After my PTSD diagnosis and the subsequent treatment I learned about triggers. Simply put these are things that set off your symptoms. It can be a noise, smell, sight, etc or combinations thereof. I quickly learned mine and talking about them to my counsellor was painful, I mean gut wrenching, fear inducing, dragging it from the depths of your soul painful. I’d leave the sessions utterly spent, like I’d cried for a week and ran a marathon. I won’t tell you about mine yet, I’m able to manage them but even thinking about them can be painful and its not time yet.
Policing is full of triggers, not necessarily to emotions as severe as those of PTSD but certainly to memories; good, bad and funny, sometimes all three together. I have policed and lived in Plymouth for twenty years so nearly everywhere I go, on and off duty will be somewhere I’ve dealt with an incident. The bus stop I drive by daily is the place I held a man as he died when he had been run over, the hospital I go to frequently is where my children were born, my Grandparents died, where I was taken after a serious bike accident, where I sat with the parents who were holding and rocking their dead babies and where I went to invasive paediatric postmortems. The old police station, long closed, is where I sat with my friends, some here, some who aren’t with us now and laughed so hard it hurt. Two of them have taken their own lives.
Each street, pub, park and building can be a trigger to events, most have been almost forgotten, some are as clear as yesterday. Some triggers though are a little different. I was shopping today and happened to see a bottle of Cinzano. I’ve never drank the stuff and never will. Here’s why.
Not long after passing my probation I was still serving in the Metropolitan Police. My sergeant, having reluctantly decided he could trust me, was sending me to more complex incidents on my own in order to increase my confidence and skills. One day he called me into the divisional control room and told me I was to go to the local fleapit cinema and deal with a sudden death, that all encompassing term which can mean a 97 year old woman passing quietly from old age to a teenager being stabbed in the street.
This sudden death, he told me, seemed simple enough. A middle aged male collapsed on a toilet, behind a locked door, pants round his ankles, found by staff who’d looked over the cubicle wall at the end of the day. No blood or screams, probably a heart attack said the sergeant. He told me to make sure I checked the body for suspicious marks and call him if I needed help. If the guy was still alive I was to call an ambulance!
Proud that I was trusted to deal with this on my own I set off to the cinema and when I got their I was met by the concerned staff. I did my best to project an air of confidence and assumed something of a swagger which I hoped sent the message that this type of thing was all in a days work. The staff lead me to the gents toilets but stayed resolutely outside telling me that the gent was in the middle cubicle. They said he was often in the cinema on his own, always drunk but never any trouble.
I entered the toilets and saw three cubicles on my left and the urinals on the right along with basins on the far wall. So far so normal. The staff I noticed did not come in. I’d hoped they would in order to see me demonstrate the skills I’d picked up in the last two years, an audience would have been a little ego boost but no matter. I looked at the door of the middle cubicle and saw that it would opened inwards and that a two pence piece was all I needed to open the latch. I went into the first cubicle, stood on the toilet and peered over. The man, who we will call Brian, was indeed sitting on the toilet, pants around his ankles but he was partially slumped forwards, not quite touching the door. His hands were hanging to his sides and near his right hand, upright on the floor was a bottle.
It was years later that I became a detective and learned the name for what I was doing but unconsciously I began to form a working hypothesis. My working hypothesis in this instance was that Brian had gone to watch a film, had felt the call of nature and taking his bottle of alcohol with him had sat on the toilet and passed away from a heart attack or similar. We’d learned at training school that dying on the toilet was very common so so far it all seemed simple.
Conscious that I still needed to check Brians body to rule out any suspicious factors in his death I went back to the door of the middle cubicle to open it. A two pence coin was all I needed to put in a slot in the latch and with a twist the latch tuned and the door popped open and swung open just missing Brian’s head and hitting the cubicle wall. At this point things happened fast. Really fast. Brian, when he passed away must have slumped forward to a point just the right side of his centre of gravity and then stopped. My pushing the door open and it banging the cubicle door must have sent minute vibrations through the wall, into the floor and then to the toilet itself before entering Brian’s lifeless body. These tiny vibrations were enough to push Brians’s centre of gravity from right to very wrong.
Brian began to pitch forward, slowly at first and then with increasing speed. His feet must have pressed into the bottom of the toilets stand as he pivoted forwards, his head rushing towards my feet. I didn’t have time to do anything other than watch horrified. About halfway though his forward roll Brian’s stomach must have compressed, and this, aided by gravity was enough for him to eject the contents of his stomach out though his mouth with considerable force. The contents were about two litres of Cinzano. I know it was Cinzano because I saw the bottle next to him and the contents smelled of Cinzano. The large quantity of Cinzano and a small amount of food, having been ejected, shot towards me, missing most of the floor but spraying instead my boots and trouser legs, bits of food lodging in the laces. Brian gracefully landed on his forehead before rolling to one side and stopping. Looking at his face he seemed quite unconcerned and less traumatised than I was.
A small tap at the door- “Is everything okay officer?” I managed to squeak a hasty “fine” before I ran to the towel dispenser and the sink, trying to wash of Brian’s last supper. The bathroom stank: the smell of Cinzano, half digested food and disinfectant filling it as Brian continued gently emptying.
In policing, if things go wrong, its always best to be honest. I decided that should anyone ask what had happened I would tell them straight. I called the control room and asked them to have the coroners officer call me. The coroners officers were all ancient retired cops who seemed to have seen it all so when I began to describe what I’d found and what had happened he seemed utterly unconcerned. He told me he’d send the Police Surgeon to certify death followed by the undertakers. The doctor came and went very quickly not saying much other than commenting on the smell of Cinzano.
The undertakers arrived and wanting to make amends to Brian and give him a dignified final exit from the toilets I helped them turn him over so that he was on his back. Whilst one undertaker fetched the wheeled stretcher I took hold of Brians feet whilst the other undertaker took hold of his shoulders and we lifted. As I lifted, Brian again suddenly rolled, this time to his right and down, the undertaker just managing to keep a grip of him. I pitched backwards shooting towards the basins landing in a heap whilst clutching the lower part of a false leg which had separated from Brian’s still real, but now dead, thigh. The undertaker laughed. A lot. So did the other undertaker. I imagine poor old Brian would have laughed too. I didn’t, not for a while at least.
Now, not for a minute would I want to encroach on Brian’s dignity, but police work always has tragedy juxtaposed with comedy and its difficult to separate the two.
So, today, when I saw a bottle of Cinzano doing something as dull as shopping in a supermarket, it was a trigger. This time the trigger was to something that happened twenty-two years ago and which in the end didn’t cause me any sleepless nights and occasionally I tell as one of those stories you tell to other 999 workers but probably no one else. I was young, full of wonder for the adventure that is policing and still hadn’t seen the things that would later give me the sleepless nights, the nightmares when I did drop off and the sudden unbidden stomach lurches and anxiety.
When people criticise and berate us, shout at us for eating on duty, threaten to kill us and rape our children, call us bullies and cowards and accuse of us racism, nor caring about people I’d like them to know that we live everyday surrounded by triggers, triggers to nightmares that they know nothing off nor understand the damage it does to us just so we can keep you safe.
Afterword: Whist all this is true I’ve changed just enough detail about Brian and where he died so that anyone who knew him wont be able to identify him. Unlikely they’d be reading my ramblings but better safe.