" I'M NOT CRAZY!" by Carl von Czoernig
When one begins a career in law enforcement, they believe that they can change the world, or at least change their own world by believing they have the ability to affect or have a direct impact on people by "helping". I have talked to a large number of law enforcement officers and the story is the same. They got on the force to help people and make a change. This is something that a police officer learns in short order is nearly impossible. Either by inept administration or by people that refuse to help, making a change quickly becomes a fantasy that is likened to finding the pot at the end of the rainbow.
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be in law enforcement. I had settled on this goal when I was very young and while other children were bouncing around between what they wanted to be when they grew up, I knew what I wanted to be. I wanted to drive a police car and go really fast with the lights and siren blaring. My parents bought me a scanner when I was in my teens and I listened to the county sheriff's dispatchers every day. I fell asleep many nights listening to the secret language they used and dreaming about being on the other end of that scanner.
I started my law enforcement career in 1982 working for a small town police department as a part time dispatcher and filled extra time by cleaning the offices. When I was offered a part time job dispatching, I was excited and wanted to be the best. I emulated dispatchers that I had listened to over the years using bits and pieces of their individual styles, picking out what I thought was their best qualities and adopting them for my own use. I worked on my dispatching personality, not unlike that of a disc jockey, constantly changing and honing my style until I found that perfect and professional dispatcher quality.
A very short time later I was promoted to full time and really started to groove. But this soon proved not to be enough. I listened to the County Sheriff's department dispatchers and longed to be as busy as they were and trying to sound like them. I started to shop for employment at numerous agencies finding that a dispatcher was not a valued commodity no matter how good you were. Most departments were looking for a dispatcher slash secretary with exceptional typing skills. Unfortunately, my self taught three fingered typing style was not fast enough for most prospective employers. If they only knew how fast those same three fingers would eventually learn to type. It may not be pretty, but it's fast.
As I became what I felt was stagnant, I started wondering if I had exhausted all possibilities and was destined to remain obscure and offering little help to the profession. One night at work, having little to do and trying not to fall asleep (although the only officer on duty was in fact sleeping in the jail cell), I decided to prepare a resume and start looking for other work. I used department equipment, paper and postage sending out applications to every law enforcement agency listed in the blue section of the phone book. No one called.
One month later, I got a call from a Sheriff's office that was looking for qualified dispatch personnel and their patrol lieutenant was impressed by my resume. I was hired shortly into my interview and never looked back.
My dreams had come true and I was in seventh heaven. This agency dispatched for a number of police departments and fire departments and a busy shift soon became the rule, not the exception. Again, I was back at the business of changing my style and having a blast. Being the best of the best was my goal and getting there came easily. I soon became one of the few dispatchers that the road officers felt they could depend on and knew that when I was working, that was one less thing they had to concern themselves with. I went above and beyond what was expected of me and at times, even performing work that was designated for the road officers. All was great.
After three years of intense pressure that showed no signs of easing, I began to show signs of stress. I had lost nearly 20 pound and started having marital problems. I began ignoring family responsibility, sleeping as much as possible and growing farther and farther apart from my son.
I had worked my way up from fourteenth in seniority to third in fewer that three years and the high turnover rate meant that more and more responsibility was falling on my shoulders. The senior dispatcher on each shift was responsible for the actions of the entire dispatch center. I then started entertaining thoughts of a career change but didn't know what to do or where to go. Feeling trapped was a sign of things to come, but I didn't pay attention.
I extended myself to the limit working a shift then going out and riding with patrol officers. I became consumed with the desire to become a patrol deputy and spent nearly all of my free time trying to make an impression with the officers and staff.
While I was working midnight shift, I enrolled in the police academy attending classes in the evenings. Having little financial resources, the Sheriff offered to pay my tuition and equipment costs, something that was worth more to me than I could express. This was a sign of confidence and trust from a Sheriff that tended not to show either. I felt that the Sheriff's kindness was in part influenced by the patrol lieutenant whom I respected and admired from the start. He had shown me integrity and a professional drive that I had never seen before. He was the most professional law enforcement officer I had ever known and to this day, he is still unequalled. He had given me the inspiration to be all that I could be. I recall making a bet with one of the chief deputies who I had come to respect deeply, that I was going to graduate from the academy at the top of my class. A declaration that was realized much to my own surprise.
After graduation, doors were opened and I became more and more involved with the patrol division working an average of 100 hours per month for free as a special deputy did. This soon became exhaustive and hard to keep up with, but I still pushed myself harder and harder paying little attention to my family.
One day, with no warning at all, I was asked if I was interested in a position on the patrol division. I accepted with no thought and started the following day. I was walking on air! I had achieved another goal having proved my abilities to the administration and I would now reap the rewards. My future indeed looked bright.
After a brief and ridiculously inadequate training period, I was set loose on the public. I learned in short order that the easiest way to impress my supervisors was with statistical numbers. Traffic enforcement became my main focus. Think about it, how do burglars and robbers get from place to place? The same way everyone else, they drive a car and this was going to be my way of getting to them. A much easier way than driving around looking for suspicious activity that usually turned out to be nothing.
I soon found that this approach was not taken well by my peers. I was taken aside more that once and told to slow down and stop making it rough for everyone. Rough was explained to mean that I was making the senior patrol officers look bad because of my high statistics. A little air had been taken out of my sails and the balloon was starting to deflate. But I ignored the "suggestions" of my concerned brothers and continued on my course.
Less than two years later, I was quietly offered a part time job (contract patrol) with a township working at a reduced overtime rate and under my commission with the sheriff's office. And all they required was an extra forty hours a month from me. I could do this, even at the expense of my family. I took the position, something that was usually offered to those with a lot more seniority than I had.
Through all of this time, I had let my family life dwindle to little more than a passing hello to my wife and avoiding anything that had to do with my children. I decided I didn't want to do the family thing any longer and ended up divorced. I had lost my children, wife, house and over half of my pay check but I didn't care. I started working extra security jobs and as much overtime as I could, not for the money but for the occupation of my spare time.
Very shortly after my divorce, I was married again. A mistake that would later haunt me and a lesson I should have learned the first time around. Soon after, I fell into the same old routine and lost touch with my second wife devoting myself to my work. Nothing else mattered. I had managed to regain custody of my children from my ex-wife because I feared that they would suffer emotional damage due to the ex's life style. However, work was more important and the responsibility of my children was handed over to my second wife. Whether she wanted it or not didn't matter.
By this time, I was starting to really feel the effects of stress but I didn't know what was happening to me. The world was becoming more and more violent and I was in the middle of it. Finding a gun on someone had been rare at one point but now it was becoming almost a weekly thing. I soon was feeling sick to my stomach after every arrest involving a gun. Rolaids, or cop candy as they are know, became a fifth food group and I consumed a diesel sized bottle every week. I never left home without them.
Death had never really bothered me. I could eat a ham sandwich and process a suicide scene at the same time. But I was now noticing that death was becoming harder for me to accept. I found myself crying at the scene of a seven-year-old boy that had drowned. The doctors and paramedics had worked on the boy for over an hour and managed to bring him back several times. Their attempts eventually failed and the boy died at the scene. Looking at the pain in his parents' eyes and feeling so helpless became overwhelming and I lost control. Once the tears started flowing, I couldn't stop them and had to leave. The death of a child is very hard to watch and it's something that I won't ever forget.
Dealing with senseless death became even more difficult as time went on. I had the misfortune to be the first person on the scene of a horrible accident where a Chevy Blazer had struck a large oak tree head on. Before I arrived on the scene, I could see the smoke. I knew it was going to be bad, but I found it worse than I had expected.
When I pulled up on the scene, I was immediately confronted with a man that was not recognizable. I later learned that I knew the man but only in passing. Nearly all of his clothing had been burned off and he looked as if he were a ghost. There was no hair left on his head and his skin had been burned off leaving a white fatty looking layer. He was still smoking and wandering around, he had no idea where he was or what had happened. I was then given the worse news... There was someone still inside the car, which was now fully engulfed in fire. The smell of that scene permeated my clothing and burned it's self into my memory.
I recall several years after that accident; I was called as a witness in a civil action against Chevrolet arising from the accident. During my deposition, I was abruptly interrupted and asked if I needed a break. I found that I had tears running down my face and was not even aware of them. The deposition ended at that point and I never heard another thing about the case. The surviving victim had lost his legs and was covered with scars.
Then came one of the worst incidents I had ever been involved in. A father had shot a police officer at his front door and was holed up in his home with his young son. When I arrived on the scene, I ignored my assigned duties and got involved in the tactical team's actions. Something that I wish I had never done.
What had started out to be exciting soon turned violent. I had stationed myself next to the suspect's home at almost the same time the tactical team decided to enter the home. In a split second after entry, the gunfire started. I could hear popping that was later found to be bullets striking the garage wall near where I was standing. After a hail of gunfire that seemed to never end, tactical team officers were flooding out of the front door and spilling onto the front yard. I was surprised by an officer who came running from the yard and collapsed in my arms telling me that he had been shot in the stomach. I screamed into the radio for a medic over and over again and it seemed to take forever for them to get there. When it was all said and done, three more police officers had been shot.
After the failed entry, plans were being made to end the situation. I had overheard a solution that was being contemplated that was unacceptable to me. If this plan were carried out, the son would most likely die in the process. This apparently was an acceptable loss to the people in charge. All through this, we had been speaking with the wife who was also still in the home. She was bedridden, ill and had not eaten since the incident began. All she wanted was assurance that her son was okay. She was told over and over again that he would be fine. Shortly thereafter, I was told to go home.
The following day, everything was quiet and I suspected the worse. Subsequent entry into the home by the team found that both the father and the son were dead. Each had died of a gunshot wound to the head. I still believe that we played a part in the death of the son, through direct action on our part, he was dead. I can't help thinking that we most likely contributed to the death of that little boy.
In was given the task of notifying the surviving family and ended up losing my composure. It was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do, not only because I had to tell them that the boy was dead, but because I was under orders to lie to them about how pending the determination of the cause of death.
My marriage started to fail miserably following this incident but I was not willing to take any of the blame. Although the failure was due in part to the both of us, I continued to blame my wife for everything.
Over the next few years, I had lost virtually all of my relationship with my son. I felt that he hated me and I knew that I had little patience with him. Even when he tried to show his love for me, I failed to recognize it and chose to continue in my self-destructive direction.
During this time, death was making it's self more visible to me. I had gone to funerals for police officers in increasing frequency. Most were killed in the line of duty but several had committed suicide. I went to each and every funeral to pay respect to the officer and show my support for the law enforcement community. However, it was getting more and more difficult to go knowing each time Taps was played, I would fall apart inside.
On a quiet afternoon several years ago, I was sitting at home and received a telephone call from a friend. I was told that the Sheriff had killed himself. This had an unforeseen and far reaching effect on me that I was not prepared to deal with. Being the Sheriff was this man's life. Due to political fallout, he was now in jeopardy and he had been suffering from severe depression and anxiety. A conclusion that is obvious now but not even suspected in the months prior to his death.
Months after his funeral, I had spoken with a few friends about the Sheriff's death and the lack of support that was shown by members of our department. I was berated for going to the funeral and honoring a man who took the easy way out. But what was, and is still not understood by these people is that it was not the easy way out, not in the least. Looking back, I can easily understand why the man did what he did and can not fault him for taking what I believe he felt was his only option left. No one can condemn the man for taking his own life unless they have walked in his shoes and felt the despair he must have felt. He was a good man at heart.
But still, life continued. When I was forced by the detective division to become involved in a criminal investigation of my neighbor despite my objections, I was instructed not to reveal the subject of the investigation to my wife and if I failed to comply with the detectives conducting the investigation, I would be charged internally. My neighbor was a serial rapist and I owed it to my wife to make her aware. But I kept the information from her as directed and left her home alone many times while he was home. Once the investigation was completed and the information made public, my wife felt that I should have told her and so began the final days of our marriage. We grew further and further apart and neither of us liked the direction the other was going.
I started not sleeping at night and what little sleep I did obtain was constantly interrupted by bouts of severe sweating and nightmares. Disturbing dreams about being shot, sometimes by children became more and more frequent. Some of the dreams were so intense that I awoke out of breath and occasionally having phantom pain where I had been wounded in my dream. I was feeling lost and inadequate and did not know what to do next. I was offered and subsequently took a position in another division as a supervisor. This provided a little relief from the trapped feelings but that soon presented problems of it's own. After only one year, I asked for and was given a transfer back to the patrol division.
My work gradually started to show signs of problems. I was doing less and less and trying to rationalize why. I began to ignore my training and was exposing myself to dangerous situations that could have easily turned fatal. I had chased people into their homes without backup and chose not to draw my weapon when the situation clearly called for doing so. A close friend pointed out later that he felt I was trying to commit "suicide by criminal" by giving them more than ample opportunity to kill or hurt me. At times, I failed to turn in reports and later buried them so I wouldn't have to face punishment. Something I never would have dreamed I was capable of.
Due to my lack of sleep, I found myself dozing off in my patrol car out in the open. It became a fight just to stay awake while I was working and I had fallen sound asleep while driving almost causing accidents on two occasions. I was becoming more and more distant with loved ones and found myself thinking about suicide frequently. I tried to understand why I was going down hill but found no answers. I began to think I might just be going insane.
No sleep gave way to substance abuse. I found that when I was drinking alcohol, I didn't care about anything. What started out as four or five beers a day shot up to twelve or more. I was now driving drunk on occasion and I didn't care. The idea crossed my mind that if I were killed, it would solve all my problems.
Sleep still came rarely and I was now down to less than two hours every night. I obtained medication from a doctor to help me sleep which worked rather well, but that soon ran out and she would not write another prescription fearing I would become dependant. Then I found out that codeine was available over the counter in Canada. A trip to the Falls simply provided me with a way to get the codeine.
Codeine worked for a short period of time in small doses but that soon failed as well. I began mixing alcohol with the codeine in increasing doses. I took 400 codeine pills in less that three months and when they were gone, I was left with nothing. I had taken painkillers from a friend's home and was borrowing medication from a neighbor, not to get high, just to get some sleep. I was getting so desperate, that I would take any medication that I could get my hands on that induced sleep. All I wanted to do was pass out every night and never cared about the next day or if I would even see it. I was now vomiting before work and had been subjected to a relentless case of the runs for nearly a year.
Then it all came at me at one. I had no way out and no place to go. I had two failed marriages, lost my relationship with my children and was now severely testing my relationship with a woman whom I love and who had done everything she could to help me even though I was hurting her. She would not sit by and watch me die, instead, she made arrangements for me to see a counselor. A move which later proved to save my life.
Things got so bad that I sat in my patrol car backed into an access drive in the gravel pits for nearly half of my shift with a gun in my mouth. At that time, I realized that I could take my own life and it was only a matter of a one pound trigger pull and one quarter of an inch and it would all be over. I was astonished to find that I could, in fact, take my own life, something that up until then, I thought I could never do.
That afternoon, I went to the office and asked for a leave of absence, which I was given. I had intended to do nothing but relax for the next thirty days but soon found that I was anticipating going back to work instead of relaxing. The vomiting became worse and the runs became so intense that I was bleeding from the rectum.
Because I was too proud to ask for help, I never got any and on one told me I needed it. I became a crying basket case and my plane was going down in flames.
I finally resigned myself to the fact that I needed help and needed it right away. I went to a psychologist who immediately referred me to a psychiatrist and I started on the road to recovery. Unfortunately, I felt the road was a dead end. I had lost nearly everything that had been dear to me and I was now being faced with the reality that I was no longer able to work in a profession that had meant the world to me, even though it was killing me.
Acceptance has not come easily, quickly, or cheaply. It has involved a host of medication, loss of friends because they are not sure what to say to me or how to act around me, and two vacations in a mental hospital. But one thing I have learned through all of this is that I'm not crazy, I am broken and I am not the only one.
Rebuilding my life may prove harder than anything I have ever done. I didn't ask for what has happened to me and I didn't want what happened to me, but I have learned to accept portions of it a little at a time.
Letting go is the final step...A step that must be taken...And a step that must not be taken alone.
Copyright (c) 1999 Carl von Czoernig, Retired Deputy Sheriff, Ohio
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