Jason Bonikowsky’s Story – Sergeant, Waterloo Regional Police
I had been a Police Officer for close to 17 years when my life would change in the blink of an eye one day in October 2017. I had spent the majority of my career up to this point in covert units and had been fortunate enough to work around the country in various operations.
In June 2017, I was promoted to Sergeant and assigned to Uniformed Patrol. I had not been in uniform for over 10 years and the inside of the cruiser looked like a very different world then when I had last sat in one. Regardless, I had been hired because I wanted to be the cop in uniform that showed up to the call first, emulating a career my father had done for 32 years with the same service. I was excited to bring my experiences back to the front line and mentor younger officers.
That day started out like any other day shift. It was a beautiful fall day when the call came over the air that would alter the existence I had known and become comfortable with. Without going into salacious detail, I would make a series of decisions, which I stand by to this day, however it would result in the death of two people.
The gravity of that situation, the subsequent and lengthy SIU investigation, and my inability to cope with the dark thoughts that invaded my psyche for the next 15 months would bring me within an inch of taking my own life. I was thrust into a world of mental health and addiction struggles that I had only read about or watched in movies. I couldn’t be the one broken, not me. I had done things in my career that were incredibly perilous, and nothing had ever ‘stuck’ with me or ‘bothered’ me before. If it had, I would have immediately shoved those feelings aside, perceiving them as weak or fraudulent.
I had only taken six sick days in my 17 years of policing, yet following this event, I would find myself unable to even leave the house, let alone go to work. It was completely demoralizing on every level. I didn’t know how to tell people that I was scared of life, I was scared to leave the house, and I was terrified that suicidal ideation enveloped me like a warm blanket. I was always that annoying person who loved life and loved being the center of attention. Now, I thought about ways to kill myself and found myself living under a table in the corner of concrete sunroom for three weeks because it was the only place where I felt safe. I couldn’t muster the courage tell anyone the truth of my existence; it was terrifying, even to me. If anyone else found out the thoughts that were racing through my head, I would be looked down upon and considered weak and unable to do the job I loved. My family tried desperately to find me help, to shield my demise from my daughter, and to convince me that I wasn’t ok.
Those 15 months were the most terrifying months of my life. They would encompass a failed attempt at attending a treatment program sought out by my family and friends, and the feelings of isolation from a management team that had previously allowed me to represent our service across the country and now didn’t know how to talk to me, so they simply didn’t. My peer support was incredible, and my close friends and partners never left my side.
During this time, I would attempt to return to work and back to my shift. Work had always been something I could control, and I thought if I could just get back to work that I could reset things in my life. I had been seeing a psychologist since my impact trauma, and had been diagnosed with PTSD early on; however, I wasn’t being honest with my substance abuse. I was terrified that it would derail my career, even though all I was desperately trying to do was somehow control the chaotic world I was living in mentally.
Following my failed attempt at returning to work, I spiraled hard and fast. It was the ultimate embarrassment and I had failed at the one thing I had always been able to control. My family was desperate at this point, unsure of how to stop the world around us from collapsing. We would make a series of rash financial decisions to try to ‘fix’ what was happening. Buying a house in the country so I could have the space, as I needed to be away from people. Buying a new Harley for ‘road therapy,’ buying a new German Sheppard as a therapy dog, etc. This went against everything that my wife, with her financial background, believed in, but when you’re drowning, you will grab a hold of anything that looks like it may help you float.
By the summer of 2018, I was a full-blown addict. In my skewed sense of reality, alcohol and pharmaceutical medication was the only thing that would make the dark thoughts go away. My physical symptoms that would manifest themselves would result in embarrassing 911 calls. I would dry heave to the point of pulling ribs and blowing blood vessels. I would wake up scared and disappointed to be alive. I drank every day – every single day. Fitness had always been my outlet from my earliest memory. I used to go to the gym at HQ with my Dad when he was on the job. Now, I couldn’t even exist without alcohol. It was pathetic and I knew it, but couldn’t stop it.
My peers would remind me that I didn’t have to come back to work if I couldn’t. No one would blame me. I knew that I could still use being under investigation by SIU as an excuse not to be at work. I didn’t want to end up thrust into another investigation, while still being investigated. Everyone understood that and no one questioned it. Therefore, that’s what I fell back on.
If anyone who hadn’t seen me since my impact trauma saw me at that point, they would have known that the person who I once was, was gone. I was not me. I was not even human.
A year to the date of my impact trauma, I was cleared by SIU. It was sensationalized once again in the media. In my mind, now I had no excuse not to be at work. I had to admit that I wasn’t at work because I couldn’t be at work; I was sick.
My German Sheppard would be hit and killed shortly thereafter. In my vortex of negative self-loathing and toxicity, this was another sign from God. My life was over.
My wife had been by my side from the start, but it had been over a year and I wasn’t willing to get better or to openly admit that I wasn’t well. She would gently tell me that she and my daughter would be leaving in January. I was sick and I didn’t see it. They loved me, but they had to love me from a distance unless I got some help. I didn’t want to hear her, so I didn’t. It went in one ear and out the other. In my reality, no one could understand what I was going through.
In December 2018, I would attend a friend’s house for an annual Christmas gathering of old high school friends. I thought I kept it together that day by only drinking wine. I thought I had everyone fooled, when the only person I was fooling was myself. On my way home, I would be arrested for Over 80 and would blow 3 times the legal limit. That was my own personal moment of reckoning. I was a pathetic addict. I was a loser.
All I had left was my work reputation, and that had just been extinguished. I knew how things worked. In my mind, nothing good I had done would be remembered.
This was my last straw. My suicidal ideation that I had been fighting morphed into being suicidal. If this was my life and if this was going to be my existence moving forward, I wanted nothing to do with it. I was worth more dead than alive. I was a burden to my friends and family, and now I didn’t even have my freedom. The local news would do a segment on me on the nightly broadcast with my name released. It was all crumbling down around me.
My wife sat me down shortly after, gently and lovingly trying to explain to me that she and my daughter were moving, were leaving. She asked me if I had ever thought about killing myself, and I told her my plan. Once they left, that was it, I had the spot picked out and I had embraced suicide as the only way out and the only relief in sight. My family would get whatever was in my pension and wouldn’t have to deal with me. I wouldn’t be scared anymore. Maybe they would do some news coverage of my story and it would help someone else. This made the most sense to me.
Unbeknown to me, my wife would call my service the next day and tell them one final time that if there wasn’t some form of intervention, that I was going to die by my own hand or by misadventure through substance abuse. When I woke up the next day, the house was empty until the knock came at the door.
Two senior members were there. I knew them both and I thought I knew what was happening. In my mind, there was no way I was going to be formed under the mental health act; it simply wasn’t happening. They would treat me with respect and with courtesy. They listened to the web of lies I tried to weave. Unbeknown to me, they didn’t believe ‘I was fine.’ The lies I told were quickly fact-checked and proved to be fraudulent.
I would get a call around an hour later. They had an option if I wanted it. A treatment centre on Vancouver Island geared towards first responders with PTSD and Addiction issues. I remember standing on my back deck in the snow, looking at the forest that I had planned to be the place where I took my own life. I knew this was my chance. I was either willingly choosing death, or I would try to live one last time. I said yes and what caught me off guard was that I meant it.
I wanted to get better. I didn’t want this life.
My mother would show up not long after and what hurt was when she didn’t believe that I had agreed to go to treatment. I was an addict and had become untrustworthy. She said something that would resonate and stick with me. She told me through tears that she was only as healthy as her sickest child and that I was killing her. This killed me.
I would spend the next few days trying to get things in order. The OPP were incredible and moved my fingerprint date up so I could attend treatment. My lawyer would make my first attendance. I said goodbye to my family. They were happy I was getting the help I needed, but it couldn’t change the damage that had been done. I didn’t know if I would ever see them again.
My service sent one of my best friends with me on the trip out west. Although it was wildly embarrassing to have him see me like this, it was a comfort that I will take with me for the rest of my days. He would fly out west with me, and take a return flight home that same day.
On January 2, 2019, I attended Edgewood Health Network in Nanaimo, BC. I would attend their Concurrent Trauma and Addiction Program and would meet the woman who helped to save my life, Debra KINE. She was my counsellor and had helped to create the program. She saved my life.
I would meet and create bonds with other first responders desperate to get better. I would be thrust into a treatment centre filled with addicts that I would have before looked down upon, however, no one cared what I had done or how I had gotten there. All they cared about is that we were all trying to get better. It was the most humbling and incredible experience of my life.
I would leave treatment 63 days later on March 6, 2019. For a few different reasons, my family was back home and agreed to pick me up from the airport. They almost didn’t recognize me. My wife will say that when I got home on the day of my impact trauma, my eyes were dead and lifeless. They remained that way, soulless, until treatment. When she and my daughter saw me, I was 28 pounds lighter, sober, healthy, and happy to be alive again. There was even a spark in my eye.
I would choose to plead guilty to my Over 80. Despite whatever else was occurring in my life, I made the decision to drive that day. How could I ever ask my daughter, or anyone else, to ever accept responsibility for their actions if I didn’t take ownership of this? It wasn’t pleasant, and I still can’t afford to put insurance on my motorcycle (first world problem), but as part of my recovery, it was the right thing to do.
I never in my career thought that I would be the one to put another police officer in the horrific position of arresting another cop, but I had. I went back to the OPP detachment that had arrested me and briefly spoke with the interim detachment commander, apologizing for my actions. I emailed them an account of what had been occurring in my life when the arrest transpired; not as an excuse, but to let them know that they inadvertently saved my life. What they did by arresting me was no different from applying a tourniquet to an arterial bleed or pulling me out of a burning inferno. By adhering to their oath, they had helped save my life; and they deserved to know that.
It would take me until March 23, 2020 to be able to return to work. I would spend that time following treatment, continuing therapy, and working on embracing my new existence.
My family saw that the changes I had made in treatment were real and genuine, and decided to stay with me. I wanted to be alive again, and I suddenly found simple pleasure in a sunny sky or a quiet and still evening.
My Police Service was incredibly understanding with my discipline and would take into account my PTSD and impact trauma. I was still demoted, which was again wildly humbling, but I could accept that; it was fair. I had brought the profession I loved into a negative light and I knew it.
Almost four years after my impact trauma, I am back doing what I love and my personal life is better than it has ever been. I now supervise our Human Trafficking Unit, and have an ability to relate and empathize with people like I never would have been able to otherwise. I now know that the struggle of mental health and addiction is real, and it is terrifying.
I have been sober since January 2, 2019, and I’m happy to be alive.