I’d like to share with you the events that occurred on one of the most terrifying days of my life.
When my PTSD was diagnosed, the incident I am going to describe in this blog post was one of the traumatic events that was identified as a contributing factor. While fear is a natural reaction in certain circumstances, people with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder re-experience the same, or an even heightened, level of fear they did during the moment of their traumatic event at often inopportune times. I have come to think of PTSD as a leg trap, like one of these:
The thing to note about this analogy is that stepping in the trap is avoidable if you are mindful of where you put your feet. However, during periods of elevated anxiety or in times when you are in the clutches of the gray haze of depression, your perspective may not allow you to recognize that you are about to step into such a trap. In fact, with PTSD, it is often difficult to tell that you did so, at all. You don't know why you are suddenly so anxious, you just know that you are.
When you are 'triggered,' the fear you felt during a seemingly hand-picked moment of your past is erupting within the depths of your very being, as if you are back in that harrowing moment once more. It is fresh terror, as if a long-healed wound suddenly opened again. Your focus may be more concentrated on the experience of fear than on whatever it was that triggered you.
Earlier, when I said that I would like to share with you the events of one of the most terrifying days of my life, please understand how much progress I have made to be able to do so, at all. Discussing this incident, in whole or in part, has led me to step in more than one leg trap along the way. My mind even draws parallels between wholly unrelated incidents and the fear I felt that day. Regardless of the form the trigger takes, it serves to burst my peace and cause me undue stress and anxiety. If left unchecked, PTSD is poison that robs a person of their precious peace of mind.
By revealing this here, I am exposing it, for good or ill. At the very least, my eyes are affixed on that trap. It can’t control me if I’m the one in control.
It was a beautiful day outside, so of course, I was working. I had been at the police department for over four years at that point, having earned the respect of some of my peers and many of the officers, detectives, and sergeants I worked among. I recall, prior to what I am about to describe, that I was in great spirits that day. My job required vigilance, so I was prepared to deal with whatever strange day the local fates had in store for me. I should say that I worked at an exceptionally busy police department, and there was rarely a shortage of potentially traumatic events on the horizon. However, on that day, in those waning moments before it all started to come, quite literally, crashing down, I was happy. I was good at my job, and I enjoyed it. I was ready for anything.
Then, it happened.
We received a call from the loss prevention agent at the Sears in our town’s mall. A man was ‘selecting’ as they watched on camera from the safety of their security office. ‘Selecting’ is exactly what it sounds like: a person who is planning to commit a petit larceny begins to secret the items they intend to steal either on their person or, in this case, by placing one smaller object within a larger one, like a Matryoshka doll of petty crime.
The man was placing items into a Craftsman tool bag, and he was hovering near the least accessible exit, by the Sears Auto Center. He was about to flee, and though I had already notified Mall Security and put out a call that there was a crime in progress to get an officer or two to respond to the area, there was little time to react when he suddenly dashed out of the door and toward an awaiting getaway car.
While I had the loss prevention agent get me as much information as possible regarding the vehicle before it began to feign a casual exit, I knew that there would be someone in the area, shortly, to confront this man and bring him to justice. I began transmitting a play-by-play of the man’s actions over the radio, noting the make, model, and color of his vehicle, a description of the suspect, and the direction he was driving through the circuitous parking lot, which might indicate which exit he planned to take.
What I did not anticipate was that the man would choose the exit that placed him directly in front of my brother.
He was a detective, driving an unmarked vehicle, and as I announced the suspect vehicle’s exit from the mall he responded that he saw the vehicle and was only a few cars behind them. He got close enough to provide a license plate, which I began to enter into New York State DMV and NCIC to see if the vehicle’s owner had any outstanding wants or warrants. If I am remembering it correctly, not only did the man have local wants, but he had an extensive criminal history with neighboring agencies, especially those across the river from our town.
He had an address that indicated he would head toward the river to get away, to get across the bridge. Our town was his hunting grounds, and he had seized his petty prey. Now, he needed to escape the shepherds from whose flock he had poached. I relayed the suspect's history across the river to my brother. He was still, at that point, the only law enforcement officer close enough. I recall requesting assistance via County 911 in potentially getting a sheriff’s deputy or state trooper to coordinate with our agency, anticipating that the man would head toward the city and hoping they could be in the area in case things started to get hectic. Up until that moment, the role my brother played in the slow pursuit was simply to observe and report. Other officers were en route.
They would be on scene soon. Everything was going quite well.
Then, the man must have panicked, because he sped into the oncoming lanes of traffic to evade my brother’s vehicle. My brother lit his emergency lights and blared his siren, giving chase as safely as he could in spite of the outrageously risky driving the suspect was doing. As the man made a left turn to head toward the river, toward the more congested city where he would be far more dangerous driving as he was, the man hastened his retreat and caused a pair of vehicles to swerve into one another. He had just proven his danger, and my brother switched from observing and reporting to full-on pursuit. He had to stop the suspect before he killed someone with his erratic escape tactics.
I remember coordinating with the city police department toward which the man was fleeing. They deployed several units even as my own agency’s responders joined in the pursuit. Every radio transmission was hastened and atmospheric, police sirens blaring in the background as officers, deputies, troopers, and at least two detectives (my brother included) did everything they could manage to minimize the damage this man caused and dangers he posed as he tried to evade them.
There was a brief silence, wherein the 10-code for a motor vehicle accident went over the radio. I transmitted a request for the involved vehicles and the location of the collision so that I could keep good track of the incident. No reply came for about thirty seconds. Then, within a few seconds of hearing that the city police department had one subject in custody, I heard it.
A trap was set within my mind that would plague me from then, onward.
A radio transmission went out for an ambulance to respond to the scene. It was for a detective from my agency involved in a serious motor vehicle accident.
My heart didn’t just skip a beat, it completely froze over.
I broke protocol and asked for clarification that my brother was okay. It was unprofessional. It also didn’t get a response for what felt like a silent eternity.
For 44 seconds, I was nauseated with the thought I had killed my brother.
It would not be unprecedented. Police officers are in fatal car accidents with unfortunate frequency; it is a hazard of the workplace. But I was dispatching, that afternoon… and that was my brother.
I heard my father’s voice, as clearly as if he were standing right behind me, coarse and dismayed. When I looked back, I didn’t see him, but my sergeant, through a line of tears welling in the lids of my eyes. He might have scolded me about my radio transmission, or he might have told me that he was sure my brother was okay. But it wasn’t my father, standing there, and I could have sworn it was. I could have sworn I broke his heart, posthumously.
My brother was indeed involved in an accident, that day, which was the catalyst for his unplanned retirement after nearly 30 years of loyal service. In a way, I still feel pangs of guilt even now. I was his dispatcher, and I felt like I fed the end of his career to him, as I might have anyone else that happened to be where he was at the time. However, he didn’t die, and though the injuries he sustained that day were career-ending, he does not blame me for any of it.
I didn’t steal from Sears and lead him on a dangerous pursuit.
I didn’t place him on the road in front of the mall precisely when and where the suspect decided to make his exit.
I did my job. He did his. That’s that... but those moments, when I thought, ‘my God, I killed my brother,’ are branded on my heart.
I wake in terror, sometimes, recalling how that moment felt, believing it again. There are times when I am doing something as innocuous as starting my truck, watching television, or struggling to hear a radio transmission at my current job (which is still a dispatching position, so that probably contributes), and I am back there, feeling my heart freeze over, hearing my father’s tortured admonishment over my shoulder. Whatever stress it is that brings me back to that moment, its importance and severity magnifies as if the stakes were just as high as they were, that day.
My PTSD stems not only from this incident, but from many others further in my past. There are times when I am brought back to the twelve-year-old version of Mike, bullied relentlessly, pushed to fight back at long last and feeling dreadful guilt not because I might be in trouble, but because I was so afraid that I may have hurt my own tormentors.
There are other times when I am dragged back to a time when I was quite a bit older, but not yet a police dispatcher, trying to help my dad make some repairs when he suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, spun in anger and called me the worst thing I could hear from the man whose opinions of me mattered the most: a ‘loser.’
There are many more traumas, some of which are truly unspeakable and too freshly uncovered through therapy and self-reflection to share with you, here... at least for the moment. The pain is too raw; the trauma almost implacable once triggered.
My traps are set by my past, but I am getting used to recognizing them when they are near, to take care where I tread so that I might avoid springing them and sending myself back to that fragile, terrified, hopeless state. However, there is some sense of power I have gained in owning my past, rather than letting it own me. At the very least, the fact that I can discuss any of this the way I am means that I am making progress.
I am getting stronger, and each one of these demons I conquer is one less to fear.