In the 14th year of my law enforcement career, I walked into a murder scene comprised of the bodies of my partner and our sergeant. I eventually descended into the depths of PTSD, and found my way out with the help of a trauma counselor and my family. My 15 year old daughter recently wrote to her school counselor about a PTSD presentation at school. She eloquently illustrates that PTSD reaches beyond the first responder–we fight not only for our own health, but also for our loved ones.
Tom Mealey is a law enforcement officer currently serving in Alaska.
Dear School Counselors,
I was in Mr. Smith’s class yesterday when you were guest speaking. Your talk about PTSD was very informative and appeared to be helpful to a lot of the other kids in there. As someone who has had a lot of experience with trauma and PTSD not just myself, but having two parents with it, it was nice to hear it talked about in school, as that is one more step towards normalizing the discussion of it (which is very important.)
As I mentioned before, both of my parents have PTSD. My mother’s comes from her upbringing in an abusive home. Luckily, my mom has had lots of time to process and work through all of her trauma, so she’s been nothing but an amazing mom to us, and we haven’t seen the typical challenges of living with someone suffering from PTSD with her. My father’s, however, has been a result of his career, and has cost my family so much over the years.
My father started his career around the same time I was born. Before that, my mom has talked of him being extroverted and social, someone who would take us kids to birthday parties or the park just because. When my mom had my younger sister, we got a Wii (to keep my younger siblings and I busy while they dealt with a newborn.) He’d spend hours with us playing golf, tennis, and all the other games we had. When I was very young and we lived in Virginia, I remember him waking me up at one in the morning, driving me out to the middle of nowhere, and watching the meteor shower with me until the sun started to rise. My love of space came from my dad, who would point out constellations and show seven year-old me the moons around Jupiter through our telescope. That’s how my dad was; I knew so many other kids who didn’t have dads like him, and I knew I was lucky.
Unfortunately, the Dad I had known my whole life and grew up with, started to ebb away, and I haven’t seen him since.
He started to come home and not get up off the couch. Absorbed in his phone, he barely spoke to us anymore. It was his way of dissociating from the horrors he saw in his job. We knew this, but it didn’t make it any less difficult when the family wanted to do something together and he never wanted to participate.
It didn’t even get bad until his two friends died. They were murdered, and he had to walk over their broken, bleeding bodies, stepping in the blood of men he’d spoken to hours earlier.
He stopped talking to my mother, my siblings, myself. We went through a six month period of not knowing if our family was going to stay together. To my siblings and I, our dad was gone–at this point, he was nothing but an empty shell. He wasn’t really angry anymore, it was more than that. He had become horribly anxious and severely depressed at the same time; he couldn’t sleep and he didn’t care about much of anything anymore. The only thing he could do was his job…he poured the little energy he still had into working to make sure we could pay the rent and eat. But doing that when he was battling PTSD took everything he had and he rarely had anything left to give our family.
I remember the day he decided not to come home, the day he said that he needed space from all of us. Even though it was only for a night and he was home the next day, it wasn’t any less painful for our family. It hurt to know he had only enough resources left to go to work that day, but nothing left for us. It felt like his job was more important to him than us. Looking back I think he was so into his job because he didn’t feel like a good dad but he knew he was at least still a good cop.
My dad’s job almost took everything away from us, and even though my dad ended up seeking help and is finally here for us again, he will never be the same person he was before I was nine. The violence he’s seen, the people who’ve died, the people who have all tried to kill him…it changed him, understandably so. It took away a lot of what made him the person that he was, the person that made him my dad.
My dad’s not a soldier, and these aren’t things that have happened to him over deployment. He’s a police officer, and he continues to see all of these horrific things almost every day at work.
When I was six or seven, I sat on the floor of his room and watched him pull his bulletproof vest on. I don’t even remember him telling me what it was for, but I knew it was to keep the bad guys from being able to hurt daddy. I broke down into tears and told him I didn’t want him to die. My dad has never lied to us; he never told me he wasn’t going to die, that God would protect him, that he would be home for dinner that night. He told me, “When God decides that it’s my time to go, it’s my time to go. You don’t have to worry though, I’m going to fight with everything I have to make it back home to you every night.”
I’ve known my entire life that my dad saying goodbye to me in the morning before work could very well be my last time speaking to him. That I could have to be pulled out of school at any moment and be told that he’s either dead or dying. I plan on delivering a speech at his funeral if I ever need to. Of course, I hope to God I never have to, not until he’s old and I get to be with him on his deathbed, but that’s not the reality of his job. His co-workers were murdered because of a dispute over a couch.
This is what my family’s life is. This is how it’s always been, having a cop for a dad. In recent years, the horror, violence, and depravity that he’s seen through his job, protecting people that more often than not want him dead, has been one long, hellish crash course on what PTSD is really like.
Which is why, during your lecture, I was rather upset that the only people who were spoken to, and got to relate to what you were saying, were kids with military parents.
The 2012 National Surveillance of Police Suicide Study found the rate of suicide among law enforcement was 14 per 100 thousand. (Compared to the general population of 11 per 100 thousand.) The study, however, can’t account for the former and retired police officers who have committed suicide years after their service because of career induced trauma. How much higher would that suicide rate climb if it could?
A few months ago, my dad spoke publicly about his ordeal with trauma. In his own words, “We’re out here on a daily basis facing horrors unimaginable to most people and it’s killing us slowly. We’re not even aware of it either. I tell all the cops I can about my experience with trauma therapy, but there’s a statistical countdown to when one of my friends is going to lose the battle with his demons and take his life.”
There is very rarely a local support system for cops and their families. Many don’t even see their mental health as an issue, and those who know they have problems usually ignore them at a deadly cost to them and their loved ones.
Being a cop’s kid, I tend to put up with a lot of crap. I’m constantly reminded on social media of how much this country hates my dad, reading comments from people saying they’re glad his fallen comrades were murdered in cold blood, and how every cop is a racist, scumbag pig. When I try to relate to my peers with parents in the military, I’m often treated like I don’t know anything about what it’s like. How the only people who have PTSD and struggle are combat vets. People have had the audacity to say that I’m an “over-privileged cop’s brat.”
I am in no way trying to detract from veterans and their experiences. I’m a very strong
supporter of programs that rehabilitate veterans with PTSD. I have had friends cry in my arms because their dads are being deployed again, and I have cried with them. I’ve attended funerals in Arlington cemetery, and seen the grieving loved ones firsthand.
I understand that you work primarily with the military and their families. However, in a discussion that I should have felt right at home speaking about, since it’s been such a huge part of my life, I felt very disregarded. I didn’t raise my hand when the class was asked how many people had parents in the military, had been deployed, who had come back completely different people. My dad may not go on deployments, but he can go to work for a single day and come back completely changed forever. I didn’t get to say that I’d absolutely love to be a part of a support group with other people my age with parents in dangerous jobs, because it was for kids with military parents/parents who were deployed.
I think that that support group is an absolutely wonderful idea, and would be very beneficial to those with deployed parents, as I can’t imagine what it’s like to be completely without your parent for months at a time. Once again, I know you work primarily with the military and that you may want to continue working solely with that demographic. However, you came to our class to share your area of expertise, which is trauma. Career-based trauma affects millions of people outside of the military. The soldiers and the first responders all wear a uniform, one that is a sign of guardianship, that they will die so that we don’t have to. That they will sacrifice themselves and cause their families immense grief and suffering so that the rest of us may continue to live in a country where we are protected and free.
Police officers, firefighters, paramedics, and soldiers all do their part to serve and protect the rest of us, at great cost to themselves. They’re all fighting wars, and the ones who don’t lose their physical lives often lose pieces of themselves anyway.
They all deserve to have their struggles and sacrifices recognized, and brought to the attention of the general population. Their families deserve it, too. They are the unsung heroes of this world, working behind the scenes to make sure that the front-page heroes have the support they need to continue to defend and protect. They put up with all the night terrors, flashbacks, and episodes so that the ones with PTSD can get up the next morning and continue on with their lives.
I’m not saying this for me; in fact, I’m leaving this letter anonymous because I don’t want to make this situation sound like “I felt left out, so I’m mad,” because that’s not it at all. I’m doing this so that hopefully all the other kids in my situation can stop feeling like the experiences of them and their parents isn’t “less of a deal” than others’, because that’s what I’ve often been told. You’re an incredibly nice person with a lot of wonderful knowledge to share and people to help. Your talk about PTSD probably made a lot of kids feel as though they understood theirs, their parents, and maybe even their peers’ experiences better. I wouldn’t be surprised if it inspired some people to try and go to therapy, which is amazing!
I’m simply being an advocate for those who may not have had the courage to seek help because their experiences were disregarded by others. I believe that you have the perfect platform to tell them that this is not the truth in any way. I hope that this letter inspires you to speak more about the position that first responders are in every day, and the cost that comes to them and their loved ones.
–The Daughter of a Police Officer