EDITORIALS

My Damaged Suitcase – Life After Policing

Thane Chartrand – Van Life – IG

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.”

Life on the Road – TC Instagram

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

Altai, Govi-Altay, Mongolia – TC

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.

Tallinn, Estonia – Thane Chartrand

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.

Disclaimer;

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.

Copan Ruinas – Honduras – TC

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.

Forillon National Park with Mans best Friend – TC

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.

Back on the Road  – Thane Chartrand

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.


Editor’s Note;

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.

17 Comments

  1. Bravo – your courage to dig deep publicly is very brave. This was so well written that even outsiders to the WPS can relate to some degree. Yes, on retirement, one loses their career identity. At 2 yrs post, I started to reinvent myself. Maintain your health – physical and mental.

    Most civilians have no idea of the huge toll it takes on a human to be bombarded daily by serious dark negativity. The constant feeling of helplessness, not being able to make the positive impact you hoped for or expected, erodes character. PTSD is real and reaches far.

    Agreed, Winnipeg scares the pants off me now. Things I recognized 2 yrs ago have come to fruition as in last week’s MLC assault. Voices count if emailing office of local MLA/PM, Pallister, Bowman

    Don’t repurpose that old suitcase of memories and experiences, burn the darn thing! You are well done with it!

  2. James G Jewell

    Rick;

    Thanks for sharing this…

    The constant exposure to the dark side of humanity is bound to take its toll.

    Hope you stay well.

  3. I retired from the WPS 8 years ago after 26 years of service and immediately went to work for government with a group of retired Police officers basically doing the same type of work. Over time I came to realize that there was something wrong with me. From the outside my life was great, I have a loving family, great friends and financial security. On the inside I was tormented why wasn’t I happy? My experiences over my career, the violence, the blood and gore the inhumanity of man never really leaves you. Even now always mentally on guard waiting, expecting something bad to happen. One night a few months ago I finally shared my feelings with wife and came to realization that I needed to reach out and get some help. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Thane. Your courage and honesty is truly appreciated. Thank you for sharing. You have eloquently and succinctly shared the truth behind the badge. Your story is my story, and many more. You are not alone. and I am also unpacking and dissecting much of what you speak about prior to leaving. I have 3 years or more to go and wrestle with turning the switch on and off to go to work and get it DONE. Then come home raise kids, be a partner and try to be less watchful , less aware , less ON. It is truly something they don’t teach or talk about or even assist in managing. It is day by day hour by hour that we learn to nurture our humanity back to health from which the job steals from it. Bit by bit ,hour by hour , call by call, be it a death notification , a horrific scene or an intense investigation over a significant period of time robs officers and first responders of our Innocence, our calm, our natural security our own ability to feel peace and safety. These God given human necessities are replaced with edginess, neediness, emptiness, darkness, sadness and un processed Grief. Much of that we don’t process properly because we carry on to the next one, put the uniform on and do it again, over and over in a sick organization that will take until we are completely empty. This article sheds so much light on the importance and responsibility that organizations and members have to take care of each other to recognize the importance of rest, exercise, family care and support , Well being, “time away from the job”, sleep, nutrition and mental health support. Thank you a million times over Thane. I wish you many blessings. Heather

  5. Great article – I wonder how many others, myself included, can read this and see themselves in this situation. God bless all the brothers suffering in silence – hang in there.

  6. Many years ago I attended a retirement party for a relative by marriage who was a long serving police officer in Winnipeg. I didn’t want to go. I really didn’t like the guy. He was cynical and angry all the time at family gatherings. Just not nice to be around. When I arrived he walked up to greet me with tears in his eyes and hugged me for longer that I might have liked. I was shocked. Then he looked me in the eye and said that he was sorry from the bottom of his heart for the way he had been, for the way he had acted over the years. He had no idea how heavily the job had weighed on him until the weight was lifted that very morning at his retirement. The effect was immediate and life changing for him. And to this day, he remains one of the nicest guys I ever met. He’s gone on to do many meaningful things in service to the community. So I get what was said in this wonderful article. And thanks to all for their service.

  7. Randa Campbell

    Such a wonderful, honest and encouraging story Thane. I think you and your life experiences and journey will help many others understand the importance of reaching out and seeking help. I want you and all the other officers involved in my case to know how much I appreciated everything you all did for my family. Especially for my kids, without you and Gary I don’t know where my daughter would be today. You both went above and beyond to help me with her. My family too dealt and still are dealing Mental Health issues after trauma of losing Morgan. It is a ongoing battle. I can’t even imagine what it was like for you and still is, with everything you saw and dealt with in your 27 years as an Officer. I think of you and the other officers often! Thank you for sharing your journey and your most intimate thoughts and feelings. You are truly an inspiration.

    Thank you from the bottom of my heart Thane and I wish you nothing but peace and happiness on the rest of your journey!

    Randa

  8. Thank you for opening the door that so many are too afraid to for the reasons you mentioned and perhaps more. Reaching for help isn’t a sign of weakness. No one can do it alone. I pray the person I once knew finds thier way to the open door. Wishing you well in the next chapter and thanking you for 27 years of your life serving the citizens of Wpg.

  9. What a great piece to read! I didn’t know you personally Thane but you have exposed a snap shot of your truth and that takes courage. Goodbye to ego and welcome vulnerability. Its a door to healing and living an authentic life. Thank you so much. All the best in the next phase of your journey.

  10. Wow great article Thane, great to hear that you are living life although you past experiences have left scars on your soul. All the best to you in the future.

  11. James G Jewell

    Sharon;

    Thank you for your insightful & meaningful comments.

    I almost felt like I was reading poetry.

    Very well said…

  12. Wherever you go- there you are. Not an angel or a superhero….just a regular human being with regular human needs. Too many of us spend our working lives in environments that do not accept that simple fact that can’t be outrun.

    Pro-social occupations attract and attack what is best in us. The institutions whose missions are to protect and serve our health and safety need to look inward…it starts at home. Until then, those affected are protected primarily by their own self-reflective capacity. When we can’t protect ourselves, who is there for us?

    Loyalty should be a reciprocal relationship- no less with employers than friends.

  13. Thane, our paths were different within the service, but I can relate so much to what you wrote. I felt you were a more eloguent version of myself as I read along. My escape was Thailand with my wife, in large part because I could never relax in Winnipeg. Now my life is simple for now, makeing youtube videos http://www.youtube.com/ourthaijourney. Nothing more serious than what am I going to eat today.

  14. Thane, your candor speaks to your personal strength of character and sends a powerful message to serving members still fighting the good fight. Although I did not know you on a personal level I knew you professionally. Your name came up from time to time in executive discussions and you were always consider to be a ‘go to’ guy. I don’t think any of us were aware of the internal battles you were fighting. Your account will no doubt be most helpful to other members dealing with the same issues you dealt with.

  15. Such an amazing article to both of you. Everyone should read this. Well done.

  16. Gord Schneider

    Very good article James and Thane! Certainly highlights the importance of letting family and friends into our support circle rather than keeping them out. Seeking out professional help is a sign of strength, rather than weakness. Recognizing the need for help only makes us stronger, not only as individuals but in our relationships with those closest too us as well.
    Everyone in policing should have the opportunity to live a long , happy and hopefully healthy retirement after their career is over!!!

    Gord Schneider

  17. I retired 3+ years ago. Different field, lots of pressure, very visible ,one where if you screw up people get hurt or worse. There’s a lot of truth to what you have written. You hit it on the head with your wording – now you don’t exist.

    I bailed a few years early due to stress…… I was concerned it was about to affect my health. One’s “identity” is very much attached to what you did all those years and for me it took the three years to fully separate from it in my mind and become a lot more at peace. Luckily for me I had/have a lot of outside interests from work. Retirement is a good gig once you turn the corner. Some never make it to the corner unfortunately. One more comment: You HAVE to keep up the physical fitness. It is so bloody important. I’m enjoying every day of my retirement. I hope in the long haul you do as well.

Share your thoughts - we value your opinion!