Guest Post: How one officer is healing PTSD with EMDR therapy
One officer's experience of healing from trauma with the help of EMDR therapy.
Guest post by *William Lee
I became a police officer when in my mid 20s. I spent the better part of the next two decades in law enforcement and I was never prepared for the effects that career would have on myself and my family.
The department that hired me sent me to a state police academy for 2 months. The academy required that I live on campus during the week but allowed me to go home on weekends. My first child was due to be born the first week of training. My department had told me that I wouldn't be allowed to leave if my wife went into labor during the week. Thankfully, the administration at the academy was more understanding and allowed me to leave when my wife went into labor the first night on campus. I was allowed to leave and spend a day at the hospital with my wife and son before returning. My wife had to spend the next 10 weeks learning to take care of a newborn by herself 5 days out of the week.
After the academy, I went through months of additional training in an attempt to prepare me for the infinite number of situations I could find myself in for the next 20 years. I received thousands of hours of training in order to teach me how to respond to and investigate crimes with the ultimate goal of keeping those in my community safe.
My first day out of training and on my own was a day shift assignment. As I was loading up my car for the day I got my first call for service, rape just occurred. I went from that to a call to assist EMS with an unresponsive child at a daycare. I arrived to find paramedics performing chest compressions on a 6 week old boy with the same name as my newborn son at home. I can still vividly replay that scene in my mind. The tiny body laying on the dining room table as the paramedics worked so hard to get his heart beating again. The frantic day care provider explained to me how she had went to check on the sleeping infant only to find that his little lips were blue and he wouldn't wake up. Nothing in my training prepared me for that.
The sound of someone weeping in complete desperation isn't something that can be replicated in training.
It's also something that never quite leaves your memory either. I went from that call to a myriad of other calls throughout the days and years that followed. I learned that despite all the training I had received on how to keep myself and others physically safe, I was ill prepared to keep myself mentally safe. While I don't speak for all officers, I believe the majority experience the same things I did.
It didn't take long for me to realize that many of the people who would wave to me as I drove down the street only had one finger extended on that waving hand. When I would walk into a restaurant for lunch I would see parents grab their child and tell them that they had better behave or they would have me arrest them and take them away. I could see children being taught from a young age to fear the police. Somehow I had ended up becoming the bad guy in the eyes of many.
As a police officer, no one ever called 911 for me to rush over and have some birthday cake and ice cream.
They call you to come take part in their worst day ever and they expect you to have an immediate solution for a problem that has come to a boil after years of either bad decisions or an unhealthy environment.
I will share two very personal stories which had a profound impact on my life.
On Super Bowl Sunday many years ago I volunteered to work an overtime shift for a team that was short handed. I was missing out on a family gathering by working that day. It was my nephew's birthday and a party was being held for him at my brother's house. That evening I got a call from my sister in law asking if I could run over to my sister's house because something had happened to my niece. She believed my 15 year old niece had hanged herself. I thought that she must be mistaken as I could never imagine my niece taking her own life. I quickly checked my in car computer to see if units had been dispatched to her home. I was relieved when I saw that there were no call assigned to her home. I phoned my sergeant to let him know that I would be headed outside the city limits to check on my family. Right after putting my phone down dispatch put out an alert on our city channel that units were en route to a possible suicide in the county. I advised dispatch that I would be en route to that call. Dispatch told me that I was closer than any county units and that they were assigning the call to me. I got caught behind a fire truck responding to the call and the driver was not going nearly fast enough for me. I was frustrated that I couldn't get there fast enough as I followed the truck into my sister's neighborhood. My worst fears were realized when I entered the house and found my brother in law, drenched in sweat, as he was still performing CPR on my little niece. I will never forget the look of sheer terror in his eyes as I came into the room. As family quickly gathered at the house, my other nieces and nephews looked to me for answers that I didn't have. As I would countless times in the following years, I felt completely helpless and as if I had completely failed at my job. My sergeant showed up at the house and told me to go ahead and take as much time as I needed and then just go home when I was done. Several hours later I climbed back into my patrol car and found that in my frustration driving to the scene, I had pressed the top of my steering wheel all the way to the dashboard. I had to put a foot on the dash to be able to get enough leverage to pull the steering wheel back into shape. I went home and got a few hours of sleep and then had to go to a local school and run 1.5 miles as part of a physical test for a new position I was applying for on the department. There was no time for bereavement. It was right back to work. A few "Sorry to hear about your niece. That sucks." was the extent of the mental aftercare I received after that day.
Years later, I responded to a traffic accident in the early morning hours of the day. A car had been traveling at a high rate of speed and left the roadway on a bend in the road. The car rolled numerous times and stopped right side up, sitting perpendicular to the road. At first glance it would've appeared to have been parked there. A passer by wouldn't have known that the car had been in a wreck. The body of the car was still in reasonably good shape and the windows were amazingly still intact so it didn't draw much attention from anyone driving past. It wasn't until someone walking their dog came close enough to the car to see that the upper torso of a young man was sticking out from under the car. A 17 year old boy, star athlete from a local school, had been rushing home and in his haste hadn't taken the extra few seconds to buckle his seat belt. As half a dozen air bags deployed inside the car, the young man was ejected out the open driver's window and the car had come to a rest on top of him. That seat belt most assuredly would've allowed him to walk away from the crash with a crazy story to tell. Instead, he suffocated as the full weight of his car pressed against his chest. Looking at his school books spread throughout the car, I wondered what hopes and dreams were never to be realized. I watched as his pale face disappeared behind the closing zipper of the bag he had been placed in. Little things like the sound of a zipper bring those memories back all these years later. The boy's parents learned of his death as they drove to an early morning workout at the gym. Noticing what appeared to be their son's car being loaded onto a tow truck, they stopped to learn the harsh reality that they would never be able to hold their son in their arms again. The split second decision changed multiple lives that day but it was just another day at work for me, or so I led myself to believe.
It would be years later, after I was no longer in law enforcement, that I would be sitting in a therapist's office recounting both those and many other stories that still replayed out in my mind on a nearly daily basis. Years of my brain turning off any semblance of emotion at work and then not being able to turn it back on at home had wreaked havoc on my ability to cope with day to day affairs.
Having seen so many situations where a seemingly benign decision had led to the worst possible result in someone's life had led my brain to instantly jump to catastrophic conclusions in everyday life.
I became so ridden with anxiety that my brain felt continually at capacity. Any decision making process would be too much for my head to handle and I had difficulty in leaving my home for days on end. If my wife wanted to go out to dinner with friends, my brain would need a couple days to prepare for it. It wasn't until I had read an article from someone experiencing something similar in their life did I realize that I needed to do something. Through numerous sessions with an excellent therapist and numerous sessions of EMDR I was able to get out of the hole I had dug myself into.
I see clearly now how I had spent years training to be physically able to handle the aspects of my job and neglected the mental training necessary to handle the stresses of law enforcement. In a job where you're the one people call to solve the problems of their worst day, you can't show signs of weakness. I see now how unhealthy that was. With no other tool to deal with the repeated mental trauma I turned myself into something more of a robot than a human. I think that happens more often than not in law enforcement because most departments don't, or didn't, place enough emphasis on the importance of mental care for yourself.
I don't know that I'll ever be able to completely recover from improperly training my brain for all those years but have found immense benefit to talking about the things I held inside for so long.
To this day, a certain smell or sound will snap me right back into that bedroom where my niece lay on the floor. I see my brother in law and feel his terror as I look into his eyes, red from sweat and tears. I can hear the song playing on the stereo. Most of all, I can feel the complete helplessness of being the person who everyone calls on their worst day, a day when no one has the right answer. I'm sure there are some who are able to walk away from the job and never look back. For me, the anxiety and damage it has caused has lived long past the job.
My wife and I have raised 4 children. So many times, when one of them was late coming home or failed to answer their phone when I called, I've gone right back to a time where one little mistake had led to someone else's worst day. I find it too easy to think of the young man who was late for curfew, or the teenaged girl who looked down at a text on her phone as she slammed into the back of a semi, or the little infant who had been left alone for one minute too long. I look at what one of my children think is an inconsequential decision and it can turn my world completely upside down. It has led to quite a bit of tension over the years that my children have never understood. It was much more difficult before I began speaking to others about it. It felt like I was admitting to a weakness and that had been trained out of me. I'm still fairly guarded as to who I open up to. It's something that so many people don't even realize goes on with members of law enforcement.
Most people only have to relive the horrible memories of their sole lifetime. I get to relive the memories of thousands of lifetimes.
I received countless hours on how to save or take a life but never any worthwhile training on how to ensure I always felt like my own life was worth living.
*Name has been changed.