Officer down: A former cop's crisis and recovery

This is Mental Health Awareness Week in New Zealand. We talk to one of our Tauranga clients, former policeman Todd Hilleard, about the events that sparked his Post-Traumatic Stress Injury and his road to recovery.

Time to read: 9 mins

He was a 29-year-old policeman of roughly four years – approachable, confident and utterly dedicated. It was supposed to be a routine callout, albeit a woman was alleged to have attacked her husband. Todd spoke to her while his colleague talked to the husband outside.

She was 60, small and distressed. Todd tried to help her relax but after he said he’d have to arrest her, she retrieved a pistol, put it to her head and threatened to shoot herself. 

After he tackled her onto a nearby bed, she pointed it at him. Todd disarmed her but the shock of the situation, and discomfort over manhandling a petite woman, rattled him.

He became still more jittery after other events that held the possibility of on-scene guns, then after a welfare transfer to his hometown Christchurch, was panicked by the September 2010 earthquake and an aggressive driver he’d pulled over. After developing a stress fracture from ice hockey, he went on light duties at the Christchurch Police Station. When the February 2011 quake struck, he was on the third floor with his partner Tash, and felt pure fear, believing the building would crumple.

They got out and went to the CTV building, which had collapsed and killed 115 people and trapped many others. Todd was in flight mode, but crawled onto the still-moving rubble to help rescue survivors, seeing things no human wished to see.

He and Tash were planning their wedding, but the day after his stag party, the 30-year-old Todd was hospitalised with heart palpitations then went into anaphylactic shock after an allergic reaction to the medication. His heart ultimately needed a high-energy shock to return to its normal rhythm.

He married his beloved Tash, then began having chest pains one day, due not to his heart, but a panic attack. Over the next couple of years, the couple had two children and moved back to Tauranga. Todd, knowing he couldn’t continue as a cop, had gone on sick leave, then unpaid leave and ultimately resigned. It was tough. He’d lost his identity and felt desolate when old workmates drove by in police cars. At his lowest point, he contemplated suicide.

Surfing was a distraction. While competing in the 2018 Police Association Surfing Champs, six-foot Todd was given a too-small toweling poncho. The resulting product research spawned his online surf and lifestyle clothing business Noxen. In 2021 Noxen merged with hat label Me & The Brave to form Five Percent Brands. Five percent of their annual profits go to mental health causes. To date, they have donated more than $22,000. Todd also gives talks about mental health and on occasion they donate products.

A Q&A on Todd’s life today…

You were diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Injury about four years ago. What does life look like now?

“Generally stable. Having my own business helps – doing your own hours and having more personal control etc. And when there are issues, I can spend time in bed, or whatever, just resetting. I’m quite lucky – I don’t have PTSI reoccurrences, but I do still have ‘fight and flight response’. I’m at the stage where my triggers are embarrassment, unresolved conflict… just things where I can’t talk it out. I also haven’t drunk alcohol for three years. That helps.”

At your worst, you were thinking about suicide…

“I was talking that way because of the constant barrage of thoughts but we’ve got kids and my friend killed himself when I was 15-16. I personally know the devastation it causes. My psychologist and my wife said, ‘you need to take that off the table’, so we started using that as a phrase. When you’re getting more and more agitated and insular or vulnerable, you don’t have that option or final perceived release because you’ve taken it off the table. Not many people actually want to die, they want reprieve or release from what’s going on.”

What gets you through the harder days?

“The kids and Tash – focusing on the innocence and happiness… all that stuff.”

Do you have any techniques that you use?

“We’ve just created a little thing we call the 'zen den', which is a tiny office off our bedroom, with a chair, a journal, a place to read, and things like that. It’s pretty hard when your brain’s being irrational, but at least it’s a space to go to.  

“I’ve learned a bit about the three levels of the brain. The base keeps you alive, but you can’t expect much to happen when you’re functioning there. In the mid-level you can function okay, but your decision-making isn’t on point, and the third layer, which comes through to the front, is where you’re functioning really well or over-achieving. I guess that’s when you’re in Rain Man mode. I’m often trucking along nicely but can get smashed back down to the base brain very quickly.”

What’s your advice to others dealing with trauma or different mental health issues?

“It can bring… almost a change in the molecular structure of your personality. You really do have to treat mental distress as a brain injury because that’s what it is. I guess you have to get to the point where you let go and acknowledge that it’s not really in your control. And talk, talk, talk. It’s important to get it out when you can. Sometimes it’s hard to talk if you’re not in a rational mindset. When you physically can’t talk or are shutting down, it’s hard to step back into the real world and help yourself. And sometimes you don’t feel like talking!”

Do many people understand what you’re going through?

“You can empathise or you can understand. If you can empathise, you would be in the category of my wife, who out of kindness and who she is, is empathetic to me, but she’s never had a mental health issue so she can’t understand. If someone understands because they’ve been through it, you can converse and they can maybe give some practical advice, but probably realise there’s not much you can do or say other than the basics – one foot in front of the other.”

What would you say to those around someone experiencing a mental health challenge?

“If you don’t understand and don’t genuinely believe it’s a real thing, then you need to substitute yourself out for someone else. There’s nothing worse than feeling belittled or the person picking up that you’re not really being empathetic. Most people who are close to you will be genuinely empathetic, but I would do my best to not lean on someone who isn’t, like a mate who says, ‘get over it’ or ‘harden up’. It’s great that they’re your friend, but they’re not the right person in that scenario.”

What helps you manage your mental health in a business sense?

“Having a business partner because it halves the burden at critical times. And she’s understanding – she’s really good. We’ve also got a Board now, so that’s helpful. You’ve got to decide what you’re doing – what, why and how is it going to work for you and your personality. If you’re mentally vulnerable and want to adapt or take on a business, make sure it’s the right fit. I wouldn’t have a business that had 80 staff or lived or died on day-to-day sales.”

You became a Baker Tilly Staples Rodway Tauranga client in 2013…

“I had a little side thing, so I used BTSR Tauranga, but then we purchased the Tauranga Homegrown Juice Company franchise, so I continued with them, then started Noxen. Brent (Business Advisory Services director Brent Rogers) has always been around so that’s been good and we’ve had different people come in to help out. I liked Brent and liked the way he treated me.” 

What are the effects of having good advice and support from the company?

“Because they’re solid and trustworthy, you don’t doubt or worry. I don’t ever leave an interaction with (Business Advisory Services client manager) Brad Garner – our main man now – worrying that I’ve been misunderstood, and it really helps that he’s aware and empathetic of my situation. He’s become a friend. It is quite clear in Baker Tilly, that they’re good people.” 

How has BTSR been able to help in a business sense?

“When you go into business, it’s often a little fantasy at the start, so they help square things out and get it going properly. Our company is becoming well known now.”

How would your old workmates have described you as Good Cop Todd at his best?

“I paid attention to detail but was also good with people. My conviction rate was high and a lot of that was just treating people like human beings. I was really good at my job. I wasn’t someone you’d imagine would end up with PTSI. That made it more real for my old workmates, I imagine.”

Have you been able to bring that attitude towards people into your current role?

“Oh yeah, policing is customer service at the end of the day. You’re selling them to put the weapon down or come and talk to you. It’s just a sales pitch.”

What gives you hope?

“While my episodes are often intensely acute, I go into this dive and then I’m back out in a couple of days. It used to last for a week or weeks. And I am looking into alternative psychotherapy. Trauma is often defined by one point in time and I think what they’re trying to do with the therapy is open your mind up to the fact that there’s a lot of hope out there.”

Is going through this sort of thing different for men?

“Yeah, because it’s all about bravado. How many times does a guy cry compared to a girl? You’re taught as a youngster to harden up. I think it’s going to take a few generations to break that, but men are more comfortable with talking about their feelings now. There’s an Instagram profile called ‘For all the brothers’. Support communities are popping up all over the place – it’s good.”

Has being open and honest about your ordeal helped?

“Totally. That’s why I’m quite blunt and out there because it encourages people to talk. It changes the dynamic of the situation or the friendship or relationship. It helps them and it helps me.”

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