By Kim Colegrove, contributor to In Public Safety
Last year, more law enforcement officers died from suicide than in the line-of-duty. Sadly, suicide rates are thought to be much higher than reported—it’s widely accepted that police suicide is woefully under-reported, especially when counting those—like my husband—who commit suicide after retiring.
My husband, David Colegrove, was a law enforcement officer for 30 years. He killed himself in 2014, less than three months after he retired. Since his suicide, I’ve learned a lot about trauma, post-traumatic stress, secondary trauma, hypervigilance, and the common predictors of suicide among law enforcement professionals and other first responders.
[Free Resource: Understanding and Managing Law Officer Stress]
First and foremost, I’ve realized that my husband and I were sitting smack dab in the middle of all of that, and we didn’t even know it. David carried a tremendous amount of trauma that had roots in his early years, grew exponentially throughout his police career, and affected all areas of his life.
The Impacts of Trauma
Trauma happens when someone experiences or witnesses abuse, victimization, neglect, loss, violence and disasters. Unfortunately, the majority of first responders experience some kind of trauma during their career and it can be toxic to them mentally and emotionally.
In my husband’s first year of policing, when he was only 21 years old, he was involved in a shooting and someone died. He was called into the police station, where his badge and gun were taken away and he was sent home. For days he did not know what was going to happen. Then he got a call telling him he had been cleared and should report to roll call the next day. And that was that. Back to work. No counseling, no conversation, and no support of any kind.
In the years that followed, the untreated and unprocessed trauma caused David reoccurring stress symptoms, which he was intermittently able to numb — typically with alcohol. Over time, accumulated stress and trauma grew so overwhelming and so powerful that it infiltrated his personality, turning an otherwise great guy into an angry, paranoid, cynical character, or an emotional wreck who could not stop crying.
These stress-induced symptoms ultimately left my husband unable to cope with change, uncertainty, or the most basic daily challenges.
The Dark Side of the Light of My Life
It has taken me a long time to summon the courage to speak honestly about my husband, his issues and our struggles. David was a very proud and private man, so telling his secrets feels like a betrayal of sorts.
I don’t want to let strangers into the dark corners of our life together. I’d much rather talk about the good times, and there were plenty of those. Anyone who knew us knew that we loved each other deeply and shared an intimate friendship that I may never know again. But when I think about keeping the truth to myself and ignoring all the bad things, I think about those officers who are living with such pain today, right now, and I know I have to tell the truth in hopes that they may avoid the same fate as my husband.
The truth is, there was a dark side to David that cast a shadow on our otherwise sunny life — like a murky figure lurking in the background. When David got emotionally triggered by anger or felt threatened in any way, this dark figure would step out of the shadows and take over. This happened rarely, but when it did, it was intense.
That dark guy was never violent towards me, but he was angry and hateful and completely out of control. After each “episode” had subsided, David was embarrassed, ashamed and apologetic. And even though these episodes were awful, I felt so sorry for my husband because it was clear he was full of pain. I believe this dark alter ego developed as a result of years of unresolved trauma and suffering.
The Vulnerability Paradox
I observed and endured a lot of dysfunction as a result of my husband’s unresolved trauma. This is extremely difficult for me to admit because I feel vulnerable exposing the underbelly of my imperfect private life. I guess I’m afraid of being judged.
As I identify this feeling of vulnerability within myself, I realize this is the very fear that gripped my husband and kept him from seeking the help he needed. I have deep compassion for this man who, in order to survive and thrive in the law enforcement culture, felt he could not afford to be vulnerable.
That’s the tangled web, isn’t it? Officers are hurting or are scared, but they want people to think they’re okay. Everyone else seems to be doing just fine. If officers are honest about their struggles, if they say they need help, others may think they are weak or broken or crazy. Not to mention the fact that officers could face demotion or dismissal from their job. So, they stay quiet. And they suffer.
The deeper I get into my work with first responders, the more I realize how important it is for me to let my guard down and speak the truth about my husband’s problems and our mostly awesome, but sometimes awful, life together. There are too many people suffering in silence and WAY too many people dying. I hope that David’s story—our story—will shine a light on this reality so others won’t have to endure the same pain and tragedy.
In the year leading up to my husband’s death, his mental health became increasingly worse. His decision to retire after 30 years triggered a surge of anxiety, and although he had spent two years carefully crafting a new business venture with a partner, David was terrified of the uncertainty of civilian life and wallowed in thoughts about worst-case scenarios.
In hindsight, there were all kinds of warning signs during that year. David’s anxiety intensified and the “episodes,” which were almost always alcohol-induced, became more frequent. The dark guy surfaced more often and brought with him fear, worry, angst, paranoia and irrational behavior.
David’s last day at work was Friday, September 5, 2014. On Saturday we had his retirement party. On Sunday he had a full-blown anxiety attack, and by the following week his anxiety sent him to the emergency room. This kicked off two months of intense inpatient and outpatient treatment and the slew of prescription medications did not help. In fact, they made things worse.
He barely made it through Thanksgiving dinner because the anxiety was so intense that he could not sit still, or focus, or even carry on a normal conversation. Two days later, David drove to the back of our neighborhood, sat in his truck, and shot himself.
Commonalities Among Police Suicide Victims
If you or someone you know is experiencing the following symptoms, especially if multiple symptoms are concurrent or repetitive, please seek help immediately.
- Chronic Stress
- Intense Irritability
- Alcohol Abuse/Alcoholism
- Drug Use/Addiction
- Suicide Ideation
- Talk of Suicide
Don’t hesitate. Don’t wait. Don’t let your pride get in the way. Reach out to someone and tell them you need help, then accept the help, and do whatever it takes to feel better and live better. Know that what you’re experiencing today is treatable, you can recover from this, you can feel better, and you can go on to live your best life. I only wish that I had the knowledge I have today about the impacts of trauma and the treatment options available to have gotten the help for David that he needed and deserved.
About the Author: Kim Colegrove has more than 40 years of experience meditating and has been teaching mindfulness in corporate settings since 2011. Her corporate clients include Garmin International, The National Court Reporters Association, The Department of Veterans Affairs, United Way and others. In 2014, Kim lost her husband, Special Agent David Colegrove, to suicide. As a result of that devastating loss, she founded The PauseFirst Project, and has turned her attention to bringing relief and resilience to first responders through mindfulness training.