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 as 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 I was surprised how strong I was 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 the only reason that I’m still here. As much as I was suffering, the thought of my daughter growing up without the daddy 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,” sometimes 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.
Mark Pilkey is a pseudonym for the author who is a retired police officer.
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