Every officer is vulnerable to potentially experiencing severe distress and suffering caused by an accumulation of daily work traumas. With increased understanding of the nature of trauma, support and effective wellness mechanisms within police agencies, officers (and dispatchers) can heal and ultimately experience post-traumatic growth — recovery and positive transformation after experiencing trauma.
I could never have made it without the people who cared for and helped me — the kind and compassionate fellow officers who came to my aid.
Sergeant Tim Purdy (La Mesa, CA): A career of trauma
During Tim Purdy’s 12 years as a patrol and SWAT officer, he had experienced not only the slow drip of daily work traumas, but also several significant critical incidents.
Then the critical incident occurred that caused Purdy’s entire life to slowly spiral out of control. Officers responded in the middle of the night to frantic calls of a man chasing his wife and two children through the neighborhood with a shotgun, threatening to kill them.
When Purdy and the other officers confronted the gunman, he racked a round into his shotgun and pointed it directly at the officers, who all fired multiple rounds, killing the man instantly.
The trauma of that night, along with all the other traumas of the past 12 years, significantly injured Purdy’s brain and its ability to function normally. Over the next few months, he became increasingly distant, isolated and depressed. Eventually he became emotionally dead inside, unable to feel much of anything other than anxiety, panic and depression. He became tormented by uncontrollable emotions and terribly distressing intrusive thoughts and images. His marriage began to deteriorate.
Then the day after Christmas, Purdy arrived home from work and discovered his wife had moved out of the house without any notice. He had already experienced suicidal thoughts, and this shock literally brought him to his knees.
In his great grief and hopeless despair, all Purdy could think about was ending his life. He couldn’t see any path forward to recover and heal, and he had no idea what to do in that moment. He was distraught over all that he could have and should have done before he reached this desperate and hopeless place.
However, in that worst moment of his life, Purdy realized that killing himself would only result in others suffering his loss. He courageously called a peer support officer from his agency. That officer, who was off duty, came to his house within 20 minutes and spent the night with him. That selfless gesture of compassion literally saved Purdy’s life.
Purdy continued to struggle and eventually sought help from a trauma professional. Peer
support officers routinely continued to check in with Purdy and offer their comfort and support.
Purdy’s agency sent him to a trauma professional who was certified in eye movement desensitization and reprocessing, or EMDR. There are EMDR trauma professionals in nearly every community throughout the country and they are specialists in trauma recovery and healing (see emdria.org for more information).
In Purdy’s own words: “This was one of the best gifts I have ever been given. It was an incredible, lifesaving experience. In just a few sessions over a relatively short period of time, EMDR helped me to finally heal from my severe and debilitating internal injuries, which had plagued me for over three years. It helped me to get unstuck, to reboot my brain and to disassociate myself from all the horrible thoughts and emotions attached to my trauma experience memories, so that I could once again be normal and have my mind function properly.
“EMDR enabled me to file away in my mind a lot of things and to put them into their proper perspective so that they no longer crippled me. I didn’t forget the memories, but I can now think about them and talk about them without suffering any negative or debilitating effects.
“Eventually, I was fully back to loving my life again. I could never have made it without the people who cared for and helped me — the kind and compassionate fellow officers who came to my aid. The department’s peer support team and our police psychologist saved me, and I was once again able to stand up and love the amazing thing we call life.
“The most important thing I learned is that without good, caring people who will stop and offer emotional support for someone in a time of hurt or loss, the world would have many more terrible tragedies, suicides and desperate people. I am living proof of that.
“You can heal from trauma with treatments such as EMDR and with the caring help and support from others. You can be that lifesaving support for the brothers and sisters you serve with. You do not have to suffer endlessly.
“Post-traumatic stress injuries do not just go away with time unless you do something helpful to recover. Reach out, get help and find ways to regain your life. There was that time when I thought it impossible for life to get better. I love life and work now more than ever. So can you.”
Questions to enhance your survival
How familiar are you with the resources available to you through your agency, peer support, chaplain, EAP and community? Does your life partner know of these resources as well?
Talk with someone in your wellness unit or on your peer support team, or someone in a position to know, regarding all the resources available to you and your loved ones. Make a list of these resources and make a plan with your partner for how to use them when needed.
When an officer has hope, they have everything. Police agencies’ mechanisms for wellness and recovery, peer support teams, chaplains and caring support from managers and colleagues can provide that hope. There are effective ways to recover and heal from trauma if we, as leaders, help show the way.