REAL LIFE

A knifeman was hiding in the shower

After Belinda's shocking near-death experience, things spiralled out of control.

Belinda Neil, 46, Sutherland Shire, NSW

I woke up in a cold sweat. My hands were trembling and I was almost too afraid to open my eyes. When I finally peeled them apart and saw my darkened bedroom, I breathed a sigh of relief. It had just been a nightmare. I was safe.

But I couldn’t shake the images from my mind. That bloodied hand reaching out, a young girl’s terrified face… these were the same things that would come to me night after night, and sometimes even during the day.

But they weren’t figments of my imagination. They were memories – long lasting scars of the horrible things I’d seen. When I joined the police force back in 1987, I never imagined I’d end up like this.

But I couldn’t shake the images from my mind.

I was a fresh-faced 19-year-old, ready to make a difference. After two years I was thrilled when my application to train as a detective was accepted. I moved into an undercover unit, which meant my days were spent infiltrating criminal gangs and posing as a drug addict to bust dealers and suppliers.

It was around this time that I met Rob*, then 28. He was a drug investigator, and after working together for a while he began getting a little flirty.

‘Quick – here comes the crook, we’d better pretend to be boyfriend and girlfriend,’ he’d say cheekily. I didn’t mind. He was funny, handsome and a dedicated officer. Romance blossomed and three years later we were married.

He was funny, handsome and a dedicated officer.

By the time we tied the knot, I’d started training to be a police negotiator. I was drawn to the idea of talking someone out of a life-threatening situation and loved how challenging the experience was. My aim was to bring a peaceful resolution to anything from hostage-takings, child kidnappings and suicide attempts, to search warrants and dangerous arrests.

But the realities of dangerous police work soon hit me when I found out Rob had been shot while intervening in a gunfight. Although his body armour took the brunt of the impact, it was still a terrible shock.

For months afterwards Rob was withdrawn, had a short temper and barely slept. I wanted to reach out to him, but I was working long hours so we barely saw each other. Then came an event that would haunt me forever.

During training
I enjoyed my training but the reality of police work took its toll.

I was 28 when I attended a gruesome crime scene. A young woman named Kim Meredith had been murdered in Albury. Her body had been found in a small parking lot behind an office block.

The crime scene was covered in blood and the image of her lying on a trolley in the hospital with her throat cut refused to leave my mind. Her spirit has already moved on, I tried to tell myself, but she was seared into my memory.

That wasn’t the only experience that affected me. A year later I was called to a shocking siege. A 37-year-old man, Jack, had attacked his mother. She’d managed to run to a neighbour’s place for help, but now Jack was holed up in the bathroom shower cubicle with a 30cm knife and a bag of wine. He was threatening to hurt himself if police officers approached. It was my job to step in and find a peaceful resolution.

It wasn’t going to be easy. Jack had been drinking and getting him out of that tight space without anyone getting hurt was going to be a challenge. Here goes, I thought. Positioning myself in the hallway with a colleague, I started speaking.

‘Hello Jack,’ I called out.

It was my job to step in and find a peaceful resolution.

‘My name is Belinda Neil and I’m a police negotiator. I want to talk to you about an incident that happened here today. Firstly, are you okay?’

‘Just leave me alone!’ he yelled back.

Things quickly got worse as he began ranting that he wanted the police to kill him. He was demanding cigarettes and when I told him he couldn’t have one until he dropped his knife, he opened the door of the cubicle and raised his knife, making stabbing motions like something out of a horror film.

Staring down the knifeman, my heart raced. I could see he was getting ready to move. Hold your ground until the other officers are ready to grab him, I thought, watching them get into position from the corner of my eye.

But suddenly Jack lunged at me, the knife raised above his head. I froze as the weapon came flying towards my face. In a split second my colleague pushed me out of the way and there was a commotion as Jack was swiftly apprehended.

Afterwards, I was so angry and frustrated with myself. Why didn’t I react? Why did I just stand there in that critical moment? I didn’t know it then, but for years I’d have flashbacks to that day I nearly died. It really made me realise how fragile life is.

Becoming a mother to a son, Jake*, now 16, and a daughter Melanie*, 13, only brought that home even further. I became desperately protective of the kids and I was always scared. My mind whirred with terrible thoughts of what might happen to

them if I didn’t stay alert.

Before long, a family outing to the park was enough to make my chest tight. I’d start sweating and shaking, imagining them being kidnapped or murdered.

It really made me realise how fragile life is.

Belinda on Graduation Day

But I wasn’t the only one suffering. In 2003 Rob took leave from the police force after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. It was then that I realised I needed help as well. For months the nightmares had been unbearable, and I was anxious every waking hour.

Finally I was also diagnosed with PTSD. But, sadly, rather than being able to help each other through our difficulties, Rob and I drifted apart and eventually we split. Soon after, I was medically discharged from the force after 17 years of fighting crime.

I was anxious every waking hour.

It was what I needed, but I felt so lost too. What was my purpose in life now? For a time, I really was at rock bottom. But I knew I had to get through it for my kids. So I started seeing a psychiatrist regularly, and visiting the doctor, I was given medication for depression.

My journey to recovery has been a long one. Even now, 10 years on, it’s still a work in progress. I have spent a lot of time writing and advocating for others in similar situations.

I’m still proud of the work I did as a police officer, but I do regret waiting so long to get support. That’s why I’m sharing my story. If you’re struggling, I want you to know you’re not alone. Speak out and someone can help.

For mental health support, call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or visit www.lifeline.org.au

Belinda’s book ‘Under Siege’ is available from Harlequin publishing, RRP $29.99

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