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Brad Traves’ Story – Constable, Barrie Police

When asked to write about my journey for the PAO’s Mental Health initiative, I was not certain just how to talk about something that was always taboo in the policing culture.  How do you capture what was not to be discussed??  How can I make a difference?  

As a member with over 25 years of service, I have seen and done a lot in my time.  But the biggest impact in my profession has to be opening up and talking about the difficult subject of police mental health. We are all alpha people and being vulnerable is not something we do well. It is a hard space to be in. During those tough times, it can be lonely, cold, dark, damp, and dirty. Anyone who answers the call to service cannot do this job and not be affected by what we see and do. Because, at the end of the day, we are human beings. The average person will experience 2 to 3 major traumatic events in their lifetime while a police officer (with 20 years of experience) will see over 800 traumatic events! This is a staggering number… I believe we all have a part in changing attitudes, normalizing mental health issues in the workplace and smashing the existing stigmas that still linger in our profession. With this in mind, this is my story.

I grew up in rural southern Ontario in the 1970’s. Back then, we didn’t have cable television, cell phones or the internet. In those days, we left the house in the morning and wouldn’t return until the street-lights came on. In my circle of friends, we often played “Cops & Robbers” and I was always the “Cop.”

This role carried over to the school yard where I was the big kid who stood up to the bullies in the yard. It transferred further into a hockey role whereby I was “the protector” on the ice (I wasn’t known for scoring goals). I stood up for injustice on the ice and my teammates. 

At the conclusion of a junior hockey career, I was fortunate enough to obtain an education through the great game of hockey.  My studies focused on my life’s journey towards law enforcement. Once I earned my Bachelor’s degree, I began the pursuit of landing with a police agency. In 1995, I was successful in my life’s dream and joined the Ontario Provincial Police in early 1996.  I became “The Sheepdog” …

I was living my dream and innocently entered into a journey that would expose me to the dark corners of people’s lives and all the evil that really exists in the world. All I knew was what Hollywood had taught me to date. I wanted to be the fearless character, Martin Riggs from the movie Lethal Weapon. Back then, I was part of a police culture that never talked about their emotions. Back then, I did what was taught to me; you “suck it up!” You use dark humor, bury that stuff because it’s a sign of weakness and keep forging ahead. People that did show cracks in their armor while doing the job were openly chastised and put down. All I knew was that it would NEVER happen to me.

Policing was exciting, rewarding and scary all at the same time. There was zero training on how to navigate through the darkness and remain balanced and healthy. In the early years of my career, I saw it all: Gory suicides, motor vehicle collisions, homicides, robberies, addiction, break and enters, drug overdoses, shootings and stabbings, sexual and domestic abuse. Victims of all ages, sexes and races. Looking into the eyes of pure evil as I closed cell doors. I heard the screams of pain and anguish, and felt the fists pounding on my vest, when I told families their loved ones were dead and never coming home. All this was internalized and never processed. There were times I wish I could have done something more or hoped I could take away their pain. These feelings never left. 

I also experienced frustration, disappointment and anger while doing the job. Being very junior and witnessing complacent “seasoned investigators” explain away suicides that looked like homicides and homicides that looked like suicides. They were disgruntled and didn’t care. It was easier to write these cases off because the involved parties didn’t matter to society. I thought we were better than that. 

The greatest disappointment in the profession came when I witnessed the political side of policing. I watched countless people step all over anybody and everybody to make themselves look better to gain promotion. Rather than being a true leader and recognizing someone was experiencing early mental health challenges, they saw an opportunity to “hold someone accountable” and create a promotional competency for themselves. What I quickly learned was that some people choose to get into policing for the wrong reasons and leave a path of destruction in their wake.

I discovered early on that I had to always be on guard. I had to be hypervigilant and always aware of my surroundings while on duty AND off. When we would go out as a family, my kids and spouse knew where we had to sit and I had to have my back to the wall and near the exits. It was so hard to shut off. However, I was a protector. It was my job to always be suspicious and “sniffing around the fence lines. Barking at things that go bump in the night.”  I protected the community and was hyper-sensitive about protecting my family. I never wanted things I saw in my job to affect my kids and wife. I thought from time to time; “how can I sustain this level of hypervigilance?” 

When I was young in my career, I wrecked my ankle while working as a plain clothes officer and it was like a badge of honour amongst my peers. I was chasing a bad guy and got the catch while tearing my ankle. It was a visible injury that everyone saw. I was off work, rehabbed it and returned to work. No big deal, right? Everyone sees the air cast and crutches. They know how to react to that. What I quickly learned as well was that invisible injuries carried a badge of shame. People just never know what to say…

As the years wore on, I worked night shifts and was on a pager. I had earned the honour of serving with one of the best tactical units in North America. I proudly survived selection and three levels of grueling tactical training. I was physically and mentally tough. We worked at an incredible pace. When the pager went off, we jumped in the gun trucks or hopped in the aircraft and went into the heart of high risk. Time and time again, we would successfully complete our challenging missions while saving lives. We didn’t want accolades or recognition. We remained humble and only wanted mutual respect from the organization for whom we were sacrificing so much. This unit brought some of the most interesting work as police officer. We were part of something greater than ourselves. We were part of major biker operations, gang roundups, hunting and tracking armed persons, weapons and explosive investigations, drug and homicide projects while responding to crisis situations across the province.  Things were exciting!

During this time, things were also becoming unraveled for me inside. Things began to affect my sleep. I got diagnosed with a sleep disturbance and thought that was just life. I was drinking more than I should, but I thought this is how cops cope; just like Hollywood, right? I then began to disassociate with my wife and kids. All I wanted to do was shut my brain off and just be alone. I began to exhibit irritability and moments of anger when at home. This really bothered me because these are the people I love and they didn’t deserve those negative emotions when I came home. The home was a safe place and when I let my guard down, the real me came pouring out. Building shame and guilt began to compound inside me.

All the while, the calls were stacking up inside my head. The sights, sounds, smells and sounds of horror and carnage were not being processed and instead just filed away in my brain. My proverbial “bathtub” was steadily filling up and I didn’t have the know-how to pull the plug and let some of the water out through talking, sharing my feelings or asking for help. I was stuck in the culture of “suck it up” and the fear of losing what I had worked so hard to earn (if I spoke up). I buried things way down and told myself I would be good to go.

In 2004, our unit was subject to an internal investigation and subsequent disbandment as a result of some poor judgement by a senior member of the team. As a team, we took a path to protect the organization and unit. This turned out to be a series of unfortunate events. We all own our actions but when the dust settled, the only thing we were guilty of was excessive loyalty. And just like that, my dream job was over. Everything we worked for and all the sacrifices didn’t matter. Things could have been handled much better by management and most definitely by our unit, but we faced the music. We were charged under the PSA. It really hurt! It would take almost 15 years for me to let go of the betrayal, anger and emotions. That toxic baggage festered and really added to the rapid decline of my mental health. I didn’t know it at the time, but this disbandment would drive me further into darkness. 

Opportunity presented itself in the form of being part of something special with another service. Four of us left the OPP and came to Barrie to help start a full-time tactical program. It was exciting and allowed us to continue with our true calling in policing. Needless to say, others weren’t so excited or welcoming on arrival. I tried to pour myself into my new role but things just didn’t fit. On the outside, I was laughing, smiling and the life of the party. Inside, I was dying and had no idea what was happening to me. It got so bad that I ultimately was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. I didn’t know whether I was coming or going. My confidence was gone. I made poor choices in that time and it resulted in me leaving the tactical world prematurely; for reasons out of my control. My emotions were all over the place. I would find myself in a heap on the floor in tears and no sense of any joy or happiness. I just couldn’t understand why this was happening to me. I would work for my four days and sleep for my entire four days off. It was exhausting.

I kept telling myself I was strong and ok but it was a lie. I was coaching minor hockey and immersed in my work, charitable work and our inaugural peer support program whereby I was helping everyone else but myself. I always met everyone with a smile, jokes and laughter. I became a really good actor. I didn’t want anyone to know I was crumbling inside. Medication and booze helped take the edge off but I was numb. My physical health was steadily declining too. I packed on weight, developed high blood pressure and type 2 diabetes. My bathroom was looking like a pharmacy, which added to my self -loathing and negative self-image. I hated the guy I was looking at in the mirror.

When I returned to uniform patrol, things kept coming at me without ever processing them in my head.  The blood, guts and horrors continued to fill to my proverbial “bathtub.” It was during this time, I ended up trying to talk with our Employee Assistance Program on a number of occasions to no avail. Things led me to being diagnosed with cumulative PTSD. I was devastated! It felt like a death sentence and something that I could never escape from. This was the label that everyone at work would joke about, no longer respect and openly mock. I had been in the office where people would make comments about others who were having problems at work or off work at home. We didn’t know their backgrounds but it didn’t matter. They were weak and couldn’t “suck it up.” Now, it would be me that they would be talking about. I was going to lose everything I had worked so hard for. I never said a word to my supervisors or friends for four years about the letters P-T-S-D.

It wasn’t long until I sadly became another statistic in policing. My relationship with my wife had deteriorated to the point where we separated. My self-worth was gone. In my mind, she would be better off without me.  I was completely embarrassed for my kids to see me this state. I was broken inside yet tried to keep forging on at work.

In December 2017, it took a call where my partner and I fought with a guy who was high on meth for almost 15 mins to unleash all the demons that were inside me. After that event, my “bathtub” overflowed and I couldn’t sleep for 5 days. I relived that fight over and over in my head. The nightmares and flashbacks started coming at me. What was going on? I knew I needed help. In my Peer Support capacity, I had sent people up to HR for help but I never wanted to ask for help for myself.  I was in the throes of a mental health crisis and wanted to discretely ask for the psychiatrist I heard speak with our Peer Support Training but needless to say, things unraveled in that hallway. I ended up in an argument with our HR personnel that resulted in me shouting profanities and walking out. I went to my truck and sobbed uncontrollably. When I collected myself, I went back up to apologize and told HR what was going on in my life. Instead of helping me, my service ended up charging me under the PSA for my actions during a mental health crisis. I own my actions. I was not well and in the midst of a full-blown break down. I guess I expected more from my service. In hindsight, I wanted them to put their arm around me and protect me (like I had done so many times for others).  The hurt felt from this was far reaching and resulted in me not being able to proceed with work. For the first time in my career, I made myself the priority and went off work to file a WSIB claim for PTSD while seeking all the help I needed on my own. 

Things were at an all-time low. As I began therapy, I thought this was forever and all this was going to do was teach me how to cope. I was down in the mud and all I could see was darkness. I didn’t think I would ever get out of this deep hole. As we started to peel off the layers, the nightmares intensified and it was so bad that I was afraid to go to sleep. “Visitors” with these black eyes would come into my room; single file and one-by-one they would just tilt their heads and stare at me. They still had all the gory injuries but they never spoke, rather, they just looked into my soul. It was terrifying! What did they want? Why was this happening to me? I couldn’t sleep at night. The days were consumed by sleeping on the couch and totally disassociating from the rest of the world. I didn’t want to hear from or see anyone. I made excuses to avoid attending group functions or crowds. Little tasks were overwhelming. My personal hygiene was sliding and I found it challenging to just shower and feed myself. I hid from my kids as well. I missed them so much. Superman was dead and it was so embarrassing.

This stage of my life was so exhausting and we were picking at all the open wounds that took years to come to the surface. Like I said before, cops are not good at being vulnerable. Being honest with over 20 years of unchecked emotions seemed an overwhelming task. Panic attacks and extreme sadness were common occurrences. I would re-live all the emotions tied to every face or scream I had seen over those years as a cop. This was NOT Hollywood. I would cry for no reason. I questioned who I was and my mental toughness. I made it through one of the toughest tactical selection processes in North America – why can’t I get through this? 

This type of pain was really pushing me to my limits. I felt guilty for wanting this insurmountable pain to end. Imagine weeks and months of improper sleep. Imagine the fixed illusions your brain was playing on yourself.  Imagine the self-loathing and where your self-worth was during this time. Although I never planned anything to harm myself, I pondered what it would be like if a truck just came across my lane of traffic and ended this pain. This added to my guilt.

By talking with my amazing therapist over time, things started to stabilize. She kept telling me the universe is trying to tell you something. She would say “You are on the right path.  You are putting in the work.”  I was skeptical, however, by slowly and consistently applying some of the concepts, I began to feel better. I was changing my perspective. Instead of going to bed in fear of the nightmares, I went to bed with a plan. I prepared myself how to handle the “visitors” if they came to my room. I learned self-talk and how to reassure/sooth myself when things got elevated in the night. Things started to improve and I was able to get much needed sleep. I started seeing the world by being mindful and grateful for the things I was able to appreciate and love. I began to reconnect with my kids and spend valuable time with them. While I wasn’t looking for a relationship, I met an amazing woman. This brought me much needed joy.

The work continued with an Occupational Therapist to help with the daily tasks that caused me so much angst and challenge. Then, one day, my psychologist smiled and said “you are doing it Brad!  You are there.  I felt grounded and apprehensive at the same time as we discussed return to work. Although I was working hard on myself in the hope of returning to work, my employer was silent. I often met with other members who were off work as well. The common theme between us was that we all felt unsupported by our employer. We were left on our own to navigate through a scary reality. Everyone agreed that things would be better if they had some sort of communication from the service to make us feel valued and important. This factor could greatly improve a member’s recovery.

Returning to work was a monumental task. The stigma was still ever present and I understood how strong these “old school” values lingered. While I kept my chin up, it scared me to death to walk through the door. On the day I returned, there was nobody there to assist in my reintegration back into the fold. It kicked me in the gut but I kept things under control and I did what was asked of me in my return to work. Finally, I received my use of force training and I was allowed to return to the front line. The sense of pride was exactly like it was when I was first hired! The only difference was I had a new realistic outlook and gratitude on my profession. I found myself smiling and so happy to be back serving my community, with a purpose and meaning. People dream of doing what we do and I have the distinct privilege of wearing the uniform, driving the marked cruiser and making a difference in our community. What a gift! 

I thought I was good to go. I made it back. But a phone call changed everything for me in May of 2020. I was back to work and feeling great about myself and how far I had come. The call came from a former colleague who was looking for tactically trained operators to join Canadian special operations members at a residential treatment facility for PTSD. A few guys came to mind who I knew were struggling but as for me, “I was good now.” I had put in the work and I had learned to cope. This all changed when I talked to the doctor who facilitated the program. This wonderful woman told me that the program would be good for my personal resiliency and happiness. It wasn’t long after that I rolled up the long driveway with my long-time friend and colleague to change the rest of my life! It was terrifying but I was willing to lean in and accept the teaching from the program. Throughout the 6 days, I accepted what I had endured and honoured the souls that had caused me so much inner turmoil. I finally left behind the things that didn’t serve me anymore. It was so liberating. We learned that we CAN RECOVER from these dark places. I left with hope and tools and an amazing brotherhood whom I connected with over the week. 

Since that time, I have had ups and downs but I have the toolbox to handle adversity and a new perspective on life. Returning to this program as a peer mentor has really given me an opportunity to help others who were injured souls as a result of doing their jobs. I am reminded of the concepts and take advantage of recharging my batteries in the process. This program was the cherry on top of the prize. I am beyond better now… inner peace has brought me so much joy and happiness. I have deeper meaningful relationships with my kids and loved ones. I go to work with perspective and a better sense of self-awareness. I am all about modelling positive and realistic mental health attitudes in the work-place and at home. Instead of burying emotions and not talking about things, I encourage conversations to boost normalcy and reduce stigmas on the job and in my relationships. I feel like I have so much more to offer our profession and community. 

Moral injuries and sanctuary trauma are very real in today’s front lines. The realities of doing our jobs can impact one’s soul. However, PTSD is NOT a death sentence and something you merely “have to live with.” You can recover and thrive through Post Traumatic GROWTH. Our trauma is personal to each of our own experiences but the emotions tied to the trauma are very similar. We can never compare our trauma to someone else’s. Everyone is different and we all react differently to each unique situation.

I have taken back my life and fought for my happiness. I have gratitude for the dark days for they have taught many lessons. It’s okay to take a knee and ask for help. From what I have learned, we need to connect to ourselves, connect to others and connect to something greater than ourselves. By doing this, we can normalize what we are experiencing and relate to others while not feeling alone in our pain. When a visible injury happens (like a broken bone), it will always heal and the point broken will be stronger. Through my journey, the same principle applies to “invisible injuries.” We can be BEYOND BETTER. We can take the journey and be wiser, more resilient and enjoy a fulfilling life full of hope, goals and dreams again.

I am grateful for this opportunity to tell my story and I hope that by sharing this, I can help others understand and move towards recovering from an invisible injury while smashing the stigma and creating a better culture of understanding and acceptance. We are all worth it and it is never too late. We are all proud “Sheepdogs” who protect the flock from the wolf. We go into the belly of darkness side by side. We would never allow our brothers and sisters to enter into operational danger without backup. Regardless of the battles we all endure; EVERYONE NEEDS BACKUP!

In parting, I leave you all with this powerful poem that was used by the great Nelson Mandela:

INVICTUS
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll.
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley

Thank you.
Brad Traves

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