Brian Knowler, a police officer in Ontario, Canada, shares the story of the night that changed his life forever. He talks openly about PTSD and the toll it took on him, his family and his career.
Transcript: Mental health in the workplace
Mental health is one of the biggest challenges facing Employers today. It can present itself in so many forms, anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, to name just a few. It impacts attendance, productivity, engagement.
And it’s a minefield where many frontline managers, leaders and even HR professionals fear they might step on the wrong spot. I’m Todd Humber, and you’re listening to the Punching the Clock Podcast.
I’m joined today by Brian Knowler. Brian is a police officer in Ontario, Canada. Like most cops, he has his share of bad stories. But one night changed him forever. It led him down a dark path. PTSD almost cost him his career, his family and his life. Here’s his story.
How this all started and how I got involved in the concepts of, you know, the importance of mental health important to leadership started when I was actually fairly young as a police officer right fighters on when this incident happened.
So it was October 2004. And it was a typical Southern Ontario, October night, cold, rainy roads were wet, not just not a not a pleasant night. I was the acting supervisor on my shifts, which was a developmental thing to get me ready at some point for the actual, the actual leadership role.
And I happen to be the closest one to a call came in about a collision between a minivan and a pickup. And it was on a fairly well traveled road, you know, like, like a country road. And I was five minutes away, six minutes away, and I started heading that way.
And I’m running over, you know, all the things and, you know, all the things they teach in training about, you know, accident investigation and keeping the scene secure, and all these other things that I was falling back on, you know, routine to keep things straight. And at the same time, you know, more information is coming in. I mean, this is this is pre, you know, cell phones being really common.
So somebody who’s actually calling from a house down the road and saying, hey, I can see this or, you know, I’m hearing people scream, and whatever. And then as I’m going there, I’m also you know, I’m on, you know, or bricks, my cell phone back, then I’m on that I’m on the radio and making sure people are getting into place. And I still happen to be the first one there.
So I don’t know how many people listening have ever pulled up on an accident scene at night on a crash scene, but it’s very surreal. And this was even more so because there was one street late fairly far down the road. So the only lighting was the headlights.
And you know, there were people walking past the headlights. So there were shadows. It’s just a very, it’s just a really, and then my car pulls up with the red flashing lights. So everything was kind of strobing red, black, it was just really surreal. And you know, it’s broken glass all over the road, fluid and plastic. And, you know, there’s a huge what they call debris field where the two were the two vehicles meet, and they bounce off each other.
And that’s how the investigators can start to sort of track where things happen. They started looking at the debris field, and they they spread out from there. So I, you know, drove there way more quickly than I should have. Looking back and I pull up, jump out of the car is basically still rolling. And I started, I can see a pickup on the road with a bigger guy standing next to the pickup.
And he’s waving, he’s waving towards the north, this will be the north side of the road. And I looked over and I could hear him yelling the van, you know something about go to the van.
Van in the ditch
So I looked over and there was a van in the ditch and it was a Chrysler minivan and it had obviously rolled multiple times because there was anything on this van that could break was broken. You know plastic glass anything that could shatter crack was was out of it. And I started it still started walking towards the because I could see he was holding his arm and he’s yelling at me with his other arm and he’s waving he said No, I’m fine. I’m fine. Go to the van.
No one’s come out of the van. Now turned out that gentleman was the driver of the pickup and he had a he broke his collarbone or something along those lines wasn’t seriously injured anyway. So my attention was on the van. So I to get to the van I had to go through a jump into a ditch that was fairly full of cold water and make my way towards the van and as I got closer I can see the passenger side sliding door.
So this was just after Christ had introduced sliding doors on both sides of the van. So the passenger side sliding door was kind of sprung open. And just dark, it was dark like a tomb as I was walking towards it, which was apt considering what happened next. And as I got closer, I can see there was a hand, he’s very white, and that in the dark, sort of space of a, of the van door hanging out. And that’s when sinking feeling in the stomach and saying,
Something unpleasant about to unfold
Okay, this is, you know, this is this is going to be bad, something, something really, you know, unpleasant is about to unfold. It’s just that sort of the sixth sense he started to develop when you’re in that field. And he said, at this time, I was still fairly young as a police officer, five years, I hadn’t even completed five years at this point. And I thought I knew everything, and I thought it was, you know, pretty, pretty on top of my game, as far as a police officer, and this might would, would prove me wrong.
So I called it in there on my radio said, you know, it looks like there’s one, you know, like at least one pedestrian or one passenger in the van, I did kind of a quick look around and see if anybody else had gotten thrown out because that’s always a danger, right? This thing is obviously rolled and unbelted passengers in a in a vehicle and it rolls will get thrown every which way. So I did a quick look around, I couldn’t see anybody else I thought okay, you know, there’s someone in the van focus on that.
So I crawled in to the sliding door of the van through the glass through the you know, over the metal of the door, remember, it was sharp, and it cut into my palms, the glass because of my palms and my knees. And I didn’t even realize that until much later. And when I got inside the van there was one person guy that looked to be about my age is my ICER to do with just a little more dressed well suit shirt, you know, tie like put together inside of the van was littered with paper.
So I would later find out that I remember it was a file box or a briefcase, but something had sort of sprung opened during the the rollover and the papers were just had blown out all over the the van and then of course with being a deserted place, it was a rainy Misty night. And then with the inside of the van being wet paper was just stuck everywhere. And then you know, think about everything you carry in your vehicle on a regular basis, and how that would get thrown all over.
So back then, you know, people still listen to CDs, so there was CD stirring, just you know, stirring throughout the van and, you know, change, you know, coins from the change holder and, you know, just it’s stuff that’s in your car and just becomes a projectile basically when you roll. And right away, I noticed that this gentleman lying on his back had a severe wound to his neck and was very heavily bleeding. In addition to other injuries that were apparent, you know, based on the way his leg was positioned, and you know, based on the way his body was kind of tilted.
And at that point, the remember the rational part of my brain the part that you know, it uses logic said no, this this guy is dead, there’s obviously too much blood loss, too many injuries, and just, you know, no, it’s there’s no point. But then the other part, the part that you know makes you get up put on your uniform in the morning and made you get into a job or you wanted to help people in the first place. said no, you can’t make that call, it’s not your decision, you need to do what you can.
So again, I fell back on you know, routine sort of thinking about first aid and CPR and you know, the ABCs and all those other things they teach in your first aid training wanted to get the blood stopped, the the bleeding stopped, I should say. So I just clamp my hand down over this wound in his neck and it still wasn’t working that well. So you know, sort of maneuver myself down if you can picture it to lay on my on my right side and get my arm around this person’s neck to try and because I knew the damage was coming I could hear you know over the radio, you know the you know EMS is three minutes away or four minutes away whatever was at the time and I can hear there’s other officers clicking in saying you know where they’re at and they’re in there on the way so I knew there was more people on the way but at that point I felt very much alone.
Keep them going
And I thought well all I have to do is keep them going just for a couple of minutes until paramedics get here because they’re way better equipped and way better you know armed so to speak to deal with this. And so I got the bleeding slowed down a little bit and like I said still wasn’t enough so I wanted to be a little more leverage.
So I kind of got down on my side put my arm around the the drivers neck concern to pull in more with my my shoulder In my, in my, my arm, my whole arms that are just my hand. And I was talking to the driver did what I believe to be the driver just talking to him saying, hey guy, you know, I’m, I’m a police officer, you know, stick with me if you can hear me, you know, get my hand to squeeze and you know, I got a really faint squeeze and I thought, okay, good. That’s, you know, proof of life. That’s excellent. And as I’m laying there, so I’ve been in the band for I’ve been in the dark now for probably three or four minutes, and my eyes are adjusting.
‘I knew him’
And I’m almost nose to nose with the driver. And I can see now finally, now my eyes are adjusted through you know, the mind and the, you know, the the reads and stuff that stuck to the driver because like I said, it had flipped through a ditch several times that I knew the driver, and not only knew him, but knew him well. And he’s, you know, one of my best friends from university gentleman named Mike Drago. And I actually kind of went into shock. I think for 20 or 30 seconds, they kind of shut down and I remember thinking, Jesus, you know, they don’t, they don’t prep you for this at college, they don’t teach you you know, they don’t get you ready for this a Police College, this is something you just have to deal with. So it kinda kind of shook myself out of it and went well, now you’ve got even more reason to, to keep this going.
Right, you know, the person and in a way that was good, because now I had a touchstone so instead of just saying, like, like we would usually do Hey, sir, Hey, man, hey, buddy, hey, guy, you know, stick with me, I was able to say, Mike, it’s Brian Moeller you know, stick with me, buddy, if you can, again, you know, if you can hear me squeeze my hands. So I still got a feed squeeze. And I was just getting ready to you know, and again, without going into a ton of detail, it was obvious from, you know, his breathing and his condition that he was not likely going to live. He was very, very badly injured by the injuries here by the the motion of the of the crash would actually come to find out later, again, after I started to get more of the facts that he wasn’t wearing a seatbelt.
He’d been thrown around the van quite a bit, it was a head on crash with a pickup, you know, he overshot the curve, you know, driving too fast, basically, anything you could do, to put yourself in that situation he had, he had done it, the reconstructions when they were able to put it together. And I was able to read the report, you know, and that was something I had to deal with later on down the road was a period when I was mad at him almost feeling like, you know, why do you put me in this position? Why did you do this, Mike, but sorry, I’m getting ahead of myself.
So, as I’m hearing the, you know, the ambulance arrive, and the paramedics start to claim, you know, down the ditch, and they’re coming along with the stretcher. There was basically one sort of exhale, and then very readily breath and and that was it. And then there was no more breathing in and I couldn’t feel the pulse anymore. And I’m still talking to on I’m still, you know, trying to keep things going. And at this point, the paramedics get there, and they kind of grabbed me out of the way and asked me, you know, what was going on, I kind of shouted out him, you know, and he’s VSA, which is vital signs absent.
And they began, sort of pushed me out of the way got in there sort of doing their thing, which was great, because they were actually able to revive him. In terms of bringing it back to life. He never regained consciousness, he never regained, you know, coherence, or was able to speak or anything. So they brought him back. And then basically, he was comatose, and, you know, on painkillers and everything else. So he lived more or less long enough to you know, let his family get there, say goodbye, donate his organs, all those all those great things.
So at this point, I’m out of the game. So I started to walk up out of the ditch in shock, and wondering, you know, what the hell that I just see what it’s, you know, I thought I’d been in there for probably 20 minutes. And it turned out later to be something like, you know, two minutes and 43 seconds or something like that.
Trying to process
And I’m trying to process this and thinking, you know, what do I do? Do I go in the ambulance with them? Do I, you know, do I call his wife do I call my wife, I don’t know what to do. And then I see officers walking across the road to me across the field. And I remember Oh, God, I need to put my incharge hat on now because now this is going to be probably fatal crash and there’s all these protocols to follow. And, you know, there’s, there’s people need to be notified, and these officers are gonna be looking for direction. So I, I kind of switched pivoted a bit and switch tacks and sort of pointing people wherever they needed to be.
And you know, matru someone’s taking stuff Amen, and somebody had the road close, and somebody was gonna call public works to bring a soldier through and all these other things. And the whole time, they were all kind of looking at me funny. So it was obvious to them that something was not right. No one, no one called me on it or anything. And then at one point, everybody took off by now that, you know, there’s other firefighters and paramedics. S
So the scene is now you know, very well lit and very well attended. But I still remember standing at the side of the road, and you know, it’s cold, my pants are certain freeze, because they’ve been wet. And you know, my coat was wet, and turned out to be, you know, kind of a combination of the water and then blood and it was just standing there. And I just remember feeling completely lost. And for the first time as a police officer, not knowing what to do, and not having a direction.
And then at this point, a paramedic came over. So there was like, so it was quite a few paramedics at this point. Because they didn’t know how many people were injured at first. And she looked up at me and said, Are you okay? And now the typical response that we’ve been socially taught to say, when someone asked how you are is, I’m fine, I’m great, I’m good. And, and she said, Well, you don’t, you don’t seem fine. You’re, you’re all covered in blood. And I stopped for a minute I looked down, I said, You know what, you’re actually right, I’m pretty effing far from Okay. Your buddies are working on a, you know, or your partners are working on a buddy of mine. A
nd you know, he’s not going to make it. And she didn’t say another word, she just kind of kept staring up at me, grabbed my sleeve led me over to the back of the ambulance, kind of like, you know, little kids, when they’re at nursery school, they make them all the rope, it was kind of like that. And at that point, she could have led me across the road through the farmer’s field, and I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t have thought twice about it got me in the ambulance, and sort of patching up my my palms and my knees. Like I said, I’d cut them up, you know, on the, on the glass, and on the middle of the edge of the van. And I’m kind of trying to tell the, you know, and she was right, there was, you know, blood in my hair and on my face, and, you know, trying to tell that off and clean up a little bit. And at one point, she stopped and she looked up at me and said, it’s going to be okay.
A little meltdown
And I had a little meltdown, at that point, all these emotions that have been building up. I mean, it was, like I said, at this point, it’s maybe seven or eight minutes into the time that I’ve gotten there. And, you know, dealt with all this. And now I’m, you know, sitting in this in this ambulance, and, you know, this, this paramedic is saying, you know, things will be fine. And all the pent up emotion from you know, the last 10 minutes or so kind of came out.
And I have a little meltdown. And you know, there were some tears and some, you know, anger already. And she stopped what she was doing. And she sat down next to me and just kind of cozy over next to me put her arm around me and just sat there. It didn’t didn’t even say anything. And looking back, it was just a very simple human gesture. And that’s her job, right? Her job was to patch up the wounds I had physically. But more than that, she recognized that someone else in uniform was hurting and was suffering and she worked with me and just rode this out with me. And then after I calmed down, she finished bandaged me up, sent me back out of the ambulance. And she again she said Brian, it really will be okay.
Toughen the EFF up
Got in my car, couldn’t focus. Finish the call, you know, dealt with, you know, Mike’s wife dealt with his family. And then I went home the next morning. never I never I didn’t talk to my shift about it. I had a partner who a partner surgeon who was supposed to be mentoring me. You know, and his advice. Basically, when I told him I was having some trouble was, well, you know, you wanted to work in the town you grew up in, you know, you better toughen the EFF up.
If you want to be the boss, that was my that was my debriefing. And went home the next morning, Kathy asked me how my night was I didn’t say anything. I took a bottle of scotch out to the deck and started drinking. And I think I had about three or four glass before I finally felt like I could sleep. I had a chance to right away start talking to somebody about it. Kathy, my wife who obviously had a vested interest. It didn’t. That was the first of many mistakes I made. When this whole this with this whole thing. Had a couple of you know, days of bad dreams, finished the case, finished the call, went to Mike’s funeral and then thought nothing more of it.
Haunting and alcohol
And then over the next about seven years, this would come back to haunt me. And I had a couple of times when I went to similar crashes and I would have flashbacks. And this whole time it was eating away at me and I didn’t even know it. You know I got promoted a couple of times to gotten more responsibility. We moved away from our support. My wife had a busy job. She was a principal and we had two small kids. And then towards the end of 2011 I was just go I went down this rabbit hole, this spiral. And I was drinking and I didn’t care about my reputation, I didn’t care about work. I had no connection with my family, I was bubbling myself off in this kind of this, this little world of video games and alcohol and you know, the internet.
And really had very little connection with my family or my spouse, and my, you know, my parents, my sister, nothing. I just wanted to be left alone. And twice during this time, I thought about killing myself. And I planned out how he was going to do it. I didn’t follow through, but I can see myself doing it. Those were some pretty dark times, as I’m sure you can imagine.
And then we moved, I was offered a position in a new area. So we moved closer to home. And then one night, my wife and I are having a talk that we should have had before we moved about, you know, you’re not the same guy married and you know, why did we move here and I quit my job and we bought this big house and, and even as she’s talking, we’re having a super serious conversation, the most serious ever in our marriage. I’m just, you know, I’m envisioning my, my buddy’s face Mike’s face. And then other other incidents I’ve been to, you know, like, the summer before I had been new girl who had run over a friend with a boat.
The dam breaks
And other times that I had been, you know, assaulted, and in fights and all these things were just rolling together like a filmstrip. And finally, Kathy stopped. And she said, like, what’s going on in there? And she tapped her head, like, what are you thinking? I tried to respond. You know, I tried a couple of times to talk and then I couldn’t and finally it just, you know, whatever metaphor you want to use, the dam broke, or I hit bottom, or whatever you want to use. And I was just completely done. I broke down completely, mentally, physically, emotionally.
And for the next hour, or so I just cried. More than crying. I was weeping, I couldn’t catch my breath. And I was trying to tell Cathy the story and, you know, I’d have I talked a bit and then have to stop and, and, you know, I remember she was sitting at the very opposite end of the couch for me, because I mean, this was, this was not a good conversation. And much to her credit, she stopped what she was doing. Or she stopped, and she got up and she did just like that paramedic, and came and sat next to me, and just wrote it out with me.
And for the first time that night. So, you know, seven and a bit years after almost, you know, seven half years after this happened. For the first time, I told someone the whole story. And I told him the story from start to finish. And, you know, right up to, you know, stopping at the liquor store that night to get you know, a bottle of whatever on the way home.
And by the time I finish, and by the time we talk, it’s like 334 o’clock in the morning, and we’re both exhausted. And I said okay, now what? And she said, Well, Brian, I love you. I don’t like you very much right now. I want you in my life, I want you the boy’s life still, but I you need to get help or or get out. Because I can’t deal with your mood swings anymore.
I can’t deal with your motion, I can’t deal with your anger and your you know, you’re mad at the boys all the time. And I never know what Brian is going to come through the door. So obviously, this is what’s going on, this has been eating away at you. Now you have a name for it, you have a you know, you’ve got something to cling on to, you need to get yourself some help. And I will help you. But if you don’t want to do that, then I will. I would rather take the kids and move home and live with my parents and start over then stay here with you because I can’t do it anymore. And that’s pretty black and white. So the next day I made some calls.
Working with a psychologist
And I was I got connected with our my police services critical incident stress team, who connected me with a psychologist. And within a week, five days, I was sitting in front of a psychologist and starting the process of telling the story over again. And she was fantastic. She was a military psychologist, and she saw first responders in her in her private practice. And she saved me, she she led me down the path and she was very honest as well and said, like we can get you back to the person you were in the car that died, you were the guy you were, but it’s going to you’re going to work and there’s going to be homework and I’m not going to carry you or drag you through therapy.
And if you don’t want to do that, then there’s a lot of other psychologists in barre, which is exactly what I needed to hear. worked with her for, you know, twice a week at first and then you know, once a once a week and then a couple times a month and then eventually it tapered off to where she said, Okay, let’s get you back to work. Let’s get you, you know, up and running and back to the person you were and that was 2012 and haven’t looked back since. And there’s been a lot of post traumatic growth and I’m very open about it. speak about it wrote a book about it.
And I really believe that telling my stiff I, I always say if I told my story a million times, I will, if one person in every audience grabbed something out of it, then I will tell it a million times. So I’m very passionate about it. And I’m very passionate about the fact that I had a couple of great leaders who worked with me through this time, got me through it. And that’s why I think now, it’s incumbent on leaders, I’ve seen what it can do to get you back to the person that you were, no one’s a lost cause. And here we are today, you know, seven years after I was diagnosed and 15 years after.
Thank you, Brian, for sharing your story. It’s a great reminder of the importance and difficult work of first responders and the toll it can take on them and their families. There are a ton of lessons from Brian’s story that employers and leaders can learn from. Brian and his firm nowhere consulting have teamed up with Northwell media to develop a cutting edge training program for employers. For more information, visit Northwell media.com and click on mental health in the workplace. I’m Todd Humber, thank you for listening