The Fight of our Lives by Deborah Louise Ortiz
We all know that being the spouse of a police officer comes with many challenges. It is a way of life that only those who live it can truly understand. There are many things that we must accept and work through in order to make the marriage work. It is a special job that requires special people and in order to make it work we as the spouses must also become special individuals. Police work is dangerous work and waiting for the phone call from him and hearing his voice saying I’m okay was always the best part of my day. You worry and pray a lot. I know I did. I always felt that our marriage consisted of me, him and the job. I am proud of my husband and the work that he did. He has been and will always be my hero. He has received many awards and accommodations for the very dangerous undercover work he has been involved in and the lives that he has saved. Yes, I am very proud of him but the part that I am most proud of is his determination and courage to fight the baddest of bad guys which turned out to be his own mind. My husband suffers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I guess you can call my husband an old school cop who trained hard and learned to be the best at his job but the area that he did not get the proper training in was in guarding his own mind. This just was not addressed when he entered the academy or throughout his career. It was just not part of the law enforcement culture. My husband worked a 22 year law enforcement career and he retired at a young age and we were ready to take on the world. Finally we can enjoy life. But it was in his retirement that all that he had seen, been involved in and he stuffed way down in an attempt to forget and survive began to surface and that is when all hell broke loose for us. Imagine 22 years of literally hundreds of images, some of which he had totally forgotten about suddenly started to resurface with absolutely no idea what was happening and how to handle it. These images consisted of hurt and abused children, deaths in fatal car accidents, suicides and some of life’s most horrific crimes. My husband best describes it as a slide projector that never stops. I had noticed changes in him while he was still on the job but thought it would pass. No one had ever told me that this was something I should be paying attention to. Let’s face it, there was not too much out there to educate the spouses how the traumatic events that our officers deal with throughout their career can come back to haunt them. I didn’t even know about all the horrible things he saw because they don’t come home and talk about it. They protect us from all the bad that they see. Now I was forced to deal with it and I had no clue what was happening to him. This was no longer the man I married and I felt as though I was going to lose my mind. Our marriage was falling apart and we had become total strangers. I was the enemy and he was coming at me with a vengeance. I just wanted out of the chaos because I was convinced that I had married a crazy man and I somehow never noticed. I was scared because everything about my husband changed. His behavior bordered on bizarre and his physical appearance had even changed. There was a blackness in his eyes that was so cold and so scary that I began to worry about the possibility that he would consider suicide. I was falling apart and wasn’t handling things well and eventually we started divorce proceedings and a long dragged out custody battled followed. Remember he decided that I was now the bad guy (he no longer had the bad guys to chase) and he was going to take me down. I had to get out of the sanity for myself and my children. It was during this time that he found himself in trouble and was forced to seek help and that is when the PTSD diagnosis came into play. Everything started to make sense. There was a reason for the insanity. I began to do a great deal of research in an attempt to get us some help and I quickly found out that there were many of us out there and there help for our first responders and families suffering through this nightmare was nearly impossible to find. It was hard enough for the officers who are still active to seek help but if you are retired nobody cares. I knew from my own personal experience that therapy would be the answer but try convincing a police officer to go to a therapist. That would mean that he would have to admit that he was no longer in control and that he needed help. So the divorce proceedings came to a halt because I had the answer and I could not leave him when he was experiencing the biggest battle of his life. Wait, let me rephrase that, we were experiencing the biggest battle of our lives. We were in this together and now that we know what we are dealing with, we had to figure out a way to get through it but just because we knew what it was didn’t mean we had the answers. I knew he wanted help but he had no idea how to get it and his training had taught him that he could handle anything and asking for help only meant that he was weak and that was not something he could deal with. It has been a long hard battle but he finally realized that he could make the choice to get past the stigma and the shame involved because it does not matter what others had to say or what they think, his life, our lives were far more important. Once he felt safe enough to trust, he soon realized that by sharing his experiences with a therapist that we would not self-destruct. Keeping it in would give him that end result. Not too long after that, he was able to share some of what he was going through with me. Most of the time all they need is someone to just listen and I was honored to have been given that gift. I did not need to hear all of the details all I needed to hear was that he was in pain and he needed to know that he was being heard without judgment. He continued seeking others forms of help and today he is working hard on using all that he has learned. There is nothing easy about this and it will take everything you have. It will test you to no end and giving up always seems like the better solution. Quitting should never be an option. My husband and I are closer than we have ever been. Is PTSD still an issue for us? It will always be but now we have the tools to address it head on. Law enforcement families are special families and now we are even more special. We will never be the same people we were before but there is no doubt that we are better people. So in conclusion, this is the way I see it. The police culture must change. We must teach our officers and their families that mental health issues that the law enforcement community deals with is very real and it is destroying lives and if we just continue to speak about it openly and reach out to others then maybe just maybe we can look back one day and say “remember when nobody talked about this.” I believe that we will get to see that day but until then our spouses have their partners at work that have their backs when it comes to their physical well-being but they also need a partner to look out for their mental well-being. We are those partners. Law enforcement is a family occupation. Make mental health a priority when it comes to your family. And spouses remember we are all human beings and don’t forget to make sure you are taking care of yourselves as well. It’s okay to ask for help!