Barry Ruhl knows something about trauma and alcohol.
That’s not because he’s a retired OPP sergeant, but because he’s an alcoholic who self-medicated with booze for decades trying to drown his own demons and is now telling his story in a new book, Booze and the Badge, edited by psychologist David Hoath.
What’s interesting about the book is you don’t have to wear a blue uniform to learn a few lessons that might even help you cope with a COVID-19 pandemic lockdown experts say is causing spikes in mental illness and substance abuse.
“The bottom line is we’re in a lockdown and people have lost their social connections, they’re feeling stressed, can’t pay the bills for food or shelter, the kids aren’t in school and they’re trying to work from home and when people are stressed and anxious, they turn to numbing solutions,” said Ruhl, who spent 30 years with the OPP and four more as an addiction counsellor for the force.
“People will have a few drinks and feel better, but the problem is they build up their tolerance for alcohol and soon you need more booze to alleviate your anxiety. Even people who used to be just social drinkers and . . . social butterflies are now locked in the house and they can’t see other folks, so they have a few drinks alone, then a few more. But at some point, you’ve got to recognize that ‘This isn’t me.’ It can become a real issue.”
In an interview from his home in Southampton, near the Lake Huron shore north of Kincardine, the 77-year-old St. Thomas native said people have to reach out for help, get into treatment or call Alcoholics Anonymous.
“They’ve been through it and they can give you advice, but also that support you need . . . But you’ve got to want help,” Ruhl said.
He’s the author of A Viable Suspect: The Story of Multiple Murders and How a Police Force’s Reach Proved Too Short for Canada’s Most Notorious Cold Case. The case in question is the 1959 murder of 12-year-old Lynne Harper in Clinton of which Steven Truscott, then 14, was wrongfully accused until cleared in 2007.
That book is based on Ruhl’s investigations of a suspect he’d encountered during his career, one who died before the OPP completed their probe decades later.
But his new book is all about the booze Ruhl quaffed to celebrate his triumphs, to console him in the tragedies he faced and to provide the companionship he couldn’t — or didn’t want to — find in people.
The stories range from the silly to compelling, heart-rending to hilarious, mostly related to his work that included routine patrols in the far north, backroads and cottage areas of southern and central Ontario, where he worked for several years as a criminal investigator.
But it also includes stories from his years of sobriety, when he became an award-winning marathon runner — which he has come to understand was also an addiction, filling in between bouts with the bottle.
It’s a book aimed at helping other police officers, but is equally valuable to anyone with substance abuse problems.
“I guess I was trying to create something positive out of the many years of my addiction,” said Ruhl, who hasn’t fallen off the wagon for more than eight years and whose wife of 49 years, Pat, figures prominently as a victim of a crime and a steadying force in his life.
“I thought by putting it on paper, others can look at my experience and see themselves, like a mirror.”
Post-traumatic stress disorder helped fuel his addiction, a condition caused by the impact of his experiences on the job and on one violent, terrifying night, when he and Pat became victims of the same man suspected of killing Lynne Harper.
“PTSD and addiction are issues anyone can suffer, not just police,” said Ruhl, though statistics show police officers are twice as likely as the general population to suffer from both, if only due to the nature of the work and exposure to trauma, including tragedies, stressful situations and horrifying and gruesome events they are called to investigate.
The pandemic just adds to the anxiety of police and the public they serve.
“For cops, it’s even worse because now the first thing you have to worry about when you go to a call is wearing a mask and then you’re faced with people who are fighting, yelling, spitting and your mask might come off in a struggle and then you go home and worry about whether you’re going to get sick and infect your family.”
At the very least, Booze and the Badge — published by Friesen Press and available online from major book retailers in hardcover ($31), softcover ($23.95) and ebook ($7.99) — is a window on the work done by the men and women paid by taxpayers to run to, not away from, trouble.
“It gives the public an inside look at what life is like for a cop and how the job affects them,” Ruhl said.
To ease the anxiety of isolation — and the temptation of substance abuse — caused by the pandemic, Ruhl recommended people build “structure” into their daily lives.
“Don’t just sit around and watch television and snack. Eat breakfast, have a shower, get dressed and go to work, even if it’s in your kitchen,” he said.
“Just don’t do nothing. Maybe you can’t go out, but you can try and make it normative. I know people are anxious, but you’re got to be optimistic. If you’re missing your grandchildren, remember, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll see them. Or if you like to travel and miss it, start planning a trip, get the brochures. Being constructive is important.”