About 12 years ago, I was parked on a dark frontage road in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was about 9 p.m., and I had just finished helping another city’s narcotics team serve search warrants.
I was writing a letter to my wife—a suicide letter. I placed the notepad on the passenger seat and clipped my badge onto it. I cleaned my department-issued undercover car, removing the empty bags of fast food—a cop’s diet. (I didn’t want the responding officers to think I was a pig—no pun intended.) Then I pulled out my gun as I contemplated the most effective way to ensure a quick and painless death.
As a police officer for over 25 years, I had responded to calls that few could imagine, and I had investigated dozens of suicides. How had my life spiraled out of control to the point of wanting to commit one myself?
I grew up in a middle-class family, working for my dad in his auto repair shop. I loved working on cars, but I didn’t want to do it for a living. One night, I went on a police ride-along. I loved it! I knew I had found my calling.
Police protect the thin line between good and evil. They witness the worst that Satan has to offer. The job requires the patience of a pastor, the wisdom of a judge, and the strength and stamina of a professional athlete. One minute, you are driving a patrol car eating donuts; the next, you’re chasing a burglar over fences. Few can endure the emotional stress and physical wear and tear.
I was taught at an early age to suppress my emotions. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it, but I was good at it. Never in a million years did I think that those emotions would surface at some point. Yet after 10 years, PTSD had taken hold. Outwardly I appeared to have it all: marriage to my high-school sweetheart, two beautiful daughters, a great job, and a nice house. But inside I was a mess. My wife could take it no longer, and we divorced.
In 1998, I moved to a state police narcotics unit to work as an undercover agent. Soon after, I was diagnosed with a neurological disease called peripheral neuropathy, which was complicated by a degenerative muscular condition called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. I lost all feeling in my feet and hands.
After enduring 30 surgeries in a 10-year period, my feet and hands were deformed. I needed braces to walk normally. Meanwhile, I was plagued with work-related nightmares so horrific I feared going to sleep.
After each surgery, doctors prescribed opioid pain medications. I had no pain, but I used them to take the edge off anxiety attacks (which I hid from my coworkers). At first, I only took a few. Before long, it was dozens a day.
Despite all this, I was promoted to manage a narcotics task force. Yet as my career flourished, my physical and emotional condition was deteriorating. It became difficult to walk and safely handle my handgun.
Why didn’t I tell my supervisors, or just retire? In law enforcement, any sign of weakness is a career killer. Cops must be warriors, fearless and brave. Many officers work in dire pain from injuries because they do not want to appear weak. Some work through extreme emotional distress because they are afraid of being ostracized for seeking help.
In 2010, my daughter was diagnosed with liver tumors. Doctors gave her a 50 percent chance of surviving the surgery she needed. This put me in a downward spiral of depression. I blamed myself because she had my DNA.
Healed for eternity
Feelings of guilt were pressing down on that fateful night when I resolved to end my life. Thankfully, I couldn’t bring myself to do it. Even so, the next few months were a nightmare. Between the loss of strength (I couldn’t even button a button), the guilt over my daughter’s tumors, the ongoing strain of PTSD, and my opioid addiction, I had lost all hope. My second wife begged me to seek professional help, but I was too prideful.
Instead, I made a destructive decision. I knew a private investigator I’d helped in the past by checking license plates or warrant details. (This was against the law, though some officers did it all the time.) On occasion, I even helped him arrange dirty sting operations on behalf of his clients. He knew about my daughter’s illness and my own.
The PI, a former police colleague, needed money for bills, and he knew someone looking to buy drugs. He asked if I could supply drugs seized during narcotics investigations. At first I declined, but he threatened to reveal our illegal collaborations. So I gave in, agreeing to take some drugs being held as evidence, not knowing that federal investigators had already sniffed out the scheme. I was arrested the next day and bailed out a few days later.
This was my darkest hour. But God began his mighty work in my life one evening when the telephone rang. The caller was pastor Jeff Kenney from New Hope International Church in Concord, California. I did not know Pastor Jeff, and I did not believe in God. Even so, he offered his counseling services and invited me to church. I declined.
Then he asked if he could pray for me. Though I didn’t realize it, he was praying the sinner’s prayer. When he finished, he asked if I would accept Jesus as my Lord and Savior. I said yes, but only because I didn’t want to be rude.
After hanging up, I felt better, like a weight had lifted off my shoulders. My wife suggested that God was missing from our lives. She insisted we go to church the next Sunday. We did, and we were greeted warmly. I felt at home there, but I was still on the fence about believing in God.
During one Sunday sermon, Pastor Jeff paused and asked the congregation to pray for my daughter’s healing. Shortly thereafter, we went to get the results from her latest biopsy. The doctor presented two scans: one showing the tumors, and another on which they had disappeared completely. He could not explain the results. It hit me like a ton of bricks. This was no coincidence—God had healed her! I felt a feeling I cannot describe, of warmth, peace, and joy. I finally believed there was a living God!
After pleading guilty to my charges, I was sentenced to 14 years in prison. There, I got a job in the chapel and earned master’s degrees in theology and counseling. One day, the prison chaplain introduced me to Ruben Palomares, an ex-cop from Los Angeles who had been involved in two in-the-line-of-duty shootings. Like me, he had been diagnosed with PTSD before committing crimes. While in jail, Ruben met a pastor who prayed for God to heal him, which inspired him to begin his own healing ministry. He led me through the process that healed him, and together, we counseled many inmates who put their faith in Christ.
As I serve the remainder of my sentence, I’m working as an addiction counselor in a men’s residential facility, where I provide pastoral care. I am a credentialed chaplain in the process of starting a first responder ministry to help the men and women who risk their lives every day and suffer emotional hell.
If God ever offered me a do-over—a chance to go back in time and avoid prison—I would refuse. All the hardship, guilt, and pain changed me from the inside out. God may not heal my body in this life, but I know that I am healed—body and soul—for all eternity.
Norm Wielsch is the author of Christ Centered Healing of Trauma: Healing a Broken Heart.
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