Five smooth stones

This blog about dealing with depression and post-traumatic stress was written by former police officer Nigel Fawcett-Jones. Nigel is now a volunteer Police Chaplain and the UK manager of the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team, a team of crisis trained chaplains.

Eight months is all I had to do. Could I manage it? Could I make it through?

Twenty nine years of police service, the last 20 at least without a day off sick, could I make it to the finish line? I had to, what would people think if I went sick now?

Keep on, just get through this set of shifts, then it’s one more week closer to retirement.

That’s how my thought processes went in the winter of 2018. Looking back, I realise now how much pressure I was putting myself under. I don’t know if it is a male thing or a police thing or a combination of the two but I’d spent almost 30 years in policing and had fixed in my mind how the last few days of my service would play out – last day on patrol, handing back the uniform, cakes, handshakes and good wishes from my colleagues.

As I worked through the winter months of 2018 the reality was that my mental health was failing. 30 years of exposure to trauma was taking its toll. Austerity had played its part. As a specialist family liaison officer supporting families of road death, fewer officers meant I was exposed to far more grief and trauma. Several of the cases I dealt with in those final years were children and young people, often multiple child fatalities. They were always the toughest ones.

I was used to the challenges of shift work. I’d worked in uniform on various rolling shift patterns throughout my service. 6-7 hours of sleep would see me through. When the disturbed sleep came it wiped me out. I’d be able to fall asleep with few difficulties but 3 or 4 hours later I’d be awake. Thinking, mulling things over, questioning the things that I’d known and accepted to be true. Then came the intrusive images – particularly the children. The photos I’d requested from the bereaved families for release to the press, now came to mind – daily. The haunting image of a 2-year-old boy was the most frequent, killed on a road two miles from my home, a road that I travelled on frequently. I didn’t need the physical reminder, the image always seemed to be with me anyway.

One day when travelling to work I began to have what I now know were palpitations. My heart was racing, my throat was tight, I gripped the steering wheel, I began to sweat. More than that, and more worryingly for me, was the sense of dread of approaching my place of work. From that time on, it seemed like a cascade effect was in unstoppable flow. One racing thought triggered another – a domino fell. I’d have feelings of anger and rage – a domino fell. I had a deep sense of guilt for perceived organisational failings that I had no control over – another domino fell.

Then came the mind fog. The inability to do simple routine tasks. It was like someone had pressed the pause button on my thoughts and actions. How could I get something so wrong, something that I’ve done hundreds of times before?

I’d taught fellow colleagues on stress management and building resilience.

How could this be happening to me?

I’m a Christian. I have my faith to support me. I lead a team of chaplains.

How could this be happening to me?

I had no real worries. Everything was fine at home. No finance issues, job lined up for post-retirement.

How could this be happening to me?

Suicidal thoughts.

How could this be happening to me?

So I threw myself in to the coping strategies that had worked before.

Hitting the gym, taking up boxing, running.

No change.

My faith was strong. Prayer, worship, fellowship and friendship.

No change.

Music. Classical – relaxing and uplifting.

No change.

Fresh air. Long walks.

No change.

Just keep going – the finish line is in sight. 10th July 2019, retirement day. Then all this will stop. The reality was the more that I thought about retirement the more anxious I became.

Eventually, I surrendered some of my pride and acknowledged that I needed help. Work assisted by varying my shifts so I didn’t work beyond 11pm – that helped with some of the sleep aspects. The Police Federation organised counselling and that really helped me deal with some of the trauma that I had been carrying for years.

The doctor prescribed meds for the palpitations.

Even then my stubbornness hindered my recovery. I wouldn’t go sick (that finish line was my sole objective), so counselling took place in duty time. How dumb was that. Getting my head sorted out and then within the hour responding to the same calls that exposed me to more trauma. I declined anti-depressants, fearful that they would make me ‘someone I wasn’t’. Who was I trying to kid? That had already happened.

Eventually I came to a place of realisation that if I was going to make it to retirement and have any quality of life in my post-police life, I had to surrender all my pride and get myself sorted out. The doctor signed me off work, actually with a big sigh of relief from him that I had come to that decision. Appropriate medication was prescribed and I secured two weeks of intensive Psychological Wellbeing therapy at a Police Treatment Centre.

So what did I learn from journey through depression and post-traumatic stress?

No one is immune. It doesn’t really matter how much you know about the condition or your life and professional experience. Faith can help but it isn’t always the only answer.

I now talk about my ‘five smooth stones’. Remember the Bible story of David and Goliath? He had to face the giant and to do so he had to choose ‘five smooth stones’ to place in his sling – the only way to defeat his enemy.

My ‘five smooth stones’:

  • Medication
  • Mindfulness – breathing and relaxation techniques
  • Therapy – appropriate counselling
  • Faith – prayer, worship, meditation
  • Fellowship – friendship with honesty, trust and accountability

We can all face ‘giants’ at some point in our lives. Anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress injuries are just some of them.

What’s your battle plan to help you slay your ‘giant’?


A message from us

Good Thinking recommends various NHS-approved wellbeing apps, such as Be Mindful and tomo, which are free if you live or work in London. We also provide a broad range of other resources to help you manage your mental health, including:

Dealing with stress and trauma (podcast)

How to deal with stress (article)

How to get enough sleep (article)

Workbooks by the Centre for Clinical Interventions on topics such as anxiety, depression and mindfulness

Self-assessments for anxiety, sleep, depression and stress

Why a micropause can help your mental health today (podcast)