Assaults
Allen R. Kates, B.C.E.C.R.


The following book excerpt is reprinted with permission from author and AAETS member Allen R. Kates, BCECR. To order, please call toll-free 1-888-265-2732 in the US and Canada. Foreign orders, write Holbrook Street Press, Box 399, Cortaro, AZ 85652 USA.

Not long after Christine got home from the hospital, her brief, troubling dreams escalated into full-blown homicidal nightmares. When she closed her eyes, she saw herself descending the dark stairs to the platform, getting on the train and being attacked by the razor-blade man. She told me her desire was to stop thinking about it because she wanted to get better and return to work. Then, a cop friend unwittingly helped her sabotage herself.

"Christine, listen," he said. "If this stuff has upset you emotionally, you better not say anything to anybody because they'll get you off the job."

"There's no way," she responded. "This is my life, this is my career."

From that moment on, Christine clammed up. She refused to tell anybody how she was feeling or even admit to herself she had major problems because she feared her bosses would take away her job.

Oddly, once she made the decision to hide her feelings, the nightmares stopped almost completely. When she did have a bad dream, it was minor and controllable. This change reinforced her belief that she was doing the right thing. In that mind-set, she attended the mandatory two meetings with the police department psychiatrists. Convincing them nothing was wrong, her determination to appear psychologically healthy backfired. After seven months convalescing, the Transit Authority doctors gave her an ultimatum.

"'We're putting you back so you won't become too mentally detached from work,' the doctors told me. 'Otherwise, you might become afraid to go back.' I said, 'How can you put me back to work? I'm still not feeling well.' I didn't say emotionally I was not well. I was still on probation and afraid they would fire me."

At the prospect of being forced to leave, Christine tasted copper in her mouth. Pains shot across her chest. She couldn't get air. Her left arm tingled. Yet she agreed to return to work immediately. Still enduring physical therapy, she performed light-duty jobs in Operations for a couple of months, answering phones, handing out guns, and disbursing money for toll booths. "I put 110 percent into it no matter how menial the job. I wanted to prove 'I'm fine. I'm just as good as anybody else.'"

Christine struggled to keep up. To not forget instructions from her superiors, she wrote everything down on "many little pieces of paper." After a while, the lieutenant assigned her to the Operations Desk to perform high-profile tasks working with the Chief of Police, Transit Authority officials, inspectors and the press. The job was considered a plum assignment and usually only officers who performed well and had spent considerable time in the unit merited it.

She felt proud of herself that her boss had confidence in her ability. Those who believed the job should have gone to them and not to a rookie treated her with hostility. And the pressure started to mount.

Around this time, about ten months after the attack, Christine, along with other police officers, was honored during Medal Day in a ceremony at police headquarters. As she climbed the stairs of the stage to receive the Distinguished Medal of Honor and the packed auditorium burst into clapping and cheering, she had conflicting feelings. She had heard that some of her fellow officers were not convinced she deserved the medal, but others concluded she earned it. The result was that rather than feeling heroic for what she did, she worried that she "was not worthy of the award."

Uncertainty contributed to growing anxiety when, a few months later, she was moved again, this time to Dispatch, a part of the Operations Unit. She told her supervisors she "needed to feel capable and useful." She got more than she wished for in a job that became more frightening than the subway.

She sat in front of an immense board pinpointing where police officers allocated to her were located in the subway system. Sometimes she would cover all of Manhattan or all of Queens, Brooklyn or the Bronx. Receiving calls for help from 9-1-1 Emergency operators, she would radio the jobs to the nearest police officers. She was their life-support system. If cops were in trouble, they called her. She was their only hope, and the responsibility was crushing.

While her other police department tasks provoked little stress, this job became a source of dread. Contradictory stories were still circulating about what happened in the subway tunnel, and Christine felt she had to prove to other cops and to herself that she was capable of doing anything anybody else could do. "A nervous wreck," she was forced to take sick leave several times to escape the intolerable pressure.

Whenever she heard a "1013, Officer Needs Help," coming from another dispatcher's station, Christine would "freeze up" with fear. The calls made her flash back on her own life-threatening attack, now one year past, and relive it. The nightmares returned stronger and stranger than before.

"Some nights when I would have the nightmares, I would be in the subway system, in the same place where it happened. But then it didn't have to happen in the subway. I mean, I'm dreaming I'm in a store and all of a sudden I would be fighting with this guy like I was in the subway."

Christine's nightmares occurred almost every night around two or three in the morning, preventing her from getting back to sleep. She would go to work by six-thirty, exhausted. Her ability to function began to fail. She started to stutter. When she had to concentrate on a call or watch the board, without warning a flashback would completely distract her. She had difficulty remembering things.

"I couldn't remember simple things, like they would say, 'Call him and tell him to be there at four instead of one.' I couldn't remember what I was supposed to tell them. I would have to write everything down.

"Sometimes I would go through a day and wonder if I got a phone call or went to the store or dreamed that I did. I couldn't distinguish the difference. I couldn't remember what was real and what was a dream. The taste in my mouth... the coppery taste, I'd get that all the time." Other police officers I talked to have described similar tastes when they've been under stress. One described it as metallic, another as iron and another as the taste of blood. A couple of officers said they could taste the greasy brake linings from the black and white cruisers or sometimes smell decaying flesh when they were nowhere near a dead body. During flashbacks, people who suffer from PTSD often report they taste something that reminds them of a traumatic event.

Realizing it was more than a year since the attack and her ability to cope was deteriorating, Christine turned to a police friend for help. He advised her to see a counselor outside the force. After two to three months of tests and therapy sessions at the Diagnostic and Counseling Services Center, the doctor gave his assessment.

"He said, 'You are destroying yourself. You have Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, and it's totally taking over your life. I don't think you should be performing as a police officer. You should commit yourself to a psychiatric hospital.'"

Christine told me she stood up and said, "Sal, if you ever bleed a word of this to anybody, I will sue you, because I won't do anything else but this. Nobody's going to take this job away from me. I'm going to be okay. I'm just stressed, that's all."

I asked Christine, "After you were diagnosed with PTSD, were you able to function?"

"I had something to take my mind off it," she said. "Robert and I were going to get married in about ten months. We were planning the wedding ourselves and it took a lot of time out of my day, off time, on time. I was excited and I was able to force down all my feelings."

Christine's method for suppressing feelings worked. The nightmares became occasional again. Nearly two years had passed since the assault and everything seemed better. But with the wedding over and nothing to distract her mind, a tidal wave of feelings washed her away. The nightmares intensified. Accompanying them were cold sweats and a racing heart. She was up every night for months. Everyone at work noticed she was worn out. She couldn't concentrate, and they couldn't depend on her. At home, she was irritable and short-tempered.

"Every little thing would bother me. Robert was having trouble accepting what was happening to me, and it was hurting our marriage. And I stopped doing things. I stopped cleaning the house. The wash was piling up. I stopped cooking, which was something I loved to do. I stopped playing piano. After I'd gotten hurt, I went on shopping sprees and I was still doing it, only more. I had enough of everything, but I would buy and buy and buy. I have clothes I haven't worn that still have tags on them. I have shoes that are still in boxes."

I asked Christine why she went on shopping sprees.

"Depression and the necessity to feel something. I mean, this had taken away every bit of self-esteem. Shopping made me feel good."

"Did depression affect the way you acted in other ways?"

"One time I was on my way to work, going up the stairwell from the subway..."

"How were you on the subway?"

"The first thing I did once I was able to walk was go out on the subway platform. When Robert was available, he would walk me to the turnstile and come back for me after work. But I thought if I waited any period of time, I would grow frightened of it. So by the time I went to work, I was okay."

"You were going up the stairwell..."

"I was anxious every time I rode the subway... There was this young guy. You know, it's five-thirty in the morning, the subway's totally empty. I'm the only person there, and a guy wants fifty cents? I don't think so. He wants my whole wallet."

"Were you in uniform?"

"Civilian clothes and I had my gun on me. And he goes, 'I want fifty cents.' And I say, 'No, my man. No money.' His shoulders move up and down and he's positioning himself like in a dance so he can have leverage. And he says, 'Yo! Just gimmie fifty cents, okay!'"

"What did you do?"

"My gun was in a belly band and I went to get it. Like, they know. They already know if somebody's going into their jacket, what you're gonna take out. You're not going to take out a 'Congratulations! You're a winner!' card. And I told him, 'Step back. Get the hell away from me!'"

"Did you pull your gun on him?"

"No, but I almost did. Then the copper taste came into my mouth and like this whole thing dropped from my head to my toe, like a blood rush. I was also angry because I realized I was unable to make a clear decision. Afterwards, I kept asking myself, What should I have done?"

Christine attributed her overreactivity - going for the gun - to depression and being anxious. She felt less in control, vulnerable to attack and more prone to act quickly to disable a perceived threat without considering the consequences of her actions.

"Were there other times when you felt threatened?"

"It would happen all the time," she said. "I was consumed by people. Especially in the subway. I was taking the subway every day to work and these homeless people, they were... they were destined to kill me."

She laughed. "It sounds crazy, but some of these people would leave that impression on me.

"If a homeless person came near me," she went on, "I would get the copper taste. I couldn't get air. My hands would start to tingle and sweat. I'd lose feeling in my fingertips and get lightheaded. I'd feel my heart pumping and get really bad migraine headaches."

"Had you had migraines before you were attacked?"

"Never. And I was getting them so badly I was vomiting."

"In these encounters with homeless people, what were you thinking?" I asked.

"I was saying to myself, Oh my God. Am I ever going to be able to do this? I mean, look at the way I'm reacting. Just a homeless person. As time went by, I was slowly getting worse."

"Did you try to alleviate your stress? You were a runner. Did you work out again?"

"I tried running again, but I was hurting myself. Probably because I wasn't healed enough yet. I tried a lot of things. You see, I wanted to be the same person that I was before. You know? I was battling myself because I couldn't understand why I was going through this. I was looking at myself as a loser. I saw myself as a weak person, and I could not face not being a cop. I've asked myself, Why can't I accept this damn thing that's happened and let it go? No, it was taking me under."

"Did your friends try to help?"

Christine sighed. "I couldn't talk to people anymore. Nobody could understand. I have friends who are female cops. It frightened them to hear about this, and I was embarrassed to admit I was having problems. And I have friends who aren't cops. They couldn't understand it. And how could I relate my feelings to them when they couldn't even comprehend what I was feeling?"

"Before the attack, were you a strong person?"

"Very strong. And I felt I had to work harder because just by looking at me, people didn't take me seriously as a cop."

"Because you were a woman?"

"Yes. People would try to make me appear as if I wasn't intelligent. It was important I knew where I stood. To let people know I was feeling vulnerable, this would acknowledge something I didn't want to admit. I didn't want people to think I was damaged. I wanted them to feel I was strong."

"What about your husband?"

"We were having a lot of problems in our relationship. For a long time I felt dead inside. Robert did everything for me. He paid the bills, did housework, went grocery shopping, everything. But he couldn't understand either. Who could? If I myself couldn't, how could I expect him to?"

"And your family?"

"My parents were supportive, but there was nothing they could do to help."

Now married and back at work with no wedding to plan for, Christine made an error in Dispatch for which she cannot forgive herself, and even today it makes her hands shake when she thinks of it. A female officer called in a "1013, Officer Needs Help," but the transmission was fuzzyand Christine wasn't sure what the officer said.

"I'm not sure I didn't hear it because the transmission was poor or because of the fear it caused in me."

Having no way to contact the officer who made the call, Christine panicked. Fortunately, the officer called back, informing Christine that the problem resolved itself and there was no emergency. Christine's lieutenant castigated her for not responding. Missing a "1013," the call that saved Christine's life, was a little too close to home.

Christine said she felt sick after that and couldn't continue working. "It killed me to think that, God forbid, if anything had happened to her I would be responsible. It was a very bad thing, very shameful for me. I never wanted to hurt any of my fellow cops. This makes me feel like I wasn't a good cop. In reality, I wasn't well."

The 1013 incident brought back violent memories of the slashing. Her mind replayed the images continuously, giving her little sleep or respite from pain. One week later, her feelings reached a climax. The Police Self-Support Group, which Christine had attended sporadically, invited her to join several injured police officers on NBC's the Today show. "Before this, my mental breakdown was very hush-hush. This was the first time I outright expressed myself on how I felt."

During the interview, one of the other officers described PTSD reactions similar to hers. Tommy said he couldn't concentrate or remember. He cried for no reason. He had nightmares, cold sweats and was always irritable, exhausted. Although he experienced flashbacks, he denied he had problems. Like Christine, he overreacted to innocent situations and people. And like Christine, he was in an intermittent state of unreality. He wept openly on the television show, and his account made her realize the unreal was real.

"After the television interview, I went home and broke down," she said. "That unleashed everything, like opening Pandora's box. All of these feelings that I had suppressed all this time. Everything was exposed. Within a week or so, I wouldn't go outside the house. I lay in bed all day and I cried."

I asked Christine, "You didn't go to work?"

"I had to go out sick from work because I wouldn't leave the house, and I was crying all the time. I was totally withdrawn. I didn't want to go shopping for clothes or even food. My mother or Robert would have to bring food in. I didn't want to socialize. And I was drinking a lot too. Drinking at night to fall asleep."

"Did the alcohol help?"

"No, and during the day I didn't sleep either. I sat in bed and cried and I had the blinds closed and rocked myself. Sometimes I would sit in a chair or sit on the floor in a corner of the room, in the dark room, rocking and crying. You must realize that I was the person who everyone would call to ask 'What do I do?' or 'What do you think of this or that?' I would always give advice. I was the strong one. I was the capable one. Now what was I?"

Knowing she was in trouble, Christine called Tony Senft from the support group. Tony could not drive because of his injuries, and he couldn't get a driver at such short notice. He convinced Christine to come to him.

"I can't tell you what it was like to get into the car," she said. "I fought with Robert. He had to take me by the arm and then pick me up and carry me to the car. I was paranoid about everything. Every little noise startled me. Even the sun, the sun was hurting my eyes."

Christine put the front seat down so no one would see her in the car. "I lay down crying the entire way there while Robert drove."

Realizing she needed professional care, Tony advised Christine to see his psychiatrist, a therapist experienced in helping veterans with PTSD. The next day her mother drove her to see his doctor.

"I sat in front of him and cried," she said. "I couldn't tell him what happened to me for almost three sessions. And then he told me he was going on vacation and I came apart.

"I really feel like I want to kill myself," she told Dr. James J. Cavanagh. "I can't stand crying anymore. I can't stand what this is doing to my life. I'm killing my marriage. I'm killing everything. I don't know how much more I can take."

"If you feel as though you're a danger to yourself," the doctor said, "I think you should let me admit you to the hospital."

"The hospital! Absolutely not," she said. "If I was hospitalized, I would never be a cop again. They'd consider me mentally unstable."

The doctor and Christine decided it was better if she made the decision to go. "Can you imagine what would have happened if they forced me? It would be like being arrested. They'd have to call the police and order an ambulance. People would come and take away my gun and shield."

Christine returned home to her dark room, crying and rocking to try to soothe herself. Suicidal, she called a friend who sent her to another psychiatrist. Dr. Joseph Benezra advised hospitalization. Again, she refused.

"I went home from that session and had a terrible argument with Robert, and he left to go to work. He could not comprehend what I was going through. I was scared to death of everything and I was afraid to go out. I was a prisoner of something that happened to me and he couldn't understand that. I wondered why that guy didn't just kill me and save me and my family from all this.

"After Robert left, I went into an hysterical fit of crying and couldn't stop. I took medication the doctor gave me to sleep and some Scotch. I was hallucinating. I took my gun and I sat down on the couch in the living room with the TV blasting and I was crying, rocking back and forth, and I brought it up to my mouth and I was screaming- "'God please take my life from me! I've been through enough! Please help me. I didn't do anything to deserve this. I failed as a person and I failed as a police officer and I failed at my marriage and there's nothing else in this life I want. Forgive me for what I'm about to do. Please help me take my life!'" The phone rang.

At first she wasn't going to answer it. She did, and the call saved her life. It was Tommy, the officer from the Police Self-Support Group who spoke of his PTSD reactions on the Today show, calling to see how she was.

She said to him, "I'm sorry I can't help anybody else because I can't help myself. The pain is too much for me to take. Everyone will be much better off without me around."

He listened, and he talked to her until she promised to put down the gun. He wanted to drive out to see her, but she said no. He told her next time he might not be there to stop her. This motivated Christine to return to the psychiatrist. In tears, she told Dr. Benezra she just wanted to go back to work. He told her he wanted her to go to the hospital.

Once again, she fought the doctor, unable to accept that she had moved from care giver to care needer. A few days later, she finally agreed to be voluntarily committed to North Shore University Hospital. On the way, she took several anti-depressant, anti-anxiety and sleeping pills. She said, "I didn't want it to be a reality for me."

Before admission to the psychiatric unit was granted, Christine was required to subject herself to a medical examination in the emergency room. "This was the greatest humiliation," she said. The resident performed a gynecological exam. Christine felt it was an offensive and unnecessary intrusion but didn't think she was in a position to protest.

Afterwards, an aide took her upstairs to the eighth floor, the Psych. Unit. She's not sure what she expected, but when she saw gray, steel doors with tiny windows, doors that required keys or beepers to open, doors that slammed shut behind her, she felt panic. She couldn't reconcile how a cop could be locked up like a criminal.

More indignities were to follow. The nurses directed her to undress and then took her clothes away. Ironically, her attacker, an escapee from a Connecticut mental institution, had failed to kill her, but succeeded in reducing her to his level, and she couldn't do anything about it.

Locked away, stripped of everything she associated with the outside world-clothes, shoes, a pen, a telephone-she felt abandoned. "I felt like I lost my battle. I lost my career." It was two in the morning. For a few hours, loaded with drugs to fight off the reality of where she was, Christine slept.

The next morning, she met with a room full of doctors, nurses and aides. Weeping, she told them the little she could remember of the incident. By this time she was blocking out many details. Never looking up from the table, she had no idea what the staff members looked like. She sat there, hunched over, plucking tissues from a box.

The days in the hospital passed slowly while she received medication, one-on-one counseling and engaged in group therapy. She kept a diary of her ups and downs. Rereading the entries gave insight into her frightening misadventure. After earning "points of improvement" for following rules like taking medication and attending counseling, she was allowed to watch television, do crafts and use an exercise bike. From the moment she was assaulted, she started losing weight and was now down more than 25 pounds, weighing 88 pounds.

Christine said the staff was very protective, too protective. "I couldn't shave my legs without a person outside the shower watching me. They were afraid I'd hurt or kill myself."

She was angry that her attacker had put her here, locked in with people like him. "It was horrifying," she said. "I was in with a lot of really sick people who were chronically mentally ill, people who had been in and out of mental institutions their entire lives. It was very degrading."

The status of the people locked up with her affected how she responded in group therapy. She would not open up because several patients were under arrest for drug offenses. They were people she was ordered to apprehend and here she was facing them as an equal.

Her shame and powerlessness revealed themselves in headaches and troubled sleep. After the first night, the nightmares returned. During the day, despite taking several medications, migraine headaches caused her to throw up repeatedly.

About two weeks into her hospital stay, Christine's doctor suggested a method for breaking her mental block about the attack. He wanted to administer sodium amytal, a short-acting barbiturate. It was supposed to help release inhibitions. Although she was still having nightmares, they were not about the incident itself. She wanted to relive it one last time. She thought, If I can get it out, then that will be the end of it.

The day the drug was to be given, the medical staff and several interns assembled in a room to observe the procedure. She said she felt like a laboratory specimen under a microscope. An IV bottle dripped solution into her arm. The doctor told her to recite numbers backwards. After the drug took effect, the doctor asked her questions about herself. Then he asked her about the incident, questions like, "Do you know you did everything you could to come out of there alive?" She cried and answered Yes and wanted him to go on. He hesitated.

She pleaded with him, "Please don't stop. Please take me back." He refused to delve into the details of the assault, and for two days after the procedure, she sobbed uncontrollably.

"I was angry because I felt he left me hanging. He made me think he was really going to help me and he didn't. I couldn't understand why he did that. And I was angry because it was like I didn't live it. Do you know what I mean? I thought that if I went back there subconsciously, maybe when I awoke it would have been more realistic to me, and I would be able to deal with it."

I asked her, "Did the doctor tell you why he didn't take you back?"

"He said he didn't feel it would have done any good."

Coming to terms with the unreality of the attack was one of many hardships Christine tolerated in the hospital. The news that she was hospitalized in a psychiatric unit caused her disgrace in the eyes of her friends and family.

"I've lost friends over this. I've lost cousins," she said. "When I was in North Shore, a cousin of mine had a baby. She was on the maternity floor of the same hospital, and I went to visit her. They looked at me like I had some infectious disease or I was going to pull out a gun and kill everyone in sight. They were frightened over where I had been."

After a month in the hospital, Christine was allowed to leave. Initially, while still on medication, she saw her main therapist, Dr. James J. Cavanagh, three times a week. However, her therapy seemed unsuccessful. She had waited such a long time before seeking help, denying her problems, that the symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder held on tenaciously.

Christine told me she left the hospital with more "unexplainable" issues than when she went in. She was overly suspicious and forgetful. She'd forget what she was saying in the middle of a conversation and while driving would become lost.

But she had made progress in the hospital. At last she was facing the aftermath of the assault. Feelings she previously ignored were in turmoil. She was getting better, only it felt worse.

Reprinted from CopShock, Surviving Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) 472 pages.

ISBN: 0-9668501-0-6. $19.95 US Copyright © 1999 by Allen R. Kates. Excerpt From

CHAPTER 1: ASSAULTS

©1999 by The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress, Inc.