Some time ago, I attended a mandatory mental health briefing with my Gang Task Force officers. Approximately 60 other officers and dispatchers were present. The speaker was a nurse practitioner who specialized in mental health care. During the briefing, she presented a PowerPoint slide that listed six items. She said, “If you have experienced any two of these six symptoms for more than two weeks, you are clinically depressed.”
Those symptoms were:
–Feeling sad or having a depressed mood
–Loss of interest or pleasure in activities once enjoyed
–Trouble sleeping or sleeping too much
–Feeling worthless or guilty
–Difficulty thinking, concentrating or making decisions
–Ruminating (dwelling on negative thoughts; flashbacks)
I scanned the symptoms and realized I had experienced not just two, but all six symptoms for much longer than two weeks.
Something happened to me at that moment that I know now to be the beginning of a panic attack. My heart rate increased and would not slow down regardless of my attempts to calm myself. I was still functional, but I knew something was wrong.
I went home for the weekend and the anxiety began to increase. My family was out of town, so I was spending the weekend alone. Not good! I felt a shock go down my spine the moment I realized I would be home by myself.
Crying for long periods of time was the only thing that brought some relief. The first two nights were sleepless. When I closed my eyes in an attempt to rest, I saw flashing lights behind my eyelids—this happened all night long. By the time Sunday arrived, I noticed I couldn’t concentrate long enough to read a full sentence in the local newspaper.
It was like my brain was out of gas.
I was scared. I kept asking myself what in the world was wrong with me.
As the week went on, a deep depression came over me. I didn’t have the emotional energy to talk with anyone. In fact, I thought everyone hated me. It felt like my heart was being crushed in a vice. I became obsessed with every mistake and mishap that had occurred under my command.
My self-esteem was gone. I just sat in a chair at home and stared into space. I could barely watch the television because any stimulus would send me into a panic attack, which led to more depression. There was no buffer between the lowest amount of stress and my brain. I equate the level of sensitivity my brain was experiencing to that of pouring saltwater on a road rash.
The depression became deeper and darker. I never made a plan to hurt myself, but I had involuntary visions of me sitting on the toilet with my handgun in my mouth. I had a sick envy for the now-dead actors I viewed while watching old television shows on TV Land. Why? Because they were no longer suffering, and death would bring an end to this nightmare. It was tortuous and unrelenting. After 20 years in law enforcement – 16 years in SWAT and four years on the Gang Task Force – this was the most frightening and painful thing I had ever experienced.
However, my greatest hurdle during this time was my own shame. I was too ashamed to reach out for help because I was “mentally ill”.
It was not until after I was half-jokingly threatened with a beating by my pastor and mentor, Dr. Tom Rodgers, that I finally sought medical attention. Tom helped me realize that I had sustained an injury to my brain due to the high level of stress at which it consistently operated for the last 20 years. I finally accepted that my brain, like my abnormal thyroid, needed medicine to heal and operate normally again.
I eventually visited a psychiatrist and received the care I desperately needed. She prescribed a good anti-depressant, which I have taken now for six years. I began to experience some normalcy again.
However, it’s a long and slow process to full healing. I still struggled on and off for the first two years. I routinely visited the doctor every three months. During these visits, she checked on me and the effects of the medication because I had an adverse reaction to the first anti-depressant that she had prescribed. I’m now at a place where I only need to visit the doctor every six months.
During the span of my anxiety and depression, my body weight had reduced to 174 lbs., lighter than I was when I played football in high school. But as I began to feel better, my muscle mass increased to a healthy body weight of 220 lbs. The medicine, along with counseling, has also helped me with some unhealthy thinking disorders such as OCD and mental looping. I thank God for His promise to never leave me while I was in this dark valley, and for the doctors who took care of me.
I recently completed my 26th year of service. I’m at such a better place now—so much so that I plan to serve at least another four years.
I encourage all law enforcement professionals and others who serve in a similar capacity to be proactive in taking care of your mind. Be observant of your thoughts and sleeping habits. Also, be your brother’s or sister’s keeper by watching out for clues that they may be slipping into high anxiety/depression. Our SWAT team doctor had approached me one year before May 2013 and suggested I see his friend, who is a psychiatrist. Evidently, he saw the warning signs. I foolishly disregarded his advice and I paid deeply for it.
Please – if you begin to have symptoms, reach out for counseling or other forms of mental health care. There’s absolutely no room for shame.