The Point of No Return
I couldn’t speak, couldn’t even think. My body froze despite everything inside me wanting to run. I sat and stared at him without seeing…….
It was my eleventh year of policing and I no longer had the resources to keep going. I was empty. The weight of bullying from certain colleagues and the daily exposure to suffering and violence was overwhelming. I felt I was neck deep in a sea of thick, murky water. Every step I took to make things better or even just bearable was met with resistance and uncertainty. I knew I needed out but despite numerous visits to HR the only paths provided made me sink even further. And yet I stayed on. Why? Because I loved policing. I loved the camaraderie, the community and the teamwork. Best of all I was good at it. There was so much to be proud of but it was no longer enough. I was caught between my passion for service and my health with no idea how to care for either.
As my earlier complaints about the bullying had landed on deaf ears I took the only option available and changed specialities. I had actually been thinking of doing this earlier when I heard of the formation of a new unit for Counter Terrorism. It was a competitive field with only one position open but I was qualified from previous work with the RCMP—post 9/11 investigations into an organized theft ring that was funding terrorism—moreover, I was extremely motivated. I would not only have distance from certain colleagues but I believed I would be an asset to the team. Most of all, I believed my love of policing would return. I was overjoyed to get the job.
As one of four constables in the Counter Terrorism unit the first order of business was a training at RCMP headquarters. I arrived excited and hopeful with the opportunity for learning and meeting new colleagues. Two days later, I left exhausted and drained. With a decade of policing under my belt I had experienced my share of violent images but watching multiple videos of suicide bombings and terror attacks, and learning about the deranged beliefs of those whose sole purpose was to kill, I had, for the first time, a physical repulsion to it all. For days after, images from those videos stayed with me. I felt fuzzy headed and nauseous, overwhelmed and bizarrely apathetic.
With the feeling that it was too late to change my mind, I sucked it up yet again and powered on. I tried hard to be motivated but I couldn’t sustain it. I was tired all the time and often nodded off while on the computer. I felt constantly cold. Little things, innocuous things, began to bother me. The noise of the heating and cooling system, air pressure changes and paperwork made my head feel like it was being squeezed in a vice. Panic was a steady flicker in my chest and anger a burn in my neck and shoulders. I wanted to punch out, scream, run, but mostly just to hide. Later I would find out these were symptoms of PTSD but then it was just crazy making. Years of the mundane trauma that cops witness everyday on top of the bullying had finally taken its toll— coffee breaks and daily workouts were all I looked forward to. That and my regular visits with my long time friend, Shady, my thirteen-year-old gelding who made life worth living.
During one visit to the gym I bumped into an old teammate from the Reserve Mounted Squad. He told me how years earlier he had built trust with at-risk youth through visits to the stables and how he was now taking a similar population out into nature through his community outreach position. As he talked of the program’s success I felt, for the first time in what seemed like years, my spark reignite. I had long been interested in the therapeutic impact of horses but now I was able to visualize how I could incorporate policing with my vast equine experience alongside a desire to work with at-risk youth.
That afternoon I got on the internet and found other police agencies doing similar equine outreach. With a rough outline in my head I made an appointment with Human Resources.
HR was initially cautious in their evaluation of my idea. They felt there were too many patrol vacancies to consider creating a new posting let alone a program. Notwithstanding, I pressed on and soon my passion won them over. The plan was if I could find a patrol Inspector to take me on I could manifest my proposal. It was almost too easy after that. With what seemed little effort, I convinced an Inspector and transitioned from counter terrorism to my new job.
I was given a desk in a private office. For five weeks I researched and wrote, talked with different agencies and connected with police departments. A civilian in Diversity Relations got involved and willingly helped me write a grant to secure money for the project. My sleep improved and excitement replaced the panic attacks. I saw it as a win-win proposal. Not only would it empower at-risk youth but it would also shed a positive light on policing, involve the infamous mounted squad, and be in total alignment with the VPD’s progressive philosophy. Still, a part of me was uneasy. Why did this seem to be moving along so fluidly? Even close colleagues were in disbelief. They questioned the Inspector’s motives. Things like this just didn’t happen in the department.
And they were right. After five weeks of planning, preparing, grant writing and inspired hope I was called into a meeting with a Sergeant I barely knew. As we sat down in that darkened room, the lights as low as that grey November afternoon, he said he had called me in on the Inspector’s request. I stilled. My senses went on alert. Over the last week, the Inspector had been unavailable to my calls and was curiously never in his office. Something had changed.
The silence grew thick as we sat across from each other. He didn’t meet my gaze just stared at his hands, face down on the table. He shuffled uncomfortably in his chair. Electric currents ran down my body in anticipation of what was to come. It felt like the adrenaline dump I’d get driving code 3 to a shots fired call. Nothing felt safe, nothing felt real. Minutes ticked by. Finally, he took a deep breath and murmured: You are needed back in uniform, on patrol, next week.
I couldn’t speak, couldn’t even think. My body froze despite everything inside me wanting to run. I sat and stared at him without seeing. More words could have been spoken, I don’t know. I don’t even know who left the room first but somehow I was in my car driving down the freeway. I felt nothing. Not sure if I was even breathing, just driving towards something that held no hope, no light, no future.
Over the next year my communication with the department was perhaps even more traumatizing than the series of events that landed me there. Depression descended once more as the panic attacks and sleepless nights returned. Nothing was clear except that I couldn’t go back. The vision of a VPD sanctioned equine outreach position was a light in an otherwise dark tunnel—a healthy restart to my policing career— and now that light was gone.
I called in sick that next week and wrestled with accessing longer sick time. In my years of service I had never claimed more than a week and now I was struggling to put into words an injury that seemed to have no “legitimate” symptoms. I was filled with shame at my perceived weakness. I made another appointment with HR to talk about my stress levels. They told me there was no such thing as stress leave and I was sent to a department MD. We talked for half an hour. At the end he said: you’re fine, go back to work. I looked at him in disbelief. I don’t sleep, I have high anxiety, and panic attacks. And you’re telling me I am safe to have a gun. I walked out.
I tried a walk-in clinic to get support. The doc said: everyone has stress; deal with it.
I eventually found a Psychologist who supported my claim. After thirteen years of excellent service to my community; of showing up and doing the job everyday; of learning, growing and supporting my team, I left what was once a fulfilling and rewarding career broken, dispirited and filled with self doubt. How could I who had been top of her academy class, done everything by the book, who reported the bullying, who had asked for help when the stress of the job got too much, who had submitted an idea that would have been a win-win situation for all involved, be left with nothing? I knew they believed I was leaving because my proposal was rejected. But they were wrong. I left because the department had rejected me.
It saddens me to think the very people we count on to protect us don’t have proper channels of support. The inability of the police to provide for their own is disturbing. This officer had a vision to be proactive and use preventive measures to serve youth and potentially change the course of their lives. I hope she was able to regroup and press on with her vision. I also hope she and other officers/nurses/firefighters press on to find the support they need to come back to who they are meant to be.