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Fearless but not immune to PTSD

By Charmayne Allison

PTSD – four simple letters which seemed to hold the power to sully entire careers, instantly calling into question an officer’s capacity to handle the job.

Burdened with humiliation and shame, Narelle struggled to even acknowledge the diagnosis.

Most of all, to acknowledge the signs that had been there all along.

Such as watching children playing in a park, when sweat would begin to trickle down her spine.

Or when, in the kitchen, the cooking utensils she used to make dinner caused her heart to skip a beat.

Or that the sight of dogs made her nauseous.

Because each of these triggered flashbacks of the horrific child pornography she’d been confronted with, over and over.

And there were countless other triggers, so many even closing her eyes did not make them go away.

Something as nondescript as a blue sports bag (she’d found a body in one of those).

And dolls – they looked so much like the bodies of the tiny babies she’d cradled in her arms, investigating sudden unexpected deaths in infancy (SUDIs).

It was only when the doctor read off the symptoms, a perfect match to those she’d been experiencing for years, she realised the truth.

“I remember ticking each one off, parroting ‘yep, yep, yep’,” she recalled.

“For years I’d repressed how I really felt. I thought I was just a bit tired, a bit run down.

“But I was having all these triggers and flashbacks. I had started to avoid my friends, I had started to avoid my work.”

Finally accepting the diagnosis, Narelle dreaded the decision that came next: she needed to give up police work.

A heart-breaking choice – which, she’d eventually discover, would also be a lifesaving one.

Now, years on, she’s speaking up, using her story to stamp out the shame and humiliation surrounding a PTSD diagnosis once and for all.

“Through talking about it, I want to do what I can to normalise, not stigmatise, mental illness as just another illness,” she said.

Narelle’s journey began in 1987.

Twenty-seven years old, she was working as a Lifeline counsellor, daily rubbing shoulders with police officers.

“I’d regularly ring them about people who were going to take their own lives. I thought, what a great job, you get to help people in distress,” she said.

Applying for the Police Academy, her first post was as a trainee at St Kilda Police Station.

“It was like jumping from the frying pan into the fire,” Narelle laughed.

“It was a far cry from my sheltered upbringing and made me grateful for all I had growing up.”

Promoted to Constable in 1988, she then moved to Carlton Police Station for three years, also completing a temporary secondment to Carlton Criminal Investigation Bureau (CIB) as a trainee detective.

After six months at Carlton, she attended her first truly traumatic incident.

“We got a call for a woman behaving oddly at a 7/11,” she said.

“We went there and spoke to her. She was just lost, into drugs and her boyfriend had recently dumped her. So we ended up just taking her home.”

In the next hour, Narelle got a call.

A person had strapped themselves with aerosols, poured petrol over their clothes and set themselves alight near the service station.

“When we arrived at the scene, we found the person in the gutter, screaming,” she said.

“I couldn’t tell if it was a male or a female. They were still smouldering, so I called for a firefighter to put a blanket over them.

“As I was kneeling there, the person said, ‘Narelle!’ I said, ‘Who’s that?’ And she said, ‘It’s Julie’.

“It was the girl I had driven home just an hour earlier.”

Once the paramedics took over, Narelle and her colleague – just a trainee – walked numbly back to the divvy van.

Climbing in, they held hands all the way back to the station, offering wordless comfort to each other.

But as soon as they walked through the station doors, it was business as usual.

“It was 1988 so there was no ‘how are you?’ No ‘would you like a debrief?’ Nothing,” she said.

“But I had trouble with barbecues for a long time after that incident. The smell alone was a trigger.”

In 1992, Narelle was promoted to Senior Constable and transferred to Broadmeadows Community Policing Squad, now Sex Offence and Child Abuse Investigative Team (SOCIT).

During this time, she completed temporary secondments at the Child Exploitation Unit, Rape Squad and Broadmeadows CIB as a trainee detective.

Finally, in 1996 she was promoted to Detective and transferred to the Rape Squad.

Despite earlier traumatic experiences, Narelle said she wasn’t daunted by the move to detective work.

“Looking back, I think I was drawn to traumatic situations. The more distressing it was, the more I wanted to be there,” she said.

“Because I really cared. And I still do. I cared for the recovery of victims or the people they left behind. I wanted to help them. It was like a magnet for me.”

Six years later she was transferred to the Missing Persons Unit and Homicide Squad.

And in 2005 she moved to Kyabram Police Station before moving back to detective work five years later at Bendigo SOCIT, where she stayed until 2014.

Throughout her years as a detective, Narelle dealt with some of Victoria’s most high-profile cases.

Such as the notorious ‘body in the boot’ case – where Melbourne mum Maria Korp was bashed, strangled and left to die in a car boot by her husband and his mistress.

Following the trail of breadcrumbs, Narelle discovered Maria – barely clinging to life – in the boot four days later.

She climbed in to hold and comfort her while waiting for paramedics to arrive.

Maria died in hospital months later.

The Society Murders was another high profile case Narelle chased – millionaire Toorak socialites Margaret Wales-King and Paul King were murdered by their son Matthew, who resented the way his mother apparently used her wealth to manipulate him.

In the early 2000s, Narelle also investigated the alleged rape of two women by then Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commissioner Geoff Clark.

While the case made it to the committal stage, it fell over due to insufficient evidence.

“It was terribly disappointing, but we have to abide by the laws of the land and the justice system,” Narelle said.

“We felt we did have enough evidence, but unfortunately the courts didn’t agree. It’s one of those cases that has stayed with me. I feel like we let down a lot of people. But we just couldn’t get it over the line.”

Looking back, Narelle said those years as a detective were some of the most satisfying of her career.

So it was no wonder she initially turned a blind eye when cracks started to show.

“I never questioned my capacity to deal with the most traumatic days of people’s lives,” she said.

“But being diagnosed with PTSD was actually such a godsend, because all my responses to triggers finally made sense.”

In 2014, Narelle quit the police force.

And supported by her sisters, husband Lloyd, her Rochester doctor and Echuca psychologist, she began to inch her way towards recovery.

“My PTSD was severe initially and although I did everything asked of me in an attempt to return to work, I was unable to, as the damage had been done,” she said.

“It’s now under control and not a daily struggle, however the triggers are still there and will suddenly appear out of nowhere. But thankfully I can now identify and manage them.

“I have come out the other side, when sadly many don’t.”

Now living in Burnewang with her husband, Narelle isn’t sitting idle.

She’s finally ready to tell her story if there’s a chance it will help shed further light on mental illness, particularly in emergency services.

“The police force is doing a lot to try and address mental health. They’ve improved so much since I started in 1987,” she said.

“But we still have a long way to go.

“We as a community have a long way to go in accepting mental illness. Sadly, there’s still a lot of shame and humiliation surrounding it.”