Some words for police officers who were on the front lines of terror
9/22/01 Like most Americans I watched in horror as we experienced this centuries Pearl Harbor. This was an unprovoked attack to the very heart of our values and what we hold dear. There is no way that I as a therapist who has worked with hundreds of “stressed out” police officers can offer much sage advice to readers who have suffered through the trauma of the World Trade Center or the Pentagon. Nothing in my experience or training has prepared me to offer many words of counsel to you. I can only send you my deepest admiration for doing your job and tell you that whatever you feel in the coming days will be a result of your first being human, and second, being a cop.
You may at times wonder whether your feelings, or lack of them, mean you are a little “crazy.” You may see others who weren’t in the thick of things crying, while you can’t. That is normal! There are protective mechanisms that kick in when people experience trauma that is utterly surreal, skyscrapers with thousands inside collapsing, people jumping from 90 stories high. All across America people were in tears, yet many people who witnessed the event still can’t cry. This is normal. Technically it’s called psychic numbing.
The nation owes you a debt of gratitude. You answered the call of duty. A call that came on a normal fall day, out of nowhere. Never in our history were police officers caught in such an attack, never were they so ruthlessly targeted – for the timing of the second WTC plane was both to assure television coverage and the murder of rescue personnel, an old terrorist tactic. I have little doubt that part of the plan included killing cops!
You will watch and participate in the tributes to you and your brave colleagues from President Bush, from grateful New Yorkers, and from a grateful nation. Already you had a who’s who of stars offer heartfelt words and song to you.
This all will help, as will knowing that the country is united in aggressively pursuing justice, with the unrelenting fervor that you yourself would hunt down a cop-killer. But the bottom line is that some of you will end up with some degree of post-trauma stress disorder. Nobody can predict how many of you will be troubled by this months or years from now.
The fact that you are getting tremendous support for your valiant efforts will certainly mitigate against long term ill effects. But you still bore witness to events that, were they not real, would be the stuff of horror films. I want you to know and understand that if you find yourself:
feeling bottled up inside,
having trouble sleeping,
having vivid dreams or nightmares,
drinking too much,
having trouble with intimacy,
spontaneously finding yourself bursting into tears
questioning the meaning of life
not taking pleasure in things you used to enjoy
these are normal reactions to having been part of an extraordinary traumatic life threatening event in which close friends died. It doesn’t mean these symptoms won’t diminish over time. In fact, time is the great healer.
You will probably do what you normally do to deal with stress. If you deal with stress in a healthy way, that’s great. Do more of it. But if not, be careful. If you normally drink, you may drink a bit too much. If you normally avoid talking, you may withdraw even more.
Give it three to six months. If you still are having the reactions listed above, there is very little doubt that you have developed post traumatic stress disorder.
Some of you may find life has become as normal one could expect considering what you role will become as a cop on the home front lines of the new world we’ll be living in. But years from now the images and emotions you instinctively buried from the experiences on and following September 11th may resurface with a sudden, totally unanticipated intensity, and cause you persistent distress. This is what is called delayed post traumatic stress. This can lead to the same symptoms listed above.
If you have any of these symptoms or are troubled in any way, please seek help. There are many people who can help you now, or later. The New York City Police Department has an excellent stress unit. You were there when the city needed you. You did your job valiantly. It’s often difficult for cops to ask for help, but this is something you really have to do, not only for yourself, but for your loved ones and for the city that loves you.