- Mental Health
I was a cop, a police officer, a servant and protector of the public, and one of the “good guys.” I became a cop in 1978, two years after graduating from college. I came to love my profession and I practiced it with great passion for almost 30 years. Quite reluctantly, I left my job in 2006 with a disability retirement. My early retirement from the work I loved and enjoyed so much was due to an insidious terminal disease and a co-occurring mental-emotional condition, which were both quickly degrading my ability to function in my job and my personal life. My disease was addiction. My condition was post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
To begin my story, I can say that I grew up in a good family. I had two brothers who tormented me, but my parents obviously loved each other and all three of their sons. My mom and dad showed their love in many ways, including affectionate and encouraging words, investment of quality time, hugs, and occasional kisses (not much appreciated by young boys). As far as I knew, while I was a kid and still living at home, my parents did not drink, and I never saw any alcohol in our house. I believe we were a very functional family and were fairly typical of many other lower-middle class families back during the 1950s and 1960s. My brothers and I were very active in youth athletic programs and we excelled in school, all the way up through high school and college. Looking back, I can’t see where there were any early indicators that I would be susceptible to alcoholism or mental-emotional problems.
I went to high school in Georgia, graduating in 1972. I was active in extracurricular activities, including various clubs, student-government, and sports. It was in high school that I met and started dating Cathy, who later became my wife. My high school years were a time of great fun, accomplishment, and young love. I had only one encounter with alcohol (three beers) during my high school career, but it did not particularly impress me, nor did it motivate me to continue drinking beer or any other adult beverages at that time.
In college, I majored in Chemistry/Pre-Med, hoping and expecting to be admitted to medical school and to ultimately become an emergency medicine physician or trauma surgeon. However, in spite of accumulating some very good practical experience and academic credentials, I did not get into medical school. This major failure in my life plan was devastating to me, but I did not try to drown my disappointment with alcohol and I don’t believe I suffered any long-term mental-emotional trauma.
After graduating from college, I began working as a chemist/scientist, first in private industry and later at Georgia’s state crime laboratory. It was my exposure to law enforcement through my work at the crime lab that eventually led me to seek a job as a police officer. Ironically, because of my medical background, one of my earlier assignments was to a special unit. This unit investigated and prosecuted medical professionals, mainly doctors and nurses, who became addicted to drugs or alcohol and were reported to be engaging in dangerous or criminal conduct such as working while under the influence, stealing their patients’ medications, or obtaining drugs by prescription fraud. I was not in the least bit sympathetic toward those medical professionals whom I believed had willingly chosen to jeopardize their careers and lives by abusing alcohol and other mind-altering drugs.
Later in my law-enforcement career, as my rank and responsibilities increased and my cases became more complex and significant, I found that alcohol could reduce the stress I was feeling and even help me go to sleep. Consequently, scotch and vodka became medications that I would occasionally use when I felt like I needed them. Initially, I did not use alcohol regularly and I very seldom used it for recreational purposes. However, my drinking pattern began to change in the mid-1990s.
In March of 1996, I experienced the sudden and tragic death of my partner and best friend, Steve. I had tried desperately to save Steve’s life with CPR but I failed. After that incident, I began experiencing chronic depression, anxiety, paranoia, anger, guilt, and shame. Later, those pre-existing feelings and obsessions intensified, and I also developed other problems including impotence, flashbacks and, occasionally, a desire to die in order to escape the mental-emotional pain I was experiencing. I was not able to understand what I was feeling, and nothing consistently provided relief. My doctors prescribed a wide variety of medications, some of which didn’t work for me at all. Some helped but had side effects that were as bad as the problems they were supposed to relieve. I was actually suffering from PTSD at that time, but neither I nor the doctors with whom I had consulted could recognize it.
I eventually found a medication that seemed to work best for me. I had discovered that if I drank enough vodka, I would soon begin feeling better and I would gradually go to sleep or pass out. My troubled, hyper-alert, and hyperactive brain would seemingly shut down for awhile, and I would have at least a few hours of peace. That drinking pattern soon led me to alcohol addiction, although I did not recognize it either. For a few years, I lived as what is sometimes referred to as a functional alcoholic.
In 2003, my family and close friends arranged an intervention for me because they were concerned that I had developed a drinking problem. I still viewed alcoholics as irresponsible and undisciplined people who preferred drunkenness over happy and productive lives. Consequently, I was shocked and angered that they would even consider the possibility that I was an alcoholic. In spite of the great humiliation it caused me and my resolute belief that I was not an alcoholic, I agreed to have an assessment performed at a nearby addiction treatment center. The doctors diagnosed me as being alcohol dependent (an alcoholic), but I would not acknowledge that they were telling me the truth. I believed they were just after the money I would have to pay them if they could convince me to enroll in their treatment program. Also, I was sure that if I went into an inpatient addiction treatment program, my law enforcement career would come to a sudden and ugly end. I refused to get treatment at that time.
By late 2005, vodka had become my primary medication for every feeling and emotion: good, bad, or mixed. I was occasionally drinking enough to cause alcoholic blackouts. During an alcohol-induced blackout in January of 2006, I unknowingly overdosed on tranquilizers. Believing I was on the verge of some kind of life-threatening episode, I admitted myself into a nearby inpatient addiction treatment program. While undergoing treatment, I finally recognized and accepted that I was an alcoholic and that I needed help from other people and God to manage this disease. While I was in treatment, I became increasingly concerned about the possibility of having additional blackouts and making life and death work-related decisions when I was under the influence of alcohol. I concluded that the risks were too great to ignore and I decided to apply for a disability retirement from my job, based upon my impaired hearing, depression/anxiety, and alcoholism. After several months, my disability retirement was granted, and I retired from my agency in June of 2006.
During the first several years following my retirement, I repeatedly relapsed and went back for additional treatment at both inpatient and outpatient programs. In addition to the formal addiction-treatment regimens, I also used outside therapy, support group meetings and literature, an aftercare group, medication, and regular prayer to fight my illness.
When I was not undergoing treatment or actively drinking following a relapse, I tried to keep myself usefully occupied by participating in a variety of activities that included some volunteer work, as well as some short-term contract jobs. One of my jobs was as a military contractor in Iraq, where I was embedded with US Army combat units as a law-enforcement advisor. When I was in Iraq, I hoped and expected that I would be killed during an IED ambush or rocket attack, much preferring that manner of death to the possibility that I would later die back home as a pathetic drunk.
Between 2006 and 2012, I could not find the right combination of treatments and activities to help me stay sober for more than a few months at a time. My alcoholism continued to progress, as did my perceived need to shut down my brain’s thoughts and emotions. In January 2012, I was admitted to my local hospital on two separate occasions within a 30-day period due to bleeding in my esophagus and stomach. This GI bleeding was caused by my frequent drinking of straight vodka and the violent vomiting it would sometimes induce.
During my second hospital admission, on January 28, 2012, one of my therapists who suspected I had PTSD encouraged me to go to an inpatient addiction treatment program at another facility. She explained to me that this other facility was a Dual Diagnosis program. She said the program specialized in treating co-occurring problems, such as mental-emotional disorders and addiction. According to her, this was a relatively new approach to treatment that recognizes the strong link between these disorders that tends to perpetuate both illnesses unless they are treated concurrently. I agreed to go to treatment at this program.
Incredibly, the day that I arrived at the facility to begin treatment was the first day at work for their new clinical director, who was a PTSD treatment specialist. She was previously employed at a veterans’ administration hospital where she had provided PTSD treatment for our military combat veterans.
During my assessment and treatment, I was definitively diagnosed as having PTSD in addition to alcoholism. Subsequently, I was placed in the first group of patients to undergo the facility’s newly-created PTSD treatment program, which targeted active and retired public safety personnel (also referred to as first-responders) who were diagnosed with both PTSD and addiction. While undergoing this state-of-the-art PTSD treatment, I also continued to receive treatment for my alcoholism and chronic relapsing.
The impact of the PTSD treatment on me, as well as the two other former police officers in the group, was miraculous. All three of us experienced significant relief from our PTSD symptoms through the specialized therapy, coupled with the mutual support we were able to provide to each other as members of the same exclusive brotherhood. As former cops, we all spoke the same language and we knew the stresses, fears, and horrors that come with being a cop. One of the other retired cops and I became very close friends, which helped to fill the void that was left in my soul when Steve, my former partner, died.
When I was discharged from the program, I did not immediately go back home. Instead, I complied with the recommendations of my counselors and therapists and enrolled in a residential sober-living community. I lived in that community for six months. While I was there, I was randomly drug-tested, attended at least seven recovery-related meetings each week, and participated in regular counseling sessions. When I left that program in September of 2012, I had accumulated seven months of continuous sobriety. Although I had spent those months living away from my family, friends, home, and church in a foreign and strictly controlled environment, I was feeling better physically, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually than I had in many years. I was finally experiencing life free from the misery and self-destructive bondage of active alcohol addiction and the dark and lonely pain of PTSD.
When I did come back home, my family welcomed me as a returning hero, which was a very humbling and heart-warming experience for me. My 38-year marriage to Cathy, the love of my life, was shaken, but intact. My two sons, their wives, and my grandchildren were very understanding and loving toward me. Once I settled in at home, in addition to attending recovery-related meetings, I got a new job and I signed on as a volunteer for a project called Heroes in Recovery (HIR). HIR is a new program that is attempting to reduce the social stigma associated with seeking treatment for addiction and mental health problems, so that more sufferers will be willing to seek the treatment they need. They must have effective treatment in order to save their lives and to eventually help them learn how to live sober, productive, and enjoyable lives.
It has been by the grace and mercy of God and through the unrelenting love and support of my family, friends, peers, and counselors, that I am living a full and fruitful life today. I have been continuously sober since January 28, 2012, and soon after I began this addiction recovery period, the dark spell of PTSD was broken. Finally, after more than six frustrating years of intensive effort, I have learned how to manage my disorders and live a life that is, more often than not, happy, joyous, and free. Also, I am in a continuous search for opportunities to help other addicts. I especially want to help people who, like me, are struggling to cope with addiction and PTSD. I have been given a great gift that I so much want and need to share. Writing my story and submitting it to Heroes in Recovery is one of the first ways I’ve been able to do that.