March 7, 2016 6:12 pm
Updated: March 7, 2016 6:19 pm

‘I went to hell’: Raising awareness of PTSD among police officers, one haircut at a time

Gary Rubie, a former Peel police officer, retired due to severe PTSD after working in the Internet Child Exploitation Unit. He grew his hair to protest his treatment by the WSIB, finally cutting it to raise money and advocate for better PTSD treatment for first responders.

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Gary Rubie has been waiting more than six years for a haircut.

The former Peel Region police officer hadn’t cut his hair for a few reasons. One, he was upset that Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board hadn’t accepted his claim for post-traumatic stress disorder, fighting him for years on the compensation.

Two, after a man attacked him with a knife in a strip club bathroom stall when he was working undercover, he didn’t really like having sharp things near his head and neck.

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Rubie had a 25-year policing career, in which he experienced PTSD and its aftermath. And on Monday, with his workers’ compensation claim finally settled, he cut off his long hair at a Police Association conference to raise money to help police deal with PTSD and other psychological stress.

“I’m taking off a mask and moving forward,” he told Global News right before the haircut. “It’s exciting.”

Under the mask

Rubie became a police officer in 1984, joining the department the day after a Peel Police officer was murdered. “That’s a heck of a first day,” he said.

He wanted to make a difference, he said, and he didn’t want to be tied to a desk. He spent 19 years as a plainclothes officer, working undercover in street crime and criminal investigations, looking at drugs, motorcycle gangs and organized crime.

While working in the drug unit in the early 1990s, he experienced what he now thinks of as a small breakdown.

READ MORE: 13 first responders, 13 suicides, 10 weeks

“I noticed my own personality was changing and I was starting to experience, my temper became short. I was feeling a lot of anger coming up inside. Like, a sense of hopelessness, like I wasn’t making a difference anymore,” he said. He went to his doctor and got treated for anxiety and depression.

He also transferred to the fraud unit, hoping that the slower pace would help.

It didn’t – he quit policing in September, 2001, to become an insurance agent. But, a week later, after the terrorist attacks in New York, he ran back to policing, again wanting to help.

He spent some time in recruiting, and then was transferred to a relatively new unit in the department: the ICE, or Internet Child Exploitation unit.

“I went to hell,” he said. His experience as an undercover officer made him a good candidate to work in the child pornography unit, initiating online relationships with pedophiles and doing sting operations.

“I became the 12-year-old girl online.”

It was the most difficult work of his career, he said. When they arrested an offender, police would have to catalogue their collection of pornography as evidence.

“Without a word of a lie we would have to view, in some cases over a hundred thousand images and videos. The sheer volume of torture that I witnessed, babies and infants up to young adolescents, was beyond anything I had even imagined in my life.”

Although it was difficult, being able to stop the torture of a child was also some of the most gratifying work he had ever done.

But after two years, he left that unit.

Breaking point

He joined the service’s wellness team, helping with peer support for other officers. And it was there that he had his breakdown.

“I remember the day like it was yesterday. I was sitting at my desk in that office and it was like somebody had put a steel drum, a 50-gallon drum over top of my head and hit it with an aluminum baseball bat.”

“I didn’t know what was going on. I was crying, my ears started to ring and I felt like I was going to have a heart attack, I was having trouble breathing. I was having a full-blown panic, anxiety attack.”

Rubie went on disability in December 2008, and spent the next two years battling PTSD and addiction.

READ MORE: Workplace insurance and John Wayne syndrome: Tackling PTSD among first responders

As he sought treatment, his WSIB claim was denied twice. On his next attempt, he was advised to try to document his trauma, to help prove that it was caused by his work.

He spent months on his living room floor, he said, while drinking heavily and going through PTSD, flipping through his old police notebooks and reliving his entire career.

“My first crib death, my first train accident, my first sudden death, my first hanging, my first shooting. My undercover work, 19 years of plainclothes: all the guns being pointed, knives being pulled.”

He wrote his report without any support, he said, and came up with 43 pages. When he sent it, he attached a note. “I basically sent them a goodbye, said I was gonna end my life.”

He tried to commit suicide three times, he said, and he was arrested and briefly incarcerated at one point. He stopped taking care of himself, he said, and decided not to cut his hair until his claim was recognized by the WSIB and he received his full pension.

But with the right treatment, he started to get better.

Paying it forward

Rubie’s PTSD claim was accepted by the WSIB in Dec. 2010, based on the time he spent in the child pornography unit.

And since then, as he worked on getting better, he started to speak out about his experience, urging others to come forward and get help.

“The stigma that comes with mental health, it’s thick and it stinks and it’s in law enforcement. I don’t like that part of it anymore, I don’t like it at all. It needs to be corrected. It needs to be fixed,” he said.

“I don’t care how people look at me. I don’t care what they say behind my back anymore. I’ve seen too many people take their own lives over the last number of years and during my career.”

He started working with Badge of Life Canada, an organization dedicated to helping police and correctional officers deal with job stress, mental health and PTSD. He’d like for police officers like him to be able to get whatever help they need, and not be afraid to ask for it. And if telling his story inspires people to seek help for their own issues, he’s happy to do it.

“My story is that at the end, I found hope and I found help, there is recovery and you don’t need to end your own life,” he said.

And that’s how he ended up on a stage in Ottawa, in front of a crowd of police officers, getting a haircut.

Gary Rubie, before and after his haircut.

Leslie Young

An online campaign for Badge of Life raised $3,000 for his haircut, and in the hotel ballroom, two police associations pledged another $2,000 apiece to the campaign. He donated his ponytail to cancer as well.

After the haircut, he said he feels “like a tremendous weight has been lifted off my shoulders.”

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