I read this morning that five more suicides were reported to BLUE H.E.L.P. this past week. If you’re reading this blog and trying to decide whether to stay in this world or not, please believe that things can and will get better if you allow it to! But you can’t do it alone. Get some backup, stay in the fight and win!
In my first post I wrote about how guilt is associated with PTSD. The reality of that guilt is that it’s typically unsubstantiated. In therapy, I worked through the guilt of not being able to stop Chris Watts from annihilating his family. Logically, I know the idea of stopping him is ridiculous and there was no way I could have. There were no warning signs or even a previous call to the Watts residence. Just the same, that feeling drove my urgency to recover Shanann, Nico, and the girls as quickly as we could. The lengthy process was aggravating (although necessary) and I expected to feel better when it was done, but I didn’t. I carried it for months after the case was adjudicated.
That wasn’t the first time I felt unsubstantiated guilt. In December of 1996 I was a deputy for a large Sheriff’s Office in southern Colorado. I worked a swing shift which ended at 11 PM. For several nights that month I was delivering newspapers after my shift for someone who was too sick to work.
The paper route included several hundred deliveries that had to be completed within 3.5 to 4 hours. It started with driving to a warehouse around 2:30 AM to load up the car with stacks of newspapers and plastic sleeves. From there, you roll, sleeve, and throw. I got stopped a few times by the city guys for driving all over the road and I badged them so they knew I wasn’t a threat. Their questions and my responses were always the same. They asked, “Why the hell are you delivering papers?” To which I responded candidly, “Because we don’t make as much as you city guys!”
In mid December I arrived at the newspaper warehouse around 3:00 AM (or so) to pick up my stacks of papers. Upon leaving the warehouse I noticed smoke rising from the center of a nearby mobile home community. As I got closer the smoke increased and I knew one of the homes was on fire. I navigated through the maze of roads and finally found the home. It was an older model with two doors on one side, both had privacy glass windows in the upper half of the doors. Based on my experience, I assumed the rear door led to a bedroom and the front door led to a living room area. I could see the orange flickering of flames glowing through the glass of the rear door but the front door was dark.
I noticed lights were on inside a home next door and I ran to it. I could hear people talking so I knocked on the door and identified myself as a deputy. They wouldn’t open the door but provided information that confirmed the owner of the burning home was inside. I told them to call 911 and evacuate. I ran back to the home and gained entry through the living room door. As I opened it, smoke swirled out causing me to drop to a prone position. I crawled into the living area and began yelling for anyone inside. About the time I made it to the kitchen area the smoke was about three feet above me and very ominous looking. It was so thick, almost like you could grab a chunk of it and I’d never seen anything like it. When I saw an orange flash above me I quickly crawled back out and it wasn’t long after that the home was fully engulfed.
Each mobile home had a separate propane tank supplying gas for heating. I closed the valves on the tank supplying gas to the burning home along with two others that were near the first tank. I wasn’t sure if they would explode but to err on the side of caution seemed to be the best option. I also woke the residents of the nearby homes and advised them of the fire.
When the fire department arrived I met with the Battalion Chief and told him what I had done and that the neighbors believed the resident was home but that I wasn’t sure. The chief asked me if I was crazy and chewed my ass for going inside! I was a bit offended until he explained that mobile homes are some of the most deadly structures when on fire and that they only enter them after they've extinguished the fire. I thought about what he said as I drove away to deliver papers. As my adrenaline level subsided and I began coughing continuously, I realized the chief was right and going into that mobile home WAS crazy! What the hell was I thinking?!
After I finished the paper route I went home to get some rest but had trouble falling asleep. I wondered if anyone was in the mobile home. Not knowing bothered me to the point I called dispatch who ultimately forwarded my inquiry to the Coroner’s Office. Later that day I received a call from the Coroner advising a man in his 50’s was located directly under the bathroom as the floor had burned out. Reportedly, the fire was caused by a short in the heat tape wrapped around the water pipe leading to the bathroom.
I immediately felt guilty, and as if I had failed. I wondered if I had done enough. I began to second guess my actions and wondered what I could have done just one thing better. Sensing this, the coroner said the man died of smoke inhalation and was most likely gone even before I arrived at the home. This in itself was conflicting. The coroner also said he heard what I had done and that I was lucky to be alive! That was an eye opener!
After a few months passed, my Lt. said he had (previously) nominated me for the National Sheriff’s Association, Deputy Sheriff of the Year Award for my actions that December morning. I placed 2nd to a deputy who died in the line of duty and was awarded posthumously. Internally, I felt undeserving of any recognition because the man died and it was a STUPID move. A life saving award would have been more appropriate if I were able to save his life. Nevertheless, I was awarded two Medals of Valor the following Spring. One from the National Sheriff’s Association and the other from the Sheriff’s Office I was employed by. During all that fanfare I don’t recall ever being asked how I was doing. It doesn’t really matter though, because I would have said, “I’m fine.”
While writing this I thought about how many times firefighters, paramedics, EMT’s, trauma room doctors & nurses deal with the feelings of guilt and/or failure when they lose someone. I can’t imagine they don’t when that happens. How do THEY cope with it? When they save a life, does the good offset the bad? The odds of being repeatedly exposed to this is significantly higher than us cops but we typically don’t think about it. Maybe we should.
I learned a few things from this incident and also from recent trauma therapy. First, let the firefighters do what they do best. If you’re not prepared and trained to enter a burning structure, you’re likely to create more of a problem than you are to aid someone. Or even end up dead yourself. This seems like common sense and goes for anything you’re not trained for, but your adrenaline fueled drive can over power your thought process when faced with something like this. Second, you’re not a superhero and you can’t control everything. People are going to perish around you and no matter what you do, or how hard you try to stop it, in some cases you just won’t be able to. Accepting that fact is difficult but provides some peace when you do.
Finally, never forget to keep your brain healthy after dealing with something like this. I carried the feeling of guilt and second guessed myself for a long time after that incident. Although it was less traumatic than other incidents in my career I now know it still had an effect and that I processed it sub optimally. Be smart and stay safe!