Winning the War Within—An Effective Approach
By John Del Vecchio
For years, a war waged within my head. Trauma, sadness, suffering, and anxiety ruled me. Although I functioned on the outside, I hurt on the inside. I have had real struggles—but also successes.
I entered the police academy in 1980. Training and instruction covered a variety of disciplines. I learned about law, policy and procedure, police operations, field and defensive tactics, firearms, cultural awareness, and many other topics. However, outside of a brief discussion regarding the services and availability of the department psychologist, I received little instruction regarding my mental health.
Along with many other people I encountered during my career, I would have benefited from counseling. However, it somehow had a negative stigma attached to it. The prevalent atmosphere made individuals feel less tough or courageous if they sought help. Consequently, years of suppressed emotions and continual trauma created negativity within my mind and body.
For those in law enforcement, personal and work trauma, divorce, alcohol, stress, and many other factors impact their lives. In the course of their duties, they face brutality, domestic violence, child abuse, victim brutalization, car accidents, suicides, carnage, death, and other distressing events. These encounters have mental and physical consequences.
Mr. Del Vecchio retired as a lieutenant from the Los Angeles, California, Police Department and is a graduate of FBI National Academy Session 240.
I served for nearly 34 years with the Los Angeles, California, Police Department (LAPD). Along with my successes, I experienced anxiety, depression, and trauma. Sleep no longer came easy for me after years of service. For a long time, I faced violent dreams and nightmares. I never shared these thoughts with anyone, assuming they were part of the job and my life.
In 2014, I navigated my first year of retirement. I never realized the extent of trauma I experienced over the years. Then, I met an amazing woman who quickly recognized the difficulty I had expressing myself through communication, passion, or emotion. Although I wanted to open my heart and soul to her, I found it impossible.
The violence in my mind during sleep immediately was evident to her. She reintroduced me to yoga and meditation. I built a physical practice that enhanced many aspects of my life. It brought clarity to my mind and strengthened my body. A couple of years later, I traveled to Bali, Indonesia, and completed my certification to teach yoga. Inspiring others in the benefits of yoga and meditation has proven a gift to share.
Yoga and meditation brought me new enlightenment and peace. This began the process of opening my heart and soul. However, the trauma and daily negativity I experienced continued to swirl around my mind and body. My brain had stored but not processed the years of grisly images, death, and “ghosts.” Fears of not being good enough or able to express myself rattled my mind. The difficulty of opening up and communicating in a relationship filled me with anxiety.
I wanted to share all my fears with her and release my demons. The nightmares continued. I kept telling myself, You are a man. A cop. You are strong. You can talk and open yourself up. You can bare your heart and soul, especially to someone you love. You can do this.
Although scary to admit, I realized I could not do this on my own and that I needed professional help. I got in touch with a police union contact who directed me to resources that would assist me in seeking counseling. Reaching out and asking for help was difficult, but it saved me.
In January 2018, I researched local therapists and began counseling. The first session set the tone and allowed me to decide if the treatment plan fit my needs. The second session focused on me and included discussions of my life, relationships, work, trauma, family, and childhood.
The therapist discussed Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy, an interactive form of psychotherapy in which the patient, guided by a therapist, recalls distressing images and engages in one type of bilateral sensory input, such as side-to-side eye movements or hand tapping.1 She told me that not all therapists have EMDR certification but added, “I’m certain it is a viable treatment for you.” We discussed the benefits and relief it brings for trauma victims and post-traumatic stress disorder patients. It seemed incredible, but my law enforcement background made me skeptical. However, I wanted to feel better. After doing some research, I had the confidence and desire to move forward.
Years of trauma and negativity from my life and chosen career remained in my brain, cycling continuously. Memories of these events created more toxic thoughts in my mind, which I could not process on my own. The therapist said, “Merely talking about these thoughts will not resolve or release them. There is no way you can resolve this on your own. Events and the trauma suffered get locked up within you. If we do not process these experiences and let them go, they remain inside only to cause more trauma, anxiety, and stress.”
Violent nightmares, sadness, and lack of openness had a tight grip on me. I fought an evil army and constant negativity in my head. The first EMDR session focused on a traumatic work-related event from early in my career that was embedded in my memory. This incident involved the grisly murder of a young woman. My partner and I discovered her body in the middle of a lonely road late one night.
The EMDR session was about to begin. My therapist handed me two small fobs. I held one in each hand, my fingers wrapped around them. A single wire attached each device to a small control box she held. I closed my eyes, and she asked me to visualize the event. The fob in my right hand began to lightly vibrate. It ceased. The left vibrated before stopping. She asked, “What did you see?” I responded. She said, “Think about that thought.” The session continued.
The therapy, vibrations, and thought processes induced recall of the traumatic event while diverting my attention from the emotional consequences. Resulting bilateral horizontal eye movements allowed my brain to process the incident. I relived the entire horrific event, recalling exact conversations with my partner. Emotions, sights, smells, and sounds seemed real. It was vivid and gut-wrenching.
“It seemed incredible, but my law enforcement background made me skeptical.”
Tears poured from my eyes, but I flowed through the process. The session guided me through the trauma. My brain processed the event. I began to feel better and verbalized happier emotions. Then, the therapist had me focus my thoughts on an individual. I selected an object of beauty I associate with that person. When she was satisfied with my responses (all positive), she asked how I felt.
Although worn out physically and mentally, I felt a huge weight lifted from my chest. My mind felt free, at ease, and less cluttered. This 2-hour process was complete. The therapist said to drink plenty of water and to let my body rest.
Arriving home exhausted, but with a light mind and heart, I enjoyed a restful night of sleep with no violent dreams or nightmares. One EMDR experience cleared my mind of the horror and trauma. I continued with four more sessions, focusing on work trauma, childhood issues, relationships, communication, and love.
The benefits are amazing. I feel a renewed sense of openness and love of life from the combined EMDR therapy and counseling. I am more willing and able to open my heart and soul. I have received a miraculous gift. The therapy sessions provided me salvation. Results experienced through this journey have had a profound impact on my life.
I have been nightmare free for years. I live in the present and enjoy each new day as it unfolds. I am happy and grateful because the possibilities and opportunities are mine to seize. I feel open and free. EMDR therapy helped me overcome my lack of communication, especially in relationships. I find it easier to talk and express myself. I want to communicate and share my experience. Family and friends see and feel the difference. For too many years, I kept myself closed and suppressed.
We all share fault for creating such a sad situation concerning mental health. People must have a healthy and open atmosphere to thrive. Now is the time to make mental health our priority.
Have you experienced trauma from violence or a serious negative event in your life? If so, recognize that trauma can cause depression and anxiety. The daunting forces on our body can be agonizing. Alcohol, drugs, anger, violent behavior, or suicidal thoughts can result.
If you know or encounter people who need help, open yourself to them. Reach out, extend a helping hand, and lift them up. Tell them your story. Share mine. Let them know they are not alone. I have shared my journey with friends and coworkers. Some have experienced similar trauma and pain. When I promoted to sergeant and again as lieutenant, I always made myself available to all personnel. I often spoke about the importance of mental and physical health. I never wanted anyone to feel alone or distressed.
Help is available. EMDR is an incredible tool to bring relief, resolution, and peace. Other resources exist as well. Many departments have psychologists on staff. The LAPD has a program through the police union so officers can seek confidential help. There are hot lines; crisis text lines; and family members, friends, and coworkers.
For Additional Information on EMDR
American Psychological Association
“Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) Therapy”
“Now is the time to make mental health our priority.”
The motivating factors to reach out for help may differ for us all. I know it can be difficult to ask for help, especially in the law enforcement community. We are strong individuals who sometimes even hesitate to request backup when we really need it.
However, when it comes to your health—physical or mental—do not wait, overthink, or analyze it. Talk to your family, a friend, a work partner, or reach out anonymously.
We have limited time on earth. Live in the present and enjoy each moment. Be wise and smart about mental health, for yourself and others. Realize that help exists through Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing therapy and other sources.
I am grateful for the encouragement and love from people who have helped change my world. I have control of my life, and the possibilities are endless. My path is positive, and that is the first step to my future.
Together, we can be the difference, helping everyone we come in contact with. Spread the word, and let us make mental health our priority.
Mr. Del Vecchio can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1 “What Is EMDR?” EMDR Institute, Inc., accessed July 27, 2020, https://www.emdr.com/what-is-emdr/.