By John Driscoll, EdD
Somewhere around 1977, at the age of seven, I experienced a traumatic event.
After it happened, I had difficulty sleeping and concentrating. Images of the event pierced my thoughts any time I was idle. They reverberated through my head but seemed to go unnoticed by everyone around me.
I convinced myself I was going to become a superhero who would fight all the evil combatants doing harm to others. I spent my classroom days and sleep-deprived nights thinking of ways to stop attacks, like the one I had experienced.
Unbeknownst to me, or anyone else, I had developed PTSD. However, I was not diagnosed, because PTSD did not become a diagnosis until 1980.
The painful images eventually subsided, and I began to live in the present again, compared to surviving within the confines of my intrusive thoughts from the past. However, PTSD continued to affect me throughout my life.
Often, after someone develops PTSD, they start to indulge in a lifestyle of risky behavior,consciously or subconsciously. The behavior may include drugs, alcohol, sexual promiscuity or placing themselves in situations and careers involving dangerous activities. PTSD can make a person feel the need to recreate the “fight-or-flight” response which occurs during a traumatic event.
As a result, I chose careers such as lifeguarding, EMT and law enforcement. Those careers fulfilled the need for adrenaline, and they also fulfilled my childhood fantasy of becoming a hero.
My EMT career lasted about seven years, followed by my law enforcement career which lasted just over 12 more. I saw many troubling sights in those 20 years, but it was not until the last half of my police career that I began to show signs of my deteriorating mental health.
As a young man working on the ambulance, I experienced the emergency calls as if I were a spectator at a game. I maintained an emotional distance from my patients. My time as an EMT was reactive. I responded to an emergency after it happened. With my transition to law enforcement, my experience changed.
Like EMTs, police officers must keep an emotional distance, or they will not be able to sustain longevity or productivity in their careers. However, I could not keep my emotional distance when it came to young children who were hurt or killed. Maybe it was because I had personal connections to many of those involved in my cases. Perhaps it was because I had become a father.
One of the first calls to really affect my mental health was a boy who died in a fire. I thought the recovery of his unburnt body gave me a chance to save him. I began CPR, but to no avail. I could smell the fire on my clean clothes for weeks. His death lingered in my mind. I felt like I had failed him.
There were several more difficult calls. Eventually, these calls started to affect how I interacted with my family. I began to withdraw from everyone and became increasingly agitated.
My breaking point came when a young girl was murdered on July 5, 2011, in a house next to the police department. A house where my patrol car was parked, and where I had been in front of several times that day, just feet from where I found her.I assessed her body signs, knew her injuries were no accident.
She was taken to the hospital and succumbed to her injuries. I retreated to the department and broke down crying on the floor. A fellow officer found me and gave me a ride home. That was the last day I wore the uniform.
The young girl’s death did more than linger in my mind. Once again, the intrusive images pierced my every thought. Only now the thoughts were more frequent and represented all the negative events from throughout my life.
After the young girl’s death, the chief of police suggested I take a few days off, which led to a year of mandated IOD (injured on duty). Once you are placed on IOD, only a doctor’s approval can get you off it. To get the doctor's approval, I was instructed to see a therapist and a psychologist.
The psychologist prescribed me medicine I was reluctant to take, and the therapist said things I was reluctant to listen to. She would make statements like, “You are not crazy. You had a normal reaction to an abnormal event.” I would respond aggressively, saying, “If I’m not crazy, let me go back to work.” The images tormented me, but I fought help every chance I got. Unfortunately, this banter I had with the medical practitioners continued for almost a year.
To go back to work, I had to pass a series of physical, academic and psychological tests, the same as I took 13 years earlier to become a police officer. After taking the psychological test, the doctor sat me down and said, “You should not be exposed to more trauma, and you cannot return to police work.” After I heard the results of his exam, I agreed to retire.
I was finally diagnosed with PTSD, and although it was not a diagnosis I wanted, having a diagnosis meant I could educate myself on my disorder and learn to live with it. First, I found therapists and doctors I was comfortable with. Second, I learned everything I could about PTSD. Third, I followed the doctor’s advice and tried several different treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), talk therapy, peer group therapy and medication.
Most of these treatments have helped, although, some of the best advice I received was to take better care of myself, occupy my mind with positive things and redirect it when negative thoughts occur. I now eat right, practice good sleep hygiene, exercise, take my medication, go to a group and/or individual therapy when I need to and see my doctor regularly.
I became a Clery Compliance Officer for the U.S Department of Education in 2016. As a Clery Officer, I review how crimes were responded to, reported on, and handled in general on college campuses. I review police work, but from afar, and that’s okay with me.
I still have difficult days, but I am blessed with an amazing family that I may have lost if I did not get help. I was afraid to speak up because of stigma. I thought a police officer couldn’t ask for help. I thought it was a sign of weakness, or that I would lose my job, but I was wrong. If I had received help when I was starting to deteriorate, I may have never reached my breaking point. So, reach out if you are struggling. There is help for people with PTSD.
Dr. John Driscoll is a retired police officer, a Clery Compliance Officer for the U.S Department of Education, a father of seven, a husband, a grandpop and a PTSD Survivor.
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