On March 3, 2015, a 911 call suddenly became a life and death encounter when a Domestic Violence suspect ambushed me in the dark and stabbed me in the neck with a large hunting knife! The 26 year old suspect was shot and killed and other responding units rescued his victim who was found bound, beaten and stabbed multiple times.
My mom came from out of state to help me while I recovered at home. She said she wanted me to tell her what happened, and when I got 1/2 way through the story, we were interrupted. I was crushed that my Mom never asked me to finish. I learned from a friend, who is also a therapist “You have to find people who are not only willing, but are capable of hearing what you are going to tell them.” He helped me understand that my mom loves me, and wanted to help me, but simply was not ready to hear what her little girl had been through.
I saw a psychologist who expressed her amazement at how I was doing. She asked why I thought I was doing so well and I told her I was working out and eating right and I had a strong support system. She asked what I would do to make sure I kept doing well and I said in addition to what I was already doing, I was considering attending the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat as a preventative measure.
The therapist looked at me, shook her head and said, “You’re fine. You aren’t second guessing yourself and I won’t support that,” so I didn’t go. In retrospect, I wish I had followed my instincts and gone to the retreat. Missing the opportunity for peer-support in a healing environment seems foolish to me now.
As time passed, I experienced conflicting and confusing emotions. Naturally, I felt grateful to be alive, but I also recognized I was suffering. I felt numb, didn’t feel like eating and I couldn’t sleep. I had a lot of dreams, some nightmares and moments where I couldn’t stop trembling. I was concerned about how I was supposed to act, and felt guilty if something made me laugh or smile. Though I hated cardio workouts, I found it was the only way I could get rid of the sick energy I had in my body.
The first time my wife Karin and I walked our dogs, an orange fell from a tree and scared the bejesus out of me. I remember going to the store for the first time. I was hyper-vigilant. I looked behind me and saw a man that reminded me of my attacker and it startled me. As people milled around I thought “nobody here knows what I’ve been through, but actually, none of us knows what anyone here has been through.’ I also had bizarre thoughts racing through my head like, “You don’t know me. I just killed someone and I could kill you.” I felt like I was stuck in time and that life was passing me by.
I felt tremendous anxiety about getting back to work. I was afraid my agency was going to call at any moment and tell me they wanted me back the next day and I knew I wasn’t ready. The family of the suspect sent me a card. They told me their hearts went out to all of us involved etc and ended with, “Thank you for saving (the victim’s), life and giving us a reason to live.” It was such a gracious gesture that I felt my heart would break. I felt so much grief – I couldn’t begin to fathom what they had been through. Their 26 year old son died at the hands of the police and they were reaching out to me. I wondered who attended his funeral and whether they had any support.
I received hundreds of visits, calls, cards and gifts from family and friends and from total strangers. While that was amazing, it was also overwhelming…particularly because for some reason, I felt compelled to send thank you cards to everyone for their support, which took focus away from my healing. This made me appreciate those who reached out and said I didn’t have to call back or respond, they just wanted me to know they were thinking of me.
When I did return to work I was placed in a light duty assignment doing absolutely NOTHING. I know it was well-intentioned but it proved to be anything but helpful. Co-workers would come to see me – some to wish me well and others to get the scoop. Most of them starred at my neck as they spoke. My brain felt like it was on fire and all I could do was ruminate over the incident. I was having difficulty focusing and I couldn’t remember my friend’s names.
By my third week on light duty, I couldn’t take it anymore and I requested to go back to patrol. Once I hit the street, I was feeling good and more like my old self than I had since the incident. I was productive and I had purpose.
Everything went well until about two months later. I was cruising around on duty, in my patrol car, when emotionally I hit the wall. I began crying for no apparent reason and I couldn’t stop. I would later learn that uncontrollable crying is common for officers dealing with trauma.
I knew I needed help and found a new therapist who works almost exclusively with police officers. Neighboring agencies also invited me to training on mindfulness and dealing with trauma and I attended a peer support group for officers battling the effects of stress from critical incidents.
I met officers in the group who were very angry, mostly at how their agencies handled their incidents. They term this “Betrayal Trauma.” Current research suggests in some cases officers suffer more from perceived agency betrayal than from the initial critical incident. A number of the officers were suicidal and some were homicidal. A lot of them were using medication to help with their anxiety and/or to sleep while others were self medicating with alcohol or un-prescribed
I confided my fear to my therapist- I was scared and didn’t want to end up like them. She assured
me that since I had never experienced suicidal thoughts before, the likelihood I would become suicidal was slim.
I was assigned to a desk job and I continued to experience profound sadness. I only had the desire to see and talk with a couple of people and I became very isolated. I arrived to work early, keeping my office door closed and the window shades drawn. One day, while sitting there, I reflected back to seeing a friend soon after I got out of the hospital. She was crying and hugged me and said, “Julie, it wasn’t worth it!” In that moment I told her “Actually, it was worth it,” but now, I thought the whole situation was fucked up. What I had done as part of my work, in defense of my life and to protect another was NOT worth it at all, and I wondered if I would ever feel right again.
Everything was churning inside of me. I couldn’t seem to land on a thought or a feeling at all. I went from being a happy go lucky, kind and compassionate person to someone I barely knew. There were times I was completely void of any feelings and emotions and I had absolutely no interest or concern for the people around me.
I was going through bouts of anger where I wanted to throw and break things. There were also days I couldn’t peel myself out of bed. A friend told me to make a check list… 1) Wake up 2) Get out of bed 3) Brush my teeth. She said that way, I would start to feel like I was accomplishing something.
My wife Karin went to my therapist with me one day and said, “I’m just ready for us to be past this. I’m tired of talking and hearing about it non-stop.” I was hurt because I wasn’t past it and I felt like talking about it was helping me. I didn’t realize it was making her so sad to repeatedly see and hear what I was going through. It helped me to understand that mine was not the only trauma in this scenario. My mom, my wife and others very close to me had been thrust into a nightmare of their own and were trying to find their ways ‘back home’ as well.
My therapist told me that as long as the amount of time I was thinking about the incident was decreasing in intensity, frequency and duration, I was improving. This helped to shift my perspective and I came to realize, I was in fact getting better.
I also noticed that once I was ok with not being ok, things started to change. I would tell Karin, “I know I’m cracked, but I’m not broken,” and I had faith that things were going to continue to improve. I retired one and a half years ago. And as part of my new career, I was presenting at a police conference where attendees took up a collection to send me to the West Coast Post-Trauma Retreat.
As the result of this crisis, I have experienced enormous growth, perhaps far greater than I could have achieved without such a life-threatening and life-changing event. The power and beauty of love from my family, friends and total strangers has reminded me of what is important in life and has helped me to grow as a person. Today, I know compassion and empathy I never had before my incident and thankfully, I have found laughter and happiness once again.
– There is no “one size fits all” solution. Find what works for you and do it. i.e.. journaling, working out, retreats, finding a “culturally competent,” therapist etc.
– The very people you felt would be there no matter what, may be willing but not capable of helping you because they are struggling to deal with the aftermath themselves.
– Identify people who are willing and capable of hearing and supporting you.
– My friend Mike Malpass told me, “I can’t tell you what normal is, but whatever you go through will be normal.” This helps me to remember not to compare myself to other’s healing process, or hold myself to expectations I set for myself that may not be realistic.
– It’s ok to not be ok, just don’t give up on yourself – EVER. The ‘you’ that seems gone forever CAN be restored and you are worth the effort.