The Therapist Arrives: Finding Help When the System Fails

You’re fine. Everyone has stress, deal with it. There is no such thing as stress leave.

Voices from trusted professionals echoed in my head as I struggled to deal with the potential loss of my career.  I knew I needed help to manage my hypervigilance, chronic fatigue and night terrors but had no clear path in which to find it. The VPD thought I was healthy and didn’t take my concerns seriously, and a walk-in clinic scorned my symptoms as weakness. Everywhere I turned seemed to be blocked with ridicule and disrespect. I felt like I was drowning and potential allies had reeled in the life line. I needed professional help not just to heal but to prove that I was not well.  

I found a psychologist that was not connected to the department but who seemed to understand toxic workplaces. I wanted to heal, to learn, and to work again but I didn’t want to be assessed with a blue lens or rubber stamped on an HR timeline. Despite this, I came to therapy with the mindset of a cop: I hid my vulnerabilities and guarded my trust. At times it felt like I was giving testimony in court with facts and timelines but few, if any, feelings. My training in surveillance and undercover work came in handy and I analyzed the doctor and gave him what he wanted. He would sit on a wheeled office chair, dress pants and button-down shirt, ever so slightly elevated so that I had to look up from my perch on the couch. Writing down my thoughts and reflections as constantly as a courtroom scribe, I minimized my symptoms and revealed just enough to qualify for a medical claim. I got so good at it that at times I forgot how bad things really were. Later I would see my defensiveness as symptoms of trauma but then I just saw it as a way of surviving and staying safe. 

I learned a lot in those counselling sessions, little of it therapeutic. Yes, he validated my symptoms and the prevalence of corporate bullying and yes, he knew of the effects of workplace trauma and the psychological and physical obstacles women face in male dominated careers. But overtime, he became more of a life coach than a therapist. Often we would spend the whole session talking about my vision to work with horses and how to market such a proposition. It was like I had found the “perfect” psychologist, one that would validate my dreams while never making me work with the uncomfortable feelings. Rarely was I asked to sit with my emotions or to explore the solid rock that dominated my solar plexus and the slightly smaller one in my throat. Instead, at the beginning and end of each session I rated my mental health on a computer program that he had designed. My caretaking self quickly learned how to arbitrarily choose points on the scale to make it appear I was improving. Low when I came in, higher when I left. After several months of this, my therapy-allotted benefits ran out. He gave me the diagnosis of depression and I moved on. 

But I wasn’t healed; I was not even close. 

Looking back, I now have some compassion for that psychologist. Despite the stories I told him, he had no idea what police culture was like. Unless you are on the job few, if any, do. Besides, he was just a product of our culture. Back in 2009, PTSI* in First Responders was but a rumour, still not widely understood with a variety of treatment plans that were, comparatively speaking, not well researched. Some, like my guy, took the motivational route to search for the positive and press forward. HR wanted me to get some proforma counselling and return to work as soon as possible and VPD’s doctor, well, that MD metaphorically handed back my gun after I had told him I was unwell.These treatment philosophies fed into my own recent training as a life coach. I, too,  thought all I had to do was to think positively, focus on a goal and all would be fine.

But it wasn’t true.

Night terrors continued to plague me along with panic attacks. I was hypervigilant around friends and suspicious of motives. I was constantly fatigued. And although I was excited about working with youth and horses, even if on a part-time basis while I continued policing, I was filled with doubt and fear. To boot, I stopped seeing how my symptoms related to my chosen career. I fooled myself into believing it was due to the trepidation of starting a new venture. I did my best to ignore all the warning signs of a PTSI with an “all is good” outlook. But things were not good and I was not happy or well. The only source of joy was my visits with my horse, Shady.

I spent most days at the barn. I didn’t realize it at the time but later I would see how it was the only place I let my guard down. Shady would casually munch on hay while I silently poured my heart out to him. At times he would nuzzle me or stare deep into my heart. Other times, however, when I arrived with true feelings hidden behind a radiant smile, my body language would betray me and he would distance himself. Not connecting again until I admitted to myself what was really happening, how angry I was, sad, tormented by guilt, shame and suspicion that no one could be trusted. Not even him. 

Through all that, I never felt his judgement. Each visit Shady would walk towards me with an open heart, wanting only the same from me. When I did that he rewarded me with a rich connection. When I closed off to him, he walked away, letting me know that bullshit was not acceptable. Shady wanted me to show up, be fully present and tell him what I was honestly feeling. And over time I learned to give it. By giving Shady my full self, my hopes and dreams alongside the ugly truth of everything I felt and had gone through, he helped me not only explore what I was feeling but trust that it was safe to do so.

Through his constant acceptance of who I was, Shady was the one that gave me courage to file a complaint of bullying and harassment with the VPD. When that claim failed, he helped me sit with the isolation and alienation from what I once considered family. When there was no recourse for a healthy future in policing, Shady helped me to resign so I could begin my long journey towards health and well-being.

Over the last decade my healing has had many stop and stutters and side trips to messy alleyways. Through it all I have learned to sit in the mess of it but also to trust the process. It’s not always been pretty or enjoyable but I know with heart-felt knowledge, it’s been well worth the trip. I am stronger, healthier and more connected to what’s really important. And to this end, I am grateful for Shady and my herd of horses that now call Anam Cara (my farm and learning center) home.

* PTSI is the preferred term for PTSD. It correctly substitutes “Injury” for ”Disorder” with the goal of de-stigmatizing the diagnosis.

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