In his own words from Police Officer Stephen:
And I thought to myself that if any of those people had been open about their trials and troubles, it would have made this journey so much easier for me….
When I was a small child I looked at police officers as heroes. Strong men and women that were always there when we needed them. I remember living in an apartment as a small child, and this one officer used to run radar right by my building. Spent countless days talking to him, bringing him some of my Halloween candy, asking a million and one questions. I was that annoying kid. But God, they were superheroes.
Helping First Responders By Being Open About Trials and Troubles
Now that I have been a cop for 13 years myself, I realize things from the other side of the coin. We are only human. We hurt, we bleed, and we can also struggle with mental health issues. My childhood was not the best. My father was an alcoholic that, when he was on a binge, would hit my mother. Mother had her own problems and mental health issues, but as we see so much in our profession, she used and abused that mental health issue to get what she wanted. So very earlier on I developed a stigma to mental health. It was hard to realize who was struggling, and who was using it to their advantage.
As I continued to get older, I suffered some pretty extreme losses.
When I was 16 my best friend shot himself. When I was 20 and deployed to Iraq, my closest cousin shot himself. A year later his sister intentionally overdosed, killing herself. But even through all of these losses, I refused to admit that I needed help. I was the big bad tough Marine. I was there to help others; didn’t need help myself.
When I came home from Iraq, I immediately started applying to police agencies.
I knew from a very young age this was what I wanted to do. I think a lot of that had to do with my childhood and had no stability, we constantly moved around, and I had no control over what was going on around me. So, what better job than to be a cop, right? Right? I mean they have all the answers, and power, and they are the poster children for professionalism.
I finally got the job as a Police Officer in a city that was only 22 square miles, but also one of the most violent places in the area. In 7 years I can’t tell you how many shootings, murders, rapes, and robberies I responded to. One call that hit me the most was the death of a 6-month old child. My partner and I got the call and we rushed to the residence. There we found a black female 6-month old infant in purple polka-dot pajamas. Her mother had co-slept on the couch with her and had rolled over on the baby sometime during the night.
We did everything we could, but she was gone. Something inside me broke that day.
It didn’t help that I had a small child of my own. Looking back I can see the toll it took on me. Each day I would come home from work and just stare at my son in his crib, waiting to see him breathe. And if he didn’t do it fast enough, I would wake him up. After he was awake I would go on to sleep and leave my wife to deal with the baby. Not husband of the year, I know, but even then, I refused to admit that I needed help. I had no idea what cumulative stress was, but I was stacking it up left and right.
My mother had passed a few years earlier from cancer, and then my dad died. That left me with a one-and-a-half-year-old son, my wife was pregnant with our second son, and my 12-year-old brother was dropped in my lap. In just a few short months I went from having one baby to two in diapers and another on the brink of teenage years. To say that I was stressed is an understatement. But I wasn’t going to show it. I was going to be solid as a rock.
After the birth of my second son, I left my first agency and went on to the department where I am currently working. While it is a lot slower pace, I carried the images and burdens of the Marines and my last agency with me to my new job. Now I wasn’t having nightmares. I wasn’t waking up in cold sweats and having flashbacks. I was good, didn’t need help. But what I didn’t see was what everyone else saw around me. I became more irritable. My patience both on and off duty was shot. I started getting more and more attitude-type complaints at work. My tank was empty. Little by little I was adding more and more of that cumulative stress, and I never saw it coming. I refused to ask for help. But why? I knew I was struggling; I knew I wasn’t the person that I used to be. So why fight the help?
As a cop, there is such a stigma to us seeking help with our own mental health. We are afraid that if we seek help we could lose the faith and confidence of our co-workers, and in a job like this, that is huge. I think that we are afraid of being labeled as weak and unable to deal with the stress. That’s a mark that no one wants to bear. But there are other reasons too.
I think every one of us is afraid that if we seek help, there is the chance we are going to lose our gun and badge. What happens when the protector becomes the one that needs the help? Is the agency going to say that we are unfit for duty? Am I going to end up riding a desk for the rest of my career, or worse will they fire me? This question has gone through every one of our heads at some point in time or another.
So with that stigma in mind, I just pushed through. Despite everything that was going on, I continued to put the uniform on and go to work. I continued to add to that cumulative stress that was building. Then one day it happened. It wasn’t a panic attack. I didn’t lose my mind, didn’t have a nervous breakdown, but I broke. Completely and utterly broken as a man. I would find myself staring at the walls for hours, didn’t want to get out of bed, I didn’t want to play with my kids. I just… lost the will to live.
It wasn’t long after that I told my wife I wanted a separation.
We had been having some marital issues, but nothing that normal couples don’t deal with. I found myself running. Running from the responsibility of my family and work. I didn’t see myself as strong anymore. I felt weak and worthless. So to mitigate that feeling, I ended up getting into a relationship with a dispatcher. When things were good they were great, but when things were bad they were the worst they had ever been. This relationship was the most toxic and horrible relationship I have ever been in. I liken it to a heroin user and knew the relationship was bad and unhealthy, but every time it ended, I needed to get her back. I needed to get my fix. And this went on for four years. Four long drawn out painful years.
It wasn’t until I reached my lowest point that I realized I needed help. I was constantly depressed, and the anxiety was killing me every day. My Sergeant would call me and tell me to meet him and I would go into a full-blown panic thinking I was in trouble. I got to the point that I couldn’t sleep and began to drink heavily. I realized that if I didn’t reach out, I was going to become another stat. So I reached out to a coworker who referred me to a therapist. And over the next year, I experienced some of the worst highs and lows ever.
The dispatcher and I must have broken up and gotten back together 100 times in the four years we were together. When things were bad with us, I was in therapy like I was supposed to be, but when we got back together and I was on cloud 9 I would miss appointments. Over and over this vicious cycle would repeat itself. But each time it got bad, it would be a little worse than the last time. I’d get deeper and deeper into that darkness. Eventually, it got to the point that my therapist decided it was time for medication. Now given my history and the issues with my mother, I was absolutely against any type of medication. But I realized at this point that I had gone as far as I was willing to go. I threw my hands up in desperation and agreed to do whatever she felt was necessary.
So this was the point in which I had to face that stigma.
I went to the doctor and they prescribed me a daily dose of Lexapro. So I got the prescription filled, then drove back to my apartment. I sat there in the parking lot for what seemed like forever. I knew that I had to call the agency and make them aware of the whole medication thing. So as I sat there with my pills in one hand, and my phone in the other, I vividly remember starting to shake. I was about to come face to face with that stigma of first responders and mental health.
I called the Lieutenant in personnel to make him aware of my situation. He must have heard the fear in my voice because immediately he asked if I was ok. I went on to explain that I had been in therapy for some time, and the anxiety had gotten bad enough that my therapist thought it best that I go on meds. He asked me some general questions about what I was taking and the dosage. Then came the question… “When do you return to work?” I knew where this was going. I was going to get put on desk duty, they were going to take my gun and badge, and I was going to get branded as a mental case. So I told him that I was supposed to go back the next night. Without hesitation, he said, “Ok you’re good to go.”
And recalling it now I find it funny. I remember saying to myself, what? That’s it? I am taking this anxiety medication and I’m good to go back to work? And I will never forget his response to that question. He said, “Yeah you and about twenty other people. It’s no big deal. Take care of yourself.”
I was dumbfounded.
Absolutely and completely shocked. I had worked myself up and already concluded what was going to happen. All of which was based on this worthless stigma that we put on ourselves as first responders. That day absolutely changed my life. I decided at that moment that I was not going to hide the fact that I was in therapy or that I was taking medication. If others wanted to listen, I was going to tell the story. There were at least 20 other people in my agency that were just like me. Taking meds, just like me. And I thought to myself that if any of those people had been open about their trials and troubles, it would have made this journey so much easier for me. I wouldn’t have been so terrified to reach out for help. So since that moment, I have decided to be that person for others.
I want my coworkers to know that it’s ok to seek help, that the stigma isn’t true, and that others have gone before them, walked through the fire, and lived to tell about it. How many of the officers that have committed suicide would have been stopped if they knew someone else had gone through the same thing? If someone else had made themselves accessible.
We can say all we want that if you ever need me I am here to listen. And while that may help some, others will still be afraid of being shamed. But, if I have walked in your shoes, and dealt with the mental health issues myself, then that officer can feel more confident that I won’t stand in judgment of them. That’s why I am here. That’s why I’m writing this. I want you to know that you are not alone. I want you to know that it’s ok to need help.
We deal with some of the most messed-up things that a person can see. It’s not a matter of if you need help, but when. Someone once told me, and I’m paraphrasing here, that trying to do this job and not suffer mentally, is like trying to walk through water and not get wet. We have absolutely got to end this stigma of seeking help. We are literally killing ourselves over this.
So please, I am on my knees begging you, if you need help, reach out. I have been there.
I have walked in your shoes and know the pain and depression, the anxiety and the hurt. You don’t have to do this alone.
I was born and raised in the Richmond, VA area. Joined the USMC reserve out of high school and served 6 years with a combat deployment to Iraq. I am still married to my beautiful wife since 2011 and we have 3 children. I have been a police officer since 2009.
The First Responders Support Team (FRST) thanks Stephen for sharing his story, for his willingness to be vulnerable, and for showing how things can and do get better. The FRST Behavioral Health Therapists are here for any first responder needing assistance. Contact Director Jason Workman at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 402-218-1234, option 1 #2.