A Desire to Help
When we are kids, we often idolize the “helpers” around us. Firefighters, police, and soldiers tend to loom larger than life in the eyes of many kids, and some spend at least a part of their childhood pretending to be one of them. Sometimes those dreams stick, and the child grows up to become what they revered. Brian Knowler is an officer with the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP), a service that is akin to the state police units in the United States. He readily tells you that he wanted to be a policeman when he was young, so it’s not strange that he ended up in this position.
Brian’s story doesn’t involve high-speed chases, shootouts, or saving small children from kidnappers. It could, if he chose to focus on those things, but he doesn’t. Instead, what comes through are a few incidents that highlight his conscious choices to help people around him, even the person staring back at him from the mirror. The story begins with Brian in law school, looking forward to a career of helping people. However, his time there, however, was quickly soured by unhealthy competition amongst his peers.
Brian recalls his time in the University of Windsor law program, “After my first year of law school, I was pretty disillusioned. My class was really cut-throat. I’m not sure why my particular year of 94 to 97 was that way. Windsor was normally a fairly liberal institution. A big emphasis on social justice and legal clinics, stuff like that. So I was quite surprised when my classmates turned out to be so cut-throat. You know, things like hiding law books that you needed for certain projects. Roommates, who were competing for the same job, shredding each other’s mail and erasing answering machine messages. This is all pretty much pre-email and electronic communications, you know.
“All these people are aspiring for a corner office on Bay Street in downtown Toronto and I don’t want that. I just want to help the little guy. I enjoyed law school, I loved the challenges of research and writing and the discourse back and forth, but the end game that most people shot for was kind of the route of ‘You get in with a good firm, you spend a couple of years and then you become an associate, and then you become a partner.’ That just didn’t appeal to me.”
Brian finished his law degree, but the idea of police work was still in his head and was being pushed by those around him. He had married his wife, Cathy, while in Law School, and she came from a policing family. “Cathy’s dad,” Brian says, “ talked to me more and more about going into policing. I did some ride-alongs and it kind of rekindled the feelings from when I was a little kid. I thought, ‘Ok, this is a way I can combine the stuff that I love with my lawyer hat on, with actually doing what I want to do, instead of billing people enormous amounts of hours!’ ”
Constable Brian Knowler
His first policing job came in the small town of Amherstburg, ON. In the late ’90s, the town still had its own independent police force, which has since been amalgamated into Windsor, ON’s police department. At the time, in 1999, the force had approximately 30 officers and was a good place for a new police officer to learn the ropes. Brian says, “In Amherstburg, you rode with a coach officer, for the first two or three months, all the time. After you hit a certain level of confidence and comfort you can go by yourself on day shifts, but you rode with a coach officer for a couple more months on nights. We called it getting your night wings. [Eventually] you’re on your own, with the knowledge that if you need help, you’ve got your shift there to help you.”
Not long after Brian earned his wings, he was on Christmas Eve shift. That night would become a defining moment in creating the police officer he wanted to be. “Our night shift ended on Christmas Eve so we would finish at 6 O’Clock Christmas morning,” Brian remembers. “I was basically driving by myself through the very deserted streets of Amherstburg and around 11:30 this car went past me and it blew a really stale yellow that turned to red as [the car] was going through the intersection. I thought, ‘Well, there’s nothing else going on so I may as well stop this person.’ With his flashers on and a blip from the siren, Brian pulled the driver over.
“I stopped the car, and it’s a mom and a dad, two kids in the back, and the dad is really super nervous. I said, ‘Good evening. I stopped you for how you drove through the intersection. Can I have your license and registration?’ The wife and husband exchanged looks and the dad said, ‘Can I talk to you outside?’
This would be against protocol, but Brian decided to go with it. “They always tell us not to let people out of their cars, to watch their hands. But I said, ‘Sure, come around back and we’ll talk back by the trunk.’ He gets out. He says, ‘Listen, officer. We’ve had a very bad year. I worked at [an Amherstburg company that had recently closed]. My insurance lapsed two weeks ago.’
“What about your driver’s license,” inquired Brian.
“I’m suspended,” was the reply.
Brian continues, “I told him, ‘Stay here’. I went and got in the car and did some checks. He’d only been suspended for a couple of days. It’s now almost Christmas. These two little kids are looking out the back window at me and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my God!’ I’m sitting here at the age of 27 and there is a guy about my age out there. I’m holding the fate of his Christmas in my hands. I could have nailed him for the no insurance. I could have nailed him for driving with no license which was a massive fine. Those are automatic. His wife didn’t drive, so I could have towed his car. I remember thinking, ‘This is a lot of responsibility for a 27-year-old.’
“It was the first time I ever really got a sense of what my job entails, in the sense of ‘I do have the ability to deprive people of their liberty by arresting them and putting them in jail.’ I could make or break this person’s holiday–the whole family’s.”
The dispatcher called and asked, “Do you need a tow truck?”
“No, I’m good,” Brian radioed back. “I hopped back out of the car and I said, ‘Hey dude, listen. I want you to know where we could go with this.’ And as I rattle off the list, his face is just falling and his wife can hear some of this, so she starts to cry. I remember looking at my watch and thinking, ‘Oh my God, it’s a Christmas miracle!’ It was two minutes after midnight. And I said, ‘Brother, listen. I”m going to let you go, but here’s the deal: January 2nd I’m going to follow up with you. I’m going to need to know that you’ve either taken the car off the road because you can’t drive it, or you’ve got your insurance paid and you’ve got your license sorted out. I have the ability to lay this for thirty days.’
“The guy actually broke down at the side of the road in tears and his wife got out and hugged me. The kids are crying because they see mom and dad are crying even though they don’t know what’s going on. He gave me a big handshake and a hug. And off he went. “
Brian did follow up later on, and it confirmed that his gut instinct was correct. Brian says, “I called the guy January 2nd and he came down to the office. He showed me he had gotten his insurance. He got his license reinstated. Between Christmas and New Years’, he got a new job.
He said, ‘If you had fucked me over that night, I would have had to pay to get my car out of impound and I wouldn’t have had the money to get my insurance. Man, you really saved me that night.'”
To Brian, that was the point of policing: helping people live better lives. He didn’t know it yet but, soon enough, Brian would need to apply that principle to saving himself.
Face to Face with the unthinkable
After two years of service, Brian left the Amherstburg Police department in 2001. He had been hired into the OPP as a direct hire. As it worked out, his new posting was still near his home in southwestern Ontario. Within the OPP, he found an organization full of opportunities to advance and to develop his leadership skills. He threw himself into the new job, was quickly promoted, and began to gain new responsibilities.
Working for the OPP exposed Brian to a number of dangerous and violent incidents. This was part of the job, and he generally found healthy ways to cope with what he was experiencing. Then one night in 2004, he was called to the scene of an accident out on a dark county highway. Brian recalls the nightmare scene, “I didn’t have any information besides that a van and a pickup had crashed. I got there. I checked on the one person–he was fine. He was waving me towards the van that had rolled. I climbed into this van not knowing what I was going to find in there. I ended up finding one of my good buddies from school laying there bleeding to death.
“This was my buddy, we still talked a couple times a month, still met up for beers a couple times a year. You know, we spent a lot of time together in university. He was also doing history, so we had a lot of the same courses. You know, skipped out of a lot of the same courses,” Brian says with a chuckle.“ Then when we finished, I went the law way and he pursued advanced business education and did his MBA. We knew about each other’s families and we kept tabs on each other’s kids. Having that much of a connection was really the stinger in that one.”
There was an unspoken code amongst first responders at the time. The essence of it is that if you signed up for the job, you need to deal with the consequences. It didn’t matter if you held your friend while he died, were the one who notified his wife, and led the accident investigation. If you couldn’t hack what you saw on the job, then perhaps you weren’t cut out for the work. Dealing with the impact of traumatic incidents was done quietly, on your own. To be seen as weak might even have career-limiting implications.
“Looking back on it now, I handled it very badly,” Brian says quietly. “I shouldn’t have forced myself to finish the call. I should have been asking for a debriefing and talking about it right from the start. Corporately, it would be handled so much differently now. Not only myself, but my whole shift would have been removed from the call. There would have been other officers brought in to deal with it. The idea of my staying and finishing this call and doing the notification to Mike’s wife and kind of running with things the next two or three days, that wouldn’t happen now.”
It did happen then, and the effects would resonate over the next few years.
“For me, the immediate toll was withdrawing a bit, a couple of weeks of bad dreams, flashbacks. I wasn’t very social, definitely wasn’t as switched on at home as I should have been. Work was impacted a bit. I lost my drive for work. I was physically avoiding that area. But within a couple of weeks, that seemed to fade away. I thought, ‘Ok, well.. Life goes on. It’s part of the job, it’s part of the cost of doing business.’ I threw myself into my career because it was an easy way to focus on something apart from the memories of that night and the crushed minivan, my buddy Mike and the injuries he had sustained.
About 3 years after the night of Mike’s accident Brian began to notice that he wasn’t himself anymore. The realization did not prompt him to receive help, and over the next few years, things began to get worse. He is matter of fact as he recalls, “that’s when the spiral started. I was burying myself more and more in work. I was spending less time at home. I was taking on more responsibility because that meant I didn’t have to be at home and could be at work where I felt like I could be in charge. I was making choices that were a little impetuous, sometimes. Doing things for the thrill of it, like going to a call a little bit quicker than I should, being willing to mix it up in a situation that maybe could have been resolved differently.
He also began to withdraw even more from his family. Brian had noticed earlier that he and Cathy were not as close, but he put that down to busy lives and each of them having a growing professional career. Now, however, things were different. They were getting really bad.
Brian recalls, “Eventually I started using alcohol on a fairly regular basis, which is a pretty common coping mechanism. That was to help me sleep, to put me in places away from that blackness. And then, by this point, the end of 2011, my relationship [with Cathy] was really damaged. Anytime I wasn’t at work I was spending tucked away in the garage, didn’t really care about the routine of the house, didn’t care about holidays coming up, birthdays rolling around, family events rolling around, socializing. And then within a couple of months, we moved to Barrie. It all came crashing down on me.”
It was in Barrie, in 2012, that the wake-up call came from Cathy. She basically laid it out for him. She loved him, but things had to change. He had to change, or she and the boys would have to move on. It was the hardest night of his life.
That night, Brian made the choice to get help and try to fix what was wrong inside of him. He wanted to save what he had helped build as a husband. After a long and exhausting night of confronting and admitting his problems to his wife, he also had to do the same thing at work the next morning, to a supervisor with who he only had a little history. Fortunately, she was open to helping him and provided the support he needed at work, playing an active role in helping him line up mental health help. His long road to recovery finally began.
Brian was eventually diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is a mental health condition brought on by being exposed to a life-threatening event where your life or even someone else’s is threatened. In its most severe forms, it can lead to negative changes in thinking and mood, along with changes in physical and emotional reactions to common experiences in day to day life. The longer it goes undiagnosed, the worse the symptoms usually become. Brian had waited for years.
Reborn as a Mental Health Champion
Brian has also made it back. “Until I had this awakening, coming through this rebirth after my PTSD, I was all about the job, the uniform, the cars, the trappings of being a police officer. I came so close to losing my family and my profession. I did a complete 180 and reanalyzed what was important and I realized I was letting the job consume too much of me. Now I am at the point where I am doing my job, I still love my job, but it’s not defining who I am.”
It took years of counseling and self-introspection. Hard days and hard nights, hard choices, and hard work. Brian was able to save his marriage, with Cathy’s help. He was able to save his job, and return to the police force. Now he has turned his attention to helping others avoid the hell he put himself, and those around him, through.
One of the things he is most glad to see is the changes that have happened in the OPP. Brian says, “I’d say 2007-8 is when the program really kicked into high gear with the OPP. That’s when they made a really big push to increase the number of peer support volunteers, to upgrade our training, to bring in in-house psychologists who could be a resource. A couple of years after my incident is when the program picked up substantially. Now the OPP has a complete bureau, and they do peer support, family support, psychologically back to work support. It’s gone from a kind of loose network of, ‘hey, so and so had a bad night. Can you give them a call?’ to a functioning machine that within an hour or two is reaching out to you and your family and making sure you are being taken care of.”
With official support for protecting the mental health of officers as the backdrop, Brian has been on a personal crusade to bring awareness both inside and outside of the OPP. He has authored two books on PTSD and Leadership, and also presents training and talks about these topics outside of his job at the OPP. “We’re just about at the point where mental health can be talked about openly,” Brian believes. “ We are just about there. Not totally. We need to normalize it. It should be at the point where it’s like any other injury.
“People who are successful, people whose lives have not crashed down around them, need to be able to step up and say, ‘yes, I have PTSD. Yes, I struggle with chronic depression. Yes, I struggle with burnout or compassion fatigue. But it doesn’t define me. It’s a part of who I am, it is not what I am.’”
One of the things that people often don’t realize is that mental health issues can reoccur. Brian is aware of this and monitors his mental health closely. Recently, he realized that some of the darkness was regaining a hold in his mind. He took action by taking mental health leave to get better again. It was so important that his doctor nearly ordered him off the job the day he saw her, and he had to plead for a couple of days to wrap up some loose ends. The experience of those days brought home to him that there is still a way to go in our society in accepting Mental Health on the same basis as physical symptoms.
He states, “That gave me two days to bring my replacement up to speed and clean up some files. It also gave me a chance to tell people I’m not going to be around for a bit. Some of the reactions I got–even with as open as I am about PTSD–I got the deer in the headlights look. Like, ‘Do I say something? Do I acknowledge this? Or do I just say, Oh, ok?’ Some people honestly had no idea how to respond. Some people who were a little more open-minded were like, ‘Good for you Brian. That’s fantastic.’ Others were just completely stunned. They had no idea what to say or do. They were clearly not comfortable talking about it.
“I remember thinking, if I was a rookie if I was doing this for my first time, if I was experiencing my first need for mental health [treatment], I would feel like I was maybe doing something wrong.” People in leadership positions, Brian acknowledges, “can do a ton of damage by saying the wrong thing or doing the wrong thing. After going through the wringer for the last 9 years, I knew it was a by-product of people not being comfortable with it.” His advice for everyone, no matter if you are in a leadership position or not is, “If nothing else, just say, ‘I hope everything is ok. Be safe, be healthy.’ You just want the person to know that you heard them and that you are wishing them well. That’s all you have to do”
The thing people need to understand about trauma and stress is that the experience is unique to each individual. It is also possible to quantify, on a theoretical scale, how bad one experience is compared to another. It’s this fact that often gets in the way of people seeking the help they need. Brian says, “I’ve had that talk with other first responders before, who come up to me after a training and say, ‘you gave me a lot to think about, but I don’t think I have earned the right to go talk to somebody else about it because it’s not as bad as yours.’
“ It doesn’t matter about what I experienced,” Brian states. “It matters about what you experienced. People generally wait too long to seek help. There is kind of a rule of thumb, after a traumatic experience, keeping in mind that one person’s trauma is another person’s bad day. If you hit thirty days with the effects of a critical incident still intruding into your thoughts or still impairing your day-to-day routine you’re starting to drift into clinical depression and you are looking at more advanced methods to sort it out. Maybe medication, maybe longer-term treatment. It’s been proven over and over. The quicker you start getting help, the more quickly you will bounce back and the less impact it will have on you.
“In my case, in waiting almost 8 years, you can imagine the damage that was done in that time”
Brian’s story is actually woven out of threads from many other stories in his life. But this narrative is the important one, and it’s one he feels compelled to tell. He summed it up this way, “Once you go through a rebirth, an awakening, it really did change my priorities. As awful as it was, as horrible as the experience was of going through those deaths and those suicidal thoughts and those nights of not being able to sleep, coming through it, and having a new appreciation for things really is a blessing from it.
“It reopens old wounds every time, but you don’t grow and you don’t flourish unless you have a little bit of that pain. If telling my story makes one person have that lightbulb moment where they go, ‘Oh, ok. Now I get it. Now I see why I’ve been feeling so crappy and so tired and not wanting to go to work and dreading it’. Or why my boyfriend or spouse or son or daughter is maybe doing the same. Then it’s worth it.
“I’m one of the lucky ones. A lot of people in the first responder world and the military world didn’t win their fight with their demons. Their demons beat them. They never had a chance to tell their story.”
Interview conducted November 23, 2020
Portrait photos courtesy of Brian Knowler / All other photos from Pexels.com
Brian’s Books and other information can be found at lulu.com