by Janice McCarthy
On March 5, 1993, my husband Paul had just gotten home from working an overnight shift and spending all day in court. It was just after 10 pm when I crawled into bed after checking on my 7- month-old, Shannon, who had been running a fever.
I was praying for a quiet night, when the phone ringing on the night table next to me pierced the silence. The station was calling for Paul. They had an open spot on the midnight shift. Did he want it? I was just about to say no when I heard his sleepy voice say, “I’ll take it.”
I eyed him as he crawled out of bed sleepily. I had an uneasy feeling given his sleep deprived state and the winter storm raging outside. Just as I was about say something, he reminded me of the living room furniture we had just bought, which was a tad out of our budget and the fact that I was still on maternity leave. “The money would be nice,” he said, as he slipped on his uniform, still warm from the day, and headed out into the snowy night.
Six hours later, I was staring at Paul’s partner Danny, standing in my front doorway shaking the snow off himself. I remembered Paul had told me many times that if anything ever happened to him on the job, they would never call me, they would just come and get me.
The police radio crackled intermittently as we sped through the snowy Boston roads early that March morning. We were ushered into the Emergency Room. Paul’s uniform had been sliced off him and hung off the stretcher. His boots had been tossed in the corner. His face was swollen and bloodied. His legs were covered with a white cotton blanket mottled with blood. His right foot stuck out at an unnatural angle. His upper body was held down by fabric restraints, which he was straining to break free from. His eyes were darting from side to side. His voice panicked and delusional, “Did they get him? Did they get that motherfucker??!!” “Tommy, did they get him?” Paul’s brother replied, “They got him Paul, they got him.” The former altar boy who I had never heard drop an F-bomb was then wheeled into a 12-hour surgery.
Paul had parked his cruiser outside a veteran’s hospital to check on one of his officers who was working a detail. He never made it inside. Several miles away, a 22- year-old who had spent the better part of the prior day drinking, had stolen a Mass Transit bus and was making his way through the snowy streets of Boston. The bus rolled over Paul’s cruiser with such intensity that the car was flattened with him stuck inside.
It took EMTs and the “jaws of life” almost an hour to cut him out of the mangled cruiser. Paul’s right lower leg had been shattered into 11 pieces. It would ultimately require the insertion of a metal rod to replace the bone fragments that could not be reassembled. His left femur had snapped in half. Luckily, the car’s airbag had deployed, saving his upper body from significant trauma other than a few broken teeth.
Those first few days following the accident we prayed for his survival and recovery. Each successful surgery was a victory. Every infection fought off made us grateful and provided moments of almost giddy hopefulness. How lucky to have been run over by a bus and come out with ‘just’ two broken legs! But as his physical condition started to stabilize, his emotional wounds began to surface.
Paul showed the classic PTSD symptoms, including nightmares, sensitivity to noise, anxiety, flashbacks and guilt that he had survived. He spent nearly a month in the hospital and was discharged a very changed man both physically and emotionally. He had left for that overtime shift on March 5 strong, dedicated and competent. He returned home hyper-vigilant, pain-wracked, and angry. Angry that the cop’s life that he had loved was now uncertain. In fact, nothing seemed certain anymore. While the doctors were optimistic that they would not have to amputate his right leg, they could not guarantee that Paul would walk again.
But he did walk again, after months of painful physical therapy and numerous surgeries. As wonderful as this was, there was still something missing. Paul missed being a cop and the sense of identity it gave him. The department offered him a disability pension due to the severity of his injuries, but he politely declined. He was 34 years old and could not picture being retired, nor could he imagine walking away from law enforcement. So almost two years after being nearly killed in the line of duty he returned to work.
Unfortunately, his return to the job would provide ample triggers for his PTSD. Over the next 13 years there would be several more traumatic incidents that would only exacerbate his condition and symptoms.
This would include being hit by a wrong way drunk driver on a dark interstate while on duty, dragged through a tunnel by a motorist who was attempting to flee with Paul’s hand inside the car, and being suspended for being “emotionally unstable.” For this, he was ordered to see a State Police psychiatrist who diagnosed his PTSD and deemed it job related.
In a letter addressed to his department, which I found after he died, Paul explains that the department does not provide any training about PTSD in either the academy or their in-service programs. He listed some of the trauma he experienced on the job including delivering death notifications, seeing homicides, suicides, rapes, riot response, and fatal motor vehicle accidents, in addition to being the victim himself of two motor vehicle accidents. He admitted that it changed him. And he is not alone.
He cited examples of many of his fellow officers who were suffering and using alcohol or drugs as coping mechanisms instead of seeking help. He begged for the establishment of a pension option available for those that are diagnosed and suffering with PTSD. He signed it “Respectfully Submitted.” This letter is dated June 7, 2006. To the best of my knowledge, the letter was never delivered.
On July 28, 2006, Paul took his own life in a deserted construction site an hour away from our home.
After his death, I spent countless hours pondering the turn my life had taken and contemplating my options on how to proceed. I could either file away the tragedy and try to forget it happened or I could immerse myself in the memories and pain and try to make sense of his death. The filing away method did not work for me. It did not feel right.
I couldn’t fathom just putting 20 years of marriage, 3 children and countless memories in a box and never open it. I opted for making sense of his death. I started on the floor of my basement surrounded by boxes of official police documents that Paul had saved. He never did throw anything away. It used to infuriate me, but this time I was grateful because it showed me his world more fully. I got to read department commendations about his work, letters from grateful citizens for tires he changed. I watched a news interview with the young couple whose premature twins Paul had saved by getting the couple to the hospital in time.
But, the boxes also held his trauma. On my basement floor, I read about incidents that he had never shared with me. The fatal auto accidents, gruesome murder scenes, chaotic riots and crimes against children he had seen. I also read about trauma I remembered. I read articles about when he was run over by a bus and hit by a drunk driver.
But I learned from those boxes that it wasn’t just his trauma that took his life; it was the lack of help, the lack of a system to support Paul.
There is plentiful training in law enforcement for marksmanship, crime scene investigation and ways to stay physically fit. But instruction in maintaining emotional health in a job where there is infinite potential trauma and stress is woefully lacking. In addition, the prevailing stigma within law enforcement that seeking counseling is a weakness and could potentially harm your career made the “suck it up” philosophy Paul’s only option. In essence the job that he loved so much and the culture that went with it, became a very big part of why he died.
I learned a lot about Paul’s struggles from those boxes of documents. At first, I felt like I had dumped out the pieces of a 1000 piece jigsaw puzzle onto my kitchen table. Although the process was painstakingly slow, each accident report, doctor’s note and psychiatrist’s letter was a piece that fit together to form the edges of the puzzle. Other pieces were added when I read a report that jogged my memory of some of Paul’s behaviors that seemed inexplicable at the time but now made perfect sense. I saw that the year he became anxious about our 12-year-old daughter surfing the web, he had been working a child abduction case that started on the Internet.
While making these small connections was gratifying, in my mind I still had the vision of that jigsaw puzzle, all edges intact now but the middle pieces strewn around chaotically.
That began to change when I attended a conference and heard Robert Douglas speak. Robert runs the National Police Suicide Foundation. He encouraged me to tell Paul’s story. So I did.
The decision to become involved in training did not come to me instantaneously. Instead, it was somewhat of an awakening. Never a public speaker, I could not imagine that some day I would willingly travel throughout the country to stand in front of large audiences, both friendly and hostile, to tell my painful story. But the reality was that after a virgin training session in January of 2008 in Connecticut I became somewhat of a junkie. I was clearly far from being a polished speaker; my only experience had been the middle school writing seminar I had volunteered for at my children’s school. That is where I learned the trick of bringing in candy to keep my class awake. It worked among the police officers as well as it did with the kids. What cop would turn down a Reese’s cup after working the midnight shift to get him through another in-service training? It broke the ice. Some things are universally good.
The overwhelming feeling I had after that first day training was one of enormous gratitude. I could not believe that a group of people would willingly sit and listen to me ramble for two hours and at the end greet me with applause, handshakes and hugs. Not only was this rewarding, it was like a drug. It was instant validation and cheaper than going to my shrink. How to proceed with my life was becoming clearer. These training sessions and the people who I met were helping me fill in the missing pieces of my puzzle.
People like the officer who attended my training two weeks in a row because he was still reeling from loosing his partner to suicide the week before. The recruit who sought me out after training to thank me because his Dad had just been hospitalized for a suicide attempt and he had been unable to share this with his fellow recruits because of the feared stigma. The FBI agent who shared with me his experience at Ground Zero and how it still haunts him. The parole officer who recounted to me how he drank to numb the demons, which ended up costing him his marriage. The veteran turned cop who explained how similar being a soldier is to being a cop and how what he sees on the streets brings him back to the war in his head. And the widow who, along with her children, tragically witnessed her husband’s suicide. She has been left without a pension and unable to afford counseling for her or her girls. Each one of them has worked a puzzle piece in place.
I got even more pieces put into place when I attended a Peer Support Conference in Pennsylvania. The speaker was extolling the support and benefits provided to surviving families of Law Enforcement Line of Duty (LOD) Deaths. I watched a Powerpoint presentation bursting with smiling faces at summer camps, white water rafting trips, Outward Bound programs, memorial road races and candle lighting ceremonies at the Police Officers Memorial in Washington DC. As she moved from slide to slide, I felt myself slowly coming unglued. My mind was engaged in an emotional tug of war, one side was a sense of gratitude that this help was available for grieving families and the other side was the difficult realization that this help was not available for my family.
Painful memories of my family’s struggle for the most basic help in the wake of Paul’s death were being dredged back to the surface of my consciousness. My mind was flooded by the injustice of it all. Each slide she clicked through illustrated the stark differences in our experiences. Summer camps…. I prayed for just a return call about how to get Paul’s pension set up. White water rafting…. no time for that, I had to fight to get our health insurance reinstated, the state had terminated it the day he died and my son needed to go to the doctor for an ear infection. Outward Bound trips…. my challenges would not include hiking through dense foliage, but rather wading through paperwork and referrals to get counseling set up to help my children simply get through the day.
Sitting in her presentation, I was suddenly overcome with feelings of inadequacy, frustration and futility. I felt an overwhelming desire to tell the LOD Survivor about Paul. About what a good cop and good man he was. About how he suffered and gave his life for the job. About the 13 years of physical and emotional agony he endured because of the job he loved. About the surgeries he underwent to simply walk again and return to work. About the nights that it took him 45 minutes to make it up the stairs one painful step at a time. About the babies that he saved, the tires that he changed and the death notifications he had to make. About the friends he buried and the funerals he stood at attention at for so long that his injured legs swelled and his boots had to be cut off. About the nightmares and sleepless nights. About his children and the pain that is left for them, a pain only exacerbated by the exclusion forced on suicide survivors. The surviving families deserve so much more.
So the puzzle no longer looks like it once did. The journey to make sense of my family’s tragedy and how I move forward from that is now clearer to me. Almost eight years ago, I couldn’t file away Paul’s death without trying to make sense of it. Now I cannot file away the plight of officers and survivors without trying to effect a change. Thus, C.O.P.S.S. was born.
Caring fOr Police Suicide Survivors is a nonprofit I have formed in memory of Paul and dedicated to our children Paul, Shannon and Christopher. The three arms of the foundation are based upon the needs I have witnessed within current officers as well as surviving families.
- Prevention: This branch sponsors PTSD awareness and Suicide Prevention training for law enforcement agencies.
- Support: This branch consists of a network of “Support Angels” who assist surviving families with counseling referrals and benefit applications.
- Care: This branch provides counseling reimbursement for surviving families. So while my puzzle may not be complete and may never be, I take solace in the fact that my journey toward understanding has led me to a place where I can help others who are struggling with their own puzzle.
About the Author: Janice McCarthy’s experience as a lecturer has included both national and international venues. She has trained Probation officers, Parole officers, Recruits, FBI agents and Federal employees. Her training has been incorporated into the Connecticut State Police Academy Recruit training requirements.
She was a guest speaker at the 2013 In Harm’s Way annual conference and the American Association of Suicidology conference. Janice is a board member of Badge of Life, a nonprofit organization, which promotes psychological survival for first responders. She is a recipient of The Commendable Service Award from the City of New Haven Connecticut and the Departmental Award of Education from the New Haven Connecticut Police Department for her devotion to the cause of suicide prevention and PTSD awareness in law enforcement.
In addition to her training, she has authored several short papers on “Policework, PTSD and its Aftermath”. In 2013 she established C.O.P.S.S., Caring for Police Suicide Survivors. C.O.P.S.S. is a nonprofit organization, which focuses specifically on the needs of law enforcement suicide survivors. You may contact Janice through email firstname.lastname@example.org