We are so fortunate here at Blue Love to talk to some incredible people who are working on the same mission to support LEOs and let them know they are not alone.
We got a chance to talk to Nick Wilson, a retired police officer and creator of The Resiliency Project (Instagram handle: @the_resiliencyproject). Nick shared with us his story, background and why he created this project. Enjoy this powerful read.
Where were you a police officer and what rank?
I was a police officer for the first three years of my career in San Diego county and the remainder of my career in Orange County, California. I worked patrol, field training officer, I was an operator on our SWAT team, and I was a detective in our Special Investigations Unit working narcotics, gangs, homicide & intel. This is also where I worked white supremacy organizations for the remainder of my career until medically retiring at the end of 2017.
What made you go into Law Enforcement originally?
My mother was remarried when I was a kid and we relocated to the San Francisco Bay area. My birth father abandoned our family, and later died.
It was the early 90s when I was having a bad day in high school and I was sitting on a curb at the end of the school day. A police officer, a great man I will never forget, Dave Porter, approached me to ask if everything was OK. Trying to cheer me up, he asked if I wanted to see his police car and shortly thereafter, I did a ride-along with him.
On my first ride along we responded to domestic violence call where a husband had beat his wife, leaving physical injuries on her face. I remember Dave walking out of that house with the man in cuffs and seeing the relief on the victim’s face. From that point on I knew that this was the profession that was meant for me, I wanted to help people on their worst days. I became an Explorer and started riding with Dave and other police officers until I was 18 years old.
What did you enjoy about your career in law enforcement?
I enjoyed the camaraderie & the sense of brotherhood. I enjoyed arresting predators that preyed on the weak, and investigating crimes, people and organizations that serve no purpose in a civilized society. I loved connecting with the community and helping people resolve issues in their lives and being part of the problem-solving process for those, who at the time, could not help themselves. A career in law enforcement is a calling, some have said that the job chooses you. I certainly believe that that was true the first day I rode with Dave.
Have you personally dealt with anxiety, depression and/or PTSD? If so, did you address it with a professional? What is your personal story?
After going through countless critical incidents, some of which were heinous crimes that I witnessed, where repeated exposure to the death and destruction and horrible things that some people do to one another, I noticed that I began having tremendous difficulty sleeping.
For about a year I went to Kaiser attending sleep classes and sleep studies and was prescribed sleep medication for the first time. This was around 2010, when I was newly promoted detective & my sleep patterns became further disturbed with the continual exposure to traumatic events and compassion fatigue. I had also undergone several surgeries on my back after being involved in numerous on duty physical altercations with violent suspects. I was prescribed narcotic pain medication and benzodiazepines for sleep and was diagnosed with PTSD and depression.
Between 2012 and 2013, the white supremacy organization I was investigating issued a “greenlight“ to have me murdered. During this time, I was also working with several federal law enforcement agencies to investigate the organization’s narcotic trafficking and gang activities and was writing and executing search warrants on a weekly basis.
We were arresting many of the members and seizing firearms, and large quantities of cash and narcotics, which posed a threat to the organization. After my agency and others in the area began receiving intelligence from informants that this “greenlight” to kill me existed, combined with my existing sleep problems, I began self-medicating.
I kept taking more prescription medication than what was advised thinking that I could find some sort of temporary relief from the amount of stress, anxiety and physical and emotional pain I was experiencing. This was the regrettable process that led me to dependence and addiction to prescription medication, and eventually my downfall in the profession that I loved.
I didn’t know how to deal with the trauma that I was experiencing and this was certainly not something that we ever discussed as police officers because of the stigma attached to PTSD and depression in the culture of law-enforcement. This was the beginning of conceptualizing the phrase “suffering in silence.” I hated what I became, I was ashamed of myself, I was embarrassed, and I felt like a fraud living a double life.
The addiction to benzodiazepines became so bad that I was afraid of dying with increasing frequency. I tried to stop taking the pills, but when I did I experienced hellacious withdrawal symptoms and realized then that I couldn’t do it on my own because it was unsafe and I could potentially die. I knew that I had to medically detox, but when I realized this in 2013, I believed there was no way I could come forward and get help without having my badge and gun taken from me.
After having gone to Kaiser for so long for my sleep problems, they finally referred me to a psychiatrist to manage my medication and treat me for PTSD. This is where the stigma of PTSD was so significant and I was so afraid that others would find out and that I would be viewed as weak or no longer credible, that I stopped going to Kaiser once they diagnosed me with PTSD.
One day in January 2013, my wife was on a run in our neighborhood and was followed home by two men. She woke me up and was panicked and when I went to the door to see what she was talking about, one of the men that had followed her was standing outside my front door. I slammed the door and called 911 and the men had taken off. I realized the threats were very real. The Department of Homeland Security flew my wife and I out to the DC/Virginia area for about a month.
When we returned my department put us in hotels for a while before eventually returning to work. The FBI initiated an investigation for conspiracy to commit murder on a police officer. All of these events, combined with even more critical incidents, further exasperated my dependence on prescription medication and sleep disturbance.
My life changed in 2015 when my wife and I had a son. My whole life I wanted a son, and to be a father, the kind of father that I didn’t have growing up. And when he was born, I was even further ashamed of myself because although I was physically there, I was nowhere near being a present father.
Later that year, I was working a gang suppression detail when I stopped a car on my way back to the station, not realizing that the person I was stopping was a white supremacist involved in the decision-making process to issue a greenlight to kill me. He attacked me on that traffic stop and by the grace of God, my partners were close by and we were able to take him into custody. That’s when my agency transferred me to a Homeland Security task force where I worked Intel and Terrorism related cases. That’s when the San Bernardino terrorist attack happened.
In July of 2016, I was drinking and self-medicating to sleep, and realized I had lost my phone. I got into my car, crashed into a fence, totaled my car and was arrested for DUI by the great men and women of the agency where I lived, who had been protecting me by conducting security checks at my house throughout the day and night.
I was appalled and words cannot describe the shame I experienced. Just to illustrate how powerful the stigma of mental health and substance abuse is in the first responder community, the first thought I had when I crashed was not to pray that I hadn’t killed anyone, it was “they are all going to know, my agency and my partners are going to find out and I will no longer be accepted.”
I knew that physically I could not do the job anymore and had to come to terms with that. I also needed to begin a process of healing, emotionally & psychologically. I began the medical retirement process and shortly after my DUI I went to rehab where I medically detoxed for seven days followed by 30 days of inpatient treatment. To my surprise, 45% of the patients there were police officers and I realized that I was not alone in what I had been experiencing. That was just for that 30-day window when I was there and does not include the countless other police officers and firefighters that had been attending outpatient treatment.
When I completed treatment, I began to truly and fully physically and emotionally feel all of the pain and it felt like a tidal wave crashing over me. My son became my reason to live and this pain I knew I had to experience and work through if I was ever going to have a shot at life and as a father.
I vowed to myself then, that I would never fall back into the patterns of behavior I learned early on. For the first time in my life as a police officer I stopped caring about what others thought of me. Of all the significant traumas that I’ve tried to overcome, I now faced divorce and the hardest reality that my son, the one thing that I lived for, would no longer be living with me. From there I went to a trauma retreat called WCPR.
WCPR is comprised of peers and clinicians that essentially wrote the book on first responder trauma and I always say that this was the place that saved my life. It is where I really began to fully understand trauma and how the body and mind react to it. This is where my healing journey started.
It’s been nearly 3 years since treatment and WCPR where I’ve had to practice what I learned and my responses to triggers, memories and the stressors of everyday life events on a daily basis.
To further compound the complexities of recovering from trauma and the issues i’ve experienced in my life as a police officer and life after retirement. I lost all credibility with my family, out of fear that I would continue using substances to mask my pain or numb myself, I was eventually disowned by them.
One of my brothers called me over a two-day period and told me to kill myself, and encouraged me to do so because I was “a failure piece of shit cop and it would be better for everybody.” It was a real fight for me to find the strength to carry on, but my son became the forefront of everything I did and still do today.
In 2017, I lost my second police officer friend to suicide. My guardian angel, Dr. Heather Williams from the Orange County Sheriff’s Department asked me to start sharing my story at the police academy. This was an effort to give firsthand accounts of the realities and impacts of trauma on the first responder community with a deeper and broader mission to help de-stigmatize mental health. I worked in a profession that prioritizes bravery and toughness, so that maybe others who hear my story will learn from my mistakes and come forward to ask for help when they need it. I also present at the Crisis Intervention Training (C.I.T.) for the San Bernardino County Sheriff‘s Department and have been blessed to have shared my experiences in front of thousands of First Responders over the last few years.
One of the things that helped me process everything that happened to me was learning how to make videos which became cathartic in a way. So, in the last year I’ve been making videos that help express the things I feel or want to say.
Also, in the last year of coming home to an empty house each time I spoke at the academy, Dr. Williams surprised me one day with a phone call asking if I wanted a dog. She had gone to the Patriotic Service Dog Foundation and met with Tom Tackett, the founder, and shared my story with him. At the time the Patriotic Service Dog foundation only gave service dogs to military veterans. After hearing about my circumstances, Tom opened his program to also serve the first responder community and decided to give me a dog. That is how I got Stryker. Tom and his foundation became a family to me and I found so much healing there at his ranch and at home with Stryker.
I always say that Dr. Heather Williams is like my guardian angel because three years prior to my DUI I sat with her and she listened in a way that made me realized she was culturally competent of issues that arise with first responders.
The day I went to rehab, she was the one that facilitated the intervention which caused me to go. She also encouraged me to start my public speaking career, which has provided me the opportunity to speak in front of thousands over the past couple years. If it had not been for her, I don’t know where I’d be.
She taught me the fundamental concept of having an attitude of gratitude, a principle I live by each and every day. She has been my biggest cheerleader and confidant. Two years ago, she introduced me to Jason Cash, a Long Beach Firefighter who dealt with very similar issues that I had. We became close friends and two years later he has a nonprofit organization called, Halos4Heroes (https://www.halos4heroes.org) I’m heavily involved with this organization and am blessed to help facilitate support groups for struggling first responders who attend.
There is clearly a stigma to getting help for LEOs and first responders, what is your view on how to remove that stigma?
Removing stigmas from the first responder community is going to be a process that will take time and will only occur organically, whereby the leadership of police and fire agencies across the country begin to set the tone of acceptance and give permission to First Responders to feel the human emotions they do and not be robotic; they must be encouraged to get the help they need in order to continue being healthy in their careers. They cannot be discouraged to get help. Traditionally, police officers will not volunteer to get help or speak about the things bothering them.
Police and fire agencies must remove the decision to get help after critical incidents and mandate yearly check-in’s (not evaluations) with mental health professionals who are culturally competent with first responder culture and also clinically competent in their treatment modalities that are specific to the types of trauma incurred by our first responders. Destigmatizing mental health issues must happen through outreach and education and by bringing in speakers who have experienced the kinds of events I’ve described to help influence change from within the organizations.
Having said all that, we must be cognizant of certain realities that make the process of getting help more difficult. The role of a police officer or firefighter is defined by their character traits which help them survive. We live in a society that is dangerous and broken and there is chaos that exists in all corners of the world.
We will always have to face the reality that there is an inherent role that police officers have as the peacemakers. With that responsibility comes the authority which is entrusted upon them and needed to organize such chaos. But attached to that required authority, comes a Type-A personality, which means they’re competitive, self-critical, have a high work ethic, are extroverts and feel a constant sense of urgency and order.
These personality traits often have an internal moral compass that points toward benevolence and belief in a just world, and those are character traits that usually put others first and have difficulty looking inward for opportunities aligned with self-care.
For a profession where the margin for error is so small, these highly professional individuals & their personality traits are required to ensure successful, peaceful outcomes when called upon by the public. Police officers perform within chaos and are expected to reestablish order when there is none.
There are very few professions where the penalty for failure is death and that reality underscores the need for Type-A traits to work within the public safety arena. It is like the military, although police officers’ careers last longer than military careers and are not similar in that they are not killing machines, they also play the role of counselors, teachers, coaches, mediators, etc.
Furthermore, they must also be tactically proficient, have the capacity to possess high frequency, split second decision making, every second of their shift, possess incorruptible character and have sound judgment when overcoming violence.
Tell us about the Resiliency Project
Resilience is all about one’s ability to bounce back after a traumatic event or hardships experienced in life. There are many times after I got my life back on track that I felt like my life was like the movie, The Truman Show with Jim Carey, where it seemed that when I was doing all the right things, everything around me (I.e. marriage/divorce, finances, etc.) was still falling apart and I couldn’t get a break and the world was watching like they did in that movie. Waiting and watching to see how long all these continued disappointments would take to finally push me over the edge, so to speak.
I still have the recordings of one of my brothers telling me repeatedly over the course of several days to just “kill“ myself. These were my darkest days and I could feel every minute of them. This was where the test of my own resilience began to take shape. I’ve tried to use my mistakes and what I went through to help normalize the array of complexities that live in the space around trauma so that others don’t feel like what they are experiencing is abnormal.
My social media platform was originally set to private and I used humor and raw emotion in the videos I make to explain what I was experiencing. But as the last couple years have passed, I realized that not publicly using my voice to help play a small role in changing the culture by breaking stigmas, all my experiences would have been in vain.
The history and tradition of the police culture has been to normalize abnormal events experienced on the job. So what happens when a first responder begins to feel physiological and psychological symptoms of stress? (whether it occurs in their sleep patterns, or isolation begins, or in high-risk behaviors) Police officers often times feel shame, embarrassment, inadequate and a slew of other emotions that are misplaced, because they are not any of those things.
What they think and what they are, are two separate things. Perception formed through and during trauma while trying to live by cultural expectations are often inaccurate. It isn’t until you’ve uncluttered the mind that you can see yourself for what you really are and what you’ve been able to survive. I am @the_resiliencyproject, my speaking, my videos, my message of hope and inspiration is now at the forefront of everything I do, and my goal now is to speak anywhere that will open the door to hear my message.
Anyone interested in having me speak can direct message me on my Instagram, @the_resiliencyproject