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The long ride home

When people hear what happened to Todd Hilleard, no one is surprised to learn he has PTSI. He shares his story of reaching “rock bottom”, and how he is finding his way back up. By Ellen Brook.

Post-traumatic stress injury took over Todd Hilleard’s life and brought him to his knees while he worked in the only career he had ever wanted – being a cop.

He joined Police in 2007, aged 26, after a few years of working in sales for Coca-Cola, Telecom and in property.

He was posted to Tauranga, where he lived with his then partner, worked on general duties and was involved in police committees and the surfing scene.

Life was good, but it was there that the first of a series of unsettling events happened.

Todd was attending a callout with another officer. A woman was reported to have assaulted her husband with a baseball bat. As his colleague talked with the husband outside, Todd went into the house.

He found a distressed, 60-year-old woman. “She was in a bad way and it was obvious she had some mental health issues. We were in a small space inside the house and I was talking to her to try to get her to calm down. Eventually, I told her I would have to arrest her. She said, okay, but first she wanted to take out her dog’s bed from under her bed.”

She went into the bedroom, which was attached to the kitchen where Todd was standing, but instead of getting a dog’s bed, she pulled out a pistol. She was about two metres away from Todd as she put the gun to her head and threatened to shoot herself.

“I just ran at her and tackled her onto the bed. She still had the gun in her hand, but now pointed at me. She was tiny and I had her pinned to the bed, but it was still tricky trying to get the pistol off her.

“It was a horrible situation. It was all happening in slow motion and I felt awful about tackling this older woman. I kept thinking, ‘Is this real?’.”

Eventually, with his options running out, Todd resorted to punching her to make her release the gun.

Although it turned out to be a gas-powered air pistol, there was a slug in the chamber, which could have done some damage at close range.

It was the psychological fallout that proved more troubling for Todd.

“It preyed on my mind. It was the first time I had found myself in a situation like that with a firearm. It came out of nowhere and I was completely unprepared for it. A lot of ‘what ifs’ went around in my head.”

Some time later, Todd was conducting a vehicle stop when the driver unexpectedly reached under the seat. Todd was worried about what he might be reaching for and the incident escalated into a scrap. Drugs and a crescent were found. No firearm, but Todd was rattled, again.

“Then we had to attend an incident where a father had abducted his children in relation to a custody matter. It was reported over the air that he possibly had a shotgun. A vehicle stop was conducted on a busy highway in Tauranga and I was unable to get into the vehicle as the driver had locked the doors.”

No shotgun was found, but, nevertheless says Todd, it was another “mind game” for him.

He was strung out. Soon after, he applied for, and was granted, a welfare transfer to Christchurch – his home town.

There, he experienced the September 2010 quake in the early hours of the morning. “It wasn’t great for anyone, but I noticed that afterwards I was even more scared and on edge. I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin, especially going out on jobs in the middle of the night.

“One afternoon, I pulled over a target who immediately got out of his vehicle, swearing, and walking briskly towards me in the police car. I wasn’t feeling good about it and my nerves were so rattled I couldn’t get my seatbelt off.”

The situation was resolved without incident, but Todd was starting to realise just how bad his nerves were. “I wasn’t confident at all and I was very anxious.”

Around the same time, he developed a stress fracture in his back from playing ice hockey. As a result, he went on light duties while he recovered, working on various projects at Christchurch Central Police Station.

He was there, on the third floor, on February 22, 2011, when the second quake struck.

“At 12.57pm that day I was hiding under a pool table with my colleagues. I really believed the building was coming down. I ran to the balcony on that floor, expecting there to be a fire escape, but there was nothing. I recall the sound of the alarms going on and on and I was feeling very fearful.”

His partner, Tash, who was working in Central Comms, was also with him at the time on her lunch break. They went outside to a grassed area by the Avon River opposite the station. All officers were told to get into cars to attend the many callouts in the city. Tash, an army veteran, joined him.

“We responded to a building that was on fire. It turned out to be the CTV building. When we arrived, I couldn’t work it out...I didn’t know how big that building was...I couldn’t recall it.”

In fact, the building had collapsed, like a concertina, killing 115 people and trapping many others.

“Other cops were on top of the rubble and I kept thinking, ‘I can’t be here. I’m scared’. It didn’t seem like a heroic moment... Any gung-ho attitude went out the door very quickly for me. I had gone from ‘fight” to ‘flight’.”

Even though every instinct in his body was telling him not to go onto the rubble – “I kept thinking, ‘I can’t crawl under the rubble, it’s still moving’ ”– he kept his fears to himself and joined fellow officers helping to rescue survivors.

They stayed at the scene for 12 hours, working in the chaos and “observing moments in time you hope to not ever see”. The rescue efforts continued through the night.

Todd’s unspoken mental crisis continued.

Later, there were some bright spots. He and Tash were planning their wedding – or replanning it, as the original venue had been destroyed in the quake – and he was still on light duties, working on a challenging but rewarding project organising the recovery of vehicles that had been trapped in the Red Zone of the central city.

On April 8, Todd had his stag party. He hadn’t overdone it on the drink, but the next day he experienced heart palpitations that were bad enough to send him to the medical centre. He was told that what was happening was a serious condition called atrial fibrillation (AF), and he should get to the hospital asap.

There, he was told that a drug would fix the problem and he was hooked up to a drip to administer it. Very quickly, Todd thought he was about to die. “My head felt like it was going to explode, and I couldn’t breathe.”

He was having an allergic reaction to the drug and had gone into anaphylactic shock.

His reaction was swiftly brought under control by the medics and he was told he would need an alternative treatment called electrical cardioversion – a high-energy shock sent to the heart to restart it in a normal rhythm.

“I was told it was low risk, but it was a scary prospect.

I was beside myself at the thought of them stopping my heart and then starting it again. I couldn’t believe this was happening to me. I was only 30 years old.”

As it turned out, after they put an X-ray camera down his throat to have a look around, the issue seemed to resolve itself and he was discharged. Unfortunately, a few days later, the AF was back and he had no choice but to go through the cardioversion, breaking a rib during the jolt of the restart procedure.

Having survived yet another trauma, he and Tash finally got married on April 15. It was a great wedding, he says, but very soon after, he arrived at “rock bottom”.

He was driving down Riccarton Rd, heading to the movies with Tash and his in-laws, when he started to feel really unwell with chest pain. He thought he was having a heart attack.

Tests at the hospital showed that his heart was fine, and it wasn’t AF. It was a panic attack.

It was a heavy blow, and at that point, he says, he just couldn’t go on. “I was crying my eyes out.” He had to surrender to the reality of what his body was telling him. “I just stopped fighting and I actually felt quite euphoric about it.”

He managed to get through the winter, back on light duties, and he and Tash had a baby boy, Tate. They decided they should move back to Tauranga and Todd applied for another welfare transfer, but was refused.

“It wasn’t Police’s fault. Their hands were tied by RAT, but I was really disappointed. I know that in a big organisation, you are just a number, but it doesn’t feel like that when you are heavily engaged in your job. I had been a good employee, but it didn’t make any difference how good I had been.”

He felt totally defeated. As he woke one morning in late 2011, he knew he couldn’t go back to work. He felt his life was turning into “a complete cluster”. He went on sick leave and then leave without pay.

Soon after, Tash, then 24 weeks pregnant with their daughter, Lexi, was made redundant from Police. They made the move to Tauranga.

Todd resigned from Police in September 2013. His “nerves had gone” and he had lost his identity as a police officer.

“I’d be out and see police cars and my old mates in them. It took a long time to accept what had happened.”

He was a lost soul. Even though he had left Police, his problems were far from over. He was experiencing “ruminating thoughts” – excessive and intrusive ideas, catastrophising about negative experiences and feelings – which are common in people with a history of trauma.

“This was my biggest battle – these twisted thoughts – and I knew there was something very wrong. It’s very dangerous and can put you in a very dark state, and you think you are going crazy.”

At his lowest point, he considered suicide, but always ended up ruling it out as an option, “which somehow made things harder – I was angry that this option was off the table and that meant there was no ultimate solution for me”.

He sought help through his doctor and, with ongoing therapy and the support of Tash, he’s discovered that talking, “openly and rawly – tell as much as you can”, and allowing himself to be vulnerable, is helping.

About two years ago, Todd was one of a handful of police officers who made PTSI claims to ACC. His was approved last year. In the meantime, needing to work, for both financial and mental health reasons, Todd was rehired by his old employer at Coca-Cola and then Goodman Fielder, back in sales.

He was also still involved in the surfing scene, especially the annual Police Association Surfing Champs, and when he took part in the 2018 event at Raglan, he noticed something a bit odd.

He’s 6ft tall (1.8 metres) and weighs 90 kilograms and the “XL”-size hooded towelling poncho he had been given was too small. He could barely get into it, let alone use it for its intended purpose. “It was the biggest size and it didn’t fit me, and many others in the market were just too expensive.”

Todd began researching similar products and looking at samples from other suppliers. When he found what he wanted, he was motivated to set up Noxen – a start-up online surf and lifestyle clothing business. Todd created the name as a mash-up of his family’s names with an “X” in the middle.

What started as a solution to one problem has become much more. “I thought, if I’m going into this business, how can I give back... and create a new identity.”

After a bit of brainstorming, the tagline “Ride Every Wave” was created for the brand as a reminder of the need to ride out life’s ups and downs.

Currently, 10 per cent of each sale goes to Lifeline, and soon, 5 per cent of all sales revenue will be donated to the charity and possibly some other good causes.

Todd’s story is both sad and inspiring. He could have chosen to not reveal his personal pain, but he continues to be open about his “black dog”, on the website and speaking to various groups.

What happened forever changed his ability to manage things the way he used to. “I’ll never be fully back. I’ll always have anxiety and depression, but I can manage it, and now I have been given an opportunity to pay it forward. Talking is walking, so let’s get talking,” he says.

To find out more about Todd’s business and the ethos behind it, visit noxen.co.nz.

Todd models one of his company’s hooded poncho towels, popular with surfers and other beachgoers.

The damage done

Clinical psychologist Gaynor Parkin explains how regular exposure to suffering, hardship or crises can take its toll.

For frontline police, exposure to trauma, such as family harm incidents, sudden deaths, community tragedies or natural disasters, is likely at some point in their career.

It’s important not to assume that such exposure will necessarily have a negative effect, but we do know that cumulative distress or trauma can override good coping strategies.

Most people working in these roles have high levels of personal resilience, and will use their support networks to bounce back from distressing experiences, but too much “stuff” over years of service can affect your wellbeing.

Common signs of trauma include:

  • Physical and emotional exhaustion – feeling there is no juice left in the tank
  • Feeling disconnected, overwhelmed and helpless
  • Some people will minimise the impact of the situation (“It’s not a big deal”) or notice an inability to empathise
  • Others may be on edge, fearful, angry, cynical and struggle to switch off
  • In response, some people may use alcohol and drugs or other distractions to essentially “check-out”. While these are normal reactions to significantly stressful events, they can become detrimental to your wellbeing and performance if they go on too long.

Evidence-based practice offers proactive steps to both protect us from trauma and help us recover when we do experience it:

Pursue your meaning and purpose

Ask yourself why are you doing what you are doing? What is your intent? Remind yourself what it is about for you. Take time to pursue personally meaningful tasks.

Protect your recovery time

Build in daily rest and recovery strategies. Identify one strategy that you would love to incorporate into your work day, but are certain you couldn’t. Then, try to make it a reality.

When you leave work, do you really leave work? No cell phones or devices to check? Consider recovery strategies that enable you to mentally switch gears from work to home.

Check your annual leave allocation and start planning a holiday.

Prioritise healthy life choices

Are you getting enough exercise, sleep and nutrition and engaging in enjoyable activities, including with friends and family? At work, take time to eat lunch and chat with your colleagues.

Use your supports

When working in particularly challenging areas, it is important not to be isolated. Connecting with colleagues and other people who matter can be protective. Consider peer support or a mentor, or regular professional supervision.

Focus on positive emotions

While recognising there is suffering in your work, we can consciously create more joy by focusing on boosting positive emotions. At the beginning and end of your work day, take a moment to think of one thing you are grateful for. Teams can also create opportunities for colleagues to elicit gratitude and hope, celebrate successes and have fun together.

In recent research, psychologists have identified a strengths-focused concept called “post-traumatic growth”, which recognises that through trauma exposure a person can also experience personal growth, and find greater purpose and meaning in life.

Protecting ourselves from trauma is not solely an individual responsibility. Organisations also need to “walk the talk”, creating a psychologically healthy atmosphere where morale is strong, providing training on coping with trauma, as well as professional supervision and support, and ensuring that employees can take leave and have sustainable working hours.

Gaynor Parkin is the CEO of Umbrella Wellbeing, which uses best- practice scientific research to enhance people’s wellbeing and create better workplaces.

umbrella.org.nz

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