Part 6: Transitioning Through Trauma – Life Outside Of The Emergency Services

Hi all,

Thank you for reading my latest blog post “Part 6: Transitioning Through Trauma – Life Outside Of The Emergency Services”. This post will document my transition from leaving the Queensland Police Service, ‘detoxing’ and reintegrating into the community, trying a number of different professions in different industries to where I am now – a Coach in the fitness industry, a Mental Health Advocate and an Endurance Athlete.

The process wasn’t an easy one. I failed a lot. I received criticism from others for not holding down a single job in a single industry for a long period of time. I judged myself quite intensely around my ‘inability’ to ‘find my fit in the world.’ For those that know of my journey, this blog post may help provide context as to why I found the transition from Policing to Social Work to Fitness so challenging. This is a lengthy post but it is important information to share as it narrates my journey post Police and navigating the re-occurring symptoms and triggers of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

For those who may be reading this and are considering leaving the Emergency Services or are having difficulties navigating life after Policing, I would love to help. Please feel comfortable in contacting me to discuss any thoughts and difficulties you may have with the process of re-integration into the community after resigning from the Emergency Services.

The Decision To Leave

As outlined in my first blog post, “Part 1: My journey with PTSD“, In February 2010, at the age of 21, I began my journey to becoming a Police Officer at the Queensland Police Service Academy at Oxley. My registered number was 4028505. Throughout my time as a Police Officer, I worked in a number of specialist areas including General Duties Policing, Branch Management of the Police Citizen’s Youth Club and I finished my sworn service as a Plain Clothes Investigator in the Logan District Child Protection & Investigation Unit, investigating serious and indictable offences committed against children. During the course of my duties as a Police Officer, 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. In the Child Protection & Investigation Unit, I investigated multiple instances of child harm and neglect, rapes and sexual assaults, the attempted murder of an infant and reviewed countless images and videos of child pornography.

In 2013 I began to unravel – 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 referred to a psychologist who told me that I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had a mental illness. You can read more about my unravelling and PTSD diagnosis here.

After the diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I knew I had to leave the Police Service. For my own sanity, and the wellbeing of those I loved and cared about the most. At the time I was working as a Branch Manager of a Police Citizen’s Youth Club (PCYC) in Logan. We were a drop-in space, triage and service co-ordination hub, fitness facility, social welfare point of contact and pillar in the Logan community. During my time working at the PCYC I honed my skills for working with children, families, young people, older people, the broader community, local and state government and human service organisations. It was at this time that I decided to undertake Post Graduate study in the Human Services field.

I studied online through Griffith University and learned in great detail about childhood studies, community and youth work, disability studies and social gerontology. The passion I had to serve the community still burned very brightly, but for the sake of my own mental health, I had to serve others in a different way from being a Police Officer. During this time moved from the PCYC and was awarded a position in the  Logan District Child Protection and Investigation Unit. I hid my PTSD diagnosis as I knew I wouldn’t be successful in obtaining this position.

Working within the Logan District Child Protection and Investigation Unit, I was fortunate to work in tandem with the Queensland Government Department of Child Safety. As a Police Officer, it was my role to investigate criminal offences that occurred to a child and commence the prosecution process of offenders. The role of the Queensland Government Department of Child Safety was to act in the best interests of the child and to protect them from further harm. This can be achieved through case management of families, service coordination to ensure families and young people receive required supports, court orders, temporary foster care and removal of the child from the environment of harm. As I knew more about Child Safety I kept thinking ‘Woah, this occupation was a remarkable way to serve some of the most vulnerable members of the community without being a Police Officer.’ So with this in mind, I researched what requirements need to be met in order to be a Child Safety Worker. As it turns out, my Post Graduate study and my relevant work experience were exactly the requirements needed to apply.

In August 2014, 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 for Lisa and it would expand her professional opportunities immensely. So with this in mind, we made the decision to leave Queensland and I resigned from the Queensland Police Service to chase a career in the human services and child welfare sectors.

Inner City Fitzroy Life
The view of Inner City Melbourne from our apartment

Detoxing from the Queensland Police Service

Leaving the Police Service was a difficult decision to make. I felt conflicted. On one hand, I was free and felt liberated from any future trauma as part of my employment and on the other, I felt lost. I had spent the better part of 5 years working with the best operators in the state and the sense of family and comradery between us was unlike anything else. As I later found out, I was also addicted to the high adrenaline and high-stress scenarios that you face as a Police Officer and I was ‘coming down’ and experiencing some pretty intense withdrawal symptoms. I lived vicariously through emails and phone calls with my friends in the Queensland Police who were still serving, I watched reality and drama police television shows and did whatever I could to still have my finger on the pulse, just to still feel a part of that world.

Upon moving to Melbourne I enquired with the Victorian Government Department of Human Services about what it would take to become a Child Protection Practioner. Whilst I had ample professional experience and a relevant tertiary qualification, I didn’t have enough experience in case management and service coordination so I was advised to find a job in the community services sector where I could cut my teeth in the area of case management. After receiving this advice I applied for approximately 50 positions (not an exaggeration. Literally 50) and was knocked back by every single organisation. as an ex-Police Officer, I thought finding a job would be easy. I had experience in working with vulnerable members of the community, effective communication, demonstrated problem-solving, administrative and advocacy skills…why didn’t I have a job already?!

Turns out, I had to start at the beginning of this new industry and really learn what it took to be an effective Case Manager. I received an invitation for an interview with one of Victoria’s largest not-for-profit child welfare organisations, in their ‘Lead Tenant’ program. For the purpose of this blog post, I will keep the name of this organisation confidential. I was successful in obtaining this position and learned what it meant to be a Case Manager by providing case direction, case coordination and support services to young people who are on statutory child protection orders, who also required assistance living independently. I was an advocate, a mentor and a Case Manager. I thought I was doing exactly what I wanted to be doing. As it turns out I was still plagued by missing the adrenaline and sense of family in the Police Service.

At the start of 2015, I submitted multiple applications to the Australian Federal Police and Victoria Police for a lateral transfer which would recognise my previous policing experience and again grant me a sworn position as a Police Officer. Unfortunately, there was a substantial backlog of applications and I was told that I wouldn’t be able to join either organisation for at least 12 – 16 months. I still had real ‘bee in my bonnet’ about working as Police Officer, so after this notification, I then looked at unsworn civilian positions within the Federal Police. I applied for a position within the intelligence branch in the Melbourne AFP Headquarters as a Telecommunications Interception Officer. I went through the application process and was successfully awarded the position. I was conflicted with thoughts of wanting to re-join policing as a career. I stayed up for many nights, unable to sleep, just thinking in a continuous loop about the opportunity to re-join a profession that I loved so much and also the considerable amount of pain and trauma it had brought in to my life. After many difficult conversations with Lisa and a considerable amount of soul searching, I knew this would be a detrimental choice to make. I declined the job offer. Looking back now, I am so grateful for having made that choice.

I remained working with the same not-for-profit child welfare organisation, and took on a Team Leader secondment to the Residential Services Program, overseeing staff who worked with young people on statutory child protection orders in a residential care setting. I was still missing the comradery of the Police Service, so to counteract this, I became an unofficial social coordinator, instigating spontaneous nights out on the town, house parties and events, where alcohol was a social lubricant and a solution for bonding. These outings were a setting to blow off steam from an emotionally taxing day job and strengthened workplace friendships. For me though, it wasn’t a healthy way to process my lived trauma experiences, which compound after drinking alcohol.

Social Work Career

In 2015, after about 12 months of Case Management experience with the not-for-profit child welfare organisation, I took the initial advice I was given and applied for a position with the Victorian Government Department of Human Services, in Child Protection. After completing the multiple testing phases I was successful in obtaining a position and began my time as a Child Protection Practitioner at the Box Hill Child Protection Adolescent Protection Team. It became my role to investigate matters where a child may be at risk of harm, refer children and families to services that assist in providing the ongoing safety and well-being of children, take child protection matters to court, supervise children on legal orders granted by the Children’s Court as well as providing accommodation services, specialist support services, and adoption and permanent care to children and adolescents in need. Well, so I thought.

The realities of this role were more of a government administrator than a social worker, advocate and support worker. My actual role revolved around case recording, writing reports about children and families that I didn’t really know because of time and resource constraints and adhering to policies, legislation and red tape. I couldn’t be innovative and responsive in my role because that may contravene a government policy (some of which do not accurately ensure the best interests of the child are actually met).

I resigned from my role as a Child Protection Practitioner after 3 months and returned back to a position in the initial not-for-profit child welfare organisation. I took on a role as a Mentor, working with young people with intellectual disabilities and who were at risk of entering the justice system. I stayed in this program for 18 months and became an advocate, mentor and service-coordinator for some of the most vulnerable young people in our community. I became quite proficient at this role and really enjoyed the work. Occasionally there would be violent and verbally aggressive outbursts from the clients I worked with as well as substance use, suicidal thoughts and self-harm and high risk-taking behaviours. Unfortunately, my PTSD reared it’s head again and I was triggered back to the trauma of attending suicides, drug overdoses, sexual assaults and other critical incidents that I experienced whilst serving as a Police Officer.

I recall expressing to management that I wasn’t coping with these incidents and that my PTSD was triggered. I was re-experiencing symptoms of PTSD. I didn’t receive the response I had hoped for. Instead, I received official documentation that my PTSD may ‘put the clients of this organisation at risk’ and was directed to schedule an appointment with my GP to obtain medical clearance to continue performing my job. This letter crippled me. I honestly felt like I didn’t belong anywhere and that I didn’t have the support of the backing of this organisation. It was a heartbreaking experience. I visited my GP, who was actually quite disgusted at this organisation’s response and obtained the required medical clearance to continue my position.

At the same time as this was occurring, I signed up to a local gym and undertook several personal training sessions. I became fitter, stronger and faster than ever before. I found great solace in the profoundly positive correlation between exercise and positive mental health regulation. 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 not-for-profit child welfare organisation, obtain the relevant qualifications and become a Personal Trainer.

Coaching Career

When I transitioned into the Fitness Industry I really knew nothing of the highly commercialised, profit-driven 24-hour facilities that dominate the industry (this is a whole other blog post within itself!) I secured a role as a Club Manager for a fitness business that was centred around high-intensity interval training, with a kickboxing focus. This business was owned by a much larger parent company that happened to be one of the multi-national 24-hour fitness chains as described above. Unfortunately, it was also a place that focused on 6, 8 and 12-week challenges where fat loss and a number on the scales were the main metrics measured (seriously, how does this support positive body image and empowering long-lasting change in health and wellness?! Once again, another blog post entirely!) and used ‘Fitspo’ or Fitness Inspiration to motivate members. Fitness inspiration is a harmful social media trend that has in excess of 50,000,000 search results with ridiculous taglines like – ‘No pain, no gain’. ‘Sweat is fat crying.’ ‘Be the fit friend not the fat friend.’ ‘Sore is the new sexy.’ The fitness industry and social media have so much to answer for in relation to this. These messages create much more harm than good and promotes a culture of shaming individuals in to exercise and shaming those who don’t exercise.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to health and we are all in different stages of our fitness journey. Unfortunately, this fitness business placed zero importance on the individual, the journey that they are undertaking, as well as the physical, mental and unique attributes of that individual.

Determined to be the change that we wanted to see in the industry, Roy, Jo, Jerome and I collaborated to open a purpose-built functional training facility located in Brunswick In August of 2017, 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.

 

TFP
Just some of our many awesome TFP Tribe members!

 

We at The Fit Project empower our members to reclaim their health, learn more about their bodies and have a positive relationship with exercise. Movement should be purposeful, mindful and should be a positive and empowering experience. It’s a celebration of who you are and what your body is capable of; not shameful punishment for where you are at on your journey. I’m proudly serving our members at the fit project by being part of an awesome group of like-minded individuals who buck industry trends and silence a culture of shaming. I am surrounded by powerful messages and positive, uplifting people.

Working at The Fit Project has also empowered me to own my journey with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and to assist others who may be suffering from PTSD and lead by example by making my story and journey public. In August this year, I will be competing in the ‘Fire and Ice Ultra Marathon’, the toughest multi-terrain race in the world, spanning 250 km through undulating terrain situated in Iceland. James will be representing Australia in Iceland and be competing against some of the world’s most elite ultra-runners. Whilst competing in this gruelling event, I am championing support and raising the awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and the exceptional work conducted by Phoenix Australia – The National Centre for Excellence in Post Traumatic Mental Health. You can read more about this event here

Check out our awesome TFP Tribe members on these videos below!

Take Home Message

The process of transitioning out of the Emergency Service Industry and assimilating into the community as a civilian was a challenging, confusing and emotional space to navigate. I tried many occupations, I ‘failed’ because these occupations weren’t the ‘right fit for me’, I submitted applications to re-instate my policing career and then subsequently withdrew them – it was a long 3-year process of trial and error. It was a mental and emotional roller coaster for not only myself but for my friends and family as well.

I really believed it took so long to transition and be comfortable with everyday life outside of Policing as there is really no other career like working in the emergency services (excluding the Defence Force). No other occupation will equip you with the knowledge of legislation, policy, firearms, driver training, physical skills required to investigate serious indictable offences, take away someone’s liberty and write reports that have real and serious consequences on someone else’s life. It’s a profession that I performed diligently and a burden that I took on with a great deal of responsibility. No other occupation will expose you to incidents that result in high stress and high adrenaline, with a state of heightened conflict becoming the norm. I also believe that no other career has the sense of comradery, community and mateship, due to the nature of the profession. It took me 3 years to detox, withdraw and be at peace with not being a Police Officer for this exact reason.

I continued to seek opportunities to work with and serve members of the community, as service is one of my highest values (see blog post – ‘Part 3′ for further information), but up until recently, I didn’t know how to best do that while making the biggest impact, working with those I truly want to serve, in a way that’s true to my highest values. And that’s ok. Over the past 3 years, I’ve learned to give myself permission to be unsure, to try, to change, adapt and grow. I cherish the experiences I’ve had in other industries as it’s helped formed me into who I am today.

If I could leave one piece of advice for those wishing to leave Policing as a career it would be the above – give yourself permission to be unsure and a chance to try a range of possibilities after your time in the emergency services. I know this is confronting and there are many unanswered questions. I encourage you to reach out and get in contact with me if you would like assistance in transitioning from emergency service work to reintegration into the community. Although it took quite some time, I’ve finally found my fit. Let me know if I can help in finding yours.

I also want to keep the valuable and necessary of PTSD support and mental health awareness going and still very much on the table! If you wish to and if you feel that you are ready, I encourage you to take a leap of trust and share your accounts of mental health. It takes enormous strength and courage to allow yourself to be vulnerable and this is exactly how WE will remove the stigma and change the face of mental health. 

I believe in the power of conversation!

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.

How To Show Your Support

If you are reading this blog and engaging with the content I’m sharing, thank you. Your subscription to this forum is incredibly humbling and I definitely appreciate your time and energy. If you feel inclined to do so, I ask that you continue to support this forum by one of the options below.

  1. Help me in my goal of raising awareness of PTSD and support options and my journey by subscribing to this blog, sharing it with your friends and social media platforms.
  2. If you know of someone who is going through a tough time, have the empathy and the courage to start a meaningful conversation that could truly change or save their life.
  3. If you wish to support my participation in my ultra-marathon event you can do so by making a donation through my ‘mycause’ page www.mycause.com.au/page/162984 until 1 August 2018. Funds raised through this platform will help to offset the significant preparation costs in representing Australia on the world stage as I run to raise the profile of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  4. Pledge a donation to Phoenix Australia: Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health via my ‘mycause’ page www.mycause.com.au/page/162984 as well. Your support means more than you realise, not only myself but to others who endure Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Thank you for reading and for being an integral part of changing the face of mental health.

Yours in health,

James

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