Letter from a Qld Police Officer diagnosed with PTSD, to raise awareness and seek support from colleagues prior to returning to work

***WARNING: CONTAINS DESCRIPTIONS OF PTSD SYMPTOMS THAT MAY TRIGGER SOME READERS***

I recently had the privilege of meeting this amazing police officer who took the brave step of sending the below email to her colleagues prior to returning to work on a suitable duties plan.  Those with PTSD will find the feelings and experiences described below to be incredibly familiar.  For others, it may just open your eyes to what colleagues may be experiencing upon their return to work, or even help you to identify your own early symptoms.

Since sending this email, four other officers in the same work unit all had the courage to speak up and admit that they were also experiencing problems and have taken leave.  This email broke stigma in just one office, so with the officer’s consent I am sharing it with you all.  Talking about these things is what breaks down the stigma and allows us to understand PTSD.  I commend this officer, and also those others who put their hand up and are seeking help.

If you are struggling with any of the early signs, please attend your doctor and request a mental health care plan.  This allows for a number of psychologist and psychiatrist visits to be covered under Medicare.   Police Health Fund now also cover counselling services as well as psychological services if you have extras cover.  If you require urgent and immediate support call;

Beyond Blue 1300 22 46 36 or

Lifeline 131114

For non-urgent matters in the Brisbane area, call Character Care (Moorooka) on 07) 31897234 for external, confidential counselling and psychology services. 

Psychologists and psychiatrists in other areas can be recommended upon request.

 

Hello Colleagues/Friends/Family

I will be back at work soon on a gradual return due to having Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I know I have told some of you about this already but since you guys are all picking up my slack I think it’s only fair you known why.

I am also;

A) Reaching out to you and asking for help so that I can beat this. Hopefully this will explain and help you understand how you can help me beat this. You all know I have no family here so you guys are my support network.

B) Hopefully this will also raise awareness of the signs and symptoms of PTSD.

I am lucky that my PTSD was brought on by one event which changed me rapidly and made it very easy to notice the changes. This is not always the case and sometimes people develop this after months or years of stress and trauma and the signs and changes are less sudden and identifiable.

It could happen to anyone of you and being in the occupation we are in places us at higher risk as we deal with trauma daily. My PTSD is due to my own personal traumatic single event but it can also happen from witnessing or hearing about someone else’s trauma or multiple traumas.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is something we have all heard of and most likely dealt with at work. I know of one job I went to when someone was suffering with this illness and I had to EEO him for his own safety.

So what happened and what were my initial symptoms?

On the 10th of March, I was in an accident at work. It was traumatic for me in the sense that I feared for my life.

I had very minor injuries which were visible and I assumed I was fine. I came straight back to work and carried on as normal but I started noticing that I wasn’t feeling right. I initially tried to deal with the things I was feeling and assumed they were all normal due to the accident and in time they would just go away.

  • I hated driving my car and would feel nervous and sick at the thought of getting in it.
  • I hated the idea of being a passenger in a car and worried constantly about whether I could do it.
  • I had a permanent headache and my neck hurt. My body felt tense and tight.
  • I felt emotionally overwhelmed most of the time.
  • I would jump out of my skin every time I heard an unexpected noise (even a kettle clicking would make me jump) my heart would race and my hands would shake.
  • My memory for everyday things like school pick up was terrible.
  • I couldn’t stop thinking about the accident and worrying that it might happen again. I didn’t want to be in a car.
  • I didn’t want to be at work.

All normal reactions right?

I got some physio to help with the neck pain. I [saw] a specialist about my memory and was told I had concussion and should start to feel normal again within 3-6 weeks. I drove thinking I would just get over it if I did it. I thought that in time if I continued as normal all those things listed above would just go away. I continued to ignore it. Things didn’t get better though they got worse.

  • I found that I was physically and mentally exhausted daily. Just getting through a normal day which consisted of meeting my own and my daughter’s absolute basic needs, shower, school, work and meals. I did not have the energy to socialise, gym, engage in any conversation. Every day felt like I had run a marathon.
  • Despite being exhausted I couldn’t sleep. If I did sleep I had terrible lucid nightmares which sent me into a state of sheer panic and resulted in me being awake from about 2am daily.
  • I wanted to drink every night just to help me sleep so that I could function better during the day. (Luckily I didn’t go there but only because I had my daughter to look after but the desire was there)
  • I started to avoid driving anywhere unless I absolutely had to. I got my car towed to the garage to have a full service and all tyres replaced and still didn’t trust it.
  • I felt like I was living on auto pilot and would stare right through people when they talked. I felt like my speech was slurred and I couldn’t keep track of conversations because my mind would wander. I had difficulty concentrating.
  • My short-term memory was so bad I had to start writing everything down and even then I would forget to check my list.
  • I started avoiding places that were loud including the school and made my daughter walk halfway home to meet me because every time the bell went or a kid jumped in front of me I’d feel terrified. My heart would race and my chest would hurt.
  • I started to avoid work and everything related to it for the same reason. I was terrified.
  • I had no appetite and had to force myself to eat despite feeling sick.
  • My legs would sometimes feel like they couldn’t support my body and I would feel dizzy.
  • My mind was bombarded with negative thoughts constantly. Things like;  “you will have to quit your job because you’ll never be able to drive code again”; “it’s selfish of you to work anyway because it’s dangerous and even if you could drive you are still by choice risking your life”; “how can you do that to your daughter she needs you more than the job”; “just quit then you don’t have to be frightened”; “look what you’re doing to her now, you are a useless mother with no career”; “you should just kidnap your daughter and take her somewhere new and start again”; “You are worthless and pathetic and have nothing in life.

There were many more none of which were pleasant or positive and they played on a constant loop in my head despite me trying to stop them. Sometimes I would get an image in my head of the accident and my body would feel like a train was hitting it without warning.

  • I had intense anger inside me and no way to vent it.
  • I became withdrawn from life and avoided everything and everyone, I no longer wanted to be around anyone including my own daughter because I had lost all sense of self, belonging, purpose and safety, I was afraid of my own mind. I did not like the person I had become and I felt that if this was life then I no longer had a purpose for being. My life consisted of feeling either terrified or feeling nothing.
  • I lived and breathed that accident 24/7 and despite all my efforts to avoid it I relived it repeatedly day and night. I could not escape it.

Sounds depressing right, and I assumed that’s what it could be but it made no sense to me because I knew on the 9th of March I didn’t think or feel any of these things. Some people may think they are depressed when the change isn’t so quick there is no specific incident to relate the changes to. I knew that what was happening and how I was feeling, thinking and acting wasn’t right and I needed to seek help.

The thing about PTSD is that you don’t forget the person you were you just are not that person anymore. Every day I long to be just me again and I still struggle to give that up.

I know that up until the 10th of March, I loved my career and was excited about a future within it. I loved my road trips and making awesome memories with my daughter and had many future road trips planned, I loved being social and spending time with friends, I thrived on having normal stress and doing things I was afraid of, I viewed them as a challenge and I loved a challenge, I had established a good home work life balance and the normal day to day stresses of life that we all have like, parenthood, finances, a never-ending task list, relationships etc never phased me. I felt confident, happy, I felt like a good mother, I loved CrossFit, hiking and getting outdoors. I felt safe, I felt a sense of belonging, I felt capable, I felt free, I had energy, I had never had trouble sleeping and I was comfortable within in my own skin. I had felt sad but never hopeless or worthless, I had felt stress but never been overwhelmed by it. I had felt anger but always had self-control. I had felt homesick but never alone.

If it’s not depression then what happened?

During the accident, my body and brain did exactly what it was supposed to do. There was an immediate threat to my life and I went into fight or flight, survival mode. Normally when you realise you are no longer in any danger you return to homeostasis. I didn’t return my body and brain remained in fight or flight.

The brain’s messages flood the body with several stress hormones which increase heart rate, breathing rate, blood pressure, blood sugar levels, blood flow to skeletal muscles, and cause “tunnel vision” which helps to hyper focus on the threat. They also decrease non-priority survival processes such as digestion. It is a last-resort effort to maintain survival. It beats the body up. It is not supposed to be something that occurs every day.

Now, imagine how exhausting it feels to experience this daily. Your heart is racing, your muscles are tense, you’re jumpy and short-tempered, ready to attack, run or hide. You can’t concentrate on anything other than the threat. you zone out and are unable to feel your body or where you are spatially.

The psychological stress of the event over stimulates the nervous system, resulting in the shutdown of brain activity; the brain loses anywhere from 50-90% of its competence. The ability to feel, function, or process information is severely impaired; decision making in this state can be irrational or impossible. The physical capabilities of someone with PTSD are limited.

So that’s what happened to me and I wasn’t depressed or crazy. My body had shutdown. I remained in that state on a permanent basis until around the start of June. 4 months of absolute living hell.

So what now and why do I need your help?

A “normal, everyday” sound, smell, sight, touch, word, a face, name, place, a memory or a thought that the survival centre of my brain associates with the accident now evokes the overwhelming, whole-body stress response which tells me to, without warning fight, run, hide or freeze and it doesn’t realise I’m not in danger so it continues until I shutdown.

These are called triggers and unfortunately many of mine are work related. There are some which I have already managed to overcome. There are many obvious ones that I know I still must overcome and there are many that are not obvious because they are subconscious. I need to overcome all my triggers to function properly and that’s what I will be doing when I return to work.

How can you relate to what this means? You know when you’re deep in thought and someone gives you a fright. The startle response, that few seconds when our body reacts before our brain realises we are not in danger, we either jump, run, scream, punch that person who gave us a fright right in face then almost immediately laugh or sigh a breath of relief because we are safe. Now the next time you find yourself in that situation try not to get a fright or react (sounds impossible, right? It’s instinct and you have no control over that).

Well that’s what I am doing each time I’m triggered which can be multiple times a day and whilst I sleep. I no longer get an immediate sigh of relief because I don’t recognise that I’m no longer in danger, my body and brain re-experience the accident and are very much in danger. I am fighting against instinct and it’s tough. I am trying to re-train my brain.

I need you guys to help me do this because it’s hard and when I fail to overcome a trigger. I can fall straight back into that shutdown mode where my life becomes worthless and the PTSD controls me rather than me controlling it.

What can you do to help me beat this?

  • The biggest one is please do not talk about the accident. You can refer to it as the accident but that’s about all I can deal with.
  • Trying to offer me solutions to dealing with any fears I may have doesn’t help. I don’t fear them because It’s a little scary. I fear and avoid certain things because I know I will be triggered into re-experiencing intense fear with the possibility of shutting down.
  • Understand ‘I cannot just stop’ this and it will take time, patience and hard work.
  • Understand that I haven’t forgotten who I was and it’s extremely frustrating and upsetting for me that I can’t just get over it and be my old self again. Sometimes I push myself to fast and far which results in me being locked in my house afraid of my world again. I am desperate to be the old me again.
  • Please feel free to ask me any questions about this disorder. I don’t mind talking about it and it’s not contagious. It helps me if you understand why I’ve changed.
  • Please don’t ask me when I’ll be PTSD free or when I’ll be back to full time operational duties. It’s a question that is in my mind daily and there is no answer. If I could be there yesterday I would.
  • Understand that I need to take each day as it comes and I have no idea whether I’m going to feel safe or not at any given moment of the day.
  • If you see me staring into space or you lose me during conversation I have most likely been triggered and shutdown. I am not being rude and I haven’t lost my intelligence. I just can’t access it in a triggered state.
  • If I get irritated or angry easily and act irrationally don’t accept it but please accept my apology which will come after I have beaten myself up about it. Remember the old me would not have reacted like that. If I walk away from a difficult situation It’s because I can’t handle it and have lost control of myself.
  • If you see me shaking, breathing rapidly or crying for what appears to be no reason, remind me that I am safe and tell me to breathe. I am just frightened and most likely re-experiencing the accident.
  • You guys are more than just work colleagues to me, you are my friends my family and my sense of belonging.
  • Understand that I am most likely to be triggered frequently when I first return and this will make everything difficult. I am not being lazy if it takes me hours to do something that would have previously taken minutes to do. My cognitive ability can be good one minute and terrible the next.
  • Please understand that I am terrified of dealing with victims, offenders and other peoples trauma at present due to living every day inside my own trauma. Until I feel capable to I will not subject myself to something that I know I can’t handle and this is not just me being slack. This is because it’s unsafe for me, you and the people we deal with.
  • If I’m angry, upset, irritable, frustrated, not coping. I am losing control, I am not depressed or crazy and you have not done anything to provoke it. I am just frightened. Hugs are welcome and a reminder that I’m safe and need to breathe.
  • Understand that I hate that you guys are picking up my workload. Know that I feel really crap about my inability to perform the way I used to and I will most likely feel like this even more whilst being back. Know that I truly appreciate what you are all doing to help me.
  • Please don’t give me a fright.
  • Please don’t tell me I’m skinny, look tired, I need to eat more or get more sleep. I know I have bags under my eyes and have lost a shit load of weight and I feel crap about it. I don’t need it to be pointed out, it doesn’t help.
  • Please understand that I don’t just have a phobia of driving. Don’t think that as long I’m not driving I get along just fine and can do all other work. There were many more things that my subconscious took in that night which now send my body into fight or flight, including my own thoughts. If my body and brain would stop seeing these things as a threat then I would absolutely be at work functioning just fine.
  • I still have a sense of humour and I don’t want people ignoring me or walking on egg shells around me in case I get upset. I will get upset along with a host of other intense feelings but I need normality and It’s not your fault if I do get angry or upset around you. I’ll laugh about it afterwards with you. Don’t be scared to say anything around me but if I say sorry I can’t talk about that or leave a conversation please respect that. I can’t beat my triggers if I’m not exposed to them but I also need to take it slowly and at a pace I can manage.
  • No, I’m not on any medication for this and I don’t want to be either. I can’t cope with the idea of losing any more of myself.

I can beat this with your support but I can’t beat it alone. I need your help to feel safe at work again. Thank you for taking the time to read this.