Laverne Friesen is a current active Peace Officer with the County of Grande Prairie and a mental health advocate. He has 11+ years of experience in law enforcement and 4+ years of experience as a firefighter and this is his story.
If I had been told in 2014 that I would be writing a personal story on mental health for a website, I would have probably chuckled and said, “well, I do handle shit pretty well.” If I had been told this in 2016, I would have wondered if I had anything of value to add. Had I been told this in 2018, I would have replied, “good, good…that means I’m still alive.” Doesn’t life have a funny way of putting us in our places?
Throughout my career, I had truly believed that I was handling trauma and stress appropriately and was well prepared for the trauma that I needed to deal with. Early on in my career, I learned to de-brief after incidents and acquired a well-developed sense of dark humor which I pounced on every opportunity to use. In addition, I started dating, and eventually married, a woman with high emotional intelligence and who was a volunteer victims services advocate. To strengthen my belief that I had emotional trauma beat, I was involved in some devastating situations that we were able to work through as a team.
A few years ago, I was under increased pressure at work and the stress over time became… unbearable. I began to believe that I was experiencing burnout, but I refused to get help. Why? Because I knew what happens to law enforcement personnel who seek out psychological counseling. I “knew” that my career would effectively be over. After a couple of months of persistence from my wife, I went to see a counselor. I walked in with confidence and told her that I needed help getting through my burnout. It did not take long for her to see the true issues and told me that I needed to take a leave from my work for issues other than burnout. I took about 3 weeks off but came back because I was using up my sick time, and there was training I wanted to take, and knew I might not see the opportunity again. So, a lot quicker than I should have (and knowing it in my gut) I returned to work and I undid the effects taking the time away had done for me. I wonder now with the distance from this period if I rushed my return because I was afraid of taking an actual leave would damage my standing with my colleagues and in the department?
I was no better than before I took the time off, quite possibly even worse. I would feel rage when I would read emails from work. On several occasions, I phoned my wife from work in a full-on rage, who would have to step outside her role as a mummy, nurturing our young daughter and infant son, becoming my wailing wall, talking me back down. Talking me through rage, frustration, and underneath it all, fear. Fear for my co-workers, who often seemed bent in their own destruction, fear for my career because I was afraid that my need for “help” might result in being ostracized, that any organization I may wish to work for in the future might hear from my current leadership that I was “mentally weak”, that something might happen to me that would leave my wife to raise our kids without me and that they would be too young to remember me.
After a particularly busy period, where my crew conducted many enforcement operations, proactively generating stats that would have been impressive for an entire department (and another city actually had lauded their team for doing less than our team of 3), with little notice by our leadership, I suddenly I lost all my energy. I simply did not give any F**ks. None. Nada.
I would drive around all day and drink coffee. I began doing the bare minimum where before I had always been a hard-charging proactive employee. At home I began sleeping less, often sleeping 1 ½ to 2 hours a night. I became irritable and short-tempered. I would lay awake at night thinking about how horrible my work life was. I felt like I was in a dark tunnel with no light anywhere and could not see a way out.
„When we feel weak, we drop our heads on the shoulders of others. Don’t get mad when someone does that. Be honored. For that person trusted you enough to, even if subtly, ask you for help.“
At this time in my life, our daughter, a true daddy’s girl, would often wake in the night and I would bring her to our bed. As she was tucked in beside me feeling safe wrapped in my arms, my mind would wander and take me downstairs to the gun safe where I would retrieve my rifle and end my life. Her soft breathing would bring me back to reality and I would reassure myself that I could never do that to her, her younger brother, or their mom.
While awake, I did not feel anything. There was no joy in my life anymore, only despair or nothing at all. I was moody like someone had wired my anger to a light switch. Flick… on. Flick… off. I hated my wife for no reason at all. Everything she said or did was aggravating to me. I would slip into a dark mood and I could be there for 5 minutes or 5 days. To put it shortly, life sucked.
While this was happening in my life, work got even more stressful. A couple of internal incidents ratcheted up my stress level to highs I had never encountered. Meanwhile, I was self-stigmatizing and lying to myself about what I was going through. Every night while I lay awake and thought of suicide, I told myself that it would be better in the daylight… it never was. I told myself that all I had to do was make it to the morning. I knew that I should go see a mental health professional, but I believed without a doubt that it would end my career. I would then convince myself that I was not truly suicidal and would come up with a variety of excuses for why I was not. Not understanding what I was experiencing, I doubted that I had seen enough dead bodies to be feeling this way… had I really been involved in enough trauma at all to be experiencing this?
I was seeing a counselor occasionally, but I did not trust her. I did not trust that she understood the law enforcement / first response world to tell her the full truth. She told me that if I left my job it would get better. I found a similar position with a municipality near our home and was successful in the competition and soon started the new job.
I believed that my mental health would return to normal, but it did not. I went on a back-country holiday with a close friend thinking that it was the reset that I needed. It was not. A couple of months later I was first on the scene of a multi-vehicle collision and I suffered a mild anxiety attack. I got a lump in my throat and I could not talk for fear of crying. I could not talk on the radio. I could not efficiently help injured motorists. I was scared. I knew without a doubt that there was something wrong with me and I knew I needed help. Immediately after the collision I called my wife and cried. We promptly began searching for a psychologist who understood the first responder world and we’re lucky enough to find one.
On the way to my first appointment with my psychologist, I cried. I cried the whole 20 minutes it took me to drive there. I was immensely relieved knowing that I was about to be getting help. I cried for most of the two hours I sat in her office and laid my life bare for her to see. I attended my appointments with her religiously, with the exception of a couple where my anxiety got the better of me and I canceled. We worked on the trauma that had seemingly incapacitated my life. Some days the appointments were exhausting, others refreshing, but they were all so worth it. I learned to turn negatives into positives, live with gratitude… truly life-changing.
Soon after I began seeing the psychologist, I saw my diagnosis on paper, with the symptoms of paranoia, hostility, anxiety, depression. Those are all powerful words, and very sobering to read when used to describe yourself. (Anyone knows what kills your wife’s sex drive? I will give you four guesses)
After about a year of therapy, I began to feel like I was coming out from under the dark cloud that had seemed to follow me constantly. I no longer had feelings of impending doom. I no longer went to work worrying about if I was going to catch heck for something… I never did, I just worried about it. During my worst, I had to tell my new employer, all strangers, that they had hired a broken man. My management team was more understanding and supportive than I knew was possible. I was flabbergasted that talking about my mental health had not ruined my career.
Through-out my experience, I learned how prevalent mental illness, or more appropriately, mental injuries, are in the first responder world. I began to realize the importance of speaking up and talking about my mental health journey. I interviewed on podcasts and promptly received messages from friends and acquaintances who were going through, or had experienced their own mental health journeys.
I learned some important lessons along the way. Remember my self-stigmatization and self-doubt? I learned that it is often not the trauma that we see and deal with out on the street that causes the mental injury, it is the cumulative trauma, often inside the workplace, that causes the injuries. We need to ensure as a society that are creating supportive workplaces.
What are we doing to each other?
Let us be nice to each other.
Life has changed a lot for me since I suffered my occupational stress injury. A day never goes by that I am not grateful for still being here. I got to take our daughter to kindergarten, and now, grade one. I live my life to the fullest, I enjoy the little things. My marriage ended and my wife and I separated, there is no resentment or regrets. We both did the best with what we had, and it did not work… we were both trying to cope with an incredibly difficult time in our lives. We are friends and still care deeply for each other and are both excited for the future.
I live with this motto: Your windshield is bigger than your rearview mirror for a reason.
Laverne Friesen (Peace Officer)