Retirement is the occupational hazard they don’t really tell you about.
It wasn’t highlighted as such on the job application.
Albeit inevitable, retiring from policing has its lingering effects.
Not at all surprising, but once you retire be prepared to be forgotten. A wise friend of mine put it eloquently, “They don’t treat you like you left, they treat you like you were never there.”
The toxic work place environment that you chose as a career comes with a lot of baggage. Embrace it, because you’ll be dragging that wheelless piece luggage around post retirement. On the upside it’ll get better, eventually, but that depends how honest you can be with yourself.
I’ve been retired over 3 years now, I don’t miss the job. That said, I don’t have to. I’m forever reminded how it took me on a rollercoaster ride loaded with all the effects, the sleep depravation, the mental exhaustion, the intensely mixed emotions, never feeling safe or secure, and always on guard.
My decision to retire was a necessity for my mental health and wellbeing. I feel nauseous at the thought of that turbulent time. It’s still a bit of a confused memory, it’s almost like my life was on a time lapse feature on my I-phone, at least up to now.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m living the life I want, beyond the grind of the job. We’re fortunate to have a great pension plan. I took advantage of it as soon as I could and hit the ground running when I retired. I’ve been travelling and have been on the road fairly consistently for 3 years. I’ve recently sold my house and no longer call Winnipeg home. That was always my plan to pack up and go, anyone close to me knew this, it’s all I ever talked about.
From living and working in Amsterdam to riding the rails thru Russia and Siberia into Mongolia. Teaching English in Hungary and buying a motorcycle in Vietnam to tour the country side. I even spent a couple months in Indonesia where I became a certified dive-master working at a dive shop. When I returned to Winnipeg, I couldn’t sit still, I had unexplained anxiety, I felt panicked, feeling nothing had changed in my personal relationship, so I took off running again.
I jumped in my van and spent 10 months living in it travelling from Alaska to Baja Mexico. I met amazing people and volunteered in some interesting places along the west coast. I cant explain the rejuvenation I felt, the real person I wanted to be started to emerge. I liked the person I was becoming. Some of the experiences I had while travelling have been unique, unconventional and to say the least, priceless.
It wasn’t until I returned to Winnipeg to prep my house for sale that I felt the tsunami. I felt like a rat in a cage. Winnipeg is a great city with a fantastic community, I called it home for over 30 years, but it just didn’t feel the same for me, I didn’t feel secure.
I began to spiral into that all familiar head space, I felt afraid, I felt a powerful sense of anxiety. Once again I couldn’t explain it. It seemed that everywhere I went there was a reminder, a reminder of a career and a time in my life I wanted to put behind me. The memories of that rollercoaster of mixed emotions were still fresh. I began to fall into my old habits and thought patterns, I felt like a prisoner, a prisoner waiting for his sentence to end.
When I retired I put everything into that proverbial piece of luggage, figuratively speaking, of course. I stuffed it full, put it in the corner and went globetrotting only to find it waiting for me when I returned. In hindsight, I subconsciously knew it was there waiting for me.
That damaged suitcase.
I’ve been wanting to write about this for some time, I thought it was important to share the darker side of reality, my reality. The only thing holding me back was my ego. For many years I hadn’t fully understood the scope of what I was experiencing and how it affected my life and others around me.
I thought this would be an exercise for my well-being, but more importantly I’m hopeful it will serve as an extended arm to remind struggling officers they’re not alone.
I hope in the process I can help lift some of the stigma and start conversations on a topic that people tend to avoid, present company included, the topic of mental health.
To be blunt about it, I admit, at times, I could be an asshole. My rough around the edges demeanour didn’t always have a place or serve a purpose in certain situations. I suspect I became somewhat of a product of the environment I chose to work in, I can’t blame anyone but myself because this was a choice. I’m not looking for any sympathy. I do regret the impact I may have had on people around me in both my professional career and my personal life.
My 27 year career was consistently operational. I started when I was 21. That means that my light switch was always turned on. I assume I was good at what I did, it got me places in major investigative units working on high profile cases for many years. My career was, in some circles considered successful. I’m not trying to glorify my career path, it was just one of many, the one I pursued.
Years of toxic work environments intertwined with complicated cases, tough interviews, organizational disappointments, poor management, unchecked emotions, sleep deprivation, burnout and remaining silent does have a cause and effect.
The effect for me was depression, it’s actually a thing. This wasn’t the blues, or a bad day or something I could just get over, lord knows I tried. We become quite good at masking our internal battles as police officers because of the nature of the work. I began showing no real emotion in my personal relationships and wanted to be alone. If I had an addictive personality I’m positive I would of turned to a substance but I internalized my emotions instead.
In the beginning I was successful at suppressing the things that bothered me, I’d compartmentalize everything, to make issues seem smaller or simply as a way of ignoring them. This seemed to work for most of my career but as I matured (not literally) I lost the ability to keep my emotions in check. I was numb, I began taking risks, using poor judgment and had unexplained frustration with everything.
To use the analogy of the mechanic, whose personal car is a piece of crap or the carpenter whose house is always in the middle of renovations. We, as police officers, are so focussed and busy working out other people’s problems we tend to ignore our own.
It wasn’t always this way for me, it seemed to manifest in the last 4-5 years of my career. I began to feel like an imposter most times, like I didn’t fit in. I felt an inner hatred for myself, constantly afraid I’d be exposed as having a problem, small things would bother me. I was essentially living a double life, successful and confident on the outside but conflicted on the inside.
I feel there are many reasons why police members remain silent and internalize everything, besides the negative stigma attached to a mental health or emotional well-being issue. It’s a harsh workplace and there’s fear of being labeled and judged. For me, I also felt a duty to keep things to myself. I was a professional, I felt or justified that some of the cases I had worked on could be in legal jeopardy if I exposed myself. Its something I signed up for but keeping silent did have repercussions.
It morphed into suicidal thoughts. At first those “what if” thoughts consumed my mind. Was this normal? The thoughts of “what if” I was gone and the aftermath of my death replayed in my mind, I had investigated countless deaths along with suicides of police officers, friends and colleagues. I began to rationalize it, that people would simply move on when I was gone.
Winnipeg is a violent and busy city. The weight of a heavy work load with high-stakes, high pressure investigations, not to mention the countless sleepless nights usually brought it on. It was usually when the fatigue set in from long hours, brought on by the insomnia, brought on by negative thoughts, brought on by the fatigue, brought on by the constant exposure to the dark side of humanity, it was a never ending loop.
For some time I was walking on that fine line. I don’t think that anyone really puts a lot of thought into controlling their own demise to end their life. I think it just happens one day in the spur of the moment when the opportunity presents itself.
Sure I had a support system, ironically it was that same support system that I pushed aside to isolate myself, even the closest people had no idea what I was experiencing because I was afraid to confide in them for fear of judgement, I felt that not confiding in them was a betrayal of our friendship.
I would cut ties from people close to me and push them aside or simply avoid them, my children included. I believed I was creating distance if it were to take a turn for the worst. I drafted a will and began ensuring that things and people around me would be taken care of. I was up and down, manic and exhausted. I wanted to be alone but wasn’t sure why.
At times when I was at my lowest and felt the surge pass, I tried to pick up the pieces of my personal life. I would vaguely describe what I was going thru as a crisis but did not expand on it. At one point I removed my personal firearms from my residence, this came after one evening of foraging in my basement looking for my shot gun.
Sure, I sought professional help on several occasions, I held back and wasn’t honest with my true thoughts of suicide or how bad it was or what I was really experiencing. The callous, stone faced, emotionless cop with hundreds of interrogations of violent manipulative criminals under his belt would take over during the sessions I had.
Even to a professional, especially a police psychologist, I just couldn’t open that suitcase for fear of being thrown into the damaged pile. I couldn’t explain it even if I tried. Anxiety, fear, guilt, worthlessness, anger, frustration. When I did seek outside help it was usually for the effect my depression had on my personal life, not so much the cause. I didn’t know what was happening to me and accepted it as normal, I know now it was far from normal.
I don’t believe the cause was ever exposed. I’m not even sure there’s an easy answer that would identify what I was feeling as a singular cause.
There were several stressful instances in my career that have had an impact on me where the incident was on replay with re-occurring dreams and sleepless nights, I didn’t feel this was the same. I felt it had happened gradually and by the time I recognized it, it had already taken hold of me.
Contrary to my belief, that reality didn’t end with retirement.
I thought I could pack it away for ever and forget about it. I just hit the pause button. I came back from my travels to a wheelless, dusty, damaged piece of luggage. It wasn’t until I unpacked it that I realized I was avoiding it the whole time. I found the right frame work and support system that was willing to listen, but mostly I was able to let go of that cop ego and tell my story.
Once I let go of that ego and exposed my vulnerability, the weight of keeping silent lifted. Unfortunately, its a taboo topic and people will walk away and distance themselves from you, but that’s part of the process. I found that my true friends understood my struggle and were more than willing to listen.
The lingering mental effects of policing dissipate over time, I’m not sure they’ll totally leave me. I’ve embraced this as another unique life experience, one that comes with a career in emergency services. Most times the mental price we pay is overlooked, ignored and accepted as normal.
My journey has always been unconventional, much like how I got here.
This doesn’t mean I am not afraid anymore, because I am.
I still have anxiety, but that’s ok, because it’s probably no more than anyone else. I still have that shitty piece of luggage, but I think I’ve packed it properly, and have not forgotten its there.
I’m hopeful this will resonate with members of the emergency services community and will encourage them not to ignore their struggles, to allow themselves to be vulnerable.
To let go of that cop ego, that superhuman mentality, because we are after all, only human.
Thane Chartrand started his career with the Winnipeg Police Service in January of 1989.
He retired in the spring of 2016 after completing 27 years of police service.
Thane spent several years working in violent crime in the Major Crime and Homicide Units where he was known for his “out of the box” thinking and tenacity as an investigator.
Thane was the primary investigator & interrogator of alleged Winnipeg serial killer Sean Lamb.