During filming for “Break Every Chain” last autumn, the picturesque West Virginia locations were easy on Jonathan Hickory’s eyes. The scenes from his life being captured by the cameras, however, were anything but.
The Charlottesville-area master police officer and author watched quietly as actors explored a 12-year-old Hickory’s anguish at losing his father after a 13-month battle with cancer. They portrayed his happiness as a proud husband and father and a dedicated 18-year officer who found his calling in helping people in their most vulnerable moments. And then the cast dove into the times when everything lurched so wildly out of control.
The death of his son. The alcoholism. The infidelity. The raw, unacknowledged pain that inched him closer and closer to attempting to take his own life.
For Hickory, who was on set every day as a technical adviser to make sure uniforms were worn correctly and law enforcement duties were depicted accurately, a different level of truth struck home, and “it was definitely an emotional roller coaster,” he said.
“A lot of shameful things needed to be talked about,” Hickory said. “The trauma I’d seen led me to alcoholism and reckless behavior, and I never sought help for all of my behavior. I was in tears many times on the set.”
Screenings of “Break Every Chain” are planned for 12:30, 4:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday at The Point. Local audience members will be able to see not only Hickory’s struggles with stress, dependence and pain unfold on his church’s 80-foot screen, but also the determination, faith and willingness to accept help that brought him back to wholeness.
Hickory, director Tim Searfoss and some cast members will be on hand for the local screenings.
The film is based on the book by the same name that Hickory wrote in 2018 to document his journey, offer hope to fellow officers and draw wider attention to the internalized struggles that first responders of all kinds face while trying to help others.
When first responders find themselves overwhelmed by the trauma they’ve seen and the energy it takes to keep their composure while rescuing others, they often hear such advice as, “‘Suck it up. You’re a cop. You signed up for this,’” Hickory said. “These people are supposed to be fixers.”
He hopes to offer a different path out of the pain. Part of the answer is in realizing when the fixer needs fixing.
“The driving force is, let’s destroy that stigma,” Hickory said. “You need to know that if you’re not OK, it’s not OK to stay not OK. It is OK to get help.”
“Many officers become very bitter, very cynical and very jaded over the years. If our hearts are hardened, we can’t do our jobs.”
Hickory loved achieving his goal of working in law enforcement. “The American dream, right?” he said. But, as he soon discovered, “it’s not all about driving fast and shooting guns.”
When he responded to situations that tore at his heart — gruesome accident scenes, infant deaths, family violence, the terror in crime victims’ eyes — Hickory held it together and got the job done. But nobody told him what he was supposed to do when the flashbacks came calling.
“I just didn’t know how to cope with it all,” he said. “Alcohol was an approved-of coping mechanism.”
Hickory first encountered the healing potential of counseling after he found himself on the brink of suicide. He and his wife entered faith-based counseling together, and he was surprised to discover how much of what came up in their sessions revolved around his work-related turmoil and unaddressed grief.
The son who mourned his father had become a father who mourned his son. Alcohol was making life’s decisions, and badly; Hickory was facing the loss of his wife, his daughter and his job. He’d landed in what he calls “crisis mode.”
“I had fallen into a deep crevice, and I almost didn’t make it out,” he said. “I almost took my life.”
But as he finally faced his problems, he started discovering the tools he needed to find his way back.
Faith was one of the first. He has attended a men’s Bible study at his church for six years now.
Hickory said he’d been “kind of a ‘check-the-box’ Christian” until that point. His childhood belief had splintered under the pressure of his father’s death, and “there wasn’t any evidence of it, other than I said I was a Christian,” he said.
“If I made the decision to end my own life, there was no way back. I decided to give my life over to God.” But he knew taking a passive approach wasn’t going to work.
“When someone’s in a very dark place, it’s unrealistic to tell them they can pray their problems away,” he said. “You need to take action, too.”
Taking action included seeking deeper counseling that spoke specifically to the demands of his professional life. Police psychologist Byron Greenberg helped him to build a stronger bridge between the intrepid officer and the human being behind the badge.
“He saved my life. He was incredible,” Hickory said of Greenberg. “I thought I could keep my guard up around him, but I broke down immediately.”
Alcohol had to go. Hickory has been sober since August 2015. “It’s a much better way to live — and it’s much cheaper, too,” he said. “Alcohol is not a good coping mechanism.”
These days, Hickory finds joy and release in hours of freedom on his motorcycle. He replenishes himself with family time, exercise and the simple pleasures of being outdoors. He encourages first responders to seek out wholesome sources of relief that resonate with them and help put work stress in perspective.
“Different things work for different people,” he said. “For me, it’s motorcycle riding. For you, it might be horseback riding.”
He also teaches mental wellness, resilience and suicide prevention classes for veteran officers, sharing the knowledge he has worked so hard to obtain.
“It’s all about leading a balanced life of resilience,” Hickory said. “In order to be resilient, you need to be able to recognize when you need to ask for help.”
Showing more kindness to themselves also can make police officers much better at their jobs, he said.
“There are times when people are in self-made situations who need some wisdom and some compassion,” he said.
Writing about his experiences gave Hickory valuable perspective. The resulting book, “Break Every Chain: A police officer’s battle with alcoholism, depression and devastating loss; and the true story of how God changed his life forever,” was published in October 2018, and it has picked up numerous awards since then in memoir, inspirational, religion, addiction and depression book categories.
Fellow police officers still approach him quietly after reading his book and say, “’This is my life,’’’ Hickory said. “There are a lot of people out there who suffer in silence, and we need to fight that mental health stigma.”
Ignacyo Matynia portrays Hickory in the new film, which also stars Dean Cain, Krystian Leonard, Sterling Morse, Deborah Thompson, Sharonne Lanier and Collins Randolph.
“He really is phenomenal,” Hickory said of Matynia.
Hickory said the high technical quality of the film will please movie buffs who have been disappointed by the production values of faith-based films in the past. He said the acting, sound and camera work are excellent, and the message shines through without a heavy-handed approach.
His hope is that it can reach people where they are and remind them that hope will not disappoint.
“I do what I can, wherever God leads me,” Hickory said. “I like to say ultimate control is above my pay grade.”
Tickets are $20. The screenings will be at The Point’s Charlottesville location at 155 Hansen Road. For information, go to breakeverychainmovie.com.