by Robert Cubby
I always loved having trees around my property. They are so strong and majestic. In the spring, they blossom and give the promise of new life after a long winter. During summer, they give us shade and cool spots to sit under. All kinds of birds find their homes or places to rest in trees, as do so many animals. Scientists tell us that trees sweep carbon dioxide out of the air we breath and supply oxygen. In the fall, they display all their beautiful colors and paint the landscape with so many colors. In the winter, their branches are covered with snow making the property look like a winter wonderland.
They are strong and resilient. They can bend so much with the wind and still spring back to their original position. Some branches may come down occasionally, but they seem to weather the storms year after year and come back. Storm after storm, year after year, they are always there for us to enjoy. You have to wonder how old some of them really are and how many storms they have endured, how much punishment they have absorbed. It’s amazing that some trees have been around longer than the USA was a country and probably stood and gave shade to the first settlers in the New World. You can plot out the history of the tree by counting its rings, and actually imagine what had been going on in the area where the tree stood.
You can imagine my hurt and dismay when a sharp bout of wind recently came through our area and knocked down five majestic trees near our property. It was heart breaking and sad to see an old friend uprooted and laying on its side, dying. You could almost imagine, if the tree could talk, asking what happened? How could I have been knocked down by such a minor thing as a wind gust? After all these many years of storms and hurricanes, how could a simple wind knock me down and end my life? I was majestic, I was great, I was home to so many animals. I shaded so many people. How could this possibly have happened?
I inspected the trees to see if there was anything obvious. Was there termite damage? Carpenter ants? Rotted roots or limbs? Nothing at all. Perfectly healthy trees uprooted and now destined for the chain saw and firewood, serving us one last time. A big space left behind by the loss of that tree, and the feeling of loss until another tree would grow again and supply the shade and take the place of the fallen tree.
In staring at the tree and wondering what could have caused this to happen, I was struck by the similarity with those of us who suffer with PTSD. As police officers, we are always there, reliable, ready to serve. We are considered strong and supply some stability and comfort to those who see us patrolling and in uniform. We certainly weather many storms in our careers. We see what no person should ever see on a daily basis, eight hours a day, 40 hours a week, year after year. Each incident, each trauma we see is like that gust of wind, it weakens us ever so slightly like those great trees were weakened. I often wonder how much a human being is expected to see and touch with his five senses. How many nightmarish tragedies can a human being take? I guess, just like the trees, we were expected to upright ourselves and resume our normal posture and function.
But unseen, under the surface, that tree, just like us, is weakening. The bark is getting a little thinner, the roots a little weaker, the branches too heavy to hold and the winds too much to withstand. After repeated onslaughts of wind, rain, snow and hail, the toll mounts. After repeated onslaughts of trauma after trauma, the toll mounts on us. We see what you only imagine in every police show and attempt by Hollywood to capture what police officers experience. They fall woefully short. They can try to capture the visual horrors, but the other senses are assaulted too and video depictions cannot capture that. The smell of a blood soaked room at a murder scene. The taste and smell of firearms recently discharged in a hallway after a shootout, how it burns your eyes and nose. The slippery feel of thick coagulated arterial blood on the ground as you’re walking through a crime scene. You, the reader, are probably wincing already at these descriptions, yet it’s what we deal with each and every day.
How many times can an officer be expected to experience these horrible scenes and be expected to stand upright and unaffected? At what point does that last gust of wind, that last call, take its toll and send the officer cascading into the abyss of PTSD? We all reach our breaking point sooner or later.
Instead of being uprooted physically, we are uprooted spiritually and mentally. All we can remember is that last call, the one that started us to cascade down into that deep, dark hole. We cannot get beyond it, but relive it every minute of every day. We replay it over and over in our heads, trying to guess, to figure out where we went wrong and why this happened to us. We start engaging in self blame and self hate for allowing this to happen, and getting ourselves in this predicament. Terrified of what we experienced, we become hyper vigilant thinking that if we are different somehow, we can prevent it happening again. The slightest loud noise or sudden movement startles us. We are anxious constantly, cannot carry out the simplest tasks, given to outbursts of emotions and crying. Sleep is fleeting or nonexistent because the horrifying visions and nightmares terrify us so much we cannot sleep. Lack of sleep then contributes to health problems and stress related illnesses.
We remember that last incident as if that was the cause and the only cause of our fall. We look at the uprooted trees and think that must have been a terrible storm to knock down those huge trees. But in reality, the storm wasn’t that great because only a few trees fell, not many. PTSD can work the same way and to the detriment of those affected. They look around them and wonder why they are the only ones affected. The situation wasn’t that serious, why am I acting this way? It must be a flaw in my character we think or a weakness while so many around us were strong.
But, like the trees in the repeated storms, every tree was affected, just like every police officer is affected. As that last storm comes through and only a few trees fall or as that last trauma comes through, and only a few officers are affected, it won’t be long until more fall in future storms. It is estimated in nationwide statistics that 15-25% of all police officers now serving have some symptoms of PTSD. It may not affect their performance but, as with the trees mentioned, the next storm, the next trauma may be the tipping point where they are uprooted and suffer the full effects of PTSD.
We probably could have saved those trees if we examined them and took some proactive steps to enable them to withstand the onslaughts they experienced. We can do the same for the police. Examinations and education can help them withstand the onslaughts that they experience over the lifetime of their careers. If they hit that tipping point in their lives, they should be afforded the opportunity for counseling and sick leave police should accommodate the need to seek treatment. Just like it will take years to replace that tree lost, it will take a toll to replace an officer who cannot continue in his career due to the effects of PTSD.
About the Author: Robert Cubby was born January 4, 1950. He attended Montclair State College (University) earning a BA degree in psychology. Shortly after graduation, Robert was sworn in as a police officer for the Jersey City Police Department. After attending the Police Academy, he was assigned to the patrol division. After seven years of working in two patrol districts, he was transferred to the Emergency Services Bureau where he was an instructor for the Police Academy. After 8 1/2 years, Robert was promoted to sergeant and assigned to the Property Unit. This was followed by assignments back in patrol as a sergeant, lieutenant, and captain. As a lieutenant, Robert was deployed to assist in the efforts during the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City. As a captain, he was assigned out of title 50% of the time as an acting inspector/city commander. Captain Cubby retired from the Jersey City police Department in 2011 after 38 years, 4 months of service. As the result of his service to the department, he was diagnosed with PTSD and continues to struggle with it on a recurring basis. Robert also appeared in the film, Code9 Officer Needs Assistance.
Other articles by Robert Cubby:
A Piece of Cloth