Learning to Survive When It’s Your Job to Witness Tragedies

By Andy O’Hara | Nov. 18, 2015

I compare all the things that happen on a regular basis in police work to bumblebee stings: one is tolerable, but as they build up, the pain becomes overwhelming.

In the 24-year course of my career with the California Highway Patrol, I spent the first 13 years as a traffic officer and the last 11 years as a sergeant. I spent most of my career on the road, so I saw accidents on a daily basis. Some were exceedingly gruesome: decapitations, dismemberments. I heard a lot of screams; after years of hearing them you become very tired of them. I responded to murders and suicides, backing up our local police departments. I saw injured and abused children. I myself was assaulted.

Probably the biggest incident that finally triggered a full-blown case of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) was when an officer of mine lost his life. He wanted to work overtime, and I knew he was tired. He pleaded with me to work, and I didn’t want him to, but I relented and let him. He fell asleep on his motorcycle. I responded to the scene—I will spare you the details.

Cumulative PTSD can be very difficult to treat because you’ve got so many things to deal with. You get into feelings like guilt and self-blame. You’ve got mistakes—dirty little secrets, mistakes in judgment. Everybody makes mistakes. In police work, the opportunity for mistakes is pretty high and they haunt you. You take a lot of responsibility for things that happen out of on the road. Officers think about how they might have prevented it, how they might have gotten there sooner. All the what-ifs will kill you.

It all begins to pile together and becomes a big bundle of yuck that catches up to you in nightmares, depression and flashbacks.

Struggling to Cope

I blamed myself for the death of my officer and forgiveness wasn’t going to be easy. I went through crying spells. My temper flared at home and at work. It became explosive. I started having panic attacks and anxiety. I started withdrawing. I became almost agoraphobic. The flashbacks reached a point where I couldn’t sleep. I tried alcohol as a coping technique—it worked. I finally could sleep.

I was a closet drinker. At first, I always quit 8-10 hours before work, but that time began to grow smaller and smaller. I started to show up to work with alcohol on my breath. Ultimately, drinking just made it worse. I wasn’t able to suppress the feelings with the alcohol.

I started to get scared of losing my career. And there was pressure from my wife. I knew I had to quit drinking and when I did, I felt worse because I didn’t have the sedative effects of the alcohol to overcome the flashbacks and anxiety.

About a year later, I became suicidal and checked into a hospital. I’ve been on meds and in therapy since then, and I eventually retired on disability.

Managing PTSD

You don’t cure PTSD; you learn to manage it. I’ve been able to manage the depression, the flashbacks and the problems sleeping. But I still get panic attacks and anxiety, especially in traffic and in crowds. I don’t handle stress very well. When I was on patrol, I was the figure of calm, nothing could bother me. Today, even driving is a challenge for me.

After I had gone through a lot of recovery, I reflected back on things that I could have done to avoid the predicament I got into. It never occurred to me to get into therapy during my career; I had never even heard of therapy, but it works pretty well. If I had gotten therapy back then, I might not have had to retire.

I got to thinking about why officers don’t try therapy or medication. There are officers struggling with anxiety and PTSD and they are determined to suffer through it for the rest of their lives. I think in this day and age, where officers are being questioned on a lot of things–shootings, arrests, brutality—a lot of that could be avoided through some good therapy. And I think people are scared of medication. Medication doesn’t necessarily affect your ability to work, but many officers don’t know that.

Andy O’Hara is a former California Highway Patrol officer, and the founder of The Badge of Life, an organization of active and retired law enforcement officers dedicated to preventing law enforcement suicide.

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