Part 1: My journey with PTSD

Over the next 6 months, I will be confronting and sharing my journey with PTSD as I prepare to compete in an international endurance event to change the stigma surrounding mental health and PTSD survivors.

I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I am a survivor.

My Beginnings

I grew up on the Gold Coast, Queensland. My upbringing was full of love and my school-life rich and busy. Looking back, I would describe myself as a textbook overachiever; school captain, tennis team captain, debating team captain, chosen for young leader development programs, section leader and concertmaster (saxophone) of all the school bands, to name just a few. I was everything you might imagine a 17-year-old teenage boy would be; bright-eyed, energetic, optimistic, ambitious, materialistic, naive and the life of the party.

In September 2009, I graduated from Bond University with an undergraduate Business Law Degree. At the age of 20, I didn’t know much about the world, but I did know enough by then to realise that I didn’t want to be a Solicitor or join the proverbial hamster wheel and climb the corporate ladder. I had a solid grasp of the judicial system and was well practised in interpreting legislation and presenting evidence in a court setting. I was also young, energetic and considered myself to be quite fit and healthy.

Having just graduated from a degree that it seemed increasingly likely I wasn’t going to put to use, I assessed my career options for ways in which I could put my legal background and youthful exuberance to good use. At the time there seemed to be only one obvious choice, and that was to become a Queensland Police Officer.

The Queensland Police Service Academy

In February 2010, I began my journey to becoming a Police Officer at the Queensland Police Service Academy at Oxley. During this time, I was taught the essential skills of becoming a Police Officer – legislation, policy, firearms, driver training, physical skills and the field training program. On the 27th of August 2010, I marched out of the Academy as a sworn Constable of Police and began my first year of active duty as a First Year Constable, stationed on rotation in the Logan District. Logan was the ultimate training ground.

It’s often said that 1 year in Logan is like working 5 years anywhere else in the state. The exposure to critical incidents and work volume is like non-other and I had the fortune of working with some of the most accomplished and operationally sound Officers in the Service. I quickly learned that even though the Academy did their best to train resilient Police Officers, nothing can truly prepare you for what you will experience on the road. At the end of my first year, I was confirmed to stay within in the Logan District and received Crestmead Police Station as my tenure Station.

James 1st year award
Myself (left) receiving the South Eastern Region’s First Year Constable of the Year Award from Superintendent Noel Powers

The Initial Years

My time at Crestmead Police Station, was a baptism by fire into elements of the community I not been exposed to previously. Domestic violence incidents, pursuits of stolen vehicles, armed robberies, murders and street brawls became my bread and butter. I adapted to this highly stressful workload (or so I thought) incredibly well and began to receive recognition and accolades from my peers and the Logan community alike quite early on. 12 months after my initial posting to Crestmead Police Station I became a Field Training Officer and began to mentor First Year Constables and recruits who would visit Crestmead Station on rotation. I thrived under the additional responsibility and took great pleasure in sharing my knowledge and promoting the growth and professional development of other officers who were fresh to wearing the suit of blue.

At about the same time as the experiences at Crestmead Police Station were unfolding, I remember beginning to feel fatigued for the first time. I put it down to the adrenaline dump of high-stress situations and the toll of shift work. I ignored the exhaustion and compensated with sugar and caffeine hits to help get me through each long day or night. Without understanding the emotional and physical debt that was slowly building, I found it difficult to sleep and without the skills to talk about it.  I also started to have mood swings, often easily irritated or offended over the slightest inconvenience. As I began to harden myself against the negatives of a job I was so good at, I had no idea that I was starting to unravel.

The Unravelling

It wasn’t until late 2012, when I had returned home from a suicide incident, that I began to experience nightmares. I had been to many suicide incidents before this one and still to this day I’m not sure what made this incident so significant. I won’t go into too much detail here, but needless to say, the death of a 12-year-old boy in Marsden hit me. Hard. I couldn’t sleep and when I did I would have nightmares. I couldn’t be alone with my thoughts because when I was, I experienced flashbacks and hyper-awareness of my surroundings. When I was on shift I would actively avoid patrolling or attending incidents on the same street of where this suicide occurred. This was the beginning of my PTSD journey.

I remained at Crestmead Police Station until 2014. During this time, I attended countless critical incidents where firearms were drawn, murders, suicides, home invasions, domestic violence, fatal traffic crashes and sexual assaults. All types of incidents that resulted in high stress and high adrenaline. A state of heightened conflict became the norm for me. I became addicted to the adrenaline rush of being first on the scene to a ‘hot job’ and all modesty aside, I was good at responding to critical incidents.

Unfortunately, I was not very good at processing these incidents and I carried the emotional load of them with me each day. My moods fluctuated all the time – I was up and down all at a given moment.  I was sad, happy, angry, depressed and distant. I would hardly ever sleep for fear of nightmares and reliving certain situations.  I also cried – a lot. I wasn’t able to understand what was happening to me and at the age of 23, I didn’t have the perspective or experience to understand that something may be wrong.

Police Officers weren’t meant to be flawed or vulnerable, they were strong, resilient individuals who wore a suit of blue Teflon.

I also didn’t want the weight and the gravity of these situations and how I was feeling to affect my amazingly supportive partner Lisa, the result of which ultimately caused a relationship breakdown. And if you ask her, she’ll tell you about the agony of watching this change happen and the struggle to keep me communicating. That’s a whole other blog post. Well before I reached any state of self-awareness, I kept my emotions bottled up and immersed myself in high risk and high-stress situations.

S.O.S.

At the age of 23, I put my hand up for help. I recall asking Senior Officers for assistance as I knew I was struggling. The flashbacks, the nightmares, the hyper-vigilance became too much for me to bare and I couldn’t go through this any longer. When I had these conversations with Senior Officers, I wasn’t greeted with the reception that I had expected. I was told not to submit any official documentation or to reveal my struggle publicly or on the record for fear of what it may do to my reputation and my career prospects. The Officers I chose to confide in knew me well. They knew me as a young and ambitious Officer who had achieved a lot in operational Policing in a relatively short time. Because of this, I was told that if I needed help that I should source professional assistance privately and outside of the Service. Looking back now, after working through some anger, I don’t blame these Officers for their response. I harbour no animosity and place no blame. They were trying to protect me in the best way they knew how. They were working in a broken system that still perpetuated the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality. They were just looking out for my career and I still have a great deal of respect for each of them. But it leaves me with questions about Police culture, support and safety nets.

The PTSD Diagnosis

In late 2013 I hit rock bottom. I drank to excess, I pushed away those closest to me. I did things I’m not proud of. My relationship broke down.

I was no longer the Teflon Officer. I was broken.

Looking back, this was my divine moment.  I had the choice of letting things get worse and wallowing further into depression and self-destructive behaviours or I could take decisive action and set about rebuilding my life and repairing the relationship damage that I had caused.

It took me a while to gather the courage to seek out professional assistance to help make sense of what I was experiencing. Looking back, I believe the reason it took me so long was a great deal of shame I felt for needing to reach out. I also didn’t want the Police Service to find out that I may have a mental illness for fear of what it would do to my career.  It took me until a point of complete overwhelm where I couldn’t think or do anything clearly. At this time, I visited my local GP and asked to be referred to a psychologist – privately. I was fortunate enough to be referred to one of the most esteemed psychologists on the Gold Coast who specialised in mental health and providing Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to emergency service personnel.

Having lived the experience of reaching out for help, the two things I couldn’t recommend higher would be to:

a) start with an appointment with your GP or treating physician AND

b) find a treatment option that works for you and keep trying until you’ve found it.

Whilst talk therapy/Cognitive Behaviour Therapy in combination with exercise worked for me,  it’s not the only treatment option available. There are a number of complimenting treatments available. Chat with your GP about what they would recommend and don’t be afraid to try a number of options until you find one that works for you.

I endured 3 months of intensive one on one Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, relaying the primary and secondary exposure to trauma and how they manifested and affected my personal life. During these sessions, the psychologist told me that I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had a mental illness. Part of me was relieved. Relief that someone finally has listened and that someone was taking my encounters with trauma seriously. I was also overwhelmed, vulnerable and felt a great deal of shame. I felt that I couldn’t let anyone know for that would be weak – the exact opposite of the Teflon officer who is bulletproof and resilient.

I decided to keep this diagnosis confidential for fear of what it would do to my occupation. I did, however, read extensively about what it meant to have PTSD. I tried my best to understand and better my situation and reached out to those I had pushed away. With a great deal of effort, courage, compassion, and love Lisa allowed me back into her life.

The Queensland Police Service Child Protection & Investigation Unit

In early 2014 I applied for and received my dream job – Plain Clothes Investigator with the Logan District Child Protection and Investigation Unit. The Officers in the Logan CPIU are amongst the most professional, diligent and resilient Detectives in the entire Police Service. They are skilled investigators, interviewers, critical thinkers, and innovators. I recall sitting a psychometric assessment prior to being appointed to the Unit. Part of which was disclosing any mental illnesses that I was or had experienced. I omitted the fact that I was suffering from PTSD as I knew I wouldn’t be successful in obtaining a position.

When I received the notification that I was successful in my application I was so proud and grateful to be a part of such an amazing team of investigators. We undertook many protracted and complex investigations of child abuse, instances of child harm and juvenile justice. I remember one of my first tasks was to assist a fellow Detective in reviewing photographic and video evidence of child pornography on several seized hard drives. During this process, I had to classify the categories and classes of child pornography and was also exposed to bestiality. A later incident that occurred was investigating the attempted murder of a 6-month-old child. I visited the child in intensive care, took statements from her parents and extended family and assisted in collecting evidence through covert means. I acknowledge that I write about these incidents with a degree of distance. It’s still a coping mechanism to distance myself from the emotional load that I carry with each of these incidents.

Leaving the Queensland Police Service

In 2015 I knew I had to leave the Queensland Police Service. I was truly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the CPIU and contribute towards meaningful outcomes for some of the most vulnerable people in our community. But, despite these outcomes, I was still suffering from PTSD. Lisa had been successful in obtaining a position at Melbourne University to undertake a PhD in Music Composition. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. In August 2015, I made the difficult yet empowering decision to resign from the Queensland Police Service.

When we moved to Melbourne I tried a number of career options including Case Manager and Team Leader for a not for profit child welfare agency and Child Protection Practitioner with the Victorian Government. Nothing felt right and although I thought I was helping to better the lives of others, I was just another cog in the red-tape machine of government policy. I was also experiencing what I labelled a ‘detox’ period from the Police. Part of me was still seeking the thrills, adrenaline and the need to help and serve others that comes from being a frontline Police Officer. I was conflicted with thoughts of wanting to join Victoria Police, but after a considerable amount of soul searching, I knew this would be a detrimental choice to make.

At the same time, I signed up to a local gym and undertook several personal training sessions. I became fitter, stronger and faster than ever before. With this new found strength and a high level of support and encouragement from my Trainer, Roy Hanford (who is now the Director of our functional training space) I decided to leave the government and not for profit sectors to follow my passion for health and fitness. I became a Personal Trainer and found great solace in the profoundly positive correlation between exercise and positive mental health regulation.

I am now fortunate enough to be the Head Coach of a purpose-built functional training facility located in Brunswick, called ‘the fit project’. As a coach, I am inspired to help others live a long and healthy life. I am dedicated to empowering people to reclaim their health and understand more about their bodies and improve their quality of life with an increased ability to perform everyday activities through movement and exercise.

Where will this new found fitness journey take me in 2018?

As a teaser for the next blog post – ‘Part 2: Owning my PTSD story’, what I can say is that I am about to embark on an insane endurance event and compete on the world stage with the end goal of changing the stigma that surrounds mental health, raise the profile of PTSD and to empower those who suffer from the debilitating disorder to seek the support of professionals who can help them recover.

If you or someone you know and love experiences Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I invite you to get in touch via email or leave a comment below. To keep up to date with my journey I encourage you to subscribe to this blog via email or WordPress. Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon.

Seeking Help for PTSD

Credit: Black Dog Institute

If your life is in danger call emergency services:

  • Australia – 000
  • New Zealand – 111

Lifeline Counselling (24 /7)

  • Australia – 13 1114
  • New Zealand – 0800 543 354

Men’s Line Australia – 1300 78 99 78
Kids Help Line – 1800 55 1800
Suicide call back service – 1300 659 467

You can also: talk to someone you trust, visit a hospital emergency department, contact your GP, a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

Yours in health,

James

 

 

 

24 Replies to “Part 1: My journey with PTSD”

  1. Mate solid read – thanks for sharing. The police culture needs to change massively- and until it does, many more will suffer in silence. It’s honesty like this that will help to change things.
    I’m really aware of this with new, keen and naive officers (like we all were) – trying to make them look after themselves instead of burning out trying to keep up all the time.
    Cheers – appreciate it!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Gregg – hey mate! Thanks for the comment. You’re exactly right – the Police culture needs to change. I’ve been out for a few years now and I really do hope things have changed (although I don’t hold out much hope!) it’s Officers like you who will lead the charge to change by looking out for the new and naive officers and making them aware of what the real impact of the job truly is. Love your work! Hope you’re well!

      Like

  2. Hi James, what a brave and strong guy you are, so proud of you and where you are at now. Don’t know if you remember me, worked at same not for profit org.
    My brother in law suffers from ptsd and his life is non existent and has been for 12 months that I’ve known of. I’ll pass on your details. Good luck with your next adventure, cheers Robyn

    Like

    1. Hi Robyn, thank you so much for your kind words! Of course I remember you 🙂 How’s everything going on your end?
      Sorry to hear about your brother in law. Please pass on my details – If he is comfortable reaching out I would be more than happy to speak with him. Cheers, James

      Like

  3. What a wonderfully brave thing to do James. I am struck by your honesty and your ability to show your vulnerability which is your strength . Shame organisations that deal with trauma have not yet understood that actually having a coherent narrative and support is crucial to working through it . So inspiring that you are now using this experience to take you to new places , test yourself and inspire others .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hi Kate, thank you so much for the kind words. This was quite a confronting post to write but the genuine messages of love and support have made this post absolutely worth it. Mental health is still such a taboo topic to speak candidly about. We have no problems talking about our physical health, why is it then we feel shame and a great deal of vulnerability speaking about our mental health. You’re also so on point – It’s a shame that organisations who deal with trauma daily are unable to support their employees who need assistance in processing their own experiences with trauma. This is the crux of why I’m writing and going on this journey (and ultimately why I’m running a 250km ultra marathon in Iceland later this year). I want to be a part of changing the face of mental health and encouraging others to reach out for support. I hope you’re doing well! I’d really love to catch up for a coffee sometime soon 🙂 x

      Like

  4. Well done you!!! As one who worked with you in those months … I had no idea!! You need not go it alone Maskey. Glad to hear you are processing it all and moving into positive times in your life. Inspirational stuff! We all have different size ‘Shit’ buckets and when it overfills …. man it overfills!! Look after yourself and I’ll keep watching!! Cheers jo

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey, Jo! Thank you so much for reaching out and for the kind words. When I was in GD’s I didn’t understand what was happening – no life experience, no perspective and no control of how I was feeling. When I moved to CPIU, I had an understanding about PTSD but felt a great deal of shame and kept everything to myself. Not many knew of what was happening at the time! It was absolutely incredible working with you and the entire CPIU team. I hope everything is going really well in your world. I’m looking forward to sharing the next chapter! Cheers, Maskey

      Like

  5. Hi James I am so proud of what you have achieved. Coming to terms with PTSD and doing what you are doing is fantastic. I wish I was still at Kapooka cos the staff there really need someone like you to be aware of who is understanding the fog that they live in. Sometimes it would be lovely to go back to the St Stephens days but we all have go through lifes experiences and develop coping mechanisms that are right for us. Please be safe on your journey. My best wishes and love are with you. 🐸🐸🐸🐸🐸🐸

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Annette, thank you so much for your kind words of support. Coming from the background you do, I’m sure you know what it is like for someone to suffer with PTSD. You’re absolutely right – it would be amazing to revisit previous memories with the life experience and the perspective we have now to develop strategies to minimise and mitigate the trauma. Unfortunately we don’t have that luxury. But, this is why I’m sharing my journey – so that we can raise the awareness of PTSD and help those who experience trauma to reach out to their support networks and also seek the support of professionals who can help them recover. I hope everything is great in your world 🙂 Once again, thank you for your message!

      Like

  6. Feels really comforting to find that I’m not alone in what I’m experiencing & feeling. I take courage in hearing you share that I need to sit with what is & not run away. My world is crumbling atm – just need to let go & trust – not easy though when I’ve tried to control everything all my life. Years of cumulative stress working in disability field plus childhood stuff!
    Thanks for your honesty & courage.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi David, thank you so much for reaching out. It takes great courage to speak up, reach out and trust that others will empathise with and appreciate your journey. I’m sorry to hear that you have your own experience with PTSD with stress in the disability field and historical childhood trauma. You are absolutely not alone in this journey. In my previous field, there is over 80,000 emergency service personnel. Approx 10% of all frontline emergency service personnel have been formally classified with PTSD and an unknown and undiagnosed (and probably just as substantial) amount also silently suffer. There is an unfortunately high amount of the population who suffer with PTSD but there is also strength in numbers and we can all support each other during this. As well as continuing the conversation and sharing my journey, I would also like to support those who experience PTSD symptoms to seek the support of professionals who can help them recover. I wish you strength and health in the future, David.

      Like

  7. Your story tells me you are a remarkably brave and strong young man. Thankyou for sharing these experiences. Wishing you the very best for the next steps in your journey.

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s