“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest of souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” – Author Unknown
You ever had a song stuck in your head? The top-hit single from your favorite musical artist playing over and over? And no matter what you do, you just cannot seem to shake it. At first you gladly sing along “la-la-la-laaa”. But soon, the constant playback of that song becomes a torment as it consumes everything you think and do.
As a former dispatcher, all the phone calls I answered were recorded. That is for legal purposes of course, but dispatchers also often use the voice recording programs on their computers to recall information. For example, a dispatcher could replay the phone call she just handled to re-listen to information a caller provided after the call had ended. It was a great tool to have when needed. But this tool became my torturing device.
I remember every word of the conversation I had on Halloween with a male caller who told me his daughter had just shot herself. The conversation kept playing in my head. And that conversation took me back about six months prior to another conversation I had with a caller named Bob, who shot himself just after hanging up the phone with me (My Story of Survival [Part 2]: Voices Never Forgotten). And I could not help but again be reminded of my friend Johnson, who also committed suicide amidst her battle with cancer (My Story of Survival [Part 1]: Police Suicide Survivors). I do not remember walking out of the station after my shift on Halloween; I do not remember driving home. But when I got home I felt overwhelmed in every way imaginable and I was not sure if I wanted to hit something or curl up in the fetal position. And for the first time, I was really forced to examine Bob’s suicide call and Johnson’s death. And I wept.
I never realized how angry I was at Bob. The conversation I had with him on 9-1-1 in the spring of 2013 only lasted about one minute. He had prepared himself with the information he knew I needed and it was so well-rehearsed that he did not give me a chance to talk so I could try to stop him from shooting himself. Like most dispatchers with several years of service, I was damn good at my job. I would like to think that had Bob given me the chance I would have been able to talk him down, or at least stall him long enough for officers to arrive and help. He never gave me that chance. It was not fair. As a result, I felt a heavy guilt… as if somehow I was responsible for failing to help Bob, thereby causing him to follow through with his act of suicide.
The feelings of responsibility also transferred back to my friend Johnson. She committed suicide several years ago during her battle with cancer, but suddenly I now felt responsible in a way for her death as well. I had a close professional relationship with her as she mentored me when I started my career and later when we worked side-by-side in dispatch for five months before her death. When Johnson took her life it came as a surprise to many who knew her because it was unexpected. And so, I started asking myself the hypothetical question that no one in law enforcement ever should: “What if?”
Those who work in law enforcement are often more self-critical of themselves compared to others, and no one beats us up as well as we do ourselves. I obsessively thought about the “what if”. What if I had seen the warning signs in Johnson? What if I would have interrupted Bob during his rehearsed script? Would that have changed the outcome for either of them helping me to save their lives? I constantly thought about Johnson and things she did and said that might have warned me of her desire to end it all; I constantly thought about Bob and replayed his conversation in my head over and over and over.
A few days went by after my Halloween shift and I was having trouble sleeping, which is highly unusual for me. I am the type of person who needs 9-10 hours of sleep a night in order to feel good and function the following day. I lost all appetite and was having trouble eating, which is also highly unusual for me. My coworkers would often curse me to no end because I am the type of person who could eat whatever I wanted all day long while working at my call-taking console and still not gain a pound. After a few days of still constantly thinking about the incidents and not eating or sleeping normally, I knew something was wrong.
I knew I needed help, professional help, but I was not sure how to even ask for it. I had worked in law enforcement since 2002 and never at any time during my years of service did I see another employee, sworn or civilian, come forward and say he/she psychologically struggled with a call. When officers are involved in major use of force incidents, they are generally mandated to submit to a “fitness of duty” evaluation by a licensed psychologist. Nothing like that existed for dispatchers at the agency where I worked. For several years I had plugged away with coworkers handling countless emergency incidents from hysterical callers. None of my coworkers ever needed help because they had trouble coping with a call, at least not that I am aware. I suddenly became very self-conscious about the stigma I might be labeled with if I asked for help. What would my coworkers think of me? How would supervisors judge my performance? To say I was very self-conscious and scared was an understatement.
I come from a conservative, Christian family. I have always had their love and support during my career, but I never talked with them about my work. The things I heard, saw, and worked with on a daily basis would shatter my family’s worldview. They could not relate, but supported me nonetheless. Thankfully, a friend with law enforcement background for whom I have much respect and admiration referred me to a therapist for help. The therapist was a marriage and family therapist, but also had experience working with members of the military returning home from deployment with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). More importantly, the therapist also had a Christian background. It was personally important to me that anyone I saw for “help” have similar spiritual convictions.
I had several meetings with my personal therapist within a week. During that time, I talked about Johnson’s death; I talked about my conversation with Bob and his death; I talked about the cries from a father and the last breaths of his daughter; and I talked about my perceived failure in each incident. The department also referred me to two additional professional therapists for help. The first worked for Community Services Programs (CSP) but was assigned to work at our department in a mental health advocacy role. The other worked for a private company called REACH, with witch the city contracted to provide various counseling assistance to any city employee. The CSP advocate was very helpful. She championed for me, not because I was a department employee, but as a person in general. The doctor from REACH was quite the opposite. I felt as though he contacted me out of obligation because an administrator at the department ordered him to do so, as if I was a liability in this problematic state and needed “fixing”. His condescending tone was irritating and he was quick to label me with Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) and showing strong signs of PTSD.
In the second week of my meetings with therapists, I found myself pacing back and forth in the office of my manager at the department. He was very supportive of my plight. During our meeting, he evaluated my performance in handling the suicide call on Halloween. Thankfully, he did not make me relisten to the call. I was surprised to learn he gave me a very favorable evaluation. I handled the call within policy: gathered necessary information for a call to be entered within X-amount of seconds, added supplemental updates to the call within another X-amount of seconds, and got medics on the phone to assist with pre-arrival instructions for first-aid. I told him I was really upset with myself that I did not ask the caller what his name was, and more importantly, what his dying daughter’s name was. I explained to my manager how this call reminded me of Bob’s suicidal call from earlier in the year. My manager said he had remembered me handling that call and found I had no fault in that one either. I had completed my duties within department policy. That was unacceptable to me. What good was it that I handled the call within policy and had no fault if the caller shot himself and did not survive? Would it not have been better to be out of policy and the caller live? And such were questions that haunted me for two weeks.
After nearly three weeks off work and talking to three different professionals for help, I reached the personal decision to resign my position in dispatch at the Anaheim Police Department in mid-November 2013. It came as no easy decision, even after much thought, consideration, and prayer. I thought about alternatives: going out on disability or requesting a transfer to another position at the department. I did not want to go out on disability even though I would have qualified since my “injury” was work-related. I am relatively young and still have many years to work. I did not want a disability lingering with me for the rest of my career. I also did not want to transfer to another position at the department. I did not think I would be able to walk around the department with my head held high with people knowing I was transferred to another position because I was incapable of fulfilling my duties in dispatch anymore.
I had to terminate the services of the personal therapist I chose. His services were expensive and it became hard to afford without an income. The doctor from REACH never followed-up with me after I resigned. I suppose he did not feel the need since I was no longer a city employee. Running became my therapy. I was a competitive long-distance runner for several years in high school and college, so I had extensive experience using running as therapy. I pushed myself longer and harder than I should have in my condition because I was still not sleeping or eating normally. Sometimes, I ran multiple times a day. I ran to physical exhaustion. Alcohol became my medicine. I drank. A lot. I thought the numbing effects of alcohol would help quiet the voices in my mind. Ironically, it only made those voices sound intoxicated. Thankfully, the CSP counselor continued to check in on me even after I resigned, along with a couple of members from the department’s Peer Support Team.
The CSP Counselor referred me to a clinical psychologist for additional therapy. This doctor was different; she specialized in working with first-responders dealing with stress-related issues from their jobs. She was also certified to perform a special kind of psychotherapy called Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR). Several people had strongly recommended this therapy to me and encouraged me to undertake it. After a couple of introductory consultation meetings with the psychologist, she also recommended EMDR treatments. But there was no way I was going to let anyone perform any type of treatment on me when I knew nothing about it. And so, I began to research.
EMDR was developed in 1987 by Francine Shapiro when she discovered that eye movements helped significantly reduce the strong emotions associated with traumatic events. As EMDR continued to develop, it became an effective tool for treating PTSD and other stress-related disorders by lowering levels of anxiety in patients when they thought about the traumatic event that caused the stress and intense emotions. For example, think of a happy moment in your life, an event that brought you great joy at the time… when you remember it and think about it now, do you feel the same level of happiness and joy as you did at the time the event was occurring? Of course not. That is because your mind has reprocessed the feelings of happiness at the time of the event into what is now a memory for you. However, people who suffer from PTSD and other stress disorders somehow have a disconnect in this mental process due to the trauma of the event they experienced. Instead of the traumatic event being just a memory for PTSD patients, it is like they are reliving that event all over again with the same intensity of emotions, which are usually negative in nature. EMDR is an incorporation of therapeutic techniques that help patients reprocess information so that the traumatic events become memories instead of relived experiences, thereby reducing the levels of stress and emotion associated with the event.
After several meetings with the psychologist and treatments of EMDR therapy, I could feel a distinct difference in the way I felt when I consciously thought about each of the suicide incidents. It was remarkable. Now when I think about those incidents I am still sad, but I no longer feel the intense emotions of anger, guilt, shame, and responsibility. I recall those incidents as memories now, instead of “reliving” them. Therapy and EMDR have helped me train my mind and reprocess those incidents into a healthy form, allowing me to regain control of my emotions. Even still today, I must sometimes use specific techniques the psychologist taught me in order to maintain a healthy balance. Some things I see and hear can trigger those memories and emotions, and I must use relaxing techniques to prevent the whirlwind from carrying me away again. But I have learned that healing is a journey, not a destination. It is the things I learn and do in that journey that continuously chisel my heart and mind into a righteous man with integrity.
Stay tuned for My Story of Survival (Conclusion): Identity Lost and Found.