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Brave Talk Bulletin

Trauma and Self-Destructive Behavior

A wet, cold night in 2003 changed my life forever. I was a police officer guarding a scene of unimaginable carnage. Two teenage girls had taken their own lives by jumping from a tower block. Many other officers were around doing different tasks, but I was alone at the cordon for hours.

When you've only got the dead for company, it changes you.

One of the victims was taken to hospital, clinging on to life. I was left with the other one who'd already died. I absorbed every detail of the scene. As I looked up, the window from which they jumped was wide open and swaying in the wind.

I came away from that night feeling unmanageable guilt. When I arrived at the scene, the paramedic told me one victim was dead and one was dying. I repeated this to my Sergeant. I spent years thinking I'd killed the second victim by announcing she was dying. I felt I'd taken away her will to live.

Only in the last few months have I been able to say this out loud.

All I did was relay something that had already been said, yet I felt like a murderer. As I finally left the scene, I broke down and cried all the way home. I continued to cry daily for years.

I was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and my life began to spiral out of control.

What is Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD as

“Posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a psychiatric disorder that may occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event, series of events or set of circumstances. “

The key symptoms include intrusive thoughts, memories, or dreams, avoidance of reminders of the traumatic event, irritability, and angry outbursts.

The symptoms that affected me most were:

“Negative thoughts and feelings leading to ongoing and distorted beliefs about oneself or others (e.g., “I am bad,” “No one can be trusted”); distorted thoughts about the cause or consequences of the event leading to wrongly blaming self or other.”

I felt like a traitor anytime I enjoyed something in my life. I felt survivor's guilt even when my life had never been at risk. Deep inside, I felt like the worst person ever to exist.

I started to self-destruct. I engaged in many risky and harmful behaviors, which became problems in their own right and took much soul-searching to overcome.

Why does trauma cause self-destructive behavior?

I used self-destructive behaviors as a way to self-medicate the pain I was experiencing. It was the only release I knew for handling difficult emotions I'd never felt before.

I joined the police to make a difference. My main job, even above catching criminals, was to save lives. Up until that point, I'd done well.

  • I'd talked several people out of suicide.
  • I'd ensured people with mental health problems get help.
  • I'd broken up fights.
  • I'd helped victims of domestic abuse.
  • I'd rescued children from abusive homes.

I'd started to feel invincible. I felt like I could save anyone. Although I didn't even know about this double suicide until after it happened, in my distorted mind, I'd failed. I was too late, and somehow, that was my fault.

As a result, I began to tell myself repeatedly that I was worthless, unlovable, stupid, and incapable. I began to feel unsafe and worried every time my loved ones left the house. I couldn't trust anyone and was inherently evil, right down to my bones.

By engaging in self-destructive behaviors, I got the punishment I deserved. Everyone told me I wasn't to blame, but I "knew" differently.

My behaviors also numbed my pain. I felt like my old self. It never lasted, but no conventional treatment was working because I couldn't bring myself to talk about the trauma.

My self-destruction ironically felt like the safest way to escape my pain.

The types of self-destructive behavior I engaged in were varied and extensive.

1. Anger.

I used anger to mask my pain. I refused to talk about my trauma to anyone — neither loved ones nor therapists ever came close. I had so much pain inside that I thought I might die if I felt it fully, so I masked it with anger.

Anger is always a secondary emotion. If I shouted loud enough and acted aggressively, I'd deter people from seeing what was happening below the surface.

I was never physically violent, but I was hell to live with.

My lowest point was when my mum secured therapy for me at a specialist hospital. It was the last thing I wanted as I refused to confront my pain, yet my mum never gave up trying to get me help. I remember telling her I hated her. It wasn't true. I love her more than I can express. But at that moment, I was trying to shock her into agreeing to cancel the therapy.

I didn't see it as an act of love. I saw it as a betrayal and a mortal threat.

2. Losing my ability at work.

I continued to work as a police officer for far longer than I should have. I went from being told I was one of the best officers on the team to being scolded because I couldn't even write a decent statement anymore.

In the latter days of my police career, I only wanted action. I wanted to go to violent and dangerous calls. I hoped I'd get attacked, and then I'd either win the fight or take a beating like I thought I deserved. Both were a win for me.

The problem is most police work isn't dangerous or violent. I was letting victims down because all I wanted to do was get rid of the tedious jobs so I could be available for the violence.

Ultimately, my Inspector couldn't wait to move me to another unit. Realizing I no longer even had the support of my colleagues was the final straw, and it sent me spiraling into medical retirement and a brief stay in a mental hospital.

3. Not taking care of my health.

Before I got traumatized, I was a black belt in Karate and worked out six days a week. Once I was medically retired, I gained 80lbs in a year through medication and hopelessness, and I was sleeping for up to 15 hours a day.

Getting out of bed to brush my teeth took Herculean effort. What did I have to get up for? All I could see in front of me were hours of pain before I was able to go back to bed for the bliss of oblivion.

While asleep, I'd often have nightmares, but there were times when I didn't dream at all. Those were the only times I wasn't in pain, and that was better than being awake.

4. Isolating.

I saw other people as dangerous. My friends were all police officers, but now I couldn't stand even seeing one without an onslaught of depression, flashbacks, and sadness.

The police helped in my isolation. When I was medically retired, only one officer ever contacted me.

I'd seen what happened when an officer was physically injured. The entire police force supported them. They'd set up fundraisers and visit them with gifts. Nothing was too much trouble.

Yet, when it came to mental health, they didn't want to know. Maybe they were scared it could happen to them. Perhaps they thought I was faking my symptoms, or maybe they didn't care. I've already said they began to see me as a liability, so they were probably glad to see the back of me.

I appreciated the one officer who would call me every week. But the phone calls were fraught with pain. We'd always reminisce about the good old days, and I'd be left pining for my old, important self.

There's only so many times you can turn someone down when they ask to meet up, and eventually, my friend stopped calling. I was glad in one respect, but it compounded my isolation.

Apart from my immediate family, I'd left myself with no one.

5. Alcohol abuse.

In the early days of my PTSD I was still working. We did a six-shift on and then four days off rota. My four days off were a chance for me to numb my pain with alcohol.

I reasoned that I couldn't possibly be an alcoholic because I never drank during work days and only drank when I was out with my friend (the one friend who'd later stop calling me).

Many nights ended with me semi-conscious in an alleyway, covered in vomit. I was lucky not to get mugged or worse.

There was one night when I knew I needed to change. I was in a club, beyond drunk, and I started hallucinating that everyone had lost their heads. I shouted for my friend and ran for the exit, barging past apparently headless people.

As my hallucination died down, I realized I couldn't carry on like this. I'd started drinking to medicate my pain, but the next day I always felt worse. Now, alcohol was becoming a problem in its own right. My answers weren't at the bottom of a bottle, and I was losing myself.

It was only when I was medically retired from the police and wasn't subjected to any further trauma that I realized I had to change my behaviors. Instead of helping myself, I'd spent years making everything worse. I needed to change, or my life would be unbearable forever.

Who did I want to be?

I'd always imagined myself to be a police officer. I thought I could handle anything, yet here I was, broken and without purpose. I needed to rebuild myself from the ground up.

I had to envision who I wanted to become. I didn't want to be angry anymore, so I cut out drinking. When I could feel the tension rising, I put space between me and the stressor. Usually, that took the form of a walk. By the time I returned, I'd had a chance to calm down, and nothing was said that I couldn't take back.

My mum often accompanied me on my walks, and we'd talk about anything bothering me. She'd listen and reassure me. I knew I could trust her, and I solved many of my issues on those walks by having someone I could confide in.

I began to realize that one incident doesn't define me. My brain may have been stuck on that one night, but I also had decades of primarily good memories I could recall. I had fantastic family holidays, Christmas, and all the times I could help others. I'm more than this one tragedy.

In my quest for a new purpose, I discovered writing on the internet. I hadn't written since university, and I had no idea if I'd like it or be any good.

I wrote an article and published it. Something stirred within me. The next day, I wrote another, then another. Looking back, I cringe at how bad they were, but I kept going.

I wrote about everything: my bullying, my trauma, and my struggle with schizophrenia. I bled on the page. Nothing was off limits. Writing started to clear my head. I was able to lay old demons to rest. Then, the most amazing thing happened.

People started contacting me to tell me I'd helped them. I felt a satisfaction beyond my wildest dreams. I never imagined a single person would read my work.

Three years later, I'm still writing. I have a clear mind and a purpose in life. I wake up each day happy to be alive. Using my pain to help others ensures my suffering wasn't wasted.

Writing has been the best therapy I've ever had.

Ask yourself the same question: Who do you want to be?

Brave Talk Bulletin

Former police officer 🚔 | Suicide hotline volunteer 📞 | PTSD survivor 💪 | Helping others navigate tough conversations with empathy and clarity 💬

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