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. 

7 thoughts on “Triggers

  1. An insight into a world where most of us can only imagine for a fleeting moment the trauma you have witnessed and not been able to turn your back on.
    While most of us sleep with picture book like images of your story, you see the reality in technicolour, less of a nightmare and more reliving the actual events whenever the intrusive thoughts of your mind wander.
    Thank you Glen.

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  2. Delicately put your memories of a first encounter allowed me to understand how entertaining the body can be after a sudden death. Was it a case of new boot laces and antiseptic wipes to clean the projectile vomit afterwards. 😂

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  3. I have read your blog and whilst I have a lot of empathy for anyone suffering from any mental health issue, I feel in light of the current pandemic, your views shared via The Plymouth Herald to the public, are ill timed and in poor taste. Why?

    At present we have hundreds of thousands of deaths worldwide due to covid, millions of cases worldwide and the pandemic has affected many people including myself financially and mentally. I work as a humanitarian aid worker and have seen first hand the devastating effects the pandemic has had on people. There are citizens worldwide living in deeper poverty than ever, they have lost jobs, homes and loved ones. And like you are struggling with existing mental health issues or are starting to experience them. Yet! They struggle on.

    I was disappointed to read your story in The Herald because believe it or not you are blessed more so than other people. Why and how? You live in a first world country which is rich and that can support it’s citizens through this pandemic. You also have secure employment, a comfortable policing job which at the end of, you will get an excellent pension from. Other people worldwide have nothing now in a lot of cases. Some had nothing at all before the pandemic. Yet you are blessed beyond measure and still feel ‘stresses’.

    PC Baird, I ask that you celebrate your life because compared to other people’s, it is a wonderful life. There are people who would give anything for what you have. But instead you dwell on what went wrong in your life instead of celebrating life. You are alive!!! There are people including myself who’ve lost loved ones due to cancer, covid etc And I know they would give anything to be in your shoes.

    I ask you to put your own problems aside and reach out to help those whose lives have been devastated by the pandemic. Please take time out from this blog, your own hardships and emotions and help put the world back together. There are people dying everyday, starving, homeless and worse yet here you are with a job, a good life and you have the ability to change other people’s, yet you complain about how your job has affected you?

    When you became a policeman, I am sure you were aware of what the job involved. It is stressful, traumatic and difficult. But you chose to do it. You choose to continue despite the way it has affected you. Again this is your choice. My advice would have been to leave. But you stayed anyway and I hope things work out for you. But as a member of the public you serve, your comments and history concern me. I feel concern and dismay. Nothing more.

    Before I end my message to you, I ask again that you consider reaching out during this pandemic and help out those less fortunate than you are. Also take time out to thank the Almighty God we serve for your blessings which are many. The public when reading your story see someone with a good life. Celebrate it and remember not everyone is as blessed as you are. We have 41000+ deaths in the UK due to covid and you are here, alive but still dwelling on what was. Please enjoy your life PC Glen Baird. Tomorrow is not promised to us and many people worldwide, will never see tomorrow.

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    1. Thank you for taking then time to write. I spent a little time deciding how I would respond. In the end I decided not to waste much time.

      What I will say is this:

      At the time of this pandemic there’s no better time to write about mental health, it goes hand in hand with physical health. The two are inextricably linked.

      I celebrate my life everyday, I don’t need you to tell me, uninvited to do so. You know nothing of my life so to presume to tell me how to live it is presumptuous at best and arrogant at worst. To remind a police officer that tomorrow is not promised is again arrogant and also patronising. Everyday we see both the fragility and the tenacity of life. We are often there when it ends and I have seen it at work and in my personal life.

      The thread of your message, that one shouldn’t feel despondent or down because other people are dead and it could be worse is simplistic and devoid of empathy or compassion.

      The contention that “you know what you were getting into when you joined is not actually correct.” The recruiting literature, understandably fails to mention having to watch days of video footage of children and even babies being anally, vaginally and orally gang raped whilst they cry, nor does it go into having to watch dead children having their skulls sawn off and their brains exposed whilst they still clutch a teddy bear. It doesn’t mention having to prise a decomposing baby from its mother’s arms as she weeps. I imagine the reason why they don’t, isn’t so much as that it would put people off as it would upset the people who prefer to imagine that that world doesn’t exist. The fact you say my staying in the police and dealing with these things so you, and other people don’t have to, causes you dismay causes me to reflect and be grateful I have retained my compassion, empathy and self respect.

      You say I complain about the job I do. At no point have I complained, I love the job, the people who do it and even those who demand its time. I spend more time with these people than I do my own family so often we only have each other! I merely write about the effects it has so that others, who perhaps are still struggling with those effects may feel emboldened to seek help. Such feelings are a normal response to ongoing trauma and nothing to be ashamed of. I see my colleagues in the emergency services and the military taking their lives in increasing numbers because they won’t talk to people and seek help due to attitudes like yours. I am conscious of the position I hold so , whist this blog is very much a private one, I am unable to write as honestly as I would want to do about my feelings for the attitudes you seem to endorse in your comments.

      You ask me to reach out. That is a phrase so utterly devoid of meaning I won’t even address it. What I do know is I go into work everyday and give my all to help everyone, those more, and less, fortunate than myself. You mention Almighty God, I don’t believe in one, again your telling me to thank him is more a reflection of your arrogance than considered advice. I wouldn’t presume to tell you to pay homage to yours. I do know that the teachings of most religions are ones of love, empathy, compassion, charity, grace and humility, virtues which seem to be very much lacking in your comments.

      In any case, in relation to those losses you profess to have experienced I offer you my sympathy and commiserations but again, I wouldn’t presume to tell you that you should, in relative terms, consider yourself lucky. That would be crass.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. J Mann. I started to read your latest comment but quickly realised you have resorted to personal insults rather than a reasoned argument. As such I’ve deleted your very long post before finishing it. It appears you think it reasonable and fair to shout unsolicited advice and insults at crown servants yet threatens to tell their MP when that same Crown servant has the temerity to respond reasonably. Kind Regards.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. You were more polite than they deserve or I could have been.
    They say you cannot feel distress because others are worse off, do they not celebrate the good things they have because others are better off?
    To compare their life to yours, mine or anyone else without seeing behind our eyes is the ultimate in naievity.
    I don’t blog about my life because of people like them but if I did, like people like you who are willing to put themselves out there then someone, somewhere may use it to find the courage to survive.
    I doubt they will from his / her entries.

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  5. Well said Glen. They would appear never to have heard the proverb saying that before you judge someone you should walk around in their shoes for a day. Quite apart from which, just because there are other people in “worse” situations than you doesn’t mean that you have no right to feel stressed, anxious or upset by what you are experiencing on a personal level. That is a completely specious argument.

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