THE FOG OF IGNORANCE….What I wished I had known…
Sylvio (Syd) A Gravel, M.O.M.
Staff Sergeant (ret’d.), Ottawa Police Service,
The following has been reprinted with the permission of the author and is an extract from various sections within his book, “How to Survive PTSD and Build Peer Support”©, (Ottawa, Canada, 2013)
When I was reacting poorly to the traumatic event that set me off, I didn’t know why I was reacting the way I was and neither did anyone around me. Up until that moment I thought of myself as a fairly stable guy with some great street sense and solid character and able to work with any trauma that I saw as a police officer as I was expected to.
Why was this all happening and what made this event different compared to the so many other times I was involved in traumatic events? I subsequently found out that there was very little about the event itself that was the problem for me and more with the inner workings of my mind in reaction to the event.
My behaviour, as a reaction to the event that set me off, didn’t make any sense to me. It didn’t make any sense to my friends or family either. But it did make sense to other officers who knew me and who were also reacting the way they were to the trauma events they lived through. They understood my behaviour because they were going through the same thing to varying degrees of intensity, but even they didn’t know why – just that that was the way it was.
Over time I started to learn things about what happened and is happening to me still. In the case of understanding what happens when trauma affects you, ignorance is certainly not bliss. In fact it can slow the healing process down substantially. It can ruin also your career when your leaders are ignorant of the issues and ruin with your personal life.
Suffering through a traumatic event takes enough of a toll on a person without the fog of ignorance by yourself and all those around you added on top of that. This is where it is important for us to share what we know with others before others experience their events.
Way back when I met with my psychologist, PTSD wasn’t even recognized as existing. He likened my behaviour to what research was revealing about soldiers behaviour after returning from the Vietnam war. His constant advice to me and my fellow officer peers was that “our reactions were normal reactions to abnormal situations”. It was important to grasp that message first and foremost.
However, it then begs the question, if I am acting normally to this abnormal situation, why does it appear as though I am the only one reacting this way?
To simplify the understanding of what happened to me and happens to so many others, assume, for a moment, that we are all born with a certain amount of money invested in our mind’s mental bank account, each of us having a different amount – no two accounts the same. Every time a person gets hit with a traumatic event an amount of money is withdrawn from that inner mental bank account to help us stay grounded. We never know what the balance remaining is after each withdrawal. Then suddenly, something happens and the bank account is empty and we collapse. We didn’t see it coming, we don’t understand what is happening or why, we only know that we can’t get back on our feet. There is no money left to help us get grounded. We try to understand the event instead of focusing in on the bankrupted body-mind link, which is where we need to go to understand what is happening.
Since the late 1990’s our psychologist and psychiatrists now know much more about what is happening to the body, the mind and how to address it in relation to reactions to trauma. I share this because so many have told me that trying to return to work was the damaging point in their lives.
There is a saying I use that goes like this: “Often, it isn’t the initiating trauma that creates seemingly insurmountable pain, but the lack of support after.” (S. Kelley Harrell)
For thousands of officers and others who work so diligently every day with pride, integrity and courage at the front line, there is no greater disappointment than being subjected to corporate-led stigma or abandonment, or not being treated as part of the team but as different.
When a mind breaks, most officers hide their injury not only from their bosses and fellow officers but also from their families and friends any way they can. They sequester themselves, they disconnect and appear antisocial. Some turn to alcohol or drugs, or engage in behaviours that they themselves don’t understand. For the most part, the end result has disastrous consequences and they are judged, not by the injury they are trying to survive, but by the attempts they make to heal themselves through their desperation.
As long as we blame the victims and fail to address the situation that creates the victims, this damage continues to live deep within our organizations. What happened to me was the exception to the rule compared to what has happened to so many others.
Knowledge is power, or in this case knowledge of what is happening to you is what can help keep you healthy and alive. Having knowledge of what can happen to you in advance is absolutely precious and I highly recommend that anyone working in the field of emergency services educate themselves as to what could happen to them when it comes to reacting to trauma.
If we all do that, then we get rid of our “Fog of Ignorance”