By Special Guest Writer Cassie Sexton Police Dispatcher (Ret.)
Reader Caution: this article is a story about struggle with suicide. If you have been personally touched by suicide, have yet to heal, or know you are easily triggered, please stay attuned to how you are impacted and seek professional support as needed. Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text "BLUE" to the Crisis Text Line at 741741.
I will never forget the day my watch commander had me sit down. He said, “Cassie, you have to be careful smiling so much; people think it’s sarcastic.”
“Uhh, wait, what?!”
I was 19-years-old when I started my career in law enforcement, fresh out of a career in dancing, performing, and teaching kids. So if there was one thing I knew how to do, and do it well, it was how to keep a SMILE. I was going to school to be a teacher, but even then at 19, I knew I was already burned out… obviously, teaching was not for me. I had two close friends from high school and college who were already working in law enforcement. I asked them questions daily wanting to know details about their jobs.
“Would you just apply already?!”, was their response accompanied with a big roll of the eyes.
What? Me? I knew nothing about law enforcement. Fine, I will apply!
A small, beach city in Southern California picked me up to work parking enforcement… the most hated people in law enforcement besides animal control services. I didn’t care though because I was on the beach every day and it was sunny and 75. That’s one of the perks of living in Southern California. I stayed in school and took a course at a local college to receive state certification as public-safety dispatcher. I thought it would help me be more well-rounded.
My captain caught me in the hall and asked, “Hey, what do you think about working in the jail?”
The jail? If I wanted to be a cop one day, then that would be a good start. And so, the following month my uniform changed to dark blue, I got some shiny handcuffs, and I was registered to attend the next jail academy at the local sheriff’s department. I met life-long friends, had the best time learning, and really tested my limits during that jail academy. I went from dance teacher to grappling on the ground.
Anyone else remember that conversation you had when you first got hired? Admin told you something like, “Be prepared, this career changes people. You will be different.” Yeah right, I thought. Not me! But then here came the hypervigilance; I would sit with my back to the wall in restaurants; I constantly watched where people’s hands were, as if they might be armed. I talked in code all the time to everyone, on duty and off duty. My parents learned really quick the meaning of 925 (suspicious) and 415 (disturbance). My group of friends shifted. The longer I served in law enforcement, the more I missed birthdays, weddings, holidays, and the birth of babies. My new group of friends was 90% comprised of other first-responders. There was no balance. This was also the time in life when I learned to drink. That’s just what we did; that’s how we bonded. I felt like a badass working in this career that I lived, dreamed, and breathed all the time. I even watched all those jail-reality shows on tv. I loved this career!
During my service in the jail, some events occurred and an opportunity became available to go upstairs and work in dispatch. No longer working in the dungeon? Sold! It sounded different and fun, and I did take the certification course after all. I thought I would try it, but I still wanted to be a cop. That joke was on me because I was still a dispatcher 10 years later. Man, I thought the jail was exciting… hold on to your horses… dispatch is adrenaline junky central! Oh, and callers didn’t smell like alcohol and puke on me, so that was definitely a bonus.
I spent the next 10 years jumping around agencies, overlapping service, and working an insane number of hours. The payoff: great networking and experience, and being able to afford a condo in Southern California at 24-years-old on a single income. The downfall: utter exhaustion, no time for work/personal life balance (what’s that?), and very poor coping skills.
I got into a career where we didn’t talk about our feelings, especially back then. Eww feelings! I’m going to do great here. I’ve literally been raised to do this. Brush it under the rug, straighten up your uniform, and keep on swimming. I was raised in a family where we didn’t speak about our emotions. There were only two emotions: I’m “okay” and anger. Well, “okay” isn’t an emotion, and anger is a secondary emotion that we feel in response to other emotions, like fear and sadness.
Life, personal trauma, work-related trauma, poor coping skills, and not taking the time to process would all soon catch up with me. I was covering up the mess by being a work horse and a perfectionist. “Keep on working Cassie because that’s the only thing holding the rug together!” Maybe, if I work a little harder, take on one more admin project, work part-time at another agency on top of my primary agency, go to one more event, then I will be happy.
There was the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had already lost one mentor and friend to suicide during my jail career. I was not prepared for that to happen again and more frequently. I lost a close friend of mine, who was a leader at one of our agencies, in a horrific way.
We were literally planning a trip to Nashville. What do you mean he’s gone?! Not like this! Not this way!
Three months later, I was on a walk with one of my best friends. We left our phones at home and when we returned, we both saw all the missed calls and texts. I called my supervisor back and remember feeling that familiar “heart-sinking” feeling.
“What? Who? How? Yeah, I’ll tell her.”
I hung up the phone and looked at my friend, who was an officer at one of the local agencies, and shared the news. An officer died in a car accident and I’ll never forget how this event tore through our agency and the heartbreak we felt. One agency celebrated a hero lost, but a couple months earlier another agency… not so much.
Time to work more and feel less. I was promoted to Communications Training Officer (CTO) and Communications Officer in Charge (COIC).
After the death of the officer involved in the car accident, I realized I needed to seek therapy. I CANNOT tell anyone. This is a sign of weakness. That’s what I thought. Almost a year to the day, I transitioned out of one agency to another full-time. I sold my condo, bought another one and remodeled it, and stayed with my parents. It was good timing because I was having a breakdown.
I started a 10-month leave of absence due to mental health and “stress”. Right… stress. I was seeing a psychiatrist, doing therapy, and I went to a well-known clinic and had my brain scanned.
October 28, 2018. It’s just four days after my birthday. I will never forget that day. I was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress (PTS) because the brain scans showed a pattern of an injury that could be healed.
But if I’m not at work, who is going to answer 9-1-1? Who will tell my officers where to go and keep them safe?
SPOILER ALERT: there are still people at work doing that… someone still pushes a black and white around, the phones still ring (and get answered), whether I am there or not.
But the other part… what are they saying about me???
I lost my whole identity. I used to be someone with many interests. What did I like now? I had no idea. The pain was debilitating. It was literally soul-crushing to feel like a burden. Would I ever feel relief? I would test the waters with some self-harm. That didn’t hurt as bad as I thought. My meds were already locked up because of threats I made. But not self-harm because I could hide it.
I took my notebook by my bed and wrote out letters to a handful of people, some instructions for my best friend on where to find everything at my house, and I was complete.
"Everyone will be better off without me. I am not enough… no matter how many hours I work, no matter how many training classes I attend, no matter how many specialized certifications I have… I am still a disappointment."
One night, I found myself holding a knife in the kitchen at my parents’ house. Thank goodness for dogs who hear when their humans get up and suddenly want to go outside. That saved my life that night.
I voluntarily checked myself into a locked facility for evaluation and treatment for 30 days. Once released, I completed a daily program at a local hospital for 10 weeks while living at home. One week in, and my heart was changed. Suddenly, I didn’t want to die anymore. Admitting that I once did want to die by suicide and that I made a serious attempt, was the first time I was being the authentic me.
I learned what emotions are and what to do with them in therapy. You mean, there are more emotions than just “okay and anger”? I had a colorful wheel I carried around in a folder. Hmmm, right now I feel distressed; right now I feel hopeful; right now I feel (look at my colorful wheel) happy, I guess. Happy?! I had not felt happy in so long. And now, I saw the glimmer of happiness and felt it.
I walked out of the facility on the last day and gave them my suicide card.
“I’m leaving this here. I don’t want to die anymore. That’s not the answer.”
Time to go back to work, which I was convinced I could not do anymore. I found a support group for first-responders and I’m so glad I had their support on that first day I showed back up to work. Just like riding a bike, except for the triggers.
I had a whole new set of coping skills now in my back pocket: meditation, breath work, journaling, walking. But I still felt shame. I was grateful I had been forced into wearing a long-sleeved uniform early in my career and I had tattoos on my arms, otherwise people might see my scar.
About a month after returning to work, we took multiple calls over multiple days of a person attempting suicide using a knife. I walked out after personally taking one of those calls and as I was leaving the communications center, I heard one of my partners say out loud, “Ughh, this guy can’t even kill himself right; just get it over with and stop wasting our resources.”
I cried in the bathroom and wondered if they would still say that if I rolled up my sleeves in front of them?
After a year back at work, I went to a first-responder and military retreat. That is where I learned WHY… why I was built the way I am, and why I reacted the way I did. I also developed a whole new understanding and compassion for people in my life. Perhaps people react because of trauma or something that happened to them in their life. It was a profound shift in thinking for me. I also learned I AM NOT ALONE. Many first-responders struggle with suicide, depression, anxiety, compassion fatigue, and addiction. And the price is happiness. I had so many years of numbing, isolation, taking 10 sleeping pills and sleeping for hours when I got home, drinking, sex, and shopping. I closed that chapter.
There is a phrase they say at the end of AA meetings: “It works if you work it.” That became my life motto. I got better because I put in the work. I showed up for MYSELF… treatment, appointments and calls with my therapist and psychiatrist, Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, neurofeedback, meditation, exercise, learning new coping skills, learning to say “I need help” instead of doing it alone, support groups, retreats, finding my tribe of safe people. I learned to live one day at a time. If not one day, then one hour. If not one hour, then one minute. We can all survive for 60 seconds.
What does my life look like now? It has been three years since being in treatment. I can honestly say I am the happiest I have ever been.
I have been sober 3.5 years and don’t miss it one bit. I meditate daily. If I don’t, then I feel off. I lean into the uncomfortable and I am curious about my feelings. I’m not afraid to talk about them anymore. Last September during National Suicide Prevention Awareness Month, I got an amazing piece of art work on my forearm, covering up my scars. This would remind me of my journey and how far I’ve come. Something scary and difficult can turn into something beautiful.
I am a part-time instructor at a local college in partnership with the county sheriff’s department, so I get to teach instructional blocks on wellness and post-traumatic stress, sharing my personal journey, in advanced officer training courses. Recently, I hung up my headset for the last time and cleaned out my locker, retiring as police dispatcher with 14 years of service. I am excited to start a new career as a Public Safety Advocate at First Responder Wellness, a private company that exclusively treats first-responders. Closing one chapter and starting a new one is a surreal feeling. My life is completely different now and I am grateful for all the amazing and difficult things I experienced.
You don’t have to do it alone; it’s okay to not be okay. Cheers to a beautiful, crazy, hard, and amazing career in law enforcement. I’ll be 10-7 out of service.
Catch me chasing my dreams helping other first-responders. Life is worth living and I cannot imagine doing anything else now.
About the Author: Cassie Sexton is a Public Safety Advocate at First Responder Wellness by Simple Recovery. She has extensive law enforcement experience in dispatch, jail, and traffic divisions. Early in her career, she became eager to learn new specialties, showing natural leadership, and a passion for teaching and presenting. With her diverse background, this opened an opportunity at the local college the last few years allowing her to be a speaker for Dispatch courses, most recently, specializing in wellness and PTS. Cassie is passionate about helping first-responders due to her own healing journey of dealing with PTS through wellness, meditation, and recovery. Cassie helps facilitate and lead peer-run Fellowship Support Groups for first-responders twice a week. The support groups allow and provide a safe space for first-responders to gather, share, and heal from the unique traumas they all face on the job.