I am 36 year old police officer. Please check your pre-dispositions about peace officers at the proverbial door. I am not just talking to you who may be feeling harbor suspicion towards the police. I am also asking those of you who have the idea that we should be held on a pedestal to leave that attitude at the door as well.
Here is the startling truth about law enforcement, and the men and women who fill those positions; we are human. All of us want perfection from those holding such a unique and demanding office but unfortunately that is just not possible. If you close your eyes and think about your workplace I bet you can picture co-workers with varying degrees of work ethic, intelligence, honesty, capability to do the job. My workplace is no different. So now that the disclaimer is out of the way…
On a summer day in June the radio in my car crackled to life, “300 cars medical at 1101 Front St. Infant not breathing”. As a new police officer I cannot express the anxiety that these words coming over the radio caused. I knew that I was going to be the closest responding unit.
I parked in the rear driveway at 1101 Front St., a quaint yellow house in an older residential area in the city I worked in. Chain link fence surrounded the back yard which was full of plastic playground equipment. The gravel crackled under my tires as I pulled off of the pavement and onto the property. I walked to the rear door of the residence and opened it. A split level house with a baby gate blocking the stairs leading to the upper level, I went down the stairs following the frantic screams, “No, no, no”!
As I reached the bottom of the stairs I was met by a woman who handed me a cold, blue infant. Cold. Blue. Infant. “Help him, help him, please help him”, the woman frantically screamed. Tears were streaming down her face. I knew there was little I could do for this child. “Is it bad”? She asked, looking at me with eyes longing for reassurance that I could not provide her.
I cannot explain exactly how helpless I felt. Without thinking I began performing infant CPR Skills I distinctly remember hoping I would never have to call upon while learning them. The ambulance was not far behind and I was soon relieved of my life saving duties by those with more experience.
Investigators arrived to begin processing what we all knew was going to be a death scene, while EMS personnel continued to try and bring the baby back to life. I was sent into a rear bedroom where the rest of the day care children had been herded.
There were 6, maybe 8 children in that bedroom, ranging from ages maybe 3-6. I sat down of the floor positioning myself in the door frame so that I could look to my right and keep an eye on the other children, and look to my left and see the chaotic scene in the living room. “Baby Joe isn’t feeling well” one of the children said. “Yeah Baby Joe is sick” another answered. “Is Baby Joe gonna be ok Mr. Police” yet another asked. The stark contrast between the sadness in one room and the youthful innocence in the other cannot be overstated. I knew that day that things would never be the same for me.
Like after so many other traumatic experiences in my career, when it was all over I flipped the switch, got back in my car and headed to the next call for service. This is not to say that I didn’t think about Baby Joe, or wonder from time to time if I could’ve did something different to save him but I compartmentalized and moved on, something you have to do in order to survive in law enforcement. As far as I knew it was over. Then about 13 months later I went grocery shopping…
Baby Joe was far from the forefront of my mind as I started unloading my cart and placing the items on the belt. I watched the blonde cashier mindlessly swipe the items past the bar code. I felt a weird shift in the energy in the room and I could not quite figure out why. I started racking my brain to try and figure out where I knew this woman from.
Had I arrested her before? Friend of a friend? As I ran through the possibilities I saw it. On her left shoulder a tattoo. The image of an infant’s face with the birth and death dates written above and below it permanently etched into her skin. Baby Joe. Baby Joe’s mother. A woman who was not present at the daycare that day, someone I had never actually met before.
A rush of energy that to this day I cannot explain started in my feet and rose up through my body. The feeling of me and this stranger linked in life and death was overwhelming. There was so much I wanted to say to her. I wanted to tell her how sorry I was that I could not save her son. I did not say a word. I couldn’t speak. I walked away without paying for my groceries. My heart felt like it was going to beat out of my chest. I couldn’t breathe. I had to get away as fast as possible.
Looking back now I know that what I experienced was related to the untreated stress of responding to Baby Joe’s call for service. I was carrying around feelings that I was completely unaware of, and when I least expected it and my guard was completely down they came rushing back.
I wish I could say that after the incident in the grocery store that I went and talked to a professional learned how to cope, and live happily ever after, but that is not case. I self medicated with alcohol.
As the traumatic events continued to pile up, as they do for every police officer, I drank more and more to try and escape the things that I had seen. Ultimately after almost a decade I left law enforcement all together, no longer able to deal with the day to day stress of the job.
It has taken several years to find recovery and some semblance of a normal life again. I am by no means an expert on the topic of PTSD but if I could share anything with you it’s the following.
Don’t think of PTSD as a single event that shatters a person life. It can be an accumulative process. It might be after the 15th or the 115th traumatic event that your personal threshold is met, the point when you can no longer handle any more stress.
Also, it may not be something traumatic that triggers an episode. It doesn’t have to be a car backfiring that brings back memories of a gunfight. It could be something as innocuous as a tattoo memorializing the tragically short life of a child that will never get to grow up.
Thanks for reading. Here’s more PTSD Stories.
Here’s Drug Free Help for PTSD.
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