The best laid plans and all that...Earlier this year, I was medically retired from the Metropolitan Police after more than 25 years wearing the uniform. My last day as a serving officer was Wednesday 28th February 2018. And that wasn’t how it was supposed to be.
I joined the Met in September 1992
...a happily clueless 22 year old setting out on the adventure of a lifetime. Over the years, I fell hopelessly in love with the job and with the people who do it.Ask most police officers why they joined and they will tell you, quite simply, that they wanted to make a difference; that they wanted to help people. And I loved almost every passing moment of all that followed. I planned to stay for 30 years - perhaps longer. I even had a half-baked idea that I might try to make it to Chief Constable one day.
Then life happened. In April 2013, at the age of 43, I broke.
I was working as the Borough Commander for Southwark in south London at the time - responsible for policing one of London’s more challenging neighbourhoods. I had been feeling exhausted for a number of weeks - significantly more so than I had ever done before. I tried to ignore it - putting it down to a combination of the inevitable challenges of the day job and the delightful demands of raising a young family. But time passed and I just couldn’t shake it. And, increasingly, I started to become anxious.
...like the tiredness, was not - in and of itself - completely unfamiliar to me. I had experienced anxiety on plenty of occasions in my life before. Nothing remotely like this though. I began waking in the middle of the night in a state of blind terror, completely unable to explain why. Not realising or understanding that I was becoming very seriously ill. I would get up in the morning and try to shrug it off - try to get on with the day. Because there was a job to be done; a family to raise; a life to be lived.
But then the depression came. And depression was the thing that finally broke me. Smashed me into a thousand tiny pieces. Because depression is not the same as sadness. In fact, sadness is to depression as a puddle is to the Pacific. It is a thing of raw horror and blind terror: a water-boarding of the mind. It was, by some endless distance, the most horrifying thing that has ever happened to me. I was off work for more than 7 months. It took much longer than that to recover any semblance of my old self. I never made it back to operational police duties.
More than five years later
...I’m a whole lot better than I was, but I realise that I did myself some permanent damage along the way. I’m no longer strong enough to deal with the exhaustion and the strain of a policing life. I can no longer manage the inevitable stress. And I appear to be completely unable to cope with trauma of any kind – certainly not the kind of trauma encountered endlessly when you’re wearing that uniform.
That’s the painful privilege of policing – to venture repeatedly into the hurting places; to be there when lives are saved; to be there when they hang in the balance; to be there in the scattered mess of blood and bandages; to be there when lives are lost; to be there when news is broken; to be there when the shattered faces of loved ones crumple in grief. To be there on the inside of the fluttering blue and white tape.
Not now though. I’m no longer able to stand in those places. And I’m in awe of those who are. Time and again, I find myself stirred by the breathtaking courage and compassion of my former colleagues. They have always been – and they remain – the everyday heroes and heroines who police our streets.
I miss them.I miss it all.
But there have been endless silver linings: The extraordinary love of my wife; the unexpected hours and days spent with our three beautiful girls; the faithfulness of friends and the kindness of strangers; time and space to think and breathe and to learn how to rest in a world that is moving far too fast; learning to write and to find healing in the telling of stories. And the discovery of a thing called grace - the rumour that I am loved beyond measure, just as I am.
Life might, of necessity be slower these days – but it is also somehow deeper, richer and kinder.
Whatever happens now, I will always love the job I used to do. I will always love the extraordinary people who still do it. I will always celebrate their humanity and heroism. And I will always feel pride of the finest kind.
Because I was a boy in blue.
Read more of John's story in his Sunday Times best selling book Blue: Click Here