By Tom McConaghy
May of 2013 did not end the way I had planned. During the commission of a felony, I left several empty pill bottles on the front seat of my patrol car that I shared with another officer. How did I get here? Why had I become an addict when my entire being was dedicated to protecting my community?
There was never one single moment or event that lead me down this path. An endless string of incidents had pounded away at my psyche for well over a decade. One after another with no time to recover. The police officer life I chose was hard. I accepted tough assignments. Took on additional responsibilities and let the job be my entire life. At one point I was a drug investigator, meth lab technician, SWAT sniper, Drug Court liaison, and volunteered at the local child advocacy center at the same time. 24/7 on call and the rapid-fire calls and tragedies took their toll.
I learned through medications prescribed after a broken back and several bouts with kidney stones that opiates helped me feel normal in an ever-increasing mind of disturbing thoughts and suicidal ideation. My position within the police department put me in the perfect position to experiment further with my self-medicating for what I came to know as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), depression, hyper vigilance, and anxiety. I had access to hundreds of pounds of prescription pills turned over to our take back program every year.
At first it was just a little, but over time it grew into a very serious problem. I knew I was in trouble when I woke from a 24 hours “nap” after an accidental overdose at home. Shortly after this scary event, I left the bottles in my patrol car by “accident” at the end of my shift. Maybe it was subconsciously on purpose. I was tired of the internal fight. I was tired of living. I was tired of not being able to conquer my demons on my own. Therapy had not helped. Intervention by family had not helped. What else could I do?
Finally, I was confronted at work, but I lied. Minutes after leaving the confrontation with command staff, I decided I was done. I called the Director of Public Safety and the only person above the rank of Sergeant that I trusted in my chain of command. I confess my sins and told him I was going to seek treatment. Then I calmly cleaned out my car and locker. I picked up my desk and walked towards the bathroom. The handicap stall would work well. Lots of room for them to get in there and take pictures. Easy enough to clean up.
On my way there, I ran into the Captain who confronted me initially. I tried to make a joke with him, but he ignored me and peeled off into an office. It was seconds later that I realized – I AM NOT DISPOSIBLE!
Certainly, I had crushed my law enforcement career. I needed help and needed to get my life back together. I had no idea how hard and long that path would be, but I was determined to save my own life and ask for help – real help – for the first time.
I knew of Safe Call Now in Washington State and I knew of Sean Riley and had even spoke to him once or twice. When I called the number, his reaction was to say, “I have been waiting for you to call”. Perhaps a standard response. I really didn’t care. It was effective and cut right to my core. He wanted to help me. Within a few minutes, he had found me a bed in Palm Springs at a dual diagnosis treatment center and made all the arrangements for my travel. The next day I was off. May 28th, 2013.
The next few months were a whirlwind. I relocated to Colorado after treatment. I plead guilty in District Court to Larceny of CDS and received a deferred sentence. Most importantly I was connected with a therapist in my new town who specialized in treatment of PTSD.
Over time, I started to understand what PTSD was and how it had affected me in the past and in the present. Time and persistence seemed to be the prescription for recovery along with staying sober. I attended AA and NA, I attended either group or individual counseling for over 5 years, and I worked on my personal growth.
After a few different jobs in the area, I was fortunate to find an opportunity working within my community to reduce youth DUI and youth access to substances. It turns out I moved into one of the worst communities in Colorado for substance abuse. This new job called my name. I needed this. I was worth something and I felt I had more work to do. I followed through with the job application, but felt I just would not be able to work in this area due to my past. I was a drug addict, right? I had lied! I had stolen from the trash, but stealing just the same. I had let down my community, my department, other law enforcement, my family, my friends, and myself. Why would anyone give me a chance?
I had greatly underestimated the compassion and understanding I found in the people who interviewed me. They extended a job offer and I accepted happily. I am now working on a daily basis to reduce underage DUI and underage access to alcohol and other substances through a new program in our community. I once again have worth and feel valued for my experiences and my past work.
Moving through a law enforcement career, we are given the opportunity for a massive amount of training. Our experience as a police officer over time makes us more and more valuable to our community as a resource to keep the peace and solve problems. Our coworkers use words like brother and sister to refer to each other. Someone on the outside would be likely to assume we stick up for each other through anything and support one another to the end. I found this to be true only with true friends within the department and not the department as a whole. I felt very disposable to many of them. Furthermore, I felt society saw me as disposable. It really didn’t matter to the press, the DA’s office, or citizens at large that I had given so many years in service of my community. They did not take into account the sacrifices I made in time and my health to be there for others. The reality was I betrayed their trust and that hurt them. I get it. I am just thankful that today I can take pride in my career, my recovery, and my future. To all of you first responders – YOU ARE NOT DISPOSABLE!
Much Love, Tom
If you, someone you love or someone you know needs help, call:
Safe Call Now: 24 Hour Confidential Hotline: 206-459-3020
For more information on the First Responders program: Click here
Or call Shannon Clairemont at 661-466-6352 or Vanessa Stapleton at 304-651-3008