Former WA Police officer Aaron Cocks recently achieved three top diplomas through Recognition of Prior Learning (RPL). In the following story Aaron discusses how becoming a father was the catalyst that finally motivated him to process years of unresolved trauma that had accumulated during his police career, leading to anxiety and depression. He also shares his healing journey and finding light, joy and a new career at the end of the tunnel.
Trigger warning: This story contains references to suicide, violence and trauma that may be triggering for some readers.
Aaron’s Career History
After finishing high school Aaron was briefly a horticulturalist, but said he, “watched too many people’s plants die,” after he had created their gardens. He quickly decided it wasn’t the job for him. After a couple of other part-time jobs, Aaron decided Police might be the career for him.
He applied to WA Police, was accepted, and then life and career took a few more twists and turns…
“I went from Palmyra to Murdoch, then to a small country town. I came back to Perth, worked at the Transport Unit and then the Riot Squad. From there I went back to Palmyra for four years until they kicked me out due to tenure. Then went back to Murdoch, and my life started falling apart. I went part-time in a support role in Fremantle, lost the plot, then eventually resigned.”
Aaron went through many traumatic experiences personally and professionally during his time with WA Police…
He lost his brother to suicide, attended several incidents were young people committed suicide, including an Aboriginal child hanging himself.
Attended many traumatic domestic, traffic and drug related incidents. Started drinking heavily to dull the trauma. Was posted to jobs that isolated him from friends and family.
Charged with possessing a firearm while under the influence after attending work with a hangover.
Aaron was also investigated for several unprofessional incidents committed by another officer he worked closely with. He received an Assistant Commissioner’s warning for his participation and failing to report the unprofessional conduct. As a result he was put on restricted duties for 18 months, redeemed himself, continued with his career for several years, then eventually resigned due to career burnout.
Aaron shared that for years he had coped with the confronting nature of his job by locking it all away in a box in his head. Then he became a father…
“My daughter Lola was born, and I could no longer emotionally shut off from the job. Before, if you asked me what the worst job I went to was, I couldn’t even tell you. You’d have to ask me is it a suicide? Is it a road crash? Is it an overdose? I’d have to dig into my box of hidden memories to extract something, but it was buried down deep. I’d go to jobs where kids were involved, and I actually had to walk out a few times, and I’d just start crying, which never happened before,” he shared.
Aaron wanted to be present for his daughter, but realised he wasn’t emotionally available due to the demands of his job and many years of unresolved trauma…
“In my role I just tried to get things fixed and make life easier for everyone. You had to fight and scream for any changes. I got angrier and angrier. I remember saying to the woman I shared the role with, ‘I absolutely f-ing hate this job.’ I was seeing a psychologist, and through all the work I was doing with her, I realised that my job felt like a meat grinder.”
Aaron was diagnosed with anxiety and depression. The lid was off his trauma box, and he was being forced to emotionally process years of confronting experiences.
“I’d walk the dogs or put my daughter down for sleep and all I could think about was the 30-40 dead people I attended to over the years. It was a never ending movie clip of dead bodies running through my head that I could not stop.”
And it was the same at work. If one job was similar to a past job, it would trigger all the associated traumatic memories.
Aaron’s psych used EDMR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) to help him move through these traumatic and distracting thoughts.
“We’d talk about the incident, I’d follow her fingers, and it’s about de-lodging your memory. I pretty much had an identical memory of an incident. She told me memories should fade over time and that it was an indication that it was emotions I had not processed, even though logically I had come to terms with the incident. We’d talk about it, realise why I was holding onto that memory, then, it eventually faded.”
Going back to work literally just made me cry and break down, because I realised how f-ed up I was. And my OCD, everything was in overdrive. I’d just work nonstop. I’d be up to 9pm, 10pm just doing chores. And then, I’d fall asleep, crash out, wake up, and just do it all again. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t watch a movie, couldn’t go to shops.”
Combined this with the pressures of having a newborn and being a first time parent only added to more pressure to his already fragile psyche.
Resigning – deciding enough was enough
“I resigned. I sent an email one day after the missus gave me a bit of a push. I booked off sick for eight weeks, and never looked back.
Once I sent the email, I felt instantly relieved. I knew it was the right decision because I had sent an email to Health and Welfare shortly afterwards, and the union, saying that I was really struggling. And if it wasn’t for the support of my family, I probably wouldn’t be around.
No one replied. No one from the Station, District Office, Health & Welfare or the Union replied.
It was only the people that I’d worked with that I was still friends with who reached out and helped. It was only till I complained to the Psychology Unit direct did someone make contact, my complaint was partly to help me vent my frustration but also ensure it didn’t happen again.
I never got a “Thank you for you service”. It was about the better part of eight months, when I followed up for my service letter. If I hadn’t asked for it, I would have never received it. Turns out it had been sitting at District Office for quite some time.”
“I had no idea if I could do anything else, but I knew I needed to leave. I loved being around kids since my daughter had been born, so I thought I’d try working as a teacher assistant. I did the training course for it, got my Certificate IV just to prove to myself that I could actually do something besides police.”
Aaron put his name down at a few schools then got a call back from one, looking for someone to work one-on-one with a high-risk child.
Every couple of weeks they offered him more and more days until they eventually gave him a contract.
Once Aaron had proved to himself that he could work full-time again without breaking and could do something other than policing, he started wondering what else might be possible.
He had already been through the RPL process with another provider to gain his Diploma in Community Services, and now wondered what what else he might be eligible for.
Aaron first became aware of RPL with Churchill Education from something he saw in the WA Police Union magazine and had a lot of police friends who had left and gone through Churchill’s RPL process.
“I loved it. It was a lot more personal than the other place. The other place it was quick, easy and done, but there was no personal touch or anything. And so, I really enjoyed this experience.”
“Amanda (Aaron’s Skills Recognition Advisor) was great, she explained things simply, was interested and actually cared, and worked through what would suit me and where I wanted to be.
Being able to upload all my workplace examples to the secure folder was great, a lot better than the other place. It was great being able to see exactly what I had uploaded.
Churchill gave a lot more attention to detail and I’d also say more integrity.”
Amanda made a time for Aaron to have a LinkedIn review with trainer and assessor Melody, one of the added benefits of becoming a Churchill Alumni.
Aaron says he was on LinkedIn but didn’t really know how to use it.
“Mel walked me through all the improvements she recommended, how it all works and what people use it for, how to get noticed, and how to use it to sell myself. It was very informative, to the point that I almost wanted to book off work and stay home and play with my profile!
It’s done wonders in regard to reaching a lot of police officers who are thinking of leaving or have left and have had similar experiences to me, but haven’t been able to share their stories with others.”
Looking To The Future
Aaron has worked hard with his psych to process the past and stop the horror movie on constant loop in his head. This together with his teaching role and the RPL process restored Aaron’s self-belief. As a result he has been selective in terms of his career future, and waited for his dream job.
“I just want to keep doing what I was meant to be doing, helping people and looking after people, without all the red tape.”
Happily, this has paid off! Recently Aaron was offered and accepted a position with Uniting WA as an EVP Case Worker helping survivors of Domestic Violence establish themselves.
“It has been an extremely rewarding role combined with excellent leadership and an empowering workplace”, he shared.
The most important thing to him right now is spending quality time with his beautiful daughter.
He is now able to be present with Lola. One of the many things they enjoy doing together is drawing.
Advice For Others
Aaron’s advice for other police officers who have had similar experiences, find themselves in a dark place, or simply need a bit more time with family…
“You’re not alone. You’re not the only person who’s been through this. There’s a lot of others who haven’t admitted it, and people who have gone through and come out the other side.
When you feel at rock bottom, know that there is a way out, and there is a lot of support. Your family and friends will help you, and your colleagues who’ve been through it will help you.
I found a lot more people are willing to open up about their own experiences once you tell them your story, and they’re willing to help you, you just have to tell them what’s going on.
Once I told all my family or friends what was going on, they literally gathered around me.
Pushing everyone away, cutting everyone out does not work. And eventually, you just isolate yourself. And once you’re out, as I tell people, the air is fresher, the sun is brighter, the water is tastier.
Everything is so much more positive once you’re out of such a negative toxic environment when all you see is the worst of everyone. It’s not the norm. It becomes our norm, but we’re the abnormal ones. The rest of the world is not like that, it’s actually a pretty nice place. There’s actually really good people out there. We just don’t come past them very often, because they generally don’t need our help.
The hardest thing is finding out what you actually want to do, where you want to go. And I struggled with that for a while, trying to find out what my passion was. So I had to really shred and get rid of all the layers of being a police officer to find out, because I’d lost myself. It became all-consuming.
I’d lost my hobbies, my interests. I literally went to work and family, and that was it.
I didn’t really do anything else in between. And once I found those passions, it was originally like… I genuinely enjoyed helping people, and that’s one thing I was always proud of in my career, that I’d never take the shortcut. I’d always spend more time with people, try a little bit harder if I could help them. And so then, I’ve converted that over to civilian life. And turns out we’re extremely sought after. We have a lot of skills, we just don’t know it.
And recognition of prior learning is such a great tool for police, because it translates what you’ve done in police to future employers, because otherwise civilian employers don’t understand what happens within police, do they? It’s just a different world. You’ve got so many great skills, but it’s sometimes hard for employers to recognise that. And qualifications can be a really great way to bridge that gap.”
We are very grateful to Aaron for sharing his story so candidly with us. And over the moon for him, that he now has a new career he loves, and the headspace to enjoy being Lola’s father!
If you are thinking about leaving police or any other industry for that matter, get in touch with us via any of the methods listed below and we will be happy to provide you with a free qualification appraisal.
We also highly recommend our friends at Fortem Australia who provide a range of excellent support services for police and first responders nationally.