by Dante Candelaria
Law Enforcement Officer
I’m a cop and I’m depressed. As I’m writing this to you, it is mid-afternoon and I’ve had my third crying episode of the day. This one was over the thought of a friend who just lost his job yesterday and he called me for support. He too is a police officer, or at least he was until yesterday.
I have always been the guy people have come to depend on to help them recover from their personal or professional problems. It’s not because I’m a trained mental health counselor. The reason is because a few years ago I was falsely accused of a crime by a gang member. Even though there was an overwhelming lack of evidence and conflicting statements I was charged, arrested, went to trial and I was found not guilty. It was the longest year and a half of my life. The blood and guts of that story is for another day; today I want to talk to you about how I started to feel.
First, let me tell you a little about myself. I was born and raised in the beautiful city of Chicago, Illinois. Both my parents are hard workers and instilled a strong work ethic in me. After struggling through high school and college, I found my love of emergency medicine. I worked for the private ambulance companies in and around Chicago. This gave me the opportunity to experience and appreciate the many cultures and religions out there. My first marriage ended in divorce but produced a wonderful son. My love of country drew me to enlist in the Naval Reserve as a corpsman; unfortunately, I was injured while training and was released from my commitment.
An offer from the Orlando police department relocated me to Florida as a law enforcement officer where I have served for the last 10 years. The career move led me to my true love, Marlene. We married after dating for six months and have been together for the last seven years. I helped raise her two beautiful daughters as if they were my own flesh and blood. Marlene and I have no children together but we did adopt two of the most codependent dogs alive. I’m a clown by nature and joke with everyone like we have been friends forever. Due to my current situation, I have gone from one extreme to the next. I went from fun loving spontaneous Dante to gloomy dark wound too tight Dante.
Before I was arrested I began to feel the anxiety and depression. I ignored the signs and symptoms because we don’t suffer from these emotional problems. I didn’t talk to anyone about how I was feeling, not even my wife; not yet at least. We, as cops, keep our issues buried deep within ourselves. We’re cops and we’re tougher than that. Yeah, maybe we can take a punch to the face fighting a criminal or run on an injured leg to catch a suspect, but there are wounds and injuries that we can’t see. The emotional pain we start to feel is masked by our attempts to appear normal, by joking with others like there is nothing hurting us. But the dark thoughts creep in. I never asked for the thoughts, they just popped into my head.
The first time I contemplated killing myself was after I was relieved of duty. I felt ashamed and embarrassed that I was being placed in this situation. I felt betrayed by the administration that repeatedly assured me that the allegations where bogus and would go nowhere. I thought it would be easier to eat a bullet and spare my family the shame of dealing with my dishonor. I would work out twice a day to keep the dark thoughts at bay. It got so bad that after one workout I developed a sharp pain in my chest and shoulders, I couldn’t breathe. I was sure I was having a heart attack. Two days in the hospital determined that I had had an anxiety attack. I dismissed the diagnosis and tried to take care of myself, because I’m a cop and we don’t have those kinds of problems.
Another issue was the lack of contact from my colleagues and friends. True friends called in the beginning but the communication grew few and far in-between. I then had the “closet” supporters, administration that showed their support from a distance and behind closed doors in whispers. What really hurt were the individuals who claimed to be friends but turned their backs on me and my family. These individuals would walk past me in the halls, the same halls we would stop and greet each other. I’m big on shaking hands with my friends, but these people turned away from my greetings. In the eyes of my administration I was already guilty. It was whispered that I had embarrassed the department. This did not help my mental well-being. I began to doubt myself. Did I do it wrong? Was I one of these rouge cops that I despised? Marlene assured me time and time again that I was one of the best cops the department ever had. Her words did bring me comfort, but only for the time being.
During the criminal investigation I started to succumb to my vices. Alcohol was a staple every day. I would start with one drink then the emotional pain would go away, so one drink turned into many drinks. I would have sleepless nights and sneak into the kitchen and grab a drink in an attempt to find comfort. Never have I been one to get sloppy drunk at home, even with the kids around. And I never had my family tell me that I’ve had too much to drink. Not until I was accused. Marlene and my son told me on several occasions that I should stop drinking. This was another low point in my life. Not only am I losing my freedom but I’m turning into an alcoholic. I attempted to keep myself busy by doing odd jobs around the house; anything to keep from drinking during the middle of the day.
Some days it was a struggle to get out of bed. I wanted to sleep for days. I wanted to sleep permanently. I would neglect my hygiene and go a few days without a bath or change of clothes. Considering that some nights I would soak the sheets with sweat from nightmares, hygiene should have been at the top of my priorities along with my mental health. Thank goodness for my dogs’ neediness otherwise I would never have gotten out of bed. Thankfully, my stepdaughter is not shy about saying what’s on her mind and she would tell me I stunk.
I finally decided to seek professional help. This would be a new adventure. I contacted my department employee assistance program who has a list of professionals who would be able to help me. I was sent to a mental health counselor in my area. I assumed she was qualified since I was being referred to her by my department. The lady was a life coach who didn’t deal with police officers and told me I would feel better I sold stuff on eBay. Every time I met with her I would have to explain what my job entailed so she could understand me better. After five sessions I threw in the towel and depended on my family and faith to get me through this.
I started to write stuff down on a legal pad; the way I felt, the nightmares that I routinely had. Everything went onto the pad. Writing was, is, therapeutic for me. Because when I wrote I’m not keeping it in. I’m not 100 percent better and I have just begun my healing but I’m going to stick around for my family and for others that see my strength through my sorrow. And I learned that there are others out there just like me with similar situations battling their everyday demons. So I will make a deal with you. I will keep writing if you keep reading. I will have your back so long as you have my back. Together we can get through this like a distant group therapy and understand that you are not the only ones out there suffering in silence.
About the Author: Dante Candelaria was born and raised in Chicago Illinois to hard working parents. He graduated from William Howard Taft High School. Dante attended Wilbur Wright Community College and graduated from Northwest Community Hospital paramedic course. He worked for seven years in EMS for a private ambulance company serving the city housing projects and underprivileged communities in and around Chicago. He relocated to Orlando, Florida after being offered a position as a law enforcement officer. He graduated from the Valencia Criminal Justice Institute earning the Dr. Stone Award of Professionalism. Dante is a ten year veteran law enforcement officer and recipient of the Medal of Valor, two Medals of Commendation, Medal of Merit, the department’s Award of Administrative Excellence, and numerous Officer of the Month awards from the department and Fraternal Order of Police. The most cherished award is the Florida Governor’s Medal of Heroism. He was a member of the Navy reserve as a corpsman assigned to a Marine unit. Dante says that his most cherished accomplishment is marrying the love of my life and raising three wonderful children.