By Mark DiBona
My lifelong dream was to be a cop, and I started on the job at age 21. I’ve been in law enforcement for 30 years and a supervisor for 17.
About eight years ago, I was going through tough times at work. I wasn’t getting along with my immediate supervisor. We were both alpha males, but we had different styles of working and supervision. He was hard-headed and strict, and I tried to be approachable to my team. I felt he was disrespectful. We became argumentative, insulting each other. He told me I wasn’t aggressive enough, that I had to be harder on my team. He gave me an evaluation of “below standards.” I felt worthless, like maybe he was right, maybe this job wasn’t for me anymore. I felt like I couldn’t do anything right.
This went on for a few months. It affected me physically. I gained 40 pounds. I refused to shave. I started coming in wrinkled uniform. I didn’t go to my wife for help. I thought, “If you aren’t a cop, you don’t understand.” The stigma is if you show a weakness, if you say something’s bothering you, they look at you like you are weak.
With all this happening, one night I am at the fire station, when a woman pulls up in her car. She cried, “My baby isn’t breathing!” Just before she pulled up, the firefighters had gone out on a call, so I did CPR on the baby for what seemed like an hour.
The baby died. I went to the funeral and the wake. I started to get nightmares about him, like maybe I could have done better. I can still feel that baby in my arms.
I told my boss, and he said, “You were just doing your job,” as if it wasn’t a big deal.
I started feeling more worthless. I had lots of nightmares, waking up in cold sweats. I started thinking about the baby that died, and all the other stuff I’ve seen came up too: horrible crashes, victims of sexual abuse, victims of robbery, bad guys, friends who died in the line of duty. I thought, “I don’t want to be a cop anymore because this line of work sucks.” One night, it hit me: This job is not for me; I’m failing really fast. I tried to fight the thoughts, but I felt like I was drowning. I attempted suicide twice that night.
I got lucky. A car pulled up, and it was another cop. He talked me down. I went home because I couldn’t go back to work that night. I was afraid of losing my job. I thought they would take away my gun and put me in the hospital.
I called a close friend in Boston. He wanted me to come there to get help. I went to Massachusetts and got therapy and went back to Florida a week and half later. I bounced back and forth between therapists. It wasn’t clicking because the therapist didn’t have any police background. I didn’t go to the employee assistance provider because they are countywide, not specialized to police. I just wasn’t in my comfort zone.
It was a difficult time in my life. I saw a person in me that I’d never seen before. There’s that Michael Jackson song, “The Man in the Mirror.” When I looked in the mirror, I didn’t like the guy I saw. I didn’t like his looks; I didn’t like him. I felt weak. I knew in my heart that something was wrong, but it was hard to accept when I was diagnosed.
I stopped going to therapy, and I started looking online. I found fascinating articles about police mental health, suicide, stigma and an organization called The Badge of Life. I never realized that support was out there. I had a friend, a fellow officer, who died by suicide, but I thought it was just a family problem.
I started to go to a support group in central Florida, just cops talking to cops. I found a therapist who was a retired cop. During all this, I got my marriage back on track. I felt guilty about the way I had treated my wife, and I apologized. She had felt helpless. She was trying to get me help, but I wouldn’t take it.
I was diagnosed with PTSD and depression. I’m on medication, which has helped me to focus. I was concerned about the meds—could I still be a cop? But I can; it’s not a problem. I’m still an active deputy sheriff.
I’ve never had a suicidal thought since. I still have nightmares, but not as much as I used to. I feel a lot better. I lost the weight I gained. I don’t let it ruin my everyday life, ruin my job, ruin my marriage. On the days when I feel down, I’ve learned to control that—the anxiety, depression and PTSD.
The biggest problem I have now is the stigma. When I’m open about it, my colleagues look at me funny. But there are others. When some people hear my story, they come to me and say, “Can I talk to you for a second?” There’s nothing better than helping another cop through the issues that I experienced.
I really enjoy my life now, when for years I didn’t. I still love being a cop.
Mark DiBona is a deputy sheriff in central Florida and is on the board of directors of The Badge of Life, an organization dedicated to preventing police officer suicide.
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