Post Traumatic Stress Disorder affects people in countless ways and can be triggered by any number of incidents.
I am sharing my story in any way I can to hopefully let others know that no matter what created your PTSD, you most certainly can conquer it.
Imagine being 20 years old with little life experience behind you. I left school at 17 going on to several jobs from retail to office admin until being accepted into the police force. I received basic law training such as conflict management, race and diversity etc. I was then given a uniform, a radio, a baton and some handcuffs and told to go out and uphold the queen’s peace and enforce law and order. I had no idea of what was to come.
5 weeks in, out on patrol I found myself in the middle of a large-scale disorder between two rival drug gangs. Around 15 armed youths and men, hell-bent on killing each other and anyone else who got in their way! I was okay though as I had my trusty radio, baton and uniform of justice to protect me from harm. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work like that.
I naively chased one of the suspects down a side street whilst my partner subdued another. I shouted the famous words “Stop Police” and to my surprise, he stopped, but as he did I hear a smash and looked down to see him grasping a broken bottle, he thrust towards my uncovered, unprotected neck.
Now I’ve heard people speak about time going in slow motion in moments of fear, it is true. I draw my baton knowing that I didn’t stand a chance of racking it and striking the suspect before he plunged the broken glass into my jugular. Then again, as slow as time could go I saw a stream of water shooting over my shoulder and hitting the suspect square in the eyes, causing him to drop to the floor in agony, the bottle scraped down my body armour as he fell.
I looked around to see my partner with pepper spray in hand. As the criminal is put into the van, the reality of what just happened hit me like a ton of bricks and nausea took over every part of my body.
You may be thinking, “I could handle that, that’s not enough to give you PTSD”. Well, that experience was only 5 weeks into my 8-and-a-half-year career and the worst was still to come.
The next notable incident happened around 6 months later. I’d just finished a 13-hour shift and was waiting to catch the last train home. Not having time to get changed I was wearing a jacket over my police shirt whilst still wearing my official trousers and boots. I was approached by a member of the public who clearly identified me as a police officer, frantically he claimed he needed immediate assistance as a man was attacking his wife. I followed dutifully to where a man was strangling a female against a wall. I ran over shouting “police officer” and produced my badge. The man released his grip on the woman who naturally took flight. He pursued her and I pursued him, until I got within arm’s distance, at this moment, he spun around and head-butted me, splitting my nose in two. The pain was agonising as blood exploded over my face. Naturally, by this time, adrenaline had taken over, instinct hit and I wrestled with the man until backup finally arrived. At which point, believe it or not, I felt a sudden blow to the back of my head only to look around and find his wife hitting me and the other officers screaming for us to leave him alone.
Still not quite enough right?
Fast forward a couple of years and hundreds of incidents. Some of them are too gruesome to share but a lot have body parts and death involved. Then there were the heart-wrenching times. Knocking on a door, heart pounding, palms sweating, trying to gather composure for when it opens. “Are you Mrs..? May I please come in? I’m afraid I have some terrible news..” Watching them distraught like their world has come to an end, wondering, do I hug them? Do I just sit here? Oh and don’t forget to give them the leaflet about bereavement…. Though this is just a day in the life of a police officer.
Moving forward once again. I was taking part in a routine anti-knife crime operation at a train station. A metal detector was set up inside and I was directed to stand outside looking for any turnbacks (people who approach the station, see the metal detector and walk away). I heard a shout from inside as a lad ran out of the station. I quickly give chase, we turned left, then right, then left again, across main roads for about half a mile when he tripped. My eyes lit up as I jumped on him, getting his arms behind his back and into cuffs before he knew what was happening. Then BANG, my head felt like it had been ripped off my shoulders and then a loud ringing! I fell backwards realising I had been kicked in the head by one of the lad’s 3 friends. The others joined in, stamping on my head and kicking me in the chest and groin. Every time I tried to get to my feet I was kicked back down. This all took place at a busy junction so it was only a matter of time before someone stopped to help. But wait, the passenger in the car that had just come to a standstill wound down his window and instead of offering any assistance, pulled out his phone and started filming. I had pressed my urgent assistance button and could hear the control room and officers frantically trying to get help to me. The kicks and punches kept coming, every time I lashed out with my baton it brought me a few seconds. I noticed the street lights coming on as dusk set in. I had all but given up and was close to losing consciousness when I heard “excuse me officer would you like some help”, I ignored it at first putting it down to my imagination playing tricks on me and the sheer amount of blows I had taken, when again I heard “officer I said would you like some help”. This time I looked up and saw a gentleman well into his 70s looking down at me. I must have shouted yes as no sooner had I looked up than he took his umbrella (yes umbrella) and hit one of the lads so hard around the head it’s a miracle it didn’t break. I took the chance to get up and we both stood there, he swinging his umbrella and me, my baton as the sweet sound of sirens echoed out around us. 29 minutes it took from pressing my emergency button to units arriving on the scene. That may not sound like a long time but try getting kicked in the head for that long, in absolute fear for your life and you’ll realise just how incredibly long it is.
Suicides, gangs, weapons, drugs and lost property filled the next few years until the 29th of July 2011. My assistance was requested by a female security officer on the platform of the station, he had become verbal, but I took him to the side away from his friends, gave him a dressing down to which he apologised and walked him back. Only to find one of the men in his group in the face of the security guard threatening her for being a “grass”. I approached advising the guy to calm down, he replied with a polite “F… off”. The cuffs went on and I began to lead him away. At that moment I felt him tense up and attempt to pull away, I tried to calm the situation tactically by telling him, he would probably get away with a simple warning. This seemed to do the trick as he relaxed and became compliant, or so I thought. This turned out to be the biggest mistake of my policing career. I took my eyes off the suspect for a split second stretching my hand back to grab his arm only to realise it wasn’t there. He lunged forward and struck me in the face with the handcuffs. I took hold of his arm and the cuffs intending to throw him to the floor, however from the corner of my eye I noticed a metal signal post just behind me. It was too late, my knee struck the post causing my leg to bend sideways, the man’s full weight then crushed my knee between him and the post. He continued to fight back until help arrived. My colleagues led him off as my skipper asked if I was ok and if I could get up… I couldn’t, I couldn’t feel my right leg and I instantly knew something was wrong.
My cruciate, lateral and patella ligaments were torn, I had a 3-inch break in my tibial plateau, and my femur was in 8 pieces. At the hospital, I was placed in a cast and sent off home. I cried myself to sleep that night and many nights afterwards as nightmare after nightmare terrorised me.
I was told in no uncertain terms an operation was not possible due to the fact they had nowhere to put the pins in my shattered leg. I was also told I would never return to active duty, run, or even walk without a noticeable limp. I would have arthritis within 2 years and likely need a full knee replacement within 15. I was 24 years old.
Refusing to accept this I paid privately to see the best knee surgeon in Europe who said he could not guarantee a successful operation but he would at least try. After 5 operations, 3 physio sessions a week and 1 hydrotherapy session a week, I was able to walk unaided again. I returned to office work with the force and guess what? The lad recovering from so much trauma was put on the fatalities team,(suicide investigations).
So for the next year, day in and day out it was my sole job to investigate deaths. I wouldn’t wish the sights I saw or the experiences I went through on my worst enemy! Once again, there is no way I could describe them here.
I went back to full operational duties in 2013 despite all the initial medical assessments. Unfortunately, I lost something along the way. I just didn’t have it in me anymore. I had been too strong for too long and there’s only so much someone can take. There was no way I could forget what I had seen or experienced. My past tormented me daily. I was finally diagnosed with ‘incurable’ Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in 2014, at 29 years old my life was over.
The psychiatrists and therapists came next, one after another, each time with the same diagnosis, “There is no cure for PTSD”. So I continued surviving each day, managing the symptoms, the nightmares, the flashbacks, the anxiety, the depression, the Insomnia, the hypervigilance, the negative thoughts and the numbness…. The list goes on. I couldn’t live like this, I contemplated taking my own life several times.
My family was devastated, they felt they had lost me to this terrible disorder. It was my amazing sister that took the first step that changed everything around. She wrote a letter to ITV telling them of my story and she got a reply. The daytime show that she had written to wanted to help, they interviewed me and introduced me to Eva & Nik Speakman (founder and trustee of Trauma Research UK). I was of course very sceptical, by this time I had tried everything therapy, EMDR, medication, CBT you name it and I had been there! But what had I got to lose? If I could get any relief at all, it would be a bonus.
The words that were so very poignant in the first conversation I had with Nik, and I will always remember them for as long as I live were; “You can 100 per cent get over PTSD, this has got to stop here”. For the first time, I was given hope.
My journey of recovery started with the help of The Speakmans when I started to change my perspective on the attack that caused my devastating psychological problems
I had many emotional triggers and whenever I looked back at the attack, whether by choice or by force through nightmares and flashbacks, I couldn’t comprehend what happened without those triggers. So as soon as I was taken out of the emotion and the situation was represented to me for what it was, (an attack on a police officer) and not what it felt like at the time, (a personal attack on me) the heavy weight was lifted. With Nik and Eva’s help, I came to understand that those criminals weren’t out to get me, Russ, they were attacking the uniform, something that I had always believed was my protection. I had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. With this view, everything changed and I was able to shift my outlook from victim to victor. I survived the attacks and I survived trying to take my own life.
Going back to the police force would have been difficult but I have always seen myself as a protector, someone who helps people so I moved into security and got a job with a bank as a security officer. Within three years I scooped five promotions, eventually becoming an account manager. I got married and had two children something I never thought possible and now I couldn’t be happier, it’s the small things that mean so much.
When Nik told me he was setting up a charity dedicated to identifying new therapies for trauma and anxiety-related disorders as well as offering support to those suffering, I was eager to get on board.
Being a Trustee of Trauma Research UK is an honour and I am proud to be a part of such an incredible team of people. I hope that by candidly sharing my story and the successes I have achieved since my treatment, I will be able to contribute to breaking the stigma around mental health and in doing so show that there is hope for anyone who is currently suffering.
More Reading: My PTSD a poem by Trauma Research UK’s Trustee Russell Dean