We’re Never The Same Again

by Robert Cubby, Captain (retired)
Jersey City Police Department

Cubby 911This is something I hear regularly with first responders that have experienced life changing trauma. With a career full of such events, is it any wonder that sooner or later those events and those traumas take their toll on us? Like water constantly hitting a rock, our rock solid existence that we built so carefully erodes and dissolves, no longer insulating us against the traumas we witness on a daily basis.

For me, like so many others, the 9/11 terrorist attacks still play heavily in my memory and emotions. Having served that day, my world, my existence were changed forever, ripped from me by those horrible events of that day and the scenes we witnessed, unrelenting one right after the other. Impossible tasks faced and impossible requests left unanswered fully. We were only humans trying to do Superman’s job.

Forever, it seemed, lamenting not only the massive loss of humanity, but the massive loss of first responders. Endless funerals, endless tributes, endless searches for those lost and missing never gave us the chance to recover and regroup. The scars were already forming, and it seemed just so out of place to ask for help with your feelings, you nightmares, your life seeming to be spinning out of control.

So what did we do? For the most part we did what we were taught to do, suck it up and move on. Too much had to be done to fall behind the others. They needed all hands. No one could be spared. There will be time later to grieve, to deal with emotions. That time never seemed to come. It was always some other crisis, some other trauma, some other world changing catastrophe that eclipsed our feelings.

So I did what I always did, put those feelings on the back burner, stored away for future consideration that never came. Besides, I look around and I can’t be the only one feeling this way and no one else is asking for help. What would that make me? Best to keep quiet about those things. They may take away my gun and badge and ship me off to the “rubber gun squad”, those not allowed to carry a weapon again for various reasons. I don’t need to have that label put on me!

I continued my career and my feeble attempts at masking the hurt within. But by the nature of our work as first responders, or those that regularly experience traumatic events, there will be times, when we least expect it, all those defenses are no match for the emotions stirred up by a reminder of that trauma. It is called a trigger and those emotions, especially if accompanied by images – imagined or real – are called a flashback.

On a cool September night, on the anniversary of 9/11, I always made my annual pilgrimage to the waterfront in Jersey City. I would go to see the memorial twin beams and say a prayer for all lost that terrible day. As usual, I would meet with other first responders to share the moment. One of the group is a professional photographer who would be taking some photos.

We were talking and he was snapping photos on what seemed a regular session we do yearly. But out of nowhere, a single low hanging cloud passed in front of the twin beams. We were awestruck at how ghostly and spiritual the moment seemed. It brought all of us back to the first 9/11. We freely shared conversation of feelings from that day, long shut away over tooCubby_2 many years.

Luckily, my friend caught the images on film. I often go back to them and share them with friends at work, evoking the same feelings and discussions. I want to share them with you now. I hope that they will, in some way, provide some opportunity to talk about that day. Triggers and flashbacks can be painful, or they can give you the opportunity to share, and hopefully heal. Especially with the help of supportive friends, relatives and professionals.

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 appears in the documentary film, Code 9 – Officer Needs Assistance.