Constable Paul Breeze has a young, eager new partner.
For the first time, a Toronto police officer will be using a service dog at work, in this case, a Labrador Retriever named Scarlett.
Constable Breeze is gradually returning to full-time work after being on and off work for over two years having been diagnosed with Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – the result of a build-up of critical incidents he has seen over his military and police career.
“She is a tool for me to get on right path, she helps me progress and get through it,” said Breeze, of Scarlett, who is there to comfort him when he is triggered by something going on around him. “It gives me a focus, almost a distraction. She can tell if I’m getting anxiety and will come give me a hug, for lack of a better word. She’ll rest her chin on my lap. She will act as a barrier between me and others to create space for me.”
Breeze also employs tools as a means to calm himself – deep breathing, meditation, a weighted blanket or the sound machine to help him sleep.
“It’s never going to go away, but it’s manageable now.”
Several years ago, he would never have contemplated needing anything to release the stress of his work, rather than dusting himself off, cracking a joke and pushing forward.
The Englishman, who first put on a uniform in the British Army in February 1995 in the footsteps of his father, followed by Canadian Forces, and then as a Toronto police officer, says years of absorbing trauma without release led him to break down.
“It was the culmination of 26 years in uniform,” he says, “My tank overflowed. Every traumatic incident adds a little more to your tank and if you don’t find ways to empty it, it overflows.”
It wasn’t one event, it was many. It was years of seeing death. Multiple operational tours of duty over seas with the military. As a police officer, comforting people left crumpled at collision scenes. It was life stress – five years ago he lost his home to a devastating fire. It was many things. It added up. Holding a little girl who didn’t make it home. It was one thing after another. He hadn’t found a way to release the pressure along the way. He broke.
He crumbled emotionally after going to his third fatal collision in one week.
“I just thought to myself, ‘Please, I can’t do another one.’”
But he did. He went over the air and took the call.
He found a terrible scene on Parkside Drive. A man had been killed.
He tended to a woman with serious injuries. He investigated the collision scene.
“I did a good job – the detective told me. I went home and cried. I broke down. I couldn’t do it anymore.”
“Even then, I tried to manage it on my own, it took an insignificant incident at work to put me over the edge a few days later and I broke. I had an emergency session with a psychologist the same day that lasted over four hours, and everything came pouring out,” Breeze said.
Soon after, Breeze found himself unable to function. Even simple tasks, like driving to work caused paralyzing PTSD symptoms. He couldn’t manage the symptoms on his own anymore and took five months off work.
His wife, Tara, was there to help him through his trauma. He sought out professional help. He had support from both the Toronto Police Service and Toronto Police Association, Pete Grande in particular. He received offers for different programs.
His military background qualified him for funding to go to Project Trauma Support (PTS) in Perth. It felt right for him. He spent “sun up to sun down” over six days working through and understanding his mental illness and came away with many tools to help cope, including meditation.
“I’m so grateful for Veterans Affairs Canada and the Royal Canadian Legion for the funding for Paul to go to Project Trauma Support, and for the team at PTS. It was a turning point for Paul, and for our family. It’s hard enough being the spouse of the police officer, add to that a PTSD diagnosis, it’s a lot.” says Tara.
“I don’t think I cried since I was a kid until I went to therapy,” says Paul. “This program changed my life. It was a pivotal turning point for me giving me tools to help my recovery. I met brothers there who I bonded with, one in particularly, a fellow officer and veteran with similar experiences in both life and work,” said Breeze, noting some days it’s a text with ‘morning, brother’ to check in. “I really can’t say enough about this program, I return about every three months or so to give a talk and I mentored another cohort through in June for six days. Dr. Manuela Joannou is an angel on my shoulder forever now.”
Meanwhile, his dog Scarlett is helping him get back to work. He bought her from a breeder with the guidance and training from the Citadel Canine Society, a charitable organization, that provides service dogs and training to military veterans, First Responders and nurses.
He is a restless person who has taken up woodworking as therapy and to pass the time. Many Service members will recognize Constable Breeze as the bugler on Remembrance Day. He presented a charcuterie board for Chief Ramer after playing at Remembrance Day – his first time downtown in over a year, and a first for Scarlett. He has avoided downtown as part of his recovery – too busy, the traffic, noise, it’s a trigger. They handled it well together.
“I could retire, but I really want to stay busy. I’ve got to work. I want to prove to myself and others I can do it and leave on my own terms,” says Breeze, noting he is back to work after a long conversation with Chief Ramer, who took the time to ask how he was after a police memorial event.
“He asked me how I was, and well, and I told him,” said Breeze.
Chief Ramer says reducing stigma about mental health is crtical.
“We have to move mental health in to the light. As police officers, we need to be able to trust and support each other, without stigma,” the Chief said. “Paul’s experience really opens your eyes to the fact that you need to take care of yourself, your family and watch out for your colleagues, given the realities of our jobs. Anyone can be affected by mental illness and it’s important to ask for help when you need it. I’m proud of him for doing that. As well, many of our members have supported Paul in getting back to work and I’m really pleased to see that.”
Breeze is now working part-time in an administration position in the Integrated Gang Prevention Task Force.
“It’s a very conducive environment for my return. It’s meaningful work and I’m fitting in well with the team,” said Breeze, of returning to work three days a week. “The team is great, everyone at the Division is great, they have all made me feel very welcomed back in to the policing family.”
His new supervisor, Detective Jason Kondo, says Paul has been eager to learn and Scarlett is a refreshing addition to the office.
“We’re happy to support Paul on his journey back and have the extra set of hands – he has done a very good job. We all know that you can see some terrible things on this job and we can all go through tough times because of it,” Kondo says. “And Scarlett is a great too, we enjoy having her around.”
Constable Breeze says he has had reservations about coming back to work, about taking on a service dog, but has just concentrated on the recovery.
“I had hesitation on walking around with a giant billboard, saying I had PTSD,” says the Constable. “It’s part of my recovery. Now I just want to break the stigma.”
Toronto Police Association Director of Member Benefits Pete Grande says he views Paul’s journey the same as the road back to work from any other physical injury.
“He wants to contribute to our Service and we should help him do that. If he had hurt his leg, and had trouble walking, we would do the same to find him a way back to work,” said Grande. “It’s changing the way that people think about mental illness.”
Breeze says he wants other people to learn from his story, to find what works for them to release stress. Exercise. Get a massage. Call your friends – talk to them about what you’re going through. Get professional help. It took him three times to get his medication right.
Breeze says you have to find a way to empty your tank. Don’t wait until it overflows.
“Let’s break this stigma. Don’t be afraid to reach out. There are tools are out there.”