilitating illness could have a silver lining.

As I thought about it, however, I realized that suffering from PTSD has made me more alert to the fact that you can never tell from the outside how much someone may be suffering on the inside.

One of the things that kept me from getting help was the fact that PTSD is not often an illness that can be seen. If you break your arm, people can see the cast. People can’t see what’s going on in your head.

I, too, used to judge people claiming to be suffering from PTSD, especially when they seemed to be functioning fine. This is because those suffering from illnesses like PTSD and addiction frequently only let people see what they want them to see. We learn to hide our suffering.

We put on a brave face, maybe a chemically induced brave face; we fight the urge to stay in bed all day or to isolate ourselves just so we can maintain an appearance of being “normal.” This can be exhausting as we “suck it up” and try to function. We are afraid of being judged; of being thought of a weak and that we just “can’t hack it.” Maybe we’re also afraid that admitting we are suffering will limit or derail our career.

It wasn’t until I started attending regular AA meetings that I realized what I was really sucking up was a lot of booze. Too often, we “suck it up” until our minds and bodies can no longer keep going. That’s essentially what happened to me and led to the end of my career. After fighting for over two decades, I just couldn’t fight any longer. This belief that you are weak if you find yourself sinking and ask for help is incredibly frustrating to me.

The truth is that I was strong enough to fight for as long as I did; to not put my service pistol in my mouth or down a whole bottle of the sleeping pills that were losing their effectiveness due to being on them for so long, something that led to me abusing alcohol because I found it gave the pills “a kick.”

It was particularly disheartening to hear fellow officers call me “tick-tock,” as in a bomb ready to explode, or to ridicule and belittle me to the point of destroying most of my self-esteem.

I can only guess that my young daughter is only reason that I’m still here. As much as I was suffering, the thought of my daughter growing up without the daddy that she loves so much was just too much for me to bear and gave me the strength to keep fighting to live. However, for a while I stopped wearing my “bullet-proof” vest, just in case someone wanted to shoot or stab me at a call.

In a para-military profession such as policing, too often senior officers place more of a priority on disciplinary measures for “problem officers.” While good order and discipline must be maintained and mental health issues must never become a “get out of jail free card,” too often there is more of a priority on Police Act charges and punishment instead of finding out what, if any, underlying causes may be present for the “offending” officer.

For the record, two of my platoon mates came to me after I’d come back from a brief stress leave and asked me if I was OK, but I wasn’t ready to admit at the time I had a problem and unfortunately, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable reaching out to them even if I had been ready.

The only ones who seemed to understand best what I was going through were two fellow officers who were also suffering from PTSD at the time.

I’m glad that the climate is changing regarding mental health struggles, especially in the usual “suck it up” professions, but it’s still far from perfect.

Visit Wings of Change at wingsofchange.wixsite.com/wingsofchange and Badge of Life Canada at badgeoflifecanada.org for information on these support groups for first responders and military personnel.

Mark Pilkey is a pseudonym for the author who is a retired police officer.

About the author

Bruce Forsyth

Bruce Forsyth served in the Royal Canadian Navy Reserve for 13 years (1987-2000). He served with units in Toronto, Hamilton & Windsor and worked or trained at CFB Esquimalt, CFB Halifax, CFB Petawawa, CFB Kingston, CFB Toronto, Camp Borden, The Burwash Training Area and LFCA Training Centre Meaford.

Permanent link to this article: https://militarybruce.com/the-positive-side-of-ptsd/

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