Ryan Harrison, Peer Support Unit, York Regional Police
My name is Ryan Harrison. I am in my 20th year of policing and started my law enforcement journey when I was 20.
This a story of hurt, a story of learning and a story of happiness.
In 2017, I was working in the Guns, Gangs and Drugs Enforcement unit, when things started happening to me that I couldn’t explain. I was in my sixth year of working in an investigative drug enforcement unit, and was also engaging in undercover and covert operations. I had heard of PTSD, but when my world started crumbling down around me, I didn’t realize that it was from that type of mental injury. The next two and a half years were plagued by constant mood swings, night terrors, excessive alcohol and substance abuse, as well as extreme hyper vigilance.
When suffering from night terrors, I would often wake up in the closet, under the bed or in the bathtub. Sometimes I would wake up half dressed, thinking I would be going out to an undercover play when I wasn’t working at all. I didn’t care about anyone else except for myself, as coping was the name of the game. I eventually realized that the night terrors (which by the end of 2018 and into 2019 were happening almost every night) wouldn’t happen if I drank myself to sleep (I found out later in rehab that there was a reason for this involving state of intoxication and not being in your REM cycle while sleeping). I was only able to manage this for so long before my life became unmanageable.
I never considered getting help. I was scared. I was scared of what my work colleagues would think, I was scared I would lose my kids, I was scared that people would think I’m crazy. I was just plain scared to tell anyone. I had hopes of getting promoted out of the drug unit…and I knew full well if this came out that I wouldn’t. I thought if I just held on long enough, I could get promoted and get an office job somewhere and this would go away.
At the end of 2018, I was off on sick time, and told my work colleagues that it was due to my colitis, which I had been diagnosed with in 2015. It was easy to use this excuse because it was the truth. The amount of alcohol I was consuming exacerbated my colitis and it was impossible to be at work without going to the washroom 15-plus times a day. I didn’t tell anyone about what was really ailing me. In July of 2019, I was arrested for impaired driving…by my own police service…and it saved my life…this was day one. Those officers saved my life that night.
I had remembered months before while driving impaired, which at the time was fairly normal for me due to my addictions, that I said to myself “if I keep doing this, I’m going to kill myself, or someone else, or get arrested.” I had hoped for the first option… living had become less and less of something that I wanted to continue. I toiled with the thought of suicide. If it wasn’t for the thought of my children growing up without me, I don’t know if I would be here right now.
When I was arrested, it was like a giant slab of concrete was removed from my back…the gig was up, I couldn’t hide anymore. A week later, I checked into Bellwood Health Services in Toronto, and completed a two and a half month in-patient addictions and trauma program. I remember a really good friend of mine, who had also been through recovery, said to me, “when I decided to go to rehab, I said to myself, ‘I’m only going to do this once, so I’m going to give it everything I have. Alcohol was problem and now it’s my responsibility’.” That statement to me was so powerful. It helped get me through the program.
While I was inpatient, I was diagnosed with extreme complex work-related PTSD, anxiety and depression. I found myself angry and confused. How could this happen to me? I was on such a heightened career trajectory. I thought I was going places. What do I do now? I decided that I couldn’t change anything about it now. I was in rehab. I had this thought based on the old AA serenity prayer (I started going to AA meetings while I was at Bellwood) – God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; Courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference.This prayer has stayed with me for the last three years of my sobriety. I opened myself up to everything that presented itself to me through rehabilitation, even if I did not agree with it at first. Because, like my friend said, I’m only going to do this once, so let’s buy in.
Since leaving Bellwood Health Services in September 2020, I had a plan. It was to learn how to be me again. I plead guilty to my impaired charge and dealt with the consequences, both criminal and PSA. To me, it didn’t matter what I had been dealing with. I made the choice to get behind the wheel and I was prepared to fall on my sword for it. I saw a psychologist once a week for the next couple of years, combined with AA meetings and two years of Bellwood aftercare. When I returned to work in December of 2020, it took some time for me to be comfortable…I wasn’t able to carry my use of force, which made me feel inadequate and less of a man. I also still had feelings of embarrassment, weakness and shame, which I continued to seek help for, along with my PTSD through the help of my psychologist, along with treating the trauma that caused the PTSD. Even just walking into a police facility was challenging and monumental in size. It would cause flashbacks. Often, I would find myself sitting in the Golf Town parking lot across from headquarters sobbing, unable to walk through the doors. To me, it was constant failure each day. I would often read the same quote over and over again…courage doesn’t always roar, sometimes it’s the little voice inside you that says I’ll try again tomorrow. I kept on trying.
Work sucked. I felt like I was a robot doing some administrative tasks that I wasn’t good at. I had to start thinking how I could be meaningful to the service again, and what was meaningful to me knowing my capabilities at this point. I started working for three wonderful bosses between June 2021 and June 2022. One was a sergeant, the other a Staff Sergeant and the other was a Superintendent. I give a lot of credit to them and they will forever be in my debt for making me feel valuable again (you know who you are).
I learned that I was valuable to my organization based on my experience. Through my career path and what led to my downfall. I wanted my story to be something of power and resiliency for anyone struggling with mental health issues, and for them to know that they are strong as well as valuable. I wanted to do everything and anything I could to make sure no one crawled down the same rabbit hole as I did and for them to have the strength to reach out, which I was unable to muster up during those two and a half years of suffering.
I began working on implementing leadership support groups for sworn and civilian members based on the enhancement of emotional intelligence, which then led me to being on the steering committee for a Working with Restrictions Group dedicated to educating senior command and staff about life altering changes that accommodated members go through, to finally creating and facilitating a support group for accommodated members that I am happy to say I am opening up to all police services in Ontario (specifically the GTA surrounding York Region).
I now find myself three years sober (not having consumed drugs or alcohol since the night I was arrested) and learning how to be myself again… The 20-year-old who started this job, who hadn’t yet changed to fit into the policing culture to get where he thought he needed to be, and who was comfortable in his own skin and being vulnerable and open with his feelings. Through my road to recovery, I’ve become a better person, a better man, a better son, father, co worker and neighbour.
Thank you for taking the time to read this.