Written by Alecia Emerson-Thomas

When I was 21, I ran away from an abusive relationship. I found a new job and a lift share. My lift share found me interesting. He chatted to me for half an hour every day and after the first week or so he exclaimed “Jesus Christ, you should write a book”. That’s never left me.

By the age of 21 I’d already been through an awful lot. Physical and emotional abuse, abandonment, living with family members because Mum was working & later because she didn’t want me or I didn’t get along with her boyfriend of the moment.

I left school with 5 GCSE’s a nicotine addiction, & the ability to drink most grown men under the table. I’m not ashamed, because it kept me alive.

At 23 I knew I wanted to explore & get out of the ‘grey’ life I was living so I purchased a one way ticket to the Canary Islands with my heart set on learning to Scuba dive. I had an incredible two years, experiencing so many cultures that growing up in the Cotswolds hadn’t exposed me to. I learned to speak Spanish, I learned to sail, scuba dive, drive a boat and live completely self-sufficiently even when all I could eat was the left over bread on the tables from the restaurant next door to the scuba shop.

I met my first husband and I fell pregnant with my beloved Ethan when I was only 23. Moving back to the UK when I was 5 months pregnant was the best option and we married a few months later to which we then ‘settled’. That’s when the most overwhelming sense of grey fog descended. The fuzzy, can’t see yourself in the mirror kind of fog that erodes your brain, messes with your thoughts and numbs your emotions beyond comprehension.

I don’t know if it was depression or post-natal depression but it claimed the best part of the first two years of my son’s life.

Age 19 I’d almost joined the army but pulled out at the last-minute. The police was another option so in my mid-twenties, knowing I needed a sense of belonging and achievement I applied to become a Police Constable. It was a long process but I made it and in March 2008, age 27, the only single parent in my intake, I started with Avon & Somerset Constabulary.

Training school was exciting but it was hard work too. I commuted every day as I had responsibilities. I’d left my first husband and was working a second job just to make ends meet, so studying had to be done late at night & I made the most of my insomnia.

The day of my pass-out parade, Friday 5th September, my son, age 3 and a half, was sick. I didn’t think much of it but by the Monday he was rushed into hospital with suspected meningitis and 3 days later he was in a high dependency unit with confirmed Encephalitis.

Having a child dying in a hospital bed in front of you and being powerless to stop it or change it does very strange things to someone like me. I’m practical. I’m a do’er. But there was very little I could do apart from hold it together, so I did. I lived in the hospital with him, watched him fade away and then watched him slowly begin to recover thanks to the incredible hospital staff. I didn’t cry until he’d been home for two days.

Six weeks after Ethan was first sick, and 4 weeks later than planned, I started ‘on district’. Full time shifts, no exceptions & only thanks to my wonderful sister who moved in with me and became mummy number two.

It was a rough start to the job but I was so excited to have the career of my dreams I threw myself into it blindly. The job itself was everything and more I’d expected it to be but initially I didn’t understand why I struggled to fit it. It soon became apparent that I was different. The only female on my team initially, the only single parent, not from the area. I hadn’t been to school with them, didn’t know them or anyone for that matter. I wasn’t dating any other coppers and I couldn’t socialise because of my commitments as a parent. I paid the price for all of those things that weren’t in my control.

Many of my colleagues were good, honest, hardworking and likeable people. The good ones deserve a medal for the job we were faced with. The thing that wasn’t fair was the bullying by a certain few that essentially pulled my mental health right back down to where I had been a few years before.

Looking back, I should have had a lot more support when my son was ill but I was naive and didn’t know what to expect. A few men I worked with took a nasty dislike to me because I wasn’t interested in them. They felt rejected, weren’t used to it, were influential and caused me hell.

There’s so much that happened during my 10 years’ service that the ‘book’ my old lift share told me I should write, would be a whole separate book just with stories of my time in the police. One day I’ll share those stories but for now I must bury the emotions they bring to the surface because life has now moved on and from cops and robbers and I’m only moving forwards.

Half way through my service, I met and married my second husband. Things were hard from the start. In the first 8 weeks of our relationship he’d been to 8 repatriations and funerals, then on week 12 he deployed to Afghanistan. On his return his father passed away and shortly after, we got married.

My first full mental breakdown came whilst planning our wedding. Most people would laugh at this point but it wasn’t the wedding that caused it, it was the build-up of everything I’d been through. The bullying from one particular female member of staff at work, that ripped me apart. I was almost sectioned and had a number of months in hell and off work.

Two years down the line, back at work and son number two in my life. Things weren’t any easier. Work was still challenging on a personal level despite reducing my hours slightly.  My husband was rarely home & in fact was based in another country. I’d been incredibly ill throughout my pregnancy with almost 20 hospital admissions and no husband around. Thank goodness for helpful neighbours!

As a child, I loved being outside and was a gypsy at heart. During both my breakdowns whilst in the police, walking and being outside saved me. I began walking every day, walking until everything hurt. It gave me a sense of inner peace. My dog was equally as pleased!

Back to work again, I concentrated more on trying not to care about my relationships with my colleagues and rather just going to work, getting it done and getting home before which ever various child-minder needed to hand over. We relocated an hour south so the commute was also torturous.

With my husband based several hundred miles away and only coming home twice a month, commuting to work, shifts in a stressful job, having two miscarriages and then losing my beloved dog, I suffered my second full breakdown. I knew what to expect this time and had a fantastic GP. Again, I used being outside to walk myself back to health (& managed to raise hundreds of pounds for military charities to give myself a purpose).

Whilst off work I then lost a third pregnancy. It was ectopic and being in hospital alone, facing emergency surgery left me demanding that my husband move home or leave altogether. He managed to get home a little more regularly and we fell pregnant with son number 3.

My husband’s mental health hadn’t been great for years and the stress of a career that wasn’t going the way he wanted, leaving me alone so much, pregnancy losses he couldn’t help with, along with the mental battle scars of several kinetic tours of Afghanistan, resulted in a full mental breakdown for him and a subsequent diagnosis of complex PTSD whilst I was 7 months pregnant with our youngest.

Watching someone fade away to nothing and feeling helpless when I’m usually so practical, is soul-destroying. My husband had planned how to end his life and at 7 months pregnant I wanted to help in any way I could but I also wanted to scream from the rooftops “pull yourself together, we have another baby on the way”.

I’m not sure how I coped, pregnant, two other children and a husband at home for 8 months, a shell of the man I’d met. But I did cope, because I always have.

Two years on, after support from some amazing military charities and a couple of friends who have stuck by me when so many haven’t, I’m in a good place. Those two years have been hell but my best friend often reminds me when things seem terrible “Alecia, you’ve been through worse, you can get through this”. She’s been my best friend for over 20 years.

Through everything I’ve been through, the last two years have been both the toughest and the most rewarding. I no longer need a boss to validate me and tell me I’m doing a good job. I rarely got that in the police even though I know I was a great copper. I cope well and still use being outside to save myself on a regular basis.

Having recently started a support group for other military partners in my position I consider myself lucky that I’m as tenacious as I am. I’ve gone from being too scared to share my feelings and stick up for myself, to being someone who over shares so that I can stick up for others.

As one door closes, another one opens they say. Two months after officially quitting the police, I worked for Sky 1 and Shine TV on a new show which aired recently and has been a huge hit with viewers. The opportunity didn’t fall into my lap, nothing ever does, but by constantly pushing myself and making things happen, I was given the opportunity to do something amazing. I’m also learning to say yes to most things because life is far too short to just sit at home dreaming about having fun.

Life keeps throwing me curve balls, but my 3 boys, walking until I drop, my closest friends & family and the knowledge that the only way is forwards is what keeps me strong.

I’m not waiting for anyone else to paddle my canoe & if I’ve got room, you’ll quite often find me paddling to save others.

Alecia is a former police officer, and also an Armed Forces & Mental Health Champion, a keen adventurer and has recently been part of the Sky One’s acclaimed programme called “The Heist”