Updated: Feb 27
Notice: Due to some people who can’t respect that this blog is about PTSD and not about conspiracy theories surrounding the Watts case, I have turned off the ability to post public comments. Private comments and email will be screened prior to me viewing them. With that out of the way, I want to express my appreciation for the overwhelming positive comments and support after my first blog post. I’m trying to reply to private comments as they come in but it’s difficult to keep up. Just know that I’m not ignoring your message and will respond as soon as I can. Thanks for your understanding.
For the record, I send my post drafts to the Rzuceks prior to making them public and I’ve received full support and adoration from them. We are very close and I would never write about Shanann, the girls, or Nico without their consent and support.
In this post I’d like to set the record straight about what PTSD is and that you’re NOT weak, crazy or inadequate if you have it. I’m not an MD or mental health professional and don’t claim to know everything about PTSD but here is what I’ve learned so far.
PTSD happens as a result of an actual change in your brain which is caused by a traumatic event(s). Which is why you can’t control it and it’s not your fault! The three parts most affected by trauma are:
1) The “thinking center” (Prefrontal Cortex). This area is responsible for rational thinking, problem solving, empathy, etc. If you have a teenager in the house you should be familiar with this part not working correctly. :-)
2) The “memory bank” (Hippocampus). This area files things away in your mental hard drive. When you're overwhelmingly traumatized this part may code events incorrectly thus causing memory issues. The “thinking center” and “memory bank” typically work closely together.
3) The ‘fight or flight calculator” (Amygdala). As a 1st responder you’re likely familiar with this part.
When your brain is subjected to trauma the amygdala (fight or flight calculator) is activated more than the other two parts. Symptoms of a hyperactive amygdala and PTSD are closely related and include chronic stress, guilt, anxiety, irritation, vigilance, fear and lousy sleep patterns. Other symptoms of PTSD are brain fog or not being able to think clearly and the inability to control emotions. If these symptoms seem familiar then it’s time to put yourself in check.
The point of therapy, such as EMDR, is to rewire and retrain your brain to effectively use all three areas more normally. In layman's terms, it helps to reconnect the parts of your brain that help you dump a memory correctly.
My personal experience(s) with PTSD symptoms were no different. I also suffered from physical manifestations caused by stress associated with PTSD. Some may argue that doesn’t happen. Well, they’re wrong. Simple as that.
Not long after Watts’ sentencing hearing and cleaning up the case file Christmas break was upon us. As a family, we typically go somewhere during this time just to get away from work and be in a warmer climate. As an avid classic car restorer and builder I chose to spend half of the break in my garage in an attempt to decompress while my wife (Lori) and youngest daughter went on to Arizona. After working the Watts case every day for months I was hoping that getting back to my hobbies would put some normalcy back in my life.
While at home those few days I noticed a bald spot on the top of my head that was about the size of a nickel. I didn’t think much of it as I believed it was the result of a welding spark landing on my head and burning my hair. When I arrived in Arizona three days later I asked Lori to look at the spot. I was concerned because it didn't really feel like a burn and felt too smooth. She agreed it was weird but said not to worry because my hair grows like a weed. Regardless, I wrote it off as a burn spot and didn’t think too much about it.
Being in Arizona those few days was nice and I had regret for not going for the entire trip. The climate and change of scenery was a good distraction. Getting away from everything felt rejuvenating and when I returned to work after the New Year’s holiday I was ready to go. Or at least I thought I was. In reality, when I returned to work I couldn’t get into gear or focus on anything. I felt scattered and unable to concentrate. I knew part of the reason was because I didn’t know the “why” part of the case and was having difficulty settling with that realization. Today, I know the main reason for my inability to concentrate was due to post traumatic stress. Aka, “Shell Shock.”
Well into January and February the bald spot on my head slowly grew in size and I knew it wasn’t a burn spot. I continued to ask Lori to look at it. She took a picture to assure me it appeared as if new hair was sprouting in. By the time I went to Wisconsin in February the spot had grown to about the size of a quarter. I began to wear a baseball cap everywhere I went because I was becoming self-conscious about it. I also became concerned about my health as I’d never had anything happen like this before. I decided to go get a blood panel and a check up to see if there were some underlying medical conditions causing my hair loss. Everything in my workup was normal.
After returning from Wisconsin on February 19th my mental state was beyond “Shell Shock.” I thought I was going crazy but knew I had to keep it on the down-low because it would affect my job status. Prior to the Watts case I had completed numerous death investigations including homicides and they never affected me, less the investigations involving kids. I convinced myself I could handle it and things would get better over time.
When Lori asked me, on the morning of February 20th, what I was going to tell the Rzuceks, the overwhelming wave of emotions included anger, sadness and disbelief. Similar to how it feels when you suddenly lose someone who is close to you, which I have experienced more than once. Together with those emotions was knowing that what I was going to tell the Rzuceks would profoundly hurt them again. That was the last thing I wanted to do but I promised I would tell them what Watts said.
On one wall of my office I had a large white board I used to outline “to do'' items for my larger cases. After we arrested Watts this whiteboard filled up with tasks I needed to complete. After Watts plead guilty I erased the whiteboard as part of closing the case file. On February 20th or the morning of the 21st, (the actual time is fuzzy to me) I was in my office when I noticed the whiteboard was full of the same “to do” items I had erased. I know now it was not and I was experiencing one of many (image) flashbacks I’d had since the night of the 18th in Wisconsin. Fortunately, this one is less intrusive. More about flashbacks in a later post.
I came to the realization that something wasn’t right and I should probably talk to someone about it. Not being able to keep control of my emotions was new to me and it was scary that I couldn’t. I sat in my office long enough to think about how I was going to minimize the issue before I spoke with the Commander. I finally walked into his office and told him I thought I should talk to someone to help me process this case because I was having difficulty doing it alone. He was on it immediately and my first visit occurred on the 21st.
On my way to see my therapist I told myself there is no way I’m going to open up to this lady unless I trusted her and that was going to take a while. That’s true to a degree but when I walked in that day and she asked what was going on, I completely lost it. I couldn’t control my emotions in front of a complete stranger and I felt embarrassed, weak, and out of control all over again. I don’t remember what we talked about that day but I do remember feeling as if some of the pressure was off and I could literally breath better.
The following weekend I came down with a cold, or something similar. It was the first time I had been sick in years and it caused me to miss the entire next week of work. Around this same time depression set in and I wasn’t coping well. I had no desire to work or do anything but sleep and lay around the house all while dealing with an uncontrollable wave of emotions. Over the next couple of weeks I requested to continue with some time off work. I figured just being away for a while would get me back to normal.
During this time is when I really understood why people who deal with mental health issues commit suicide and that realization was frightening. Although I began to understand suicide there were two reasons I never went any further with the thought. First, I’ve investigated numerous suicides in my career which included death notifications. I would never put my family through the pain I’ve witnessed many times when I told someone their loved one had taken their own life. Second, is my hatred for the evil that lives in people like Watts and I’ll never let it beat me. The evil that lives among us takes pride in destroying people but it can kiss my ass!
The last week of March was Spring break and we had previously planned a road trip to Arizona. Remembering the rejuvenating, yet short December trip, I was looking forward to going. Logically, I knew I had to pull it together and get out the dark place I was falling into. While in Arizona we met some friends at a restaurant. I don’t recall the name of it but there were many types of exotic birds in cages all around. Looking at the the birds was interesting and a great distraction while we waited for a table.
About the time we were being seated a family walked in behind me. When I heard the voice of a little girl I turned around and saw two girls nearly identical in size and proportion (to each other) as Bella and Celeste. My anxiety level spiked immediately and as I walked past them to leave the restaurant. I began to have the same feelings I had experienced in my hotel room in Wisconsin on the eve of February 18th. Vivid images of Bella and CeCe were going through my head almost like a slideshow.
After I calmed down a bit I realized I was outside and thought everyone was probably wondering where I went. I started back into the restaurant and wrote the experience off as just another bad memory. I remember beelining to the table and avoided looking at anyone in the surrounding area. The table was situated near the back of the dining room and I sat with my back to the crowd. This in itself felt conflicting with my back to a door and people I didn’t know. Although I was cognizant of this, I was more focused on what was going on in my head.
About halfway through dinner I heard voices of who I presumed to be the same two girls who were now seated at a table behind me. The place was loud so I could only hear them when they spoke over the crowd noise. I zoned out for a bit as I began to recall the videos Shanann had of the girls on her phone. It was the only time I had heard their voices. Lori reeled me back into a conversation at the table and I tried to engage but all I really wanted was to get away from that area as my anxiety level was climbing. As we were getting ready to leave I noticed them again and my anxiety was in the red. I don’t recall much after that other than what I describe as a video type flashback and Lori opening the passenger door of the car for me. All I wanted was to go home and be away from people.
It wasn’t long after we returned back to Colorado when I was diagnosed with PTSD and put on official medical leave and workman’s comp status by the brass. Not long after that the associated stress physically manifested. The bald spot on my head getting larger coupled with feeling sickly caused me to see the doctor who did the blood panel workup and also referred me to a dermatologist for my hair loss. After a few expensive and ineffective steroid injections in my scalp my hair continued to fall out in patches. At the time I figured I’d be out of work for only a few weeks and was concerned about being in court looking the way I did.
The photo below shows my hair at the sentencing hearing and the remaining photos are pretty much self explanatory. Rapid weight loss accompanied my alopecia and it didn’t take long to drop 30 lbs, weighing in around 145 lbs at one point.
Today, nearly a year later, both my hair and weight are back to normal but I struggle with other symptoms associated with PTSD. As 1st responders, we’re used to fixing things and moving on to the next problem to fix it. The realization of not being able to fix this when I thought it should be was difficult to accept.
I’ll stress again the importance of taking care of your mind if you’re exposed to trauma. If you’re repeatedly exposed to it you’re at a higher risk but one event (like the Watts case) can cause PTSD. In the cop world, think about all the other people involved in your case or event. People like prosecutors, forensic interviewers, medical examiners and of course, your family. The “brass” of many agencies are taking notice of this but others aren’t. It’s time to fix it. - Dave