I recently found out why a former friend had ended our friendship. I hadn’t seen or spoken to this person in several years, for reasons of my own, so this was news to me. As they told me, it had to do with the fact that I was an alcoholic and abusing my prescription medication. For over a decade, I self-medicated my (at that time) undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which was related to my previous time as a police officer.
Ultimately, I can’t blame someone who didn’t want to be around an alcoholic or drug addict. While no one ever told me that I was violent or caused major property damage while drunk or during substance-induced blackouts, it’s possible that my behaviour was embarrassing to those who knew me.
Why did I drink? It was due to a combination of a toxic workplace, toxic people and problems in my personal life. Looking back on it now, I can see I was under severe stress, clinically depressed, was suffering from PTSD without knowing it and was self-medicating as I was trying to ease the emotional pain in my head. I had trouble sleeping and I started taking prescription sleep medication.
As the years went on, the sleeping pills began to lose their effectiveness, so I took more than the recommended dosage. When that no longer delivered the desired effect, I washed the pills down with increasingly greater amounts of alcohol, as I found it gave the pills a “kick”. Frankly, I know I’m lucky to be alive.
I am now six years sober. I still take prescription medication, but I take the proper dosage recommended by a doctor.
One big problem with combating alcohol (and drug abuse) in policing is the culture of “suck it up”. This is something that is common in male-dominated, militaristic professions and an attitude that has been a part of male culture for centuries. If something is bothering you, you are told to “suck it up” and get on with it. If you express that something is troubling you or, even worse, ask for help, you are thought of as “weak”. You’re passed over It’s okay to ask for help for promotions and job assignments because people believe that you just can’t “hack it”.
As someone who suffers from PTSD myself, I have become more alert to the fact that you can never tell from the outside how much someone may be suffering on the inside.
I, too, used to judge people claiming to be suffering from PTSD, especially when they appeared to be functioning just fine. I also used to shake my head every time there was yet another news report regarding a police officer being arrested for impaired driving, wondering how they could be so stupid to do something so dangerous.
Nowadays, if someone says they have PTSD, I show them compassion. When an officer is arrested for impaired driving, I first wonder about their mental health rather than jumping straight to judgement. As someone who suffers from PTSD myself, I have become more alert to the fact that you can never tell from the outside how much someone may be suffering on the inside. Those suffering from illnesses like PTSD or addiction frequently only let others see what they want them to see. We learn to hide our suffering and internalize the physical and/or mental pain.
Those who are suffering need to be in a place where they are ready to admit they have a problem and they need help; this is where compassion and understanding from others can go a long way. They need someone who cares enough to say that they want to help and they won’t judge them or seek to punish them, either psychologically through ridicule, or with Police Service Act charges, in the case of supervisors.
One of the reasons why I wasn’t open with my supervisors that I was drinking every day—before work, after work and sometimes at work—was that I would end up charged, rather than getting help. This is a thorny and complex problem with legalities and policies that are also at play.
While maintaining sobriety can be challenging, no matter how much an alcoholic or addict may genuinely want it, the goodwill and understanding from family and friends can evaporate pretty quickly. Watching someone self-destruct can be taxing on your own mental health, and at some point, you need to tell them they’re on their own. At times, it can be a no-win situation for everyone involved. No one gets unlimited chances to clean up their life, but they don’t need a knife in the back from their loved ones either.
When it comes to recovery, unfortunately, a person will only get sober when they are ready to get sober, and this frequently happens when the person suffering reaches their rock bottom. That ‘bottom’ can vary from person to person, but a strong support system can help them once they are ready to get help.
Bruce Forsyth, CD, is a former police constable, and runs www.militarybruce.com.
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