Triggers

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. 

Where it all began. And ended.

Introduction.

Around May 2019, after 23 years police service, the last eight of that being a detective in Child Abuse Investigation, I found myself sitting opposite a counsellor who, despite living up to my expectations of being hippy-lite could still swear like a sailor. I’d already broken down in front of my Occupational Health Doctor in spectacular fashion, snot and tears overwhelming the single tissue that she’d passed me from the desk. Typically, and with epic and well practiced self delusion, I tried to tell her that in fact I was okay and with a few days off I’d be good to go. The doctor raised her eyes and with a kindly, patient, but slightly exasperated tone I suspect she often used for disintegrating police officers said, “Glen, you are very, very unwell. You have severe, she emphasised , PTSD, depression and anxiety. I don’t think that you will able to investigate Child Abuse for a very long time, if at all, and being a detective, I feel, will be too much for you too.  It will be too much for your anxiety to deal with. You need to think about doing something else.”

Forward a few months and hippy counsellor is trying to persuade me that my “man up, crack on, keep up or move aside” persona is killing me. She says it’s an act, albeit a sub conscious one at times, and with the mini biography I’ve given her is utterly typical of people from my background. Military family, strict military boarding school, divorced parents, poor parental relations, long emergency services career, multiple bereavements including a father who died ravaged by cancer whilst living abroad leaving me with a legal estate needing time and money to sort out and the guilt of telling him he’d been a poor granddad and a worse father just before his cancer symptoms hit without any mercy or dignity.

Hippy counsellor is of course right. Inside I’m dying. What I described to my GP as feeling constantly sad, is of course, depression. Sometimes getting out of bed  is only accomplished by 30 odd years of imposed and ingrained self discipline. I half joke to her that if I die in my sleep I’d still be at work on time, it’s what I expect of myself and I know that “they” also expect it too. ‘They” are the children who, in recent months, wake me up and stop me sleeping, reproaching me for not trying hard enough, for not caring enough. The ones who I saw dead, the ones who I know, despite the best efforts of “the professionals” are doomed to a childhood teetering just on the right side of what is deemed “adequate.”

 The real killer though is I feel guilty for not feeling guilty enough. The sudden infant deaths I attended never had much of an impact on me. Nature is cruel and arbritary and I consoled myself with that. But all the other things I saw; the dead people, the dying people, the badly injured and the grief stricken, for years when I went home I put them in the mental box and shut the lid. I honestly thought that I was fine and it didn’t affect me.  But now, unbidden and unexpectedly, the lid keeps popping open. At night, at dinner, when I’m driving and even when I’m enjoying myself and life seems okay. When the lid lifts it takes my breath away and dumps adrenaline in my system so I get the stomach lurch you get when thinking of that embarrassing, mortifying thing you did at the party, the lurch you get when you wake up and you know you have the most important exam of life THAT morning. It’s exhausting and can leave me gasping. It saps my energy, enthusiasm and patience.

The anxiety I feel isn’t seen by other people. Professionally, I’m probably at my peak. My annual reviews consistently state I’m performing beyond expectations, I’m a tutor, training others to be detectives, I’ve begun to deliver training sessions on the investigation of Child Abuse to others at Headquarters, and with one or two others I’m seen as a safe pair of hands to give complex, difficult jobs too.  I take pride in being professional and not bringing my personal life to work, not like the ones who are in and out the sergeants office with their crises and issues. And I always say yes to whatever is asked of me, and I keep volunteering to do more. I know now what I didn’t  know then ,that what I have is what they term High Functioning Anxiety and I’m at the point where it’s all come crashing down. 

The flashbacks, to three incidents in particular, are vicious, corrosive and terrifying. The terror comes not just from what I see and feel but also that they come, like the anxiety attacks, unexpectedly and without warning. Sometimes there are a triggers, sometimes not. Watching a good film. Flashback, In bed reading. Flashback. Sunny, raining, running, working, alone, in company. They come and I see my nightmares without the comfort of knowing that now I’m awake and they weren’t real. Mine were. Are.

The crash came when I was asked to deliver the news to a relative that a child had committed suicide. In the past I’d have done it without too much thought, I was always too much the professional, telling myself that it had to be done and that I was the one chosen, and choosing ,to do it. There was pride in my resilience and my role. “I couldn’t do what you do” other police officers would tell us and I’d take it as a back handed compliment. But today I couldn’t do it. I knew that I didn’t have the emotional energy to do it or to recover and that scared me.  I was empty; utterly utterly spent and all I could do was make up a crap excuse and flee leaving my colleagues to do what I should be doing.

The next day my supervisor asked what had happened. I suspect, know now, he regrets how he asked and what he said next because I flew back at him, attack being the best form of defence, before I just decided, there and then, I’d had enough, realised that I couldn’t do it any more, that I didn’t want to do it anymore. I felt like that animal chased by the lion that just seems to give up and just lies down. I began to cry. Me cry! Crying was weak, pointless, not what we do but I couldn’t help it and I didn’t want to stop because I knew, knew life wasn’t going to be the same again and I didn’t want it to be because I was broken.

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