Meet Tomi H.
Story Written by Kenny Silva
“I feel as though, after VTN, I’ve discovered how to be more authentically me. Instead of living inside my head, I’ve learned to live in the world.”
New Westminster Police
That’s what I called it—the crushing weight I carried around on my chest for 20 years.
The dragon was born out of the worst moment in my life. It was the tragic outcome of a sequence of events where everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and instead of protecting life—my sworn duty as a police officer—I took a life instead.
Becoming a Police Officer
Before joining the force, I spent 8 years in youth corrections. When you work in corrections, you learn to suppress the horrible things you see every day. The suicide attempts, the slashings, residents beating one another—I met these all with cool detachment on the outside. But on the inside, they shook me to my core.
Corrections was often a stepping stone to police work. While I’d always had it in the back of my mind, I never made the leap until one of my fellow corrections officers dared me to do it. He said I couldn’t get a job as a cop, so naturally, I had to prove him wrong.
I came up in the early 90’s as a patrol officer in the city of New Westminster. If you weren’t around back then, New Westminster was a rough place affectionately known as ‘Crack Central.” The violence and drug-related crime I saw was incredible.
Drug abuse was only one aspect of the job. On the streets, I saw the worst of what human beings could do to one another and themselves. Domestic violence, murders, sexual assaults, suicides, overdoses—that became my world. Every day, I’d see one sad circumstance after the other—whether it was a crime like one of the ones I mentioned above, the senseless tragedy of a fatal car accident, or the pain of sudden infant death.
Still, I loved my job. Sure, I was surrounded by trauma, but that cool detachment I’d developed in corrections served me well—at least, so I thought.
The Worst Day of My Life
It was a little over 20 years ago…
I was late getting into the office that morning. I hated the office and spent as little time there as I possibly could, but this morning I’d been asked to give evidence in an Internal Investigation. As if that wasn’t bad enough, when I left the office another driver rear-ended me at a stop sign. It wasn’t my fault, but the whole thing was a giant headache.
Later that day as I was unloading on one of my fellow officers, a call came in over the radio. A deranged male was tearing up a business nearby. He was screaming, bleeding, and scaring the hell out of everybody there. So, I rolled my eyes and got into the car.
“Great, here we go.”
By the time I arrived at the scene, the deranged man had run across the street and barricaded himself behind a locked door. We could hear him screaming and throwing things around in the room. I thought the incident would end like the hundreds of others I’d dealt with just like it—a takedown, a wrestling match, cuffs, and a ride down to the station.
But this time was different.
Normally, we’d show up in force. But today, there were only 2 of us. I wasn’t too concerned; I’d developed something of a “knack” for calming volatile people. And, as it turned out, I’d actually had some experience with this particular gentleman.
As I tried to reason with the man, I realized pretty quickly that talk wasn’t going to get us very far. He insisted that we were there to hurt him, and if we didn’t go away, he’d hurt himself. Fearing for his own safety, we decided to force open the door.
Our backup hadn’t yet arrived on the scene, but time was of the essence. So, we went in, and as soon as we went through that door, the man lunged at me. I can see him now—eyes wide open, face covered in blood and sweat, pleading with us not to kill him. For him, this was life or death. I wish he were wrong.
I tried to reason with him, begging him to calm down and assuring him we weren’t there to hurt him. But he continued to scramble, bite, and kick. Within a few moments, I had flipped him off of me and secured him in a lateral neck restraint—just as I had been trained. The point wasn’t to hurt the man, but to keep him from hurting himself or us.
The fight went on for what felt like forever. Normally, a restraint like that would’ve put someone out for just enough time to get a pair of handcuffs on, but it just wasn’t working. He was clearly hopped up on something, and our backup still hadn’t arrived.
Nearly 10 minutes later, our backup finally showed. The man was still fighting for his life as I continued to restrain him. The other officers jumped in and helped me to secure the man and place him into the back of my vehicle. When we put him back there, I reassured him. I told him we were going to get him help at the hospital only a short distance away. I even remember closing the door on his foot, apologizing, and feeling genuinely sorry for having caused him pain.
I don’t know if the man understood anything I was saying to him. Regardless, I jumped into the front seat and headed straight to the hospital. It was a short drive—only 3 blocks away from where we were. When we arrived, I walked into the emergency room and told a nurse what was going when. Then, I walked back to the car to tell him help was coming. But when I got there, I was horrified at what I found.
A 2-minute drive to the hospital. A 3-minute wait in the car. And he was dead.
The scene that unfolded from there was chaos. A flurry of doctors and nurses peppered me with questions as they tried to revive him. I watched in horror, knowing he was gone and there was nothing they could do. Worse, I knew it was my fault. The whole thing was surreal. It was like I was outside my body looking in. Then the reality sank in.
I had just killed a man.
“I’d joined the police to help people, not to hurt them…”
Did You Do This?
I remember a corporal striding into the Emergency room and asking me, “Did you do this?” I could barely speak. Long story short, Internal Investigation and the Coroner’s Inquest found that my use of force was justified. The man had died of Excited Delirium, a consequence of heavy drug use and the intensity of our struggle, followed by immediate stillness with pressure on the chest.
Nobody in my department ever asked how I felt about what had happened. My fellow officers never thought to express remorse. Instead, they nicknamed me “killer,” heaping praises on me for being the first member in that department to kill someone without a weapon. I wasn’t laughing, and I certainly didn’t feel like I deserved anybody’s praise.
Regardless of what Internal or the Coroner said, I’d killed a man. I did it. It was my fault he was dead. I’d joined the police to help people, not to hurt them. I’d promised this guy that I wasn’t there to kill him, but that’s exactly what I ended up doing. I couldn’t shake the profound guilt of it all. Due to what I’d later come to understand as PTSD, I could still smell him, feel him, and see his pleading eyes two inches from mine as I held him in that lateral neck restraint.
How do you deal with something like that?
For me, I dealt with it by drinking—a lot. I pushed everyone away—my fellow cops, my kids, my husband. Friends couldn’t understand what I was going through. I felt alone.
I ended up taking 6 months off from the job and getting into 1 on 1 therapy. That worked well enough to get me back out on the job, but I still relied on the bottle to get me through. I somehow managed to get sober for a while, but in 2003, I fell right off that wagon. The dragon had at heavy on my chest, making it impossible to draw a full breath. Drinking was the only way I knew to ease the crushing weight of it and to muffle out the never-ending sound of that man’s cries reverberating in my mind.
In 2008, that subtly began to change. In one of the most shameful moments of my life, I was arrested and charged with impaired driving. It was a rude awakening for me; I had to get my life under control. I had to get a handle on my drinking before it killed me. So, I sought treatment and am happy to say that, for the past 8+ years, I’ve been sober.
My Last Call
Due to the impaired driving arrest, I lost my license and was forced to drive a desk for the following year. It wasn’t long after I finally got back into a patrol car, however, that I’d learn police work was no longer for me.
It was early 2010. My partner and I had just gotten a call about a bank robbery in progress. As luck would have it, we were right across the street from the bank. As we approached, we were met at the front door by the bank’s manager. She’d managed to activate the bank’s silent alarm and sneak away from the robber.
Of course, she had a warning for us: “He’s got a gun.”
Moments later, the man came striding across the bank lobby straight toward me. I had my firearm drawn, aimed center mass. I instructed him numerous times to drop his weapon, but he just kept coming. All the while the words were racing through my head, “Please don’t make me kill you. Please don’t make me go through that again.”
He just kept coming at me. As he drew in close, I pulled my trigger to first action—just a hair’s breadth from firing my weapon. Before I could, he stopped and put his hands up. The threat was neutralized, but I was far from feeling relieved.
That moment broke me. I literally came within a millimeter of taking another man’s life. And, just like that, all the guilt and remorse I’d experienced in 1996 hit me like a ton of bricks. I couldn’t handle it; I could no longer carry the power to decide between life and death on my left hip. Even though the intervention had been a success—we caught the bad guy, returned the stolen property, and solved a number of related crimes—I was an absolute mess. My supervisor was incredibly patient and supportive, but that was it.
I was done.
What Comes Next?
The next 3 years were marked by endings and beginnings. A year before my retirement, my husband had been diagnosed with cancer. So, I spent much of that time taking care of him. When he passed in 2014, I had to think hard about what would come next.
The path I chose next led me to Family Preservation work. As a police officer, it had always been my job to remove people from dangerous situations—a perpetrator from an incident, a child from an abusive home, a victim from a crime scene, etc. Now, I had the opportunity to do the exact opposite—to mend broken families and give them the resources they needed to stay together. To support that work, I had enrolled in the City University of Seattle (Vancouver) to pursue a Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology.
Even as I worked through my Masters, I remained a deeply broken person. I still carried with me all the pain and guilt of what I’d done 20 years before. The dragon sat heavy on me during every one of my classes I took and hours I spent learning how to help others mend their pain. I was always immersed in my own ache.
That’s when I heard about VTN. A dear friend of mine had struggled for a long time with debilitating PTSD and depression resulting from her service in the military. But, eventually, I noticed her life starting to improve. Curious, I asked what had changed. That’s when she told me all about the program and what it’d done for her. In fact, she was so in love with the VTP that she insisted I go through it myself.
My response? “No thanks. I don’t have time for all that.” I told her I didn’t think my need was that great. I never told her, but I harbored a deep fear of opening a floodgate I didn’t think I could close. But my friend persisted and, eventually, I signed up for the course.
“VTN introduced me to a freedom I’d not known for more than 20 years—a true release from the past trauma that had afflicted me for so long.”
My Time at The Veterans Transition Program
I wasn’t happy, but my friend had so many good things to say about it. So, I went. I didn’t think I was a person who would benefit from this, because I knew I wasn’t going to tell them about the darkness in my heart. As a police officer, I had long before learned not to talk about this ‘weakness.’ Nevertheless, I got in my car and showed up. And what I discovered was beyond what I could ever have imagined.
The counsellors—Laura and Mike—were phenomenal. The paraprofessionals taught me more about transparency, authentic emotion, and healing than I would have thought possible. The entire program was unlike anything I’d ever seen before.
Still, it was hard. The program started by teaching us how to open up and let go. Like many first responders, I had made a career out of bottling up emotions and putting on a brave face. That kind of transparency seemed impossible to me.
This is what made the paraprofessionals so indispensable. As former participants in the same program, they modeled what it looked like to be raw and honest. In opening up their lives and sharing, they showed us that we were in a place where we could be real. At least for me, it was a deeply moving exposure to emotional freedom.
Slaying The Dragon
It’s easy to read about ideas like freedom, relief, restful sleep, etc. and write them off as something that only other people can attain. Well, for me, VTN introduced me to a freedom I’d not known for more than 20 years—a true release from the past trauma that had afflicted me for so long.
It happened during phase 2 of the program. Under Laura and Mike’s direction, I revisited the incident when I took the man’s life. They masterfully brought me back into that moment and encouraged me to express the true feeling I had for him. They helped me put a voice to the complicated emotions that had wracked me for decades.
Most importantly, they showed me a way to release all that pent-up guilt and sorrow from my body—to make things right in the best way I could. In that moment, that was exactly what needed to happen. I needed to let that man go with love.
And when I did, the dragon left. For good.
Becoming More Authentically Me
4 years and several more enactments later, I can honestly point to the profound transformation I experienced with VTN. I used to present myself as a cold, hard person. I was short with others. I didn’t communicate well. There was a darkness within that led me to keep everyone at arm’s length—a darkness bookended by the events shared above, yet developed over the hundreds of traumatic incidents I dealt with while on the force.
Today, I’m different.
My clients don’t see me as cold and hard, but warm and gentle. Every time they tell me so, I’m amazed. That’s not who I used to be, but it is who I am. And I feel as though, after VTN, I’ve discovered how to be more authentically me. Instead of living inside my head, I’ve learned to live in the world.
Since graduating from the program, I’ve been back 4 times as a paraprofessional. That’s how much I believe in the work they’re doing. In fact, part of the motivation behind my continued graduate work is to head back to VTN as a counsellor.
If you have a friend who’s urging you to get help; don’t be stubborn like me. Trust their instincts. Trust VTN, as well. Give it a try. It might change your life. It did mine.
For Tomi, the Veterans Transition Program Means…
A place to be real
At the VTP, Tomi could be transparent about what was going on with her.
With the guidance of VTP clinicians, Tomi was able to let go of the guilt and sorrow that she had bottled up for decades.
Now, Tomi no longer lives inside her head. She’s learned to live in the world.
You can change lives for people like Tomi