What I Wish I Had Known


by Sylvio (Syd) A Gravel, M.O.M.
Staff Sergeant (Retired)), 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

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Syd Gravel

My story is no different from those of hundreds of other police officers who become involved in one or several traumatic incidents. My story, similar to those of many others, simply set off  reactions that were unfamiliar to me at the time. However, in telling my story many of you will be able to relate to me and the points I address in this article.

Up until I experienced those fifty-six seconds, where I went from being a police officer patrolling the streets of Ottawa, to suddenly being a suspect of manslaughter as a result of making a split second decision to shoot a suspect, I had thought of myself as a fairly stable guy, with some great street sense and solid character, who was able to work through any trauma that I saw or experienced as a police officer and as I believed I was expected to.

I had been involved in other traumatic events during my police career and had escaped any major after effects for the most part. I occasionally indulged in a little overdrinking or some form of escapism. But, mainly, I maintained the macho image and simply rah-rahed my way through events as every tough guy was expected to do. However, for some reason, this time was different; it didn’t feel the same. Something wasn’t right for me. Why this time? And what made this event different compared to the many other times I was involved in traumatic events? My reaction to that particular event didn’t make sense to me, to my family or to my friends.

But my reactions and behavioural changes did make sense to other officers who knew me and who had also reacted similarly to traumatic events they had lived through. They recognized my behaviour because they were going through the same thing with varying degrees of intensity. But they didn’t know why—just that this was the way it was. PTSD had not yet been recognized as an injury within policing, so we simply didn’t know anything about it.

Over time, I have started to learn things about what happened in the past and what continues to happen to me still. In understanding what happens when trauma affects you, ignorance is certainly not bliss. In fact, it can slow down the healing process substantially. I have subsequently found out that there was very little about those fifty-six seconds, that is, the event itself, that was the problem for me. It was more about the inner workings of my mind in reaction to the event that had become the problem.

When I met with my psychologist, PTSD wasn’t even a recognized disorder. The doctor compared my behaviour to what research was revealing about soldiers’ behaviour after returning from the Vietnam War. His constant advice to me and my fellow officers was that “our reactions were normal reactions to abnormal situations.” It was important to grasp that message first and foremost. However, the question for me remained that, if I was acting normally to this abnormal situation, why did it appear as though I was the only one reacting the way I was?

To simplify our understanding of what happens to many of us, we must 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 will have a different amount, with 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 remaining balance 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 in the account to help us get grounded. We try to understand the event instead of focusing on the bankrupted body-mind link, which is where we need to go to understand what is happening.

Since the late 1990s psychiatrists and psychologists now know much more about what is happening to the body and the mind, and how to address them in relation to reactions to trauma.

Knowledge is power. In this case, knowledge about what is happening to you can help keep you healthy and alive. Having knowledge in advance about what can happen is absolutely precious. And I highly recommend that anyone working in emergency services educate themselves as to what could happen to them when reacting to trauma.

I wish I had known about the effects of trauma and PTSD, and its impact on the body and mind, and what can help to begin the healing process. By knowing all this and being able to address my reactions when they happened, I probably would never have become a victim of PTSD.

So, if I had the opportunity to hope for something different in my past and my career that would have helped, where would I start?

I have thought about this for a long time and I would start at the beginning of my career. And these are the points I would have liked to have heard discussed with me when I first joined.

Starting at the Beginning

As peer supporters, we know that often it isn’t the initiating trauma that creates seemingly insurmountable pain for officers or emergency services personnel, but the lack of support after the event. Why is there no available support?

I have come to believe that how we introduce new employees to the work environment has a lot to do with a police or emergency services organization’s ability to develop resilience training and support peer work or not.

During the last ten years of my career, I was responsible for the recruiting and training that occurred within the Ottawa Police Service. By the end, I had accumulated over twenty-two years’ experience in surviving PTSD and in supporting peer work. As a result of this and being directly involved in recruitment and training, I had acquired some insight and made some  interesting observations about hiring practices, identifying job competencies and applicants’ own perceptions of themselves and the job.

1. Understanding the Competencies

There is a direct correlation between the mind-set of those applying for the job of a police officer and the competencies we describe as required of them. If these are not properly aligned and communicated by the organization to applicants, this can interfere with peer support work and even cause damage to those suffering from the effects of trauma.

Policing is a hybrid of competencies derived from both the soldier and the social worker. If   someone joins the police service with a mind-set locked on one set of competencies versus the other, which can occur considering the wide scope for each competency, then there is a good  chance that these potential police officers will not be able to support each other when the time comes in a crisis or traumatic event.

2. Understanding Personality Traits

I also believe there is a direct correlation between the ability to do peer work to support each other and our personality traits. There is even a direct correlation between what recruits perceive to be the personality traits that they should have based on what they think the job requires, and their ability to keep themselves grounded in reality and to their true personality traits.

When I have asked those who are studying to become law enforcement officers to identify where they believe their personality traits strength lies most will gravitate to the dominant and driven and doer types of personalities, based on the DISC Model of Human Behaviour based on the work of William Marston who created  the Four Temperament Model of Human Behaviour. Very few gravitate toward the cautious, competent and careful type of personality.

However, what concerns me is that it is important for people, who want to join police and emergency services organizations, to understand that such work requires people who have strong tendencies from all personality types to ensure the success of their organizations. Organizations also need to ensure that there is a large, diversified pool of individuals, with various personality traits, available to provide peer support when needed.

However, what is most revealing is that there is a disconnect between what potential applicants are showing about what they believe to be the dominant personality trait required for policing; in fact, they are missing the point entirely. Very few students of policing or emergency services gravitate toward the cautious, competent and careful type of personality as I mentioned earlier yet in reality that is the dominant personality trait that was demonstrated in 2007 by the Kansas City Police, that tested personality traits with the participation of 2,056 members, sworn officers and civilians of all ranks. The failure to understand how personality traits can influence how much people are capable of understanding each other may also interfere with their ability to help each other, especially those suffering badly from a traumatic event or series of traumatic events.

3. Perceptions

There is also a direct correlation between people’s perceptions of police work versus the reality of the work and how they react to traumatic events and to those who need help as a result of suffering from trauma.

It is important to be solidly grounded in reality when dealing with reactions to traumatic events. But, if a person’s reality is based on ill-founded perceptions, then the ground they stand on is shaky at best.

For some, there is a perception that, if they get involved in a traumatic event, the organization they work for, whether emergency or police services, will have support mechanisms in place to help them recover from the experience. In believing this, they often forgo their own responsibility to take care of themselves. But the truth is that many organizations only prepare their members for how to react to trauma as it is occurring, so that as first responders they can get the job done. Many organizations do not have support mechanisms in place to make sure their employees react well to the longer-term impacts of trauma.

For thousands of officers and members who work so diligently every day at the front line, there is no greater disappointment than discovering that they are now subjected to corporate stigma or abandonment and are no longer treated as part of the team, because they have revealed their inability to address their own trauma.

Unfortunately, as a result of this lack of support, most members hide their injury not only from their organizations but also from their families and friends. They isolate themselves, they disconnect and become antisocial. Some turn to alcohol or drugs or exhibit behaviours they themselves don’t understand. The end result has disastrous consequences. They are judged not by the injury they are trying to survive but by the attempts they make to heal themselves in their desperation.  Their experiences demonstrate there was little or no support there for them.

For some, entering the policing world, their perception is to put all police and police work on a pedestal. For them, all police are heroes and they want to be part of that culture. They believe that the police can do no wrong and that they will cover each other’s backs when someone gets into trouble.

I knew someone who dreamed all his life of becoming a police officer; they were his heroes. Once he joined, he took pride in wearing the uniform well and demanded—and got—respect on the street through his posture and demeanour.

One day, as he tried to effect an arrest, the suspect escaped by attempting to swim across a body of water but drowned in the effort. The suspect was a member of a small minority in the community and they felt the loss of one of their own immensely. They blamed the officer for the death of this young man.

The young officer, having put policing on a pedestal and not having anyone challenge his perception, believed he had disgraced the uniform and the police service. He also believed that his reputation would not recover from this incident. Along with some other issues in his life and this perception of policing, he could not keep himself grounded in reality and he ended his life.

For some, there is also a perception that only a cop understands a cop. In many cases, this can become an absolute truth. The question then becomes, When they do get into trouble at work or try to deal with a very personal and confusing reaction to a traumatic event, who can they turn to when their peers turn their backs on them? If the perception is that the only friends they should have once they join a police service are other police officers, when do they ever get a day or moment away from the hyper-vigilance and tense mind-set that police work demands?

If the perception is that they must never show weakness, then they will hide their suffering which they are enduring as a result of reacting poorly to a traumatic event or series of events.  Subsequently, they may develop PTSD because they did not want anyone to know they were hurting or that they feared being stigmatized.

All of these perceptions should be addressed on the first introduction in training to the job. Organizations need to make sure that their employees—police officers or emergency services workers–stay grounded in the reality of their work and not in the perceptions of the job they bring with them.

4. Breach of Contract

While in charge of recruiting, I noticed a phenomenon, which I called the breach of contract. Police and emergency services organizations spend months doing background checks on individuals who apply to join the organization. These checks include investigating their circle of friends, their social behaviour, their schooling and work experience, their community involvement and their family upbringing.  The job offer is based on the results of these checks.

Yet soon after recruits were hired, they threw away everything to become blue. They restricted their social circle to their colleagues at work. They thought the job meant being on duty all the time and they neglected their families, ceasing to be fathers, mothers, brothers or sisters. They had no home life—only a police life.

No one can survive in the work environment by placing these types of demands on themselves. Everyone needs to be able to break away from the work environment. Unfortunately, the organization lets their employees accept this approach to the job and they burn all their social bridges and support networks. This was–and is–a complete breach of the agreement.

People were hired based on what was seen as their assets to the organization. They should not be allowed to throw those assets away. And then when the officer gets into trouble, and everyone turns their backs on them, they have nowhere to turn for support now that they have been encouraged to disconnect from the real world outside of policing.

It works the other way as well. How many police organizations glorify police work at recruiting shows just to offer far less than was promised once hired?

I am reminded of the man who dies and attends at the pearly gates of Heaven. Because of his complex life, The Angel offers him a choice of either Heaven or Hell and he gets the chance to sample a day in each to decide. On the first day he visits Hell and people are enjoying themselves tremendously and having great parties – it is all very exciting! During his second day he visits Heaven and he experiences contentment and serenity, all very nice but somewhat boring. So he decides on Hell. The third day he passes through the gates of Hell and sees nothing but pain and suffering. “What happened to all the parties?’ he asks.  “Oh, that”, replies Lucifer, “yesterday we were recruiting, now you work for us!”

5. Weight of Authority

When joining any protective or emergency services, all employees should clearly understand that the badge, or authority they carry, has no rights, privileges or advantages over anyone else. The difference is only in the degree of responsibility. Therefore, the organization has an obligation to ensure that their employees understand what will not be tolerated and what the limits of their authority are, as well as what the consequences are if these boundaries are crossed.

6. Voluntary Mental Health Check

There is also a direct correlation between the ability of a person to bounce back, after reacting poorly to a traumatic event, and the amount of information or knowledge they have about how the brain reacts when a person is traumatized. This is why it is important to support annual voluntary mental health checks as recommended by Badge of Life Canada and Badge of Life USA.

We need to encourage our employees to stay mentally fit, as well as physically fit. Emergency service providers and police officers have a duty to keep both their bodies and their minds healthy to enable them to react healthily to traumatic emergency events. This should be a personal goal and a personal responsibility and not left only to the organization to undertake.

By supporting annual mental health checks, this will allow individuals and their mental health therapist to examine their coping skills and resilience before stressful and/or traumatic events occur. It also sets up a talking relationship with the therapist before they need one when in an uncontrolled anxiety-driven state of mind.

This talking relationship is especially important as it establishes a baseline from which the psychologist can work. The psychologist can detect changes over time and proceed to the healing stages of their work faster as a result.

Conclusion

So, if I had a chance to start over again I truly believe that conversations such as these with my fellow officers right from the moment I first put on the uniform would have helped establish a solid foundation to meet the challenges of working in an environment where trauma is par for the course and an expected challenge. It doesn’t mean that trauma will be eliminated, but when we know stuff like this it takes some of the shock, confusion, and sense of abandonment away.

About the Author: Syd Gravel is a retired Staff Sergeant from the Ottawa (Canada) Police Service and is one of the founding fathers of Robin’s Blue Circle (established in 1988), a post-shooting trauma team that assists officers work their way through the trauma of death or near-death work related incidents.

Syd is an over 25 year PTSD survivor and refers to himself as a healthy survivor of PTSD as he has learned to live with it and continue to be productive in spite of it. As an 8 year veteran and constable of the police service he developed PTSD. It was precipitated by his shooting of what he thought was an armed robber during an armed robbery response. In spite of his PTSD, he went on to be promoted to the ranks of sergeant then staff sergeant during the following 23 years of his continued police work as a front line patrol officer and subsequently in charge of all recruitment and training for the last 10 years of his career.

In 2007, for the many years of service to his peers, his devotion to training and recruiting and helping so many through their times of need, he was nominated by his peers for the Order of Merit in Policing, Canada and received the award from then Governor General Michael Jean.   

Syd has written two books since 2013 – “56 Seconds” and  “How to Survive PTSD and Build Peer Support” both available via Amazon.com and his website. He is presently working  on his third book, due out summer of 2014. 

Listen HERE to a recent CBC interview with Syd Gravel
as he describes the 56 seconds that changed his life forever.

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