My abyss – Bearded Cop & Mental Health

“If you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you” (Nietzsche).

Although Nietzsche’s words about the abyss can be linked to many aspects in life, I find this particularly relevant to a symptom of my Depression and PTSD; a void of emotion. In other words, my abyss is when I can’t feel any emotion, whether good or bad. I can think and analyze, but without emotion it feels as though I’m a third party observer as my life passes by. This state of numbness can last for a couple of hours, days or even a week. Oh sure, I can fake it by putting on a smile here and there, but my wife and friends know when somethings not quite right. How did I fall into this abyss?

As a cop, I’ve intervened during various situations, some more stressful than others. Let’s face it, people don’t call police because they are in a great mood, looking for a high-five and/or a hug. We are called when things go wrong; deaths, suicides, murders, assaults, collisions, disputes; the list goes on. During these interventions, it is normal, even expected, for officers to have their emotions in check. The stereotype of the adrenaline-seeking cop who fears nothing is out there. If you watch cop movies the focus is often placed heavily on the badge and policing, not the human behind it. When watching the news, think about the emotions that come to you while hearing about a sexual assault, a homicide or a fatal collision. Now imagine the emotions that the first responders to those “headlines” felt. The cop you see on TV collecting statements, standing in the middle of a homicide scene or arresting a suspect is processing some strong emotions. Sometimes they aren’t even conscious that these emotions have been felt; which was the case for me.

My friends often tell me, “I don’t know how you do it.” My answer used to be, “I do it because it’s my job.” That being said, before my mental health diagnosis, I had never really taken the time to really analyse “how I do it.” Therapy and meditation has helped me see this in a new light. Going to stressful calls, I became efficient at shutting off my emotions. “Put your game-face on!” This is a natural psychological defence mechanism I used when faced with a stressful situation. It is a good thing because it allows me to do my job effectively as an officer. I was wrong when I believed I had shut off my emotions off during these calls. I know now, that during high stress situations, I feel a plethora of emotions including fear, anxiety, anger, sadness happiness; to name a few. You see, as an officer I have become so efficient at suppressing these emotions, that they don’t stay in my consciousness long enough to be recognized.  The suppressing of emotions is further complicated by my PTSD, which I used to avoid (and still do) any negative emotion experienced during triggering moments. Those emotions didn’t just disappear. They re-surfaced at home.

Guess what? When you start to suppress negative emotions, you also unknowingly start to suppress positive emotions (Brillon, 2013). Overtime falling into the abyss of numbness. Of all my symptoms, this is the one that bothers me the most because I feel like I’ve missed out on enjoying so many things, like the birth of my daughters. When in this state of numbness, the only things that gets me feeling again were:

  • Loud angry music during an adrenaline filled workout.
  • Getting a tattoo.
  • The nicotine rush from chewing tobacco.

I used the past tense, “were”, when describing these because, with therapy, I am starting to gain some tools to help me get back into a state of feeling, such as mindfulness. What has kept me going all these years is the camaraderie between fellow officers and the unofficial debriefs of stressful calls over coffee or at a pub at the end of the week. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some stellar colleagues and friends who are always there to listen and chat about what we’ve gone through. This underlines the power of conversation and the importance of erasing the stigma around mental health.

Although there is a long road ahead, I am confident that one day, I will be back, smiling underneath my beard.

Beard on!

Your Bearded Cop

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