Street cops have a level of emotional numbness that surpasses any profession I can think of. There is the added dilemma of taboos that plague any progress in the acceptance of mental illness, specifically long term PTSD, within police culture itself. The hardline issues that block this progress need to be addressed with honesty and bravery.
In this blog entry entitled “Rupture”, I describe a radio-call which involved a victim of a stabbing. I parallel two intertwined moments and force myself to realize how unhealthy our tendency to numb emotions actually is.
This will be a 4-part series. I’ll post one chapter a day beginning Monday May 25th. As always, I will follow-up with methods of coping that have helped me in the past. Looking forward to your feedback.
Chapter 1: Heroic Hands
The day went from zero to holy-shit in just under 3-seconds.
“Where’s he bleeding from?!”
“Right there! Right there! On his side! There’s a lot of blood. Put pressure!”
“We need a towel. Or a shirt. Or some-“
“There’s no time! Hold it with your hand!”
“Ok. Ok. Got it! Where else? Señor, ?Donde mas estas herido?”
The older Hispanic man was calm. He was on his knees. He was still conscious but a glaze owned his face. For half a second, it was that glazed look that caught my attention. Like a moment in time when that look of disbelief seizes a grieving person’s face the second they hear of the tragic news for the very first time…just before the tears.
It shined a majestic, flawless white.
Juxtaposed against the sharp bright red that drenched his shirt, the blood stains could not help but punctuate the opaqueness of his eyes and that glaze…
…that glaze that owned his face.
“Ok. Ok. Got it! Where else? Señor, ?Donde mas estas herido?”
“No se.”, shrugged the old man.
“Got it. He’s got a good one on his chest. Fuck. He’s got more on his upper back!”
The cop placed one hand on the old man’s chest wound and one hand on his back where it looked like most of the blood was spurting from. She stood there hunched over the old man as he kneeled. She sandwiched his body into place with her small but heroic hands.
Exsanguination and shock will take a person’s life faster than any street copper can control. But these two officers controlled both without batting an eye.
Paramedics arrived at scene. They began wrapping the old man’s wounds with gauze. The coppers took a step back. Their gloved hands carefully hovered away from their bodies. It’s expensive to clean blood off of those wool uniforms.
As the paramedics asked the old man questions, his eyes rolled back and he began to convulse.
The race to the ER was on.
Chapter-2: The Golden Sands of Hawaii
I walked into the emergency room. Like a scene from ER, smock-clad medical personnel buzzed around the old man while they sang cadences of medical jargon to each other, only to be answered with equally unintelligible medical jargon responses. My partner and I stood by and watched with one purpose in mind…the “Dying Declaration”. In the background, Fire Department medics sprayed down their boards. They were as relaxed as two surfer dudes waxing their surfboards on the golden sands of Hawaii.
I found myself in a stare and in a daydream. I was suddenly in this gaze.
My eyes transfixed on the perfectly tuned orchestra of the medical staff. They prod his open wounds. They clamored silver prongs onto silver pans. They whipped blood filled tubes over each other as they danced around the red streaky floor.
My eyes were open but my mind was gone. Why not join the two surfer dudes on those Hawaiian golden sands? Even if it was for a quick mental escape.
I recalled a short trip to Hawaii years back. It was a destination wedding. I took my first surfing lessons there and I caught every wave. My body wasn’t used to working those muscles and I tired fast. But I kept paddling back into the ocean. Smiling each time and in awe of how warm the waters were. I wish I would have taken more-
“Pictures”, my partner inquired. “Did we take pictures?”
I blinked my way back into that emergency room.
We didn’t check out a camera from our equipment room that day so I lifted the flap to my uniform breast pocket and removed my cell phone.
“I’ll just use my phone and email them to the primary unit.”
My partner shrugged an approval and we went into the old man’s room. By this time the chaos had subsided. The old man was conscious. His adult daughter was by his side. He proceeded to tell us the story of a fender-bender and a crazed man with a knife. He couldn’t thank us enough. His sincerity was apparent and despite being “critical but stable”, he was optimistic.
We took photos of his wounds for the report. We explained the police process. Then we left. As we walked out I closed the hospital curtain behind me. I caught the tail end of his daughter, who had been surprisingly calm during the whole thing, finally break down in helpless tears. It must be tough to see your elderly father like that and not be able to help him.
Whatever. I still had radio calls and reports to tend to.
The photos of the gashes on the old man were some of the most gnarly cuts I’ve seen on a living human. The skin bore a clean cut. Not jagged or torn. This meant the knife was sharp. His exposed human meat bulged out of each cut like a peeled grape, shiny and taught. The center of each cut cradled a dark, dark red.
I never knew black blood existed.
A cream-colored texture spilt out from within his body. It was like beads or, kind of like a centipede. I wasn’t sure if it was his intestines or if it was simply body fat.
I stared at the old man’s wounds. Each collective wound stared right back at me. As we got into our police car I canted the cell phone towards my partner. She grabbed my phone and began swiping left. She stared intently at the wounds. And each wound stared right back at her.
“Man, I had one over on Normandie Ave where this guy’s intestines were on his lap.”
“Yeah I had one where this chick’s nose and ears were cut off by a jealous ex husband. She was in shock staring in the mirror.”
My partner and I exchanged old patrol war-stories which involved stabbings. We spoke about them just as normal people exchange passing pleasantries in office building hallways on their way to wherever they are going. As we did I sent the images to the primary investigative officers. <Nice ones> was the text back. I smirked and drove out of the ER parking lot to head back to “The Barn”.
As we drove out, my brother texted me. We had a quick text conversation while waiting on the old man’s prognosis and I had mentioned I was near his place. He was also passing by the area and I had him meet me, just to say hello.
We exchanged a little back-and-forth from our cars. He asked why we were so far from our jurisdiction. I excitedly told him about the stabbing investigation we were involved in. Without a thought I whipped out my cell phone and pointed the pictures of the wounds to him.
I was giddy. A smirk shone on my face. As if…proud. Proud of what? I don’t know.
My brother on the other hand, he looked away. He looked down and to the right to be exact. He shook his head and puffed his cheeks in an exhale of disgust. He furled his brow and said, “Yeah. That’s why I can’t do your job. That just made me sick to my stomach.”
I chuckled and retorted with an insensitive, “Aw, c’mon.”
We said our goodbyes and I drove off into the city in our police car…
Proud of what?
I don’t know.
Chapter 3: Completely Numb
I sat reclined on the dentist chair. Mouth agape. By the time the third syringe went into my mouth I no longer felt the sting of the shots.
“Go ahead. Rinse and spit. I’ll be back in a few and we’ll get started.”
He stepped on the button and my chair buzzed back in place. I leaned forward to spit in that little dentist sink with the running spout, the one with the little cute water vortex. As I did I felt the spit land on my chin. I looked down and wiped left to right with the back of my right hand. I noticed my spittle slurped from my bottom lip, down my chin and onto my blue bib.
I chuckled to myself and grabbed a tissue paper from a box that was attached to the sink. I wiped it all clean. As I passed the napkin over my bottom lip it felt so weird.
I puckered my lips and protruded my lower lip further out. My eyes crossed towards my nose in an attempt to look at it. I slowly tapped my bottom lip with my finger. Yep…
The dentist went to work on my molars. Gnarly metal tools that looked like medieval torture contraptions went into my mouth sterile and clean, but they came out angry and bloody. The sounds of scraping and cracking of those tools onto my teeth echoed from my mouth into my eardrums. The drilling and crunching rattled my skull. All the while my pain was nonexistent. I was…
I cant imagine what it would feel like to go through this procedure without any Novocain. I shudder to think about even the possibility of it. Each extraction would be an excruciating experience of gum-cutting & bone-crushing. The numbness from the drug saved me from going completely mad from the pain. And I was thankful for it. I was thankful for being…
“We’re all done. Rinse and Spit.”
As he inclined my chair I couldn’t help but to remember that time I canted my phone in my brother’s direction.
I leaned forward and spit as best I could into that little cute water vortex. It was a lot more phlegmy this time, with a lot more blood. It landed in the sink and elongated as it slowly spiraled around and around into the drain. I simply stared inside the sink. Mesmerized.
I didn’t feel any of the violent procedure the dentist had just performed inside of my mouth. But I knew what was happening. Just like I didn’t feel any of the normal disgust from seeing that old man’s wounds from the stabbing we witnessed. We didn’t cringe. We didn’t hesitate. We actually stared and excitedly recalled worse stories of stab victims from our police life memory banks.
At that moment is when I realized…
My brother did not have the police-Novocain injected in him like we did from years on the streets. He felt every second of that glimpse at the image on my phone just as I would have felt every second of that tooth extraction without any Novocain. He puffed his cheeks and furled his brow and got sick to his stomach.
As I stared into that sink I realized something. My brother’s reaction was a normal reaction. My reaction was the abnormal reaction. It’s as if my brain is turned around, twisted and…
Chapter 4: Realize. Accept. Progress.
Collectively as a culture and personally through the years I have, along with fellow Blue-suiters around the country, experienced many sad encounters.
A dead infant with blue lips. She seemed to stare back at me. The last breath of a man, victim of a gunshot, as his eyes remained open but lifeless. He was definitely staring back at me. An old lady, small and fragile, with two black-eyes caused by a young violent thief. Bruises on a young child who, despite the abuse, carried a sincere warm smile on his face. The roar of agony that comes from deep within a person when a death notification is made. The suppressed rage that boils inside of you when a handcuffed person spits on your face.
Did you feel it?
Did you feel any emotion when reading these experiences? Assuming you did, I am happy you were able to feel it. You see, cops don’t feel. If a cop showed emotion when responding to these type of radio calls, they would make the situation worse! Forget the fact that cops don’t show emotion, they actually don’t even feel emotion. In the long run, that is a big, big problem. The problem comes when your common copper is never allowed to feel these emotions.
I remember in the academy being told how we should talk about work with our spouses and loved ones. But who wants to go home to dinner and talk about this kind of work?
“Hey hunny. Today I took a 5-year old for photos. His behind was ripped from two years of continued rape from his older brother. He thought the pain was normal. How was your day?” Who wants to tell that story to their family or friends when they get home?
So with any incident a copper faces, the emotions are buried in a series of steps. From the point of contact, throughout the shift, to dinner with family and to bed, these emotions remain inside the heart of every copper. It repeats itself daily, weekly and monthly. After 5, 10, 15, 20-years of this emotional build up, the consequences can be catastrophic, to say the least.
Stroke. Alcoholism. Domestic Abuse. DUI’s. Weight gain. Depression. High blood pressure. Anger problems. Anxiety. Nightmares. Suicide.
These long term consequences are way too common in this profession. These consequences are also completely preventable and treatable. The resources available are abundant now. This is great progress. However, it has not always been this way. This blockade lies within the taboos in the police culture itself. This blockade makes all of those wonderful resources practically non existent.
That has to change. It can only happen with brave leadership. The kind that defies politics. Unfortunately they are few and far between these days.
I believe the first step in creating change is to obliterate the idea that mental illness is such a horrible concept. Then we need to accept that mental illness is not an avoidable consequence in police work. We need to be aware of the signs that lead to these deadly consequences. Then a system needs to be put in place to monitor the signs as they surface early in a cop’s career. Treatment would follow along with a methodological tracking procedure in order to improve the overall health of law enforcement personnel.
Naturally we suppress and hide. We don’t do it on purpose. It’s a slow process. Eventually the dark truth slowly creeps into our lives.
We have to accept the truth of who we are. We have to sincerely and wholeheartedly embrace the fact that mental illnesses kills people in our profession regularly. We cannot progress until we enlighten ourselves with the knowledge of mental illness. We cannot progress until mental illness is no longer a four-letter-word. We cannot progress without realizing that our actions on the streets, which are deeply woven with good intentions, have always caused our souls to be…
Chapter 5: The Sum Up & How I Have Off-Set the Numbing
As a young cop, I’ve always heard how jaded and warped our copper minds can be. Cracking jokes at the scene of a hanging body. Or perhaps as we held a crime scene to a recently murdered Mr. Anonymous.
I was made aware of this phenomenon from an early point in my career. We find humor in the macabre as a coping mechanism. It’s an accepted norm of our profession. I mean, what copper is going to complain about cops joking in the police stations?
You can’t do that.
Any sign of weakness will bring junior high school style ridicule in the form of hallway whispers. That ridicule would come mostly from coppers who are ignorantly jaded themselves. I use the word “ignorantly” because it is the most outspoken coppers who are supremely unaware of the psychological scars they carry with them, yet they seem to be the most influential when it comes to solidifying these walls that make communication and healing more difficult.
Most coppers would never take their work boots home with them. Can you blame them? With all of the cooties they step into? Blood. Semen. Crap. But no matter how hard we try, we can’t remove our brains and memories like we do our shoes when we walk into our homes.
It is who we become.
A protective shell of numbness. A shell that hardens over the years. A shell that has the potential to one day become our very own hell.
It is who we become.
After 16-years of patrol, I feel it manifest within myself and I see it manifest in my partners. Furthermore, the National statistics do not lie.
Altering my Perspectives Through Writing
Writing has been a savior for me well before I became a police officer. It came easy to me and it allowed me to vent in an important way. I did not realize how important that writing was for me until years later when I looked back at my own writings.
I wrote a blog back in 2011. It was geared towards my family and friends who were not familiar with law enforcement. I look back at it and can see exactly how I have evolved, for better or for worse.
When I write today, I helps me with keeping the proper perspectives. Writing keeps me from holding in emotions I did not know where even there. Over time, writing has helped me accept the realities of my profession. Accepting things that are out of your control is crucial in maintaining a healthy and level mental state.
As I continue to build this blog, I will dive into helping others release their stressors and tensions through writing. I will host writing projects, contests and sharing forums. I will attempt to teach writing methods and build confidence within every potential writer out there.
If you’ve ever thought about writing but don’t think you are good enough, or if you have always written stuff but are to embarrassed to share with others, I completely understand. Take that first step. Keep writing. It can save your life…or someone else’s.
If you know anyone or if you would like to share any of your writings on this blog or with me personally, please reach out to me: TomLudlow@BurdenBeyondTheBadge.com
“You can always edit a bad page You can’t edit a blank page.”-Jodi Picoult