My experience with PTSD while in law enforcement
A phone call with my wife acted as a bridge between two events, leaving me in floods of tears after an arrest
By Lt. Ricky S. Rhodes (ret.)
In my 32 years of law enforcement, I’ve seen my fair share of officers suffer from various types of mental health issues, including Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, anxiety and substance abuse.
It’s hard to work in law enforcement and walk away unscathed. The things you see, hear and do are often more than you bargained for emotionally and mentally, especially today given the civil unrest and seemingly endless amount of negative press and lack of support. If you don’t take proper care of yourself, it’s easy for those experiences to take over your thoughts.
Just "deal with it"
When I started my career in law enforcement, there weren’t many policies addressing traumatic incidents and debriefing. The mentality – one that very likely still exists today – was just to “deal with it.” There could be a particularly graphic incident and my colleagues' faces would be unchanged and stoic, like nothing out of the ordinary happened. As that was the norm, that became my mentality too.
As officers, we often see the worst in humanity. It’s not something that can be easily compartmentalized when you go home although I certainly tried! I thought I was invincible until one particular incident changed my perspective on mental health for the better.
the call that returned eight years later
This event occurred in 1989 on Father’s Day. It was my first Father’s Day away from my daughter and I had plans to celebrate with my wife later in the evening.
I was acting as the patrol supervisor at a sheriff’s office. Nearing the end of my shift, I received a call about a possible familial homicide in the nearby town.
After some time spent searching, we found the victims, a wife and young daughter, tragically murdered in a mobile home. Subconsciously, I noted the little girl and her resemblance to my own daughter at the time. I later found out that they were there to celebrate Father’s Day.
As I was standing in the horrific scene, dispatch advised me to call my wife, who was also a police officer. She asked when I would be home for our Father’s Day celebrations. I told her I wouldn’t be able to make it as I was assisting on a homicide case, the details of which I didn’t bother to elaborate on.
She was upset at my consistent unavailability to be home due to situations like this. Throughout the phone call where I was being thoroughly chewed out, I was acutely aware of the graphic and brutal scene surrounding me. Despite it all, this that day in itself was not traumatizing. I did not experience nightmares or horrible flashbacks. In fact, I quickly forgot about the case and it never came up in my thoughts after that.
Fast forward to eight years later, I was working at a new police department. It was the last hour of work and I was dealing with a drunk driver I had just arrested. As I was watching him during the breathalyzer test observation period, I called my wife to tell her I would be late coming home. Again, she expressed her frustration toward my lateness. I put the phone down and continued my checklist until the drunk driver asked me if I was ok because he said I was crying. Confused, I felt my face and sure enough, there were tears streaming down. How did I not feel I was crying? I didn’t even feel emotional! Having heard accounts of other officers who had suffered mentally, I asked myself, 'Am I losing it?' Because I felt like I was going crazy.
a lightbulb moment
I battled with myself about this situation for some time, worried I might be cracking up while still having no idea what had happened to me.
Like most people, I did my best not to think about it, and I certainly didn’t tell anyone what had happened until a couple of years later. I was attending a training conference for detectives where a police psychologist spoke about PTSD. She explained some of the symptoms of PTSD, such as depression and nightmares, and mentioned spontaneous crying for no apparent reason. It was a lightbulb moment when I heard that. Could this be the explanation for the unusual incident I experienced a couple of years before?
After the session, I approached the psychologist and told her about my crying incident. As she asked me more questions about the day I spontaneously cried, she keyed in on my wife’s response to me being late. She asked if I could recall another time I was going through a difficult time where I had been at a traumatic incident and had a similar interaction with my wife. As I flashed back to the times my wife was upset about me being late, I realized that the sequence of events was similar to that homicide case I worked on all those years ago. In both circumstances, I was in the middle of doing my job and had to tell my wife I would be late. Again, in both situations, my wife’s response was the same: frustrated and upset. I also immediately saw that scene again in my mind, the sights and even the smell. I remembered how jarring that incident was. The similarity between the daughter in the case and my own daughter, as well as the fact that they were about to celebrate Father’s Day had broken my heart.
The value of speaking up
The psychologist’s advice was simple, she told me to speak to my wife and share with her everything I experienced that day of the homicide. Most importantly, I had to tell her to refrain from being upset with me for being late coming home due to work, because in the end, it wasn’t something I had control over.
After telling my wife this story, I felt a huge burden lifted off of my chest. And I felt empowered not to hide the incident but to discuss it with friends, family and my co-workers. Fortunately, I never experienced those symptoms again. I would have never believed it would happen to me, and I feel very fortunate to have a doctor simply give me the advice I needed to deal with it.
PTSD can manifest in unusual ways
At the time, there was not as much awareness about PTSD, especially relating to law enforcement, as there is now. Today, the symptoms of PTSD are widely talked about. These being emotional distress, physiological reactions, recurrent nightmares or memories, flashbacks, irritability, bursts of anger, insomnia and depression. But, PTSD is not black and white. While I did not experience flashbacks or insomnia relating to that event, it still manifested in unusual ways. And the trauma became linked to that specific phone call with my wife as it acted as a bridge between the two events. Also, my symptoms didn’t appear until years after that initial event.
I no longer dismiss the threat of PTSD. Between seven and 19% of police officers exhibit symptoms of PTSD, compared to 3.5% of the general public and around 125 to 300 officers commit suicide every year. As much as officers don’t like to believe it, we are susceptible to stress and mental disorders. And while you may think it’s easier to just deal with it yourself, I urge you to take action before symptoms start taking a hold of you.
Don’t bottle up your emotions as I did but make sure to talk to someone – a friend, a family member, or a professional. And for those who are experiencing unusual events, know that you are not going crazy. But perhaps it’s resulting from an old incident you are still subconsciously carrying. This is why it’s important to familiarize yourself with the symptoms of PTSD.
Receiving support from police agencies is also crucial. I strongly emphasize the importance of trauma risk management strategies, such as stress debriefing or having an onsite police psychologist.
Last, but not least, we must work on eliminating the stigma surrounding mental health in law enforcement. The “just deal with it” mentality can put us at a significant risk of mental illnesses, and we must shift to having a more proactive approach on our mental health.
I hope my story will help those who are struggling to know that they are not alone and to change the perspectives of those who have underestimated the risk of mental disorders in this profession. Over time, the things we see might become too much to handle and it’s important to seek help before it’s too late. Let’s normalize mental health in law enforcement so we can better protect ourselves and those in our community.
About the Author
Ricky S. Rhodes is a 32-year law enforcement veteran who retired from the Tigard Police Department in Tigard, Oregon, in 2014 spending the last 15 years of his career as a member of the command staff. Notably, in 2009 he was selected as the Interim Chief of Police for the Gervais Police Department in Oregon and is a 2005 graduate of the FBI National Academy. Previously, he served as a deputy sheriff with the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office in Oregon. Since his retirement, he has been working for InTime Solutions in implementation and training and is currently a sales executive and account manager in the northeast U.S.