Terry Keating loved the job but post-traumatic stress disorder took its toll. Photo: Simon O'Dwyer

ON HIS worst days, Terry Keating wakes to the smell of burning flesh. On his best days it's just a triggered memory away, lingering at the back of his consciousness with the pretty girl from 26 years ago.

She's silhouetted in the doorway where he first saw her. Still standing, though God knows how. He takes her to a bench in the courtyard and gently sits her down, but he can't touch her because she is so terribly burnt that her skin comes off in his hands.

Her name is Angela and she says just two words to him, over and over. ''Help me.'' But he can't.

He keeps other memories in there too. A bus full of dead tourists, mutilated by the semi-trailer that sliced down its side; a furious drug dealer swinging around to aim a pistol at his face; suicides; cot-death babies; a riot of refinery workers booting him into oblivion in the beer stink of a pub carpet.

He has constant nightmares and cold sweats and wakes up kicking, screaming, fighting. He lashes out in bed so often his partner, Shirl, turns her face away so she doesn't wake up with a black eye. He dreams of someone shooting at him or of his car crashing. He'll be struggling in his sleep, or running, but he's never been able to get away.

Police, like other emergency workers, don't forget all the really bad things they've seen or experienced: each traumatic episode is like a snapshot stored away deep in some corner of their brain. But Terry Keating's internal photo album overflowed.

Keating was a policeman for 14 years. He was a detective senior constable and worked undercover, CIB and sexual investigations in the western suburbs. He put away pushers, bank robbers and child abusers and was good at it: commended four times and highly commended once. ''I loved The Job, just loved being a copper,'' he says.

But it cost him two marriages and four children; a couple of other relationships; his self-respect; and for a long time - he thought - his mind. And, at his lowest ebb, it almost cost him his life.

I FIRST met ''Keg'' Keating in 1997 when he was with the sexual investigation unit at the Newport community policing squad. Its 18 uniformed members and two detectives served almost 400,000 people across most of Melbourne's western suburbs. They responded to calls of truancy, missing persons and neglect, but their staple fare was child abuse, domestic violence and - more than any other police district in Victoria - rape, incest, indecent assault and sexual penetration of minors.

There were times when they were dragged down among society's bottom-feeders, but Keg seemed to take it in his stride. Popular, likeably gruff, with an equally exuberant moustache, he worked hard - but unsuccessfully - to disguise his compassion. He said he tried to not let the things he saw worry him.

''It's amazing what you can get used to,'' he said. He might not have known it then, but he was lying to me and to himself.

Keating was almost certainly already suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. PTSD is the ongoing emotional injury inflicted by experiencing or witnessing one or more traumatic events that caused great physical harm and intense fear or horror - or as US psychologist Dr Frank Ochberg more poetically puts it, ''a searing, stunning, haunting event''.

By clinical definition, PTSD is a triad of changes for the worse: recurring intrusive recollections, or flashbacks; emotional numbing or anaesthesia, which can rob its sufferer of joy, love or hope; and a physiological shift in the fear threshold, affecting sleep, concentration and sense of security.

It can be triggered by experiencing a single terrifying event or in cumulative form, witnessing a number of terrible, fearful things that work like Chinese water torture, drip by drip doing psychological harm. Keating had suffered his measure of both types, dating back to the Thursday before Easter, March 27, 1986, just six months after he'd become a copper.

Born in Newport, he came to the force as a 29-year-old after 11 years as a rep for VACC Insurance and HBA. Bored doing the same thing day after day, he went into the academy in June '85, oldest in his squad, and graduated in October with a nickname. He was barrel-chested down to his hips and one of his instructors noted: ''He looks like a keg on legs.'' It stuck.

On March 27 the next year he was posted with other new constables to do court security in the Gothic sandstone Melbourne Magistrates courthouse, opposite police headquarters in Russell Street. ''That,'' he says now, ''was the start of my demise.''

A group of armed robbers with a pathological hatred of police had parked a stolen Commodore, loaded with detonators, 50 to 60 sticks of gelignite and a timer, outside the police station. At 15 seconds past one o'clock, when it exploded, Keating was in a first-floor courtroom: ''Suddenly the windows blew in. I jumped up and yelled for everyone to get on the floor. I ran down the stairs and the first person I ran into was Angela Taylor.''

Taylor, a 21 year-old constable just out of her probationary period, was on her way to buy sandwiches when she took the brunt of the fireball. Carl Donadio, 19, was on his way to the canteen where he was going to meet Keating for lunch and was cut down by shrapnel. Twenty others were injured.

Keating helped Taylor to a bench and later, with lawyer Bernie Balmer, into a magistrate's office, while they waited for an ambulance to get through the chaos. ''I was thinking 'What do I do?' But there was nothing. You'd touch her and her skin would come off. All you could do was try and comfort her.'' She died 24 days later.

Keating was posted to guard a court complex door in La Trobe Street, while cars were searched for more bombs. ''I was sort of frantic, it scared the shit out of me, the whole thing. But it didn't really sink in until I was standing there on my own.''

He knocked off at midnight and was told to be back at seven the next morning. ''I went home, opened a stubbie - my wife, Helen, was up - and I just broke down. I said, 'I think I want to get out.' But I went back in the next morning and stuck with it.''

KEG was stationed at Moonee Ponds, St Albans, and then Maidstone, working into Sunshine, Braybrook and Albion. ''Lots of crims about in those days, the murderer Barry Quinn and that lot, Painters and Dockers types. It was constantly busy, burgs and assaults. You really learned a lot.''

After four years, he joined the district support group at Altona North, letting his hair grow and working undercover. He spent months as an orderly at Western General Hospital to bust a ring of workers selling drugs and stolen goods. One night at Laverton North, he and partner Greg Thompson moved in as a drug deal went down at a service station. ''The driver came out of the car and was swinging around with a pistol to point it at me and Thommo dived across the roof and tackled him.

''It was scary at the time, but you'd go back to work, knock off and head down to the back beach at Willy with a few cans and have a bit of a laugh with the boys.''

Once they were watching for troublemakers at the Williamstown Tavern when a brawl started: ''Thommo's held up his badge and yelled 'Police!' Might not have been a good idea.'' Keating went down under a scrum of bodies and was kicked into unconsciousness. His nose was busted, ribs cracked. One of his attackers had priors for manslaughter. ''You've got to expect a beating at some stage,'' he says now. ''If you're working uniform on the front line and don't reckon you're going to get a flogging at some stage, you're in fairyland.''

But the assault changed him. He had two daughters and they wouldn't come near him, scared by his swollen black eyes and bruises. Friends noticed he'd withdrawn. Current partner Shirley Ryan had known him since his HBA days. ''It was hard not to notice Terry, he had a sort of quiet magnetism,'' she says. ''But now he wasn't the Terry I'd known. He was a bit of a lost soul.''

But he threw himself into the job - ''I loved it too much'' - and increasingly into the grog. ''I liked a drink before I got into the job, don't get me wrong,'' he says. But he was liking it a lot more after Russell Street. Part of it was social, an element of coppers' tribalism. After shifts they'd take a couple of slabs down to the banks of the Maribyrnong and sometimes to the Footscray Baths where, as a member of the water polo club, he had the keys. But it kept escalating.

''As time went on, I think I understand now, it was self-medicating to try and push everything down, blanket everything out,'' he says.

He found he'd isolate himself each year as the anniversary of the bombing approached: ''It took me years to get over Russell Street; in fact I never have. I couldn't talk about it without the tears flowing. I wasn't ashamed, but you feel weak for doing it. I suppose all those years in the job you always have that face on: No dramas. No worries. Everything's OK. You get on with things.

''But everything wasn't OK, and I didn't realise that. And I was surprised in the end that others didn't realise it, because my drinking got worse. It cost me two marriages, four beautiful kids.''

After his first marriage failed, he drifted apart from his girls. ''It was my fault and I've never forgiven myself for that.'' He says the youngest still doesn't want much to do with him and a tear rolls down his cheek. He moved to the Sunshine CIB and when his second wife, a policewoman, was posted to Wangaratta, he followed her there.

It was like a holiday camp after Sunshine, but one incident is imprinted in his memory. In November 1993, a semi-trailer

 

sideswiped and ripped open a bus on the Hume Highway killing 10 passengers. Keating had to pick his way through the bus interior, photographing the dead. ''That's not something you'd ever expect to see unless you went off to war,'' he says.

It was the only time in his career he can remember any attempt to provide counselling. A woman came up from Melbourne and spoke to them about grieving and coping. She asked if anyone was having problems. ''You're sitting in a room with 50 other coppers and you could hear a pin drop. 'What the f--- is this sheila talking about?' No one's gonna stick their hand up.

''I never lost any sleep over it. As you do, you self-medicate to get to sleep. But it's still there the next day and you self-medicate again. In the end it wasn't self-medication, it was just because I liked it.''

He was angry all the time, emotionally distant and numb, and inevitably his second marriage - with two more children - also fell apart. He went back to Sunshine and from there to Newport, investigating child-bashers and sexual predators and ''decompressing'' at the local bowls club. ''I went back to Altona North CI and probably late '98 my organisational skills seemed to have left me. I was talking to the crooks a bit sterner than usual, to use a euphemism. I had no direction, drinking heaps, the paperwork went downhill. The relationship I'd been in for a few years was breaking down and I thought 'F--- it, if I get away from this job everything will be fine, it'll all go away.'

''So I resigned and had my breakdown nine months later.''

AT THE turn of 2000, Keating was alone again. The cleaning business he'd started had failed, his latest partner had an intervention order against him because she felt threatened by his anger. He was depressed, isolated, anxious to the point of hyper-vigilance and self-destructive. He used to go to pubs where he knew criminals drank and tried to provoke fights.

One night, drunk, he'd broken into the vacated Newport community policing squad headquarters, looking, he thinks, for somewhere he felt safe. Police responded to a silent alarm and he found a torch-beam and a snarling German shepherd in his face. ''Hold the dog,'' yelled someone. ''It's Keg.'' They gave him a good talking to and took him home.

''I was lost. It was like I was in a barrel and someone had rolled me down a hill and I didn't know where I was or where I was going.''

In February, he woke up in Box Hill Hospital. ''I had a nice bottle of Johnnie Walker and a few tablets and I'd said goodbye to the world,'' he says. ''My brother came around to borrow something and found me.''

Eventually, he was referred to psychiatrist Dr John Cooper and psychologist Tony McHugh who diagnosed chronic and debilitating PTSD, linked to traumatic incidents throughout his police career. Keating had never heard of the disorder until then. McHugh admitted him as an inpatient to the veterans psychiatry unit PTSD program at Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital. He was the first non-veteran policeman to be treated there.

''At first I felt like a fraud,'' he says. ''These young blokes who'd gone to Timor and Somalia, and some of the atrocities they'd seen and I was just a copper.''

Not so, says McHugh: ''It's not that there wasn't a sufficient supply of police with PTSD. Traumatisation in policing has been around for as long as there's been police the occupational risk of trauma that police face is enormous.''

McHugh says 65 per cent of the population will experience one serious trauma or more in their lifetime, yet only 3 per cent will go on to develop PTSD. But in people who are occupationally exposed over and over again, such as military and emergency workers, the likelihood keeps rising. It is estimated about 23 per cent of veterans develop PTSD in their lifetime. There is scant literature on police: estimates range between 6 and 19 per cent, but a more realistic rate is one in 10.

In 2004, with support of Victoria Police, the program at Heidelberg was adapted to treat officers and other emergency workers. Beginning slowly, it has now provided intense treatment for 70 members, while up to 200 have been assessed or treated individually. But in 2000, Keating was a lonely pioneer.

''And it seemed to do the job,'' he says. ''For the first time I realised this wasn't just me, there were others who'd gone through what I had and been affected in similar ways. Now I knew where it came from, that it had a name and that it could be treated.

''There's so many good coppers out there just like me. But you have to talk about the mental and emotional consequences with people who understand where you're coming from. There's no use bottling it up. It builds up like a slow pressure cooker and you can only go so far before bang.''

 

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It hasn't been easy. He began his relationship with Shirl - ''my rock'' - about seven years ago, but backslid in late 2007. He was drinking again and getting in trouble at the bowls club. He took her car and crashed it. ''The relationship was good - amazingly - but I was depressed and nothing seemed right. I said to Shirl, 'I'm going down the wrong path.' I spoke to Tony McHugh and had another three months in Heidelberg. I've been off the grog since and for the first time that I can remember I have a positive outlook.''

This week, Keating received his private investigator's licence and plans a business in corporate investigations, workers' compensation and insurance cases. One of the best results of his treatment is that his eldest daughter began researching PTSD and now understands how trauma took her father down. His dream is to rebuild his relationship with her sister.

Tony McHugh says there is no ''cure'' for PTSD, but treatment can deal with its symptoms. ''You can recover. People can be helped to return to work and their lives, to get their happiness back.''

Keg thinks about that for a while. But, yeah, he says, there's happiness again. He still has his bad dreams and ghosts but he's learning to live with them. Easter '86 and Angela Taylor will always stay with him. ''That's all right. I think she deserves that.''