There truly isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think about the horror of that moment when a decision had to be made to react, to shoot or not, and then deciding to shoot – having no choice – the shot was fatal and it turns out the suspect was not armed after all – always wishing that I wasn’t there to start off with. However, I was there, it happened, I can never change that. Every day, day after day for going on to 28 years now and I doubt if there will ever be an end in sight.
The decision, though deemed by all those who investigated the shooting and dissected the entire decision making second by second to find any wrong-doing, to be the correct one based on all the facts was nevertheless one that was a marked departure from how I was raised and why I joined the police service. I didn’t join the police service to cause harm; I was raised to want to help people, not kill them.
Yes, I understood the entire concept of having to use force if required, but never equated doing that part of the job with the personal and moral conflict that it would create in me. The fatal use of force would cause me great suffering as a result. The injury to my brain, as a result of the incident, was indeed a physical one. Based on everything we know about trauma today, that is not in doubt. The chemicals that flow freely within the brain to help it stay healthy and smooth running were all thrown out of balance. This imbalance happened instantly from the moment that I went from using a logical clear thinking brain to one that had switched to the primitive reactions of “fight or flight”. I could tell things were different in the seconds, that felt like minutes, during the incident itself. Sound distorted, for example, in that for a split second as I pulled the trigger it sounded like a popcorn pop and a split second later the same sound now came to me as if I had shot off a canon. My visual perception went out of whack as well, as I watched smoke and flames slowly come out of the end of the gun barrel. I saw a huge tree in the way of my line of sight and worried over how I could use the tree to both protect myself but then how to get around it in my pursuit of the suspect. In truth, the tree was maybe a ½ inch in diameter. As I was interacting with the suspect it seemed as if time stood still. I remember scanning the area around the both of us and seeing my partner leaping towards the passenger side of the suspect’s vehicle as I ran towards the driver’s side and my partner seemed to be in slow motion, hanging in the air in between steps, I saw a man standing on the side of the road with a dog at the end of a leash and a lady standing out on the front porch of her house located next door to where we were and though I knew she was saying something I couldn’t make sense of what it was she was saying. It was all in slow motion with moments of real time interspersed. At one moment and for only a second or so, it all became really strange in that I seemed to be watching everything happening from up in the air at about 10 feet above and behind me, like a movie in slow motion. Throughout all this distortion and confusion, I struggled fiercely to seek logic and clarity in thought, as it became apparent to me that if ever I had to truly concentrate on what I was doing this was that moment, otherwise I had no control whatsoever.
After shooting the first suspect, the second suspect put his hands up where I could see them and gave himself up as he sat in the driver’s seat of the car. I pulled him out of the car and started to place handcuffs on him when I felt a tap on my shoulder, which almost triggered a violent reaction on my part, but as I turned quickly I saw that it was a fellow police officer who was offering to take over the physical arrest of this suspect. I accepted his help, stood up and back and looked around. There were several police cars there, a fire truck and ambulance as well, with First Responders walking and running around everywhere around me. Lights and sirens were going off and I heard them and saw them all for the first time, just then, as my logical brain tried to come back to life. I felt physically exhausted, as if I had run a 5 K run, out of breath, sweating profusely, shaking like a leaf, almost incapable of standing on my own. I leaned back against a patrol car and held myself up that way. I was waving in and out of the present. Everything being done and said around me was clear and precise one moment and then for a split second or so, everything would be in slow motion again with sound coming slow, low and distorted as well. I remember the sergeant at the scene approaching me and saying something as he stared right at me, but I couldn’t make out what he was saying and then, almost like cotton being pulled out of my ears, I clearly heard him say, “Syd, I will need to take your gun from you.” I gave it to him, of course, but I thought then, I am not well! That was an understated thought.
Once these certain parts of my brain that controlled my animal instinct to survive went into over-drive, they didn’t turn off very easily, and I found myself locked into a world of fear, anxiety, panic attacks, irritability, nightmares, and paranoia to name a few of the things I found myself struggling with. My brain was locked into that “flight or fight” position, overpowering and diminishing and interfering with those other parts of my brain that would allow me to think calmly, clearly and logically, to feel safe once again and to once again live as I had before. Little did I know then that that would never happen. Psychologically, my well established and personally trademarked emotions, thoughts and behaviours were thrown out of balance, compared to my usual way of behaving. I was a mess and there truly didn’t seem to be a way out of it when trying to fix it all on my own.
I tried to reason my way out of it. I spent hours and hours pacing the living room floor, night after night, after everyone else in my family had long gone to sleep, trying to logically work my way past the barrier that blocked my ability to understand what had happened out there and to feel safe and secure again in my own environment. I kept going over the event asking myself hundreds of times over and over again, “Did I miss something?” “Did I react too quickly?”. There never was an answer that I could give myself – the point was, no matter how justified the act to shoot was deemed to be – I felt broken inside and I couldn’t figure out how to fix that, so that I could stop thinking about it.
I tried to self-medicate by popping pain and anti-inflammatory pills hoping that my body would be forced to sleep, but because my brain wouldn’t shut off, I ended up waking up anyways and now found myself pacing the floor lethargically. That didn’t work.
One of the senior officers at work had suggested to me that I go home and have a few drinks and things would be ok come the next morning, so I tried drinking myself, several times, into a stupor with alcohol, thinking that that would not only close down my body but shut my brain off as well. I ended up waking up anyways and now found myself pacing the floor drunkenly and having even less control of my thoughts than when I was sober. It was worse than ever. That didn’t work.
I tried using both medicine and alcohol together and that just scared my wife horribly and she ended up staying awake all those nights watching over me as I laid in bed kicking and lashing out and shouting out all night long. Just being in bed with me, as my spouse, when I did that, was not safe for her. That didn’t work.
Finally, after months of living like that I reached a dark and exhausting point where finally suicide seemed to me to be the best and only option left. I had held on as long as I could, now it was time for the pain to end.
My wife, however, had it in her mind that that was not going to happen. She knew that somewhere within that mess of a man she now lived with, there was a man she once loved and married and had children with. She needed to find that guy within me and I needed to find that guy too, but all my attempts had failed.
I wasn’t ready to admit that I needed help, though I realized I was really screwing things up on my own. My wife on the other hand knew that I would not be able to do this on my own. She reached out for help unbeknownst to me at the time. First she called the police station and spoke to the NCO desk reception, as she didn’t know who else to call and she told the officer who answered that her husband was not well and that he needed help. He asked my wife what platoon I was assigned to. “E” Platoon, she responded, to which he said, “E Platoon is working in five days, call back then.” She hung up. She then called the Police Association and spoke to the receptionist who immediately transferred her to the president of the association who listened carefully and told her that he didn’t know what he had to offer but that he would find out and call back. Within half an hour he called back with the name of a psychologist who was experienced in dealing with Canadians who were returning from their participation as solders in the Vietnam war. Once she connected with this psychologist and had a chat with him and found out he was willing to see me right away, she gave me an option. She very tearfully, and with a broken heart, made it very clear to me without doubt, that I needed help and that she had arranged for me to get it and that if I didn’t accept it, then she would have to make another decision. I knew the implication. I chose family over ego.
>From the moment I met with the psychologist and he explained to me that all of my reactions were absolutely normal reactions to an abnormal situation and that there are things that I can do for myself with his help and direction, that will lead me out of this quagmire of self destruction, I felt a great sense of relief. I remember the weight of fear and anxiety lifting off my shoulders so vividly that I actually did feel lighthearted. At the same time that I started to visit the psychologist, we brought our family doctor into the loop and he turned out to be totally in tune with what was going on in my life and ready to help in any way he could.
Now the journey to recovery began. It took time and not every step forward stayed a step forward. Every now and again I would fall back, but never as far back as I was before and as every step was taken forward I got stronger. At one point, I can’t remember when, but suddenly I actually had a full night’s sleep. I couldn’t believe it. The damaging event never left my mind, but I was learning to live with it rather than struggling to deny it.
Once I realized that I would forever have to live with the horror of that moment but could put in place some techniques and thought processes that would allow me to move on in spite of the memory, I knew that I could conquer this. I just needed help getting there.
I could not have done this on my own and I clearly knew that now. My spouse was so proud of me. We consciously and intentionally took this journey through all this struggle together. We had to fall in love all over again, since I was now someone new, someone who was not the person she knew before the shooting.
Over time, with the help of family, friends, doctors and peers I started the journey into positive growth. Even with the peers that I had joined with to help each other in an informal way, there were times that we seemed to struggle in spite of all the help that we offered each other. Not everything was smooth sailing by any means. There were days on end where I seemed to be living under a dark and debilitating bout of depression, or an electrifying and paralyzing bout of anxiety. But I was learning to manage these times with the therapy and medication that had been given to me. And if it wasn’t for the peer group of people who had all banded together as survivors of fatal or near fatal work related events it would have been a lot more difficult for me and my family.
Anger and trust became the largest issues I had to address. It`s hard to trust the work environment when you find yourself being investigated by them as a criminal for having done what they asked of you. Dr. Jonathan Douglas points out that this is called, Sanctuary Trauma where he states, “In some cases, the failure of ‘The System’ is worse than the injury caused by the original incident. When the people who are supposed to help you turn you away, doubt your story, or drop the ball, the result can be devastating.” He goes on to further point out, “And the deeper that sense of injustice, the more persistent the physical and psychological injuries will be, the greater the anger and bitterness…and the more ridiculous words like “acceptance” and “forgiveness” will sound. “Letting go” won’t seem like much of an option.”
And that, in as succinct a way as can be said, is why so many of us who have been injured this way, are struggling.
It took six years for me to get past my anger and distrust of my work environment. But when I finally did get past it, it was such a relief. What helped was reading and thinking deeply through philosophical stories such as this one by Tanzan (18??-1892) who was a Buddhist monk and professor of philosophy at the Japanese Imperial University (now the University of Tokyo) during the Meiji Period. Considered a Zen master, the following is one of his most famous stories called The Muddy Road:
Tanzan and Ekido were once traveling together down a muddy road. A heavy rain was falling. As they came around the bend, they met a lovely girl in a silk kimono and sash unable to cross at an intersection.
“Come on, girl,” said Tanzan at once. Lifting her in his arms, he carried her over the mud.
Ekido did not speak until that night when they reached a lodging temple. Then he could no longer restrain himself. “We monks don’t go near females,” he told Tanzan, “especially not young and lovely ones. It is dangerous. Why did you do that?”
“I left the girl there,” said Tanzan. “Are you still carrying her?”
Letting go of a problem is always difficult. However, I slowly came to realize that no matter how angry I was, I could not stop the beauty of a sun rising or the stars from shining. Eventually, I came to realize that the guy who was hurting me the most was me. I stayed angry far too long. Once I realized that I was harder on myself than anyone else was, I was more capable of facing the challenges of trying to get along with others and letting go. Once anger was addressed healing progressed quickly.
To help achieve positive growth and get life back I believe that we have to address three pillars to good mental health recovery. The first is the physical injury which requires medication to adjust, the second is the psychological injury which requires therapy and the third and often forgotten pillar is the moral injury, that which deals with the soul, the core being, the logic, our personal spirit that had been torn away for a few seconds in order for us to survive and now we have to live with the consequences. It is this moral injury that sometimes feeds anger the most, because as most everyone around you is treating you like a hero for having had the courage to do what you had to do, and outwardly you show appreciation for their supportive comments, inside you feel emotionally broken. Managing this deep rooted anger and contradiction of emotions is truly very difficult to do on one’s own, which is why having a good group of peers to lean on, those who have walked in similar situations is absolutely crucial.
Peer support is the foundation piece through which lived experience connects with empathy to those who have been traumatized and gets them to the help they need, medical or psychological, and supports them through the process of healing with reassurance and guidance and once they are strong enough, lets them go without obligation to the support that was offered. No one mental health service product can stand on its own…it all needs to work as one for the benefit of the sufferer.
The informal peer support group that was started amongst Ottawa police officers involved in shootings in 1988 still exists and has been instrumental in helping hundreds of officers over their many years of existence.
I was a constable at the time of my shooting and over time my organization saw in me an officer who could handle himself and so I got promoted to Sergeant on patrol, then on to Staff Sergeant in charge of all recruiting and training. I was then invited to partake in a short peacekeeping mission with the Pearson Peacekeeper’s in addressing events in the Sudan. I was subsequently nominated by my peers and the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and was inducted as a Member of the Order of Merit for Police, and retired after 31 years of service a proud member of the Ottawa Police Service.
Upon my retirement I wrote my story in a book called “56 Seconds” and then wrote another one entitled, “How to Survive PTSD and Build Peer Support”. Some people say that it helps to write one’s story, I am not so sure I would agree to that claim. However, I had been receiving requests by many for assistance in the development of their own informal peer support groups which I was extremely pleased to receive. So, I took the time and effort in writing those two books specifically to help with the development of informal peer support. So far, many people have told me that these have helped them along through their struggles and peer group development and for that I am forever grateful.
I have since taken to giving talks on trauma survival and I enjoy speaking to families of First Responders and Trauma Survivors and students interested in entering into First Responder or Health and Wellness careers, but my heart still sits with speaking to Front Line first responders themselves. My wife travels with me when I speak to make sure I stay grounded.
I have learned to step back and address those dark moments when they still flash into my life by using techniques that work for me. Each person has to find their own way of dealing with those moments and that is where a good trauma oriented psychologist or social worker can help.
That is why we cling close to each other, those of us who have survived. These things make sense to us. We smile as we tell our story to those who are curious and make it sound like the reading of a book, alien and distant from where we are as we speak, but what many don’t know is that in the telling we are re-living and all the pain, the emotions, the anxiety, fear, horror and loss of control all come back to haunt us. As we grow stronger the haunting lasts less and less long, but it is always there nonetheless. It doesn’t even help when we say to ourselves, “Oh well, maybe my story will help someone else”, because for a time we have to focus only on recovering ourselves…again. I now control the demon that lives within me and my work as a peer is only really just beginning.
In March of 2014 I developed a training curriculum based of the Mental Health Commission’s Guidelines to Selecting and Training peers. Later that year the Mood Disorders Society of Canada called upon me to join them as an advisor for peer support. Very shortly thereafter MDSC was requested to provide a quote for the management and training of Peers with an Ontario Police Service. So, the need to develop a team of experts and trainers came about as a result of this request.
Recognizing that there are many ways to approach peer support management, and with me being personally well acquainted with the informal structure, I sought out one of the best in the industry for peer support management in the formal structure – Brad McKay and asked him to help lead and develop this team of advisors for trauma management and peer support development.
I felt honoured that Brad agreed to join me as a co-lead of the Peer and Trauma Support Systems Group at Mood Disorders Society of Canada. Together we have over 50 years’ peer support experience.
About the Author: Syd Gravel is a 31 year veteran and former Staff Sergeant of the Ottawa Police Service. As a result of his experience both as a 25 year survivor of PTSD and then 10 years as Staff Sergeant in charge of recruitment and training, Syd has observed some very interesting correlations between our recruiting and training practices and how these affect our employees’ and organizations’ ability to address trauma within the workplace. In 1988, Syd Gravel was one of the founding fathers of Robin’s Blue Circle, a post trauma team that assists officers work their way through the trauma of death or near-death work related incidents. In 2007, Syd was subsequently inducted as a Member of the Order Of Merit (M.O.M.) for his endeavours within policing.
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