In the summer of 2017, our world fell apart. Our little girl was diagnosed with anorexia – she was 12 years old. As the ‘man of the house’, the strong ‘Dad’, the ‘police officer’, I had no idea what to do – I felt helpless. How had I not seen this coming or recognised the signs and not been able to help her before it got this far?
We had been on our dream holiday in May and noticed a little bit how she was not eating as much as usual and when we were at the water parks her appearance in a swim suit had changed. She was a dancer, she was petite, she was approaching her ‘teens’ – this was normal right?
A few months later during a week away it all came to a head. She had no energy, refused to go into the pool with her younger brother and was looking thinner than usual. ‘Dad’ blocked it from his mind as I didn’t know what to do or say to her. She is just a ‘teenager’ I thought.
On that fateful evening whilst being out in a restaurant it erupted. She refused to eat and an argument commenced with her and my wife. This resulted in them both storming out of the restaurant crying leaving me and my boy wandering what was going on? He was eight years old and had no idea whatsoever what was to come.
Back at the hotel room was the first time my heart was truly broken. She told us that she ‘Didn’t want to be here and would be better off without her’. My wife went into ‘Mum’ mode and took over and dealt with what was going on incredibly well. I had no idea what to say to either of them.
Three days later (after my wife had made an emergency doctor's appointment) I had gone to work as usual. You know, the protective uniform, the strong man, the police supervisor – looking out for his colleagues and the public.
The first call I took from my wife that day was that they had to go straight to the outpatients ward at our local CAMHS hospital. The Dr was worried about her because of her physical appearance and her mental health. This was protocol and procedure to get her looked at by the CAMHS team.
The next call was the second time my heart was truly broken. My wife could not speak. She was hysterical and crying so much I could feel her pain down the phone. Our daughter of 12 years old had to be admitted into the children’s ward at our main hospital as her kidneys and liver were failing – she was very unwell. How on earth did I not see this coming? It is so easy to be that protective, caring, empathic person at work – how did I not see this under my own roof?
She had been allowed home to get some clothes and stuff before she had to go into hospital. I had rushed home from work to see her and to take her in with my wife. It was at this point that I have never felt so much emotional pain in my life. I walked into her bedroom and she was just sat on the floor looking dishevelled, withdrawn, lost, and helpless. I fell to my knees and hugged her telling her it was ‘not her fault’. The pain in her face – I will never forget. She was 12 years old, my little girl.
She ended up in the hospital for a week. My wife was allowed to stay with her 24/7. I was left at home with my boy who had no idea what was going on. Why would he? We had been threatened with the mental health capacity act (if we didn’t engage) which I obviously knew what that meant but not so sure my wife knew the full implications.
This was the start of three years of hell. We had no marriage as such (which was the right thing to do as my wife’s focus had to be with our daughter) and I would not wish this scenario on anyone. Life changed dramatically and going to work was my release, my coping mechanism, my place of safety. Home life was not a great environment.
On Boxing Day 2018 we decided to have a bit of a family ‘party’ at home as Christmas had generally been ok. After a couple of drinks and a stupid argument and getting angry over the ‘wifi’ I had had enough of this environment. I needed to get out. I wrapped up and got my headphones on and left and started to walk.
I started walking towards a well-known place which has beautiful scenery but to us ‘cops’ it is a place tainted with suicide. As I walked in that direction I suddenly realised I was having complete and utterly ‘rationale’ thoughts to what can be an ‘irrational’ act. You know, long-term solution to a short-term problem and all that.
I then realised what I was listening to and what the words were which made my thoughts more rationale. It is called ‘Falling from the Moon’ and the words are:
‘Don’t ask me why I’m doing this, you wouldn’t understand’
‘You’re asking the wrong questions, you couldn’t understand’
‘A bridge is not a high place, the fifty second floor’
‘Icarus would know, a mountain isn’t far to fall’
When you’ve fallen from the moon’
Sat on a bench looking out to sea with the moon shining brightly I knew that my thoughts were just thoughts. A car pulled up behind me and I heard ‘Dad, get in the car’.
This was from the person that I could not protect but she was protecting me. She is a superstar.
We all got home and talked it through. We laughed, we cried, we were silent. A lot of things were ironed out that night and the daughter was amazing how she took the ‘lead’ to make Mum and Dad make up.
After three years of battling her demons and also diagnosed with social anxiety she is on the mend. Officially discharged by CAMHS early this year and she wrote an unbelievable short letter to ‘anorexia’ and thanked it for being in her life but she didn’t need it anymore and wanted to get on with her life without it. It brought me to tears, and still does, but we are so proud of her. She still has her bad days of course but the good days are outweighing the bad and dare I say it ‘we have our daughter back’!
It is at this point that I want to say why I am writing this. I am married to the most unbelievable, strongest, caring woman I could ever have imagined. I have no idea how we would have got through this without her. I don’t think I let her down but at times it felt like I could do better. How could I look after people at work on a daily basis but fall apart when it is one of your loved ones?
I did the typical ‘bloke cop thing’ which is what I tell colleagues every day not to do. I bottled it up, got on with the job, didn’t talk to anyone – why would I, it wasn’t me going through hell, it was everyone else. On that note though – I had some outstanding support from colleagues at work. Colleagues who were part of a blue light network which we had set up for exact reasons like this. It works, I know it does.
Why do we feel as though we have to be strong all the time? Is it because of the draconian organisation and attitude that has been around for nearly 200 years? I think we have, and are getting better, but we must continue and do more. I have learnt the hard way – I threw myself into work because it is all I knew. At one point I wasn’t sure whose funeral I was going to first – my daughters or my wife’s.
Talk to people. Doesn’t matter who it is. Family, friends, colleagues. Just talk and there is help out there. Some of you reading this (you know who you are) have helped beyond words – for that…THANK YOU.
More about Phil
Phil Spencer is an Inspector at Cleveland Police his current role is ‘Wellbeing and Blue Light’ Inspector. Phil’s role involves delivering mental health training and awareness sessions, Blue light programme coordination of 130 champions and delivering first aid mental health training to all officers and staff. He also raises awareness of wellbeing through virtual events such as webinars, podcasts and newsletters.
I am determined to change the culture around mental health in policing and emergency services and make it a safer environment for people to work in.
I took this role on as I truly believe we all need to do better when it comes to our colleagues mental health. I have seen to many of colleagues reach rock bottom with their mental health that couldn’t ask for help and I have also faced some challenges myself in a work and personal capacity.
I am trying to make a small difference to our people’s lives, whether that be at work or in their private lives – if I can help anyone, I will. As a ‘leader’ in policing I will stand up and be counted and see wellbeing as the number one priority until it becomes everyday business.
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