By Vanessa Stapleton – President Armor Up West Virginia
In 2013, our world was suddenly stopped as police cruisers pulled into our driveway with the news that every wife fears. As I sat in the hospital later that day, I wondered what I would tell our children when I saw them again. What news would I bring them about their dad? Would I tell them that it would just be us for the rest of our lives on earth? Would I tell them their dad would never walk again? Would I, by the grace of God, be able to tell them their dad would be ok? I thought about them standing on the porch that morning as their dad drove off in his cruiser flashing his lights for them. I thought about our youngest son asking for “just one more hug” that morning. Did he know something horrific would happen that day? Surely, he couldn’t have known his dad would be shot answering a call within a few hours.
Five years later, I sat on the couch with the man who was someone I no longer recognized, pleading with him to not end our lives as our children ran about upstairs. The mental fallout had consumed him. I sit here today to type this because of one couple who had walked the same journey who showed up to save my life. I am here because of those few people who have lived it and came back to save the rest. The two who showed up and the ones on the other end of the phone who saved my life, they inspired me to do the same. We have to save the rest.
When tragedy strikes, most of us think, “If I can just get through this, I will be so much stronger. If I can survive this, I can survive anything.” There is some truth to both of those statements. The problem is that no one prepares you for the fallout. No one talks about the emotional struggle that follows trauma. No one says, “Get ready for your mind to be wrecked.” People don’t talk about it. Maybe it’s because of stigma, or maybe it’s just because it makes people uncomfortable. Not talking about the mental aftermath of trauma has left people feeling like they are crazy when all of a sudden they are struck with panic attacks, anxiety, depression, and PTSD.
I sat in that hospital not knowing what the future would hold. If someone would have told me the horrors that occurred on that day were nothing compared to the aftermath, I would have literally laughed. I would have thought those people were insane. I sat naively in the hospital contemplating if my tiny body could handle the physical requirements needed for a husband three times my size if he was unable to walk the rest of his life. Would we have to have a nurse to help me? Those were my biggest concerns.
When I sat in the hospital, I prepared myself for the part of our vows that said, “For better or worse, in sickness and in health.” I was formulating backup plans for my backup plans. I never doubted if I could handle it. I was making sure that I covered every possible scenario….or so I thought. Looking back, I realize I had no idea at all. I planned for every physical need, but not one mental need. I had no idea I needed to prepare for PTSD, anxiety, depression, suicidal ideation, alcoholism, drug addiction, and so much more. I did not prepare for any of that. I was preparing for a wheelchair. A wheelchair would have been the easiest to accommodate.
I was surrounded by a sea of officers in the hospital. I naively thought they were our family. They promised to hold our hands and walk us through it all. I laugh at those empty promises now. I was surrounded by those in our church who promised the same. By the end of it all, this trauma would kill our marriage. Ultimately, every person at the hospital that day would abandon me completely. Their empty promises that day only applied to the physical part of recovery they could see. Anything beyond physical injury just simply didn’t exist.
That day was the beginning of the end of my marriage although I didn’t know it at the time. I thought I had a sea of officers who had our back. The problem was that when he deteriorated mentally leading to addiction, they were nowhere to be found. When things finally escalated to the point of no return, they made sure I knew that he had taken a bullet for them. Regardless of the things he was doing to harm myself and these children, their loyalty was written in his blood. The children and I were on our own. As for the church, they scolded me when I couldn’t handle it any longer telling me I needed to pray more. They reminded me of my vows and regardless of the damage being done, those vows were not to be broken. Their loyalty would be withdrawn if I chose safety and broke those vows.
One day, I was sitting in a hospital with so many people on what I believed was the worst day of my life. A few years later, I was sitting alone while those same people judged and condemned me, despite my best efforts to save the very person they couldn’t help either. The shooting was a cake walk compared to the PTSD, alcohol, drugs, suicide attempts, abuse, rehab, abandonment, and divorce.
On that day in the hospital, I was just trying to survive. I was waiting for the Dr to tell us anything that would give us hope. I was checking on my traumatized children every second I could steal a moment to call them. I was fielding calls from people I have never met, and shaking hands with people I have never seen. I was vomiting in the bathroom between handshakes and pulling myself together long enough to go back out where kind people kept trying to feed me. I went from trying to steal a moment to call my kids that day because of all the people surrounding me, to ending up alone, betrayed, and completely lost on how things ended the way they did.
What if that day ONE person had said to me, “Get a good trauma therapist for him and yourself? If you do anything at all, get a good trauma therapist for you both because the next couple years will be the hardest years of your life. You won’t understand what is happening to you. He won’t understand what is happening to him. Get someone to walk you through it BEFORE you both fall apart.” What if ONE person had given us the number to Serve and Protect or to Safe Call Now? Why don’t we do THAT when an officer is injured? Save the empty promises and give these families resources.
I am here to give this a voice. Do NOT wait. When trauma strikes, get ahead of it. It is all about PREVENTION. Don’t wait for the fallout to hit. When tragedy strikes, make a call. Get the help BEFORE the fallout. Get the help as soon as the trauma occurs. Please. I will tell you that the end result will be so much better for you and your family. You don’t want to be us. I will be the one person to say, “Get help now. The next few years will be the hardest years of your lives.”
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