Closing the Chapter: Stepping Away from Policing and Into a New Mission
By SGT (RET) Caleb Payne
*This is an article from the Fall 2023 issue of Combat Stress
This is a very difficult and painful thing to write, so please bear with me.
I am medically retiring from law enforcement.
I grew up in a law enforcement family, so I suppose you could say it is in my blood. Having grown up around the profession, I knew it was something I wanted to pursue for myself. In many ways, I knew what I was getting myself into. Then again, there were many realities I did not understand as I entered the academy in April of 2011.
Law enforcement is not an evil profession. It is a noble one. Society needs guardians who will stand up to the evils of this world and protect the innocent. I am proud to have done that exact thing for nearly twelve years.
Being a law enforcement officer changes every aspect of the way you see the world. It means never sitting with your back to the door and knowing all available exits. It means never feeling truly present in church because your head is on a swivel while scanning for threats. It means the “look” your wife immediately recognizes in public and tells her to take the kids to the car because someone you have arrested recognizes you. It means having a deep mistrust of most people.
Most people will never comprehend the amount of stress the law enforcement profession takes from those who boldly step into the unknown, shift after shift. The magnitude of liability, the authority to deprive people of their liberty, and the power to use brutal force when necessary is one that I never took lightly, but the weight of it is constant. Whether at home or at work, the weight is there, and the burden is so very heavy.
Add to that the weight of hugging and kissing your wife and children goodbye, while promising you will see them in the morning, knowing full well that it may be the last time you walk out the door. There are no words for this.
PTSD is a very real thing. In fact, it is no joking matter. It is so much more than anxiety. It is a mental injury that affects your entire existence and terrorizes your every moment. Anger. Despair. Feeling like a disappointment. Feeling unsafe, even at home. Feeling weak. Flashbacks. Irritability. Nightmares. Panic attacks. Sensory overload. Trying to sleep, but seeing their faces and hearing their pleas for help when you close your eyes. Unknown triggers that bring you to your knees, make you nauseous, and take your breath away. Wanting to die so your wife and kids will be better off.
First responders are repeatedly exposed to traumatic circumstances the average person could never grasp. I will not enumerate here the things I have seen, done, or been exposed to, but I can assure you that many of those heartbreaking situations are as real to me today as they were when they occurred.
I learned several months ago that it is okay to admit that you are not okay. Let me repeat that. IT IS OKAY TO ADMIT THAT YOU ARE NOT OKAY. Not only is it okay, but it is also noble. In fact, I have learned that it is the bravest thing you can do, not just for yourself, but for those you love and for those who love you.
Admitting to my command staff that I was struggling was the hardest thing I have ever done. In law enforcement, you learn to cope with things by stuffing them down or laughing them off. However, I have learned the hard way that unaddressed trauma builds and can quickly become unmanageable.
So here I am. After hours and hours of counseling and psychotherapy, and thousands of dollars spent out of pocket on my well-being, I am walking away.
Over the last several months, Kylie and our little ones have seen me struggle like never before. While I have reassured them that my struggles are not their fault, it has been tremendously difficult for us as a family. They have seen me at my deepest and darkest, but they have loved me unconditionally. They have been a source of joy and inspiration during my darkest days. I truly have no idea where I would be without them.
So, what is next for my family and me? I have applied for and been accepted into Xavier University’s ABSN program in the hopes of becoming a pediatric nurse. After what my family has endured with two NICU hospitalizations, Kylie and I believe that I am being called into the nursing profession so that I can love on little ones and minister to parents who are in the same shoes we once wore.
I will always be grateful for my time as a cop. I made friends that became family. I learned so many things about myself. I accomplished more than I ever thought possible. I became a field training officer. I earned an extremely difficult certification as a Drug Recognition Expert. I was promoted to sergeant.
More importantly, I always did my best to serve honorably. I always tried to keep the parable of the sheep and the goats at the front of my mind while recognizing that I was in a position to interact with “the least of these” on a daily basis.
There are so many things I will miss as I close this chapter. The brotherhood. The camaraderie. The adrenaline. The funny stories. The getting impaired drivers off the street. The phone calls to Momma on my way in every night and her diligent prayers of protection over my fellow officers and me.
Despite the things I will miss, I look forward to a bright future. One where my wife and children will not be afraid of losing me to the unknown as I walk out the door. One where I will feel safe and able to breathe again. At the end of the day, my career accolades and accomplishments mean nothing if my family cannot be together, healthy, and whole.
In the midst of this battle, God has been faithful and surrounded me with other people who, like me, battle PTSD. They have been a tremendous encouragement, as I hope I have been for them. My hope is that God is ultimately glorified in this season and that He uses my story to help others.
If you have read this far, thank you. Kylie and I would appreciate your prayers for our family as we move forward from all we have known in our marriage. We will certainly grieve the loss of this chapter of our lives, but we look forward to what is to come.
Again, it is okay to admit that you are not okay. It does not make you weak. It makes you strong. It is okay to have PTSD. It is not a blemish on your ability or character. It is a mental injury.
If you are struggling, reach out. You do not have to fight alone. If you know someone who is struggling, reach out. PTSD is not contagious, so check in. Be there. Empathize. Listen.
Love to you all who are doing just that for so many souls in need.