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.