I am not a doctor, a therapist, or a journalist writing this story about depression brought on by concussion. I am a wife. A wife of a once proud police officer. This is a story that started six years ago and is still unfolding as I write. Many tears have been shed, mostly by me. Some of them by my husband, spilled in silence when he was working one-man late at night or in the early hours of an alpha shift. Feelings of frustration, of confusion, and even fear have been a constant in our lives. His from what was inexplicably happening to him and mine as I stood by and slowly watched the man that I knew and loved disappear. Looking back now with what I have learned, I of course would have sprung into action a lot sooner and spared us some heart wrenching grief. I am sharing our story simply so that others in emergency services might recognize they are travelling down the same road of despair and after reading this I hope it encourages them to seek professional help and not be embarrassed to admit that help in fact is needed.
My husband was in the Emergency Response Team. It takes a whole heap of hard work to get there and it takes just as much work of constant training to remain there. He was there for nine years. His career ended when a suspect driving a stolen vehicle decided to ram a police car when they were attempting to box him in. My husband was in the passenger side of the police car and had taken his seatbelt off in anticipation of jumping out to arrest the suspect. He hit the windshield. There was no blood, no broken bones, and no apparent serious injuries. Adrenaline soaring through everyone’s veins the suspect was taken into custody. In fact, it appeared to be business as usual. Except, it wasn’t. We didn’t know it at the time but the beginning of this nightmare would be traced back to that night. His brain had become injured. We called it a concussion then but now we know better.
When my husband woke up the next day he was pretty sore. Back and neck pain, and a searing headache he couldn’t shake. He still went into work. In fact because he was working on a project for a presentation the following week, he put his symptoms aside and carried on. The pain became a constant daily part of his life. I would see him struggle when he got out of bed, or out of a chair. I’d ask him how he planned on chasing a suspect on foot if he needed to. He would make jokes, I would roll my eyes. I don’t know how he did it. I don’t know how his superiors didn’t notice. It wasn’t until several months later that his body finally decided that it was time to pack it in and his back went into debilitating spasms. He couldn’t move. I was visiting my sister in Germany then so wasn’t there to witness his pain but I knew it was great because he had actually booked off work. He was off work this first time for 7 weeks.
When he returned to work he was still in daily pain but he couldn’t stand to be at home sitting idle. There were suspects to arrest, citizens to protect, and a close-knit police squad that needed him. I don’t have to mention that there is a certain amount of machismo that goes along with being in ERT. It was more of a “suck it up” kind of mentality that got him through each work day. His days off were another matter. It didn’t really happen overnight but his enthusiasm to do anything started to ebb. An avid golfer and hockey player, he found it too painful to engage in these activities. In fact, using the word avid to describe his passion for these sports would be an understatement. He used to play junior hockey and continued playing afterwards including playing for the police hockey team. It was doing these things that kept him sane. He also used to work out daily. In the stressful policing profession this is a must but this too had to be adjusted. He wasn’t as strong and his get up and go, had gotten up and left.
I myself am a shift worker so our time together was sporadic. In the beginning I didn’t notice. I gradually started to become aware of the changes in his personality but simply ignored them. I always had an excuse to accept his edginess. Always. If he was impatient I would put it down to tiredness. If he was in a down mood I would conclude that it was because of the physical chronic pain he was in. Each day I would ask how his sleep was and every day the response became the same. “Crappy”. I honestly don’t remember him saying he’s had a good sleep. It was years ago. He has two, now adult, children from a previous marriage. They live with their mother and weren’t around daily to witness these changes in their father.
To make matters worse, his tenure in ERT had come up several months later and he was transferred back to patrol. The shift he would work would be a permanent day shift but it would be an early one. He would need to set the alarm for 3:30 a.m. It became quite easy for him to start avoiding friends because most were still in bed when he started work and then he could excuse himself from attending evening events because he needed to go to bed early. When he was in ERT he had a partner. In patrol he worked one-man. He could spend his entire shift not having to speak to anyone in the department. It was the perfect environment for him to hide his angst. The perfect storm.
We never talked about what he was going through. He was unaware that I had started to walk around on egg shells at home. As he became more and more short-tempered I became more and more adept at not antagonizing him. I didn’t understand these were the effects of PTSD. I knew something was terribly wrong but I didn’t know what. The little touches of endearment had disappeared completely. Every couple has them. A kiss when you get home, a squeeze of an arm when you walk by, a hand on your lower back as you’re both in the kitchen. These were all our signs that everything was good. He became more and more subdued. If I didn’t start a conversation there was none. When I would ask what was wrong his response never changed. There was nothing wrong, he was just tired. I became anxious by his behaviour. So much so, that I confided in a friend that I was concerned about his safety. I was going to visit family for a week and I was beyond scared that he would dive deeper into despair. I called her from the airport in tears. We never said the word suicide but she knew what I meant. That was the first time I came to the realization of just how bad the situation had become. He was fine when I returned home. As fine I suppose as one is when suffering from depression. We never called it that. We called it a “funk”.
We were so good at sweeping everything under the carpet. Avoidance became a way of life. None of our colleagues knew what was going on. Our families didn’t know and with the exception of my one friend whom I confided to, there was nobody else. Then one night we were surfing television channels and started watching a program about the effects of concussion and we became dumbfounded. His symptoms were text book. His brain had been injured and the depression was a side effect of this injury. Armed with this knowledge it somehow made it easier to discuss .Well, at the very least, with each other. Depression is hard enough for the general public to talk about but for a police officer to talk about it’s not only devastating, it’s a career killer. Here in Canada policing is one of the few professions in which you need to carry a gun. Admitting to a decline in mental health would be overwhelming.
Throughout our discussions together it was obvious we could no longer cope by ourselves and needed some professional help in the mental health department. Unfortunately the first therapist my husband sought was not a great help and somehow convinced him he was okay to go back to work after only five sessions. My protestations went unheeded and he went back to work to a desk job. This only succeeded in demoralizing him further. I would like to think that in the future all questions of the state of someone’s mental health will be put to the spouse. There is nobody on earth that knows you as well as the person you live with.
Before long it became apparent his return to work was ill advised and he booked off again. Every hour of every day became a struggle for him to get himself mobile. It was all he could do some days to even consider getting into the shower let alone actually leaving the house. He dodged calls from friends and family. He started having panic attacks being in crowds. A walk through the mall would drain the blood from his face. It would take every ounce of strength he had at times just to go hit golf balls at a nearby driving range and even that didn’t produce any pleasure. He stopped going to the gym completely. He suffered constantly from headaches, back and neck pain. In fact, pain was the only thing he felt. He didn’t feel happiness, or sadness. Everything to him became pointless.
He started seeing a different therapist and a doctor suggested that a visit to a Neuropsychiatrist would be beneficial as well. We learned it was a two-year waiting list to been seen by one so a referral was made to a psychiatrist whose office was close to our home. A course of treatment including medication was prescribed. It was explained that finding the right drugs and the dosage would be somewhat like mixing a chemical cocktail. There is no exact science to what will work. No magic pill that works overnight. It takes time.
Just a few months ago a few professional hockey players went public with the struggles they have faced with depression. My husband said that word for word he could identify with their angst. You could just substitute police officer for hockey player and the story was the same. Neither profession is an environment that encourages any type of weakness nor does it provide for a touchy feely atmosphere. I think it became easier for him to accept his diagnoses when he learned there were other big tough guys walking on the same dark path. We never openly talked about suicide until recently with the deaths of Rick Rypien and Wade Belak. I, of course, have feared the subject for some time now. He assures me he would never do that. He did admit that he thinks about death a lot and this information was shared with both his psychiatrist and therapist.
It has been a long and hard journey. I wish that we had read the signs earlier. I wish we had sought professional help sooner. Depression has caused many cracks in the foundation of our marriage and so far it has held. There were times before we had a name for what he was going through that I had my doubts. I wish we had told our friends and family sooner than we did because their support has been great. It has been a huge burden to carry this secret for so long. It is a tremendous relief to be able to be honest about the reasons behind cancelled plans. My husband has good days and bad days but now we are not ashamed to talk about it. The more light shed on the subject the better. Recovery has been a slow process but one for which we remain hopeful now that we know what we are dealing with. We’re starting to feel that the light at the end of the tunnel isn’t an oncoming train.
Name withheld upon request