Home Inspirational Stories Coping with Trauma: My Journey of Self-Destruction and Healing as a Police Officer

Coping with Trauma: My Journey of Self-Destruction and Healing as a Police Officer

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For 21 years, I served as a police officer in Wisconsin. But on Friday, 8th April 8 2016, at 5:15pm, I experienced a critical incident where I was forced to use deadly force against an individual who had armed themselves with a hatchet in a busy department store. Unfortunately, this individual passed away as a result of the incident.

Since then, I have had to confront numerous mental health challenges, both personally and professionally. As a result of the incident, I was diagnosed with a mental illness, and it took me several years to get back on the path to recovery. While I continue to struggle, I have made significant progress, and I am in a better place than I was before.

There are many different coping strategies people may use after experiencing trauma. They may be good and healthy, or they may be bad and unhealthy. My coping strategies were bad, unhealthy, self-destructive, and dangerous. I used alcohol, marijuana, casual sex, and self-harm as some of my poor coping strategies for years after my critical incident.
My poor coping strategies easily put my relationships, my job, and my health at risk, but I did not care. I wanted to escape from what I was feeling. I wanted to numb my emotions, my thoughts, my body, and any memory of taking someone’s life. I wanted to feel better even if only momentarily. I was selfish and reckless, and I did not care how my self-destructive and dangerous behaviour may affect other people. I did not even care how my behaviour affected my family, friends, co-workers, or the public.
One of my many poor coping strategies was abusing alcohol. Prior to my critical incident, I collected wine and enjoyed a glass of wine every now and then. However, after my critical incident, I began abusing liquor, mainly whiskey and the cheapest vodka I could get my hands on. I would consume whiskey and vodka straight from their bottles, on the rocks, or I would create my own cocktails by combining over-the-counter liquid sleeping or liquid allergy medicines. There were times that I would mix in whatever leftover prescription medicines I had in the medicine cabinet, and it did not matter if they have prescribed to me or someone else. 
There was a time when I mixed my daughter’s leftover prescribed liquid cough medicine, which contained codeine, with a glass of wine. I was also taking an antidepressant called Venlafaxine which had a label warning against consuming alcohol while on medication. Despite this warning, I continued to drink. I didn’t consider the risk of blacking out or even dying from this dangerous cocktail. All I wanted was to escape the emotional pain I was feeling. But abusing alcohol only added to my stress, anxiety, and depression, making everything worse.
In September 2018 I drafted a written contract with myself to not consume alcohol. I don’t remember writing the contract, but there was something inside of me that recognized how self-destructive alcohol was for me. This contract quickly became null and void because it took me another three years to reduce my alcohol consumption.
There were many times I did not want to go to work. This was not because I had other plans or that I was hungover from consuming too much alcohol, but I just wanted to stay at home and isolate myself from the world. I wanted to lock all the doors of my home, close all the curtains, and shut everyone out of my life. Sure, I called in sick from time to time, but on one occasion, I intentionally injured myself so that I did not have to work. I used an old 12-inch adjustable steel wrench to cause superficial injuries to my left knee. I struck my knee a dozen or more times, enough to cause redness, abrasions, and bruising, and limped into the local emergency room. I explained to the doctor and nurses that I had tripped and fallen down walking out of the back door of my house and struck my knee on the steel covering of an underground septic tank. My story was believable enough. I received x-rays of my knee, a prescription for pain medication, and crutches. I was discharged from the emergency room with a doctor’s letter releasing me from work for about one week. This occurred during a busy holiday work week. Although I was not able to truly celebrate the holiday, this deception got me out of work and I was able to enjoy the time alone at home.
Another way I was able to get out of working was to intentionally make myself sick. I remember while taking a shower before my shift I was thinking about the many ways I could get out of work. While I was putting on my ballistic vest, uniform, boots, and duty belt, I thought to myself, “I’m going to get out of working by binge eating and making myself vomit.” I constructed a plan to visit the local Burger King drive-thru while travelling to work. I ordered a bunch of breakfast food and made sure I washed it down with a large soda and a large orange juice. I needed to make sure I added beverages to my breakfast buffet to ensure it would all come up easier when I made myself vomit.
I continued to travel to work after consuming a large amount of breakfast food from Burger King. I was about to pass the local Mcdonald’s and thought to myself, “Two is better than one.” I decided to travel through the Mcdonald’s drive-thru and order even more breakfast food and beverages. I quickly binged what I purchased and proceeded to work.
I arrived at work and upon exiting my vehicle I played the role of the sick employee. I walked into the police department and made myself vomit in the bathroom. I made sure the bathroom door remained open so that anyone walking by could see or hear me. I made sure that not all my vomit made it into the toilet and landed on the floor for added effect. I was immediately sent home.
Another way I dangerously coped was by drinking and driving. Prior to attending any type of social event, even as simple as going to the grocery store, I would consume alcohol. I would travel to a nearby gas station and purchase many small bottles of liquor containing about 1.5 ounces of whiskey, vodka or whatever I could afford at the time. I would immediately consume the alcohol in my vehicle prior to travelling to my destination. I tossed the empty bottles in the back of my vehicle or out the window while I was driving. I would rationalize that it would take about 30 minutes for me to feel the effects of the alcohol and by the time I was impaired I would have arrived at my destination. I was very fortunate that I was not arrested for drinking and driving or even worse, killing someone.
I used casual sex as a coping strategy and to distract myself from my emotional discomfort and pain. I would meet women and sometimes within 30 minutes, we would have sex. This caused me more stress and anxiety than anything else. Sure, I felt great during sex, but it caused me more harm than good. Although this type of sexual behaviour was risky, self-destructive, and caused me stress and anxiety, it was not enough to convince me to stop. I wanted an instant feel-good escape from my life and casual sex provided that for me.
Another dangerous and unexplainable way I coped was by putting my duty weapon to my head. My duty weapon during my critical incident was a Glock 22 Gen 4 – 40 Caliber. I put my duty weapon to my head at least a dozen times. Sometimes I even placed the barrel in my mouth. I would always remove the magazine, but for those of you who are not familiar with a Glock, if you don’t rack the slide and remove the round from the chamber (barrel) it will still discharge a round. I very easily could have accidentally killed myself. My rationalization was that I simply wanted to hear and feel the metallic click of the trigger being pulled while the barrel of the gun was resting against my right temple. I did this while I was under the influence of alcohol. I still do not truly understand why I did this and sometimes wonder how many times it happened while I was blacked out from excessively consuming alcohol. I am very fortunate to be alive.
I suffered in silence for many years after my critical incident and I am ashamed for the ways I poorly coped. I find it hard to believe that nobody realized or even had a gut feeling that I was not doing well. I could not have been that good at hiding my poor coping strategies, or was I? I have always wondered if people were slowly watching me self-destruct because they did not know what to say to me, how to help me, or they simply did not want to get involved.
I was diagnosed with a mental illness in January 2022 and deemed unfit for duty by the police department’s psychologist. I was granted a 90-day leave of absence and began intensive therapy two and three times a week. This therapy included in-person psychotherapy, eye movement desensitisation reprocessing (EMDR), biofeedback, and dialectical behavioural therapy (DBT).
I was finally undergoing treatment that helped me heal and understand why I adapted to poor coping strategies to self-medicate myself. I only wished I would have begun this therapy five years earlier, but it was better later than never.
I did not receive workers’ compensation or any type of disability pay while I was on leave and my credit score was destroyed. I received unemployment and had to apply and interview for “other jobs” while on leave. I was working very diligently to become fit for duty and return as a Detective. I was never given that full opportunity. The police department’s psychologist recommended six months of short-term disability, but this recommendation was cut short in May when I was terminated.

In May 2022, I faced a difficult decision when my leave of absence from the police department was not extended. I was given the option to either resign or be terminated, and despite refusing to resign, I was terminated immediately when my leave of absence expired. This happened to occur during Mental Health Awareness and Law Enforcement Appreciation Month.

Since then, I have been attending weekly therapy sessions that include in-person psychotherapy and EMDR. In addition, I have been prescribed medications such as Lexapro and Propranolol to help manage my depression and generalized anxiety.

I am incredibly grateful for the support I have received from my family, friends, therapist, girlfriend, current employer, and co-workers. Without their help, I would not be where I am today, and I cannot express how much their support means to me.

If you suspect that someone may be struggling with their mental health, I encourage you to reach out to them. Although it may feel uncomfortable or awkward, many people will not admit to needing help, and few will reach out for support. Your kindness could be a bright light in their darkest moments.

Adam A. Meyers is a former police officer in Wisconsin who is now a certified peer specialist.

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