Pride Kept Me from Reaching Out for Help

by James “Jimmy” Thomas
Police Officer, Shift Supervisor
Ontario, Canada Provincial Police

**very sensitive material for some readers**

As police officers, we are hired for our Type A personalities. Within the sub-culture, we can quickly believe that we are “invincible” and don’t dare show vulnerability or mental illness. Canadian statistics show that 1 in 5 of us will suffer from a mental illness in our lifetime.

Officer James Thomas

My story isn’t very different from many others in emergency services. Anyone working in the fire, medical, or policing professions will see some horrific sights in their careers. Over time, some may become affected by the jobs that they are entrusted and expected to perform. That doesn’t make them weak or less than anyone else. It makes them human and for reasons yet to be clearly proven; some will become afflicted with an Operational Stress Injury. This is my story and a plea to never allow false pride to keep you from reaching out for help if you need it.

I come from a family of police officers. My father was a police officer in Montreal and my uncle retired as a deputy chief. My brother was a police officer in Belleville. I have been around policing most of my life. I am all too familiar with the “suck it up, buttercup” attitude toward horrible scenes encountered.

On January 19, 2002, I supervised the scene and subsequent investigation of a motor vehicle collision involving the deaths of a mother, her four children, and dogs. The lone survivor and driver was the husband. He appeared to have driven his vehicle onto the roadway from the shoulder directly into the path of a transport trailer. The images of the mother and her baby thrown outside of the vehicle and the three children in the back seat of their van were burned into my memory.

Our investigative team knew that there was more to the story. Our team worked very hard in gathering evidence. I had a couple of supervisors who were putting pressure upon me to wrap the case up. It was a high-profile case and there was intense scrutiny from the public with many saying that the husband had suffered enough. He was eventually charged and convicted of dangerous driving. The judge commended our team for a thorough and detailed investigation. Nonetheless, justice was never properly served in my opinion. I started waking up every morning at 3:30 a.m. during the investigation and could not go back to sleep. My drinking and risky behaviors began to increase.

On January 19, 2004, I was assigned to establish and supervise the temporary morgue for 10 victims of the Georgian Express Air crash off of Pelee Island. I had a psychologist assigned to assist me in dealing with the families in the most appropriate way. It took over two weeks to find the bodies by the Canadian Coast Guard and Ontario Provincial Police Dive team. We convoyed the remains to a secure location for the bodies and the aircraft wreckage.

The pilot and his girlfriend were enmeshed with the cockpit and plane parts and took a significant amount of time to “recover” from the wreckage. The remaining men were hunters involved in the annual Pelee Island pheasant hunt. They were all attired in camo gear and their bodies were frozen in the positions caused by the plane’s impact into Lake Erie. It was bitterly cold that winter. I removed the bodies from the truck and handed them one by one to Fire Rescue personnel on-site. We had to wake up store owners in order to secure propane heaters to help quickly thaw the bodies out so that they could be laid prone covered up for their families to see.

As can be well imagined, the bodies were pretty disfigured and some were worse than others. The families needed some closure before the victims were transported to the Centre of Forensic Sciences in Toronto for autopsy purposes. Working in concert with the Body Removal Service, we prepared the bodies for individual family viewing. One of the victim’s brothers was adamant that he wanted to see him. Unfortunately, his brother had suffered the most impact on his skull and was severely damaged. I told this man that I had a brother as well and I would not want my last memory of him to be that image. He insisted that he wanted to see his brother’s face. Once more I cautioned him that once he saw that image, he would never forget it. Again, he insisted and I pulled the sheet back to reveal his brother’s face. The man’s face went instantly white and he stumbled back. He was clearly shaken by the experience. Little did I know that the image was also burned on my “C” drive forever as well. I hadn’t expected that to happen.

One of the hardest parts of assisting the families was hearing the wails of mothers, wives, and daughters when they were finally able to be with their loved ones. There is nothing more heart-wrenching for me than to hear the cry of a mother who has lost a child. I have heard it too many times in my career.

My drinking and abuse of prescription pills increased. I found myself becoming more short-tempered with little patience for bureaucracy and incompetence. I challenged supervisors and commanders at meetings on anything that I thought was a waste of time or impacting upon operational effectiveness. There are some aspects of the plane crash and dangerous driving incidents that I cannot discuss because of my oath and the Privacy Act. What I can say is that there were parts of those investigations that were extremely frustrating and unjust. That slowly became my trigger: injustice. I had zero tolerance for bullies to begin with, but it only magnified when faced with dictatorial supervisors. I went from a highly decorated and respected officer to malfeasance. I protected my team as often as possible and did some good work in those years, but I was tortured by the nightmares and flashbacks of those images.

In July 2006, I went overseas for 6 months and taught Iraqi police officers. My self-medicating off duty was every day now. I needed to get enough booze/drugs into me so that I could sleep at night without the damned terrors. I told myself that when I came home I was going to clean myself up once and for all and start over. The addict’s self-promise. I got drunk on the plane ride back to Toronto when returning to Canada.

The nightmares were really bad and my children took turns having to wake me up for work because of my violent reactions to being suddenly awakened. In March 2006, I entered into the Homewood Health Centre addictions program where I was first diagnosed with PTSD. After a month in rehab, I stayed another 2 months in the PTSD ward of Homewood.

I returned to work and threw myself into the job again. If I couldn’t sleep, I went to work and other officers would see me at my desk at 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning. I was being groomed to become the second in charge and had a tremendous opportunity. This was only a temporary fix because the symptoms were still very much alive and well. I relapsed under the self-imposed pressures that I put on myself and lost the opportunity. Now my anger was through the roof. I began using booze and/or pills daily.

In March 2011, I was the supervisor on the scene of a nasty suicide where a man blew the top of his head off with a .30.30 rifle. He had been looking after the home of his estranged wife who was vacationing in the states with her new lover and this man’s ex-best friend. Other officers had been to the house before for a domestic occurrence and the man was charged and all weapons removed from the home. He was placed on conditions including non-consumption of alcohol, not possessing any weapons/firearms, and staying away from his spouse and their matrimonial home.

Shortly after this incident, the man was asked by his estranged wife to watch the house and dog while she and his former best friend vacationed down south. The man’s nephew went to check on his uncle when no one had heard from him in a week. The scene was horrific. His brain and cranial matter were spread all over the bedroom into the hallway and part of an adjacent bedroom. The dog had no food or way out. I will leave the rest to your imagination. This poor dog was shaking so badly I picked him up and held him while I accompanied the coroner as he did his business. The victim was an ex-biker that I had followed around once in a while in the Intelligence unit. When I saw him that night, he was dressed in camouflage gear and it took me right back to the Georgian Express plane crash. After the scene was cleared, the home secured, the detectives had gone, and my team back out on the road, I sat in my patrol car and cried uncontrollably. Nothing made sense and the unfairness of the situation sparked an emotional breakdown. My life was a mess, and this was the end. I was being disciplined at work for inappropriate behavior. I was in an unhealthy relationship and I just didn’t want to live anymore.

At the insistence of my then-partner, I booked off sick and applied for WSIB (Workers’ Safety and Insurance Board) benefits. I was in crisis by this point and spent most of my days curled up in a ball paralyzed in my darkened bedroom. The Association was trying to get me back into Homewood and my doctor thought I should be in the local psychiatric ward until I could get back into a PTSD program. It took almost four months to get me into Homewood. I had stopped cold turkey from taking antidepressants that I had been on for many years and was living out of my truck. The whole process of being admitted, getting benefits and my pay sorted out was a nightmare. Not one of my supervisors came to see me in the almost 6 months I was in Homewood. I received a few cards from fellow officers and friends in the beginning, but that quickly waned. I felt completely abandoned as one Metro Toronto Emergency Services officer with PTSD said in an interview.

I was released from hospital in December 2011 and quickly relapsed with booze and drugs again. I absolutely detested going into work and called in sick often to facilitate my addictive behaviours.

On the morning of January 19, 2012, my partner confronted me and told me that she knew I had used the night before. I couldn’t lie to her. I was told to leave her home shortly afterward and now had absolutely nothing. No furniture, no home, no money, no family, no friends, and absolutely NO hope! A friend of mine from a recovery program reached out to me and let me stay at his home until I could find an apartment. I had never felt as low as I did at this point in my life. Now I was committed to ending my life. I was newly clean and really struggling with the PTSD symptoms.

By the grace of my Creator and the help of many, many people, January 19th now symbolizes hope and healing to me. I don’t hide from January 19th now. I celebrate it. This January, I celebrated three years of sobriety. I continue to see a neuropsychologist every two to three weeks and she has literally saved my life.

As police officers, we are hired for our Type A personalities. Within the sub-culture, we can quickly believe that we are “invincible” and don’t dare show vulnerability or mental illness. Canadian statistics show that 1 in 5 of us will suffer from a mental illness in our lifetime.

Yet as cops, we think that we are immune to that. Considering the daily bursts of stress and effects of long-term exposure that we face, I find it ironic that we believe that mental illness, and yes, that includes alcoholism/addiction, are things that only happen to the citizens that we serve.

PRIDE kept me from reaching out for help. After all, at work, I was supposed to have it all together and the same applied at home. I was very good at leading complex scenes and events and even I came to believe that I had to have the answers and control or things would get awry.

The gift of dual recovery is indescribable. I haven’t had a flashback in quite a while and the nightmares have been subsiding with the help of medication. My family is back in my life and I am active in a recovery program helping others who also help me. I tried to return to work, but after 8 months and being re-triggered a few times, my doctor instructed me to take more time off. I have just under a year until retirement and have no idea what the future holds for me but taking life a day at a time and staying present helps. I have returned to school and am in my second year of a Chemical Dependency Counselor program at my local college.

I believe that my PTSD was cumulative in nature because PRIDE kept me from seeking assistance early on. I know that my experiences on and off of the job helped to build up the internal pressure. The 2002 incident was the catalyst. The 2004 plane crash added significantly more pressure and the 2011 suicide pushed me over the edge.

The stigma associated with mental illness/PTSD continues and is particularly prominent within policing and emergency services circles. Many think that officers off on Occupational Stress are faking their injuries to avoid work and to get time off. We show more compassion to the public that we serve than we do for our peers and colleagues. I believe that PTSD is like some form of cancer. If caught early, the recovery/remission/healing rates are much higher. Untreated, PTSD is no less progressive or fatal than cancer.

In fact, in my organization, we have had 23 known suicides committed by our members while 21 were killed by perpetrators or in collisions since 1989.

These are the obvious cases of suicide. We have not been keeping formal statistics until recently at the suggestion of the Ombudsman’s report into the Ontario Provincial Police and Occupational Stress Injuries. How many others committed suicide on the “installment plan” slowly drinking/drugging themselves to death? I know of too many.

We spend millions of dollars training our people how to protect others and ourselves from physical harm, we train to respond to emergencies and re-qualify with our firearms. We have spent almost nothing on teaching ourselves proven methods and techniques to keep ourselves mentally healthy. If the “Command Post” goes, the rest of the body goes with it. Emergency Services personnel are responsible for the lives of others. If they are not totally focused and present, the public and our members are at risk. The stigma and culture have to change and it has to start within.

Thank you for the opportunity to share my experience and for your advocacy. Pride in ourselves and our organizations is healthy and important. False PRIDE kills. Please don’t become another statistic. Help is available and the sooner you reach out for it, the sooner you can heal and return to a productive and healthy life.

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