Video by Emily Verdouw.
It's mid 2008 and I find myself standing in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom. I'm totally confused inside. I feel angry, scared, sad and ashamed all at once, yet I have no literacy to read the messages these emotions are trying to communicate. I'm tired, really tired. It's a tiredness no sleep will fix and I feel powerless to stop my life descending into chaos.
I had got home from work on a high. I was excelling as an Army Officer, and I was attending a promotion course for the next rank, Lieutenant Colonel. No one at work knew how I felt inside. Why? Because I didn't talk about it to anyone at work. It's hard to communicate when you don't understand it yourself.
I'm standing in front of the mirror after storming out of the bathroom while bathing my then-two-year-old daughter, Abi. We were having fun. Then something snapped inside me and the situation turned ugly. My wife Kirsty had simply called "Dinner's ready". So I asked Abi to pick up the toys in the bath and put them back in the basket.
Well, she did what any two-year-old having fun with Dad would do -- take her time. Inside I felt totally out of control. It was as if taking her time was a direct reflection on my inability to make a situation work.
"She should do what I tell her to do!"
"Why isn't she doing what I asked!!"
"I can't control this!!!"
In a nanosecond I went from feeling happiness and joy, to having an internal furnace flare inside. I had to put the basket down and get out of there before I did something I knew I would regret.
I stormed past Kirsty who was wide-eyed just looking at me. I told her to go and "sort that kid out, I couldn't!"
I could take bullets and bombs. I'd commanded over 100 soldiers on operations in Southern Iraq the year before, but I couldn't do the simple things at home. I wasn't being a husband; I'd disconnected from Kirsty and Abi. I had this foolproof mask I would wear when I left the house. Well, I thought it was foolproof. It had worn thin on Kirsty. She was also tired, as my erratic behaviour was taking its toll on her.
One of my biggest issues when I was in this dark place was my unwillingness to put my hand up and ask for help.
I had a number of things stopping me from doing so:
- I was a front-line Army officer who didn't believe my men would follow me if I admitted I had something going on inside I couldn't deal with myself;
- I believed my career would suffer if I admitted something was 'wrong' with me; and
- I didn't understand what was going on so I distracted myself and justified my behaviour.
What it really came down to was, I was scared. My internal dialogue asked questions such as:
- What happens if Kirsty leaves me?
- What happens if these demons in my head are right?
- What happens if I don't have the courage or strength to deal with everything?
- I'm comfortable in my job, I do it well, what happens if I lose all that?
I was the provider and that's what I would focus on. So I justified my behaviour and my less-than-happy personal and family life. That was until this fateful day when I found myself standing in front of the mirror. I finally couldn't ignore the lessons life was trying to send. I couldn't go on any longer denying to myself I had a cyclone going on inside and I had no idea what to do about it.
So how do I find myself now in a great place where I've never had a relapse of either Post-Traumatic Stress or the Black Dog? Matter of fact, if I 'suffer' from anything it's Post Traumatic Growth.
I put my hand up and asked for help. And through that help I've found meaning in my life.
There were a few hurdles, one being stigma. I've come to understand society talks about getting rid of stigma in one sentence and then in the next phrase it calls a person with an adverse mental condition 'broken'. What message does this send to a person who is suffering? Their self esteem and confidence has already been shattered. Their conditions naturally lead to personal isolative behaviour as a defence mechanism. They feel confused when they are asked 'RUOK?', because they don't want to be wrong anymore than they already believe they are.
No one is 'broken'.
Yes, it may feel like that for the person. The human 'system', however, is amazing and it takes incredible counter measures at a mental, physical and emotional level, in an attempt to hold us together. It can be like balancing on your big toe, and we're not designed to do that for any length of time. Plus it becomes incredibly tiring.
With this understanding, if we want to recover, we need to take action to bring our system back into balance; to ground ourselves.
Initially things such as breathing exercises to calm our mind and body can help. If you haven't heard of it, investigate four-part breathing. Exercise is something a lot of people, as they move further away from their youth, tend to let go of, but it's a great activity to help you feel better. Talking to someone you trust and 'getting it off your chest', or going and having a good cry can all help.
These are strategies to help bring calm in the moment. I get a lot of people come to me saying they've tried them all but they're still in pain. My simple reply is: "You're addressing symptoms not causal issues."
If you're living out of alignment with what is most important to you then you'll cause yourself to become off balance. I'd suggest a lot of us have inadvertently got to this place in our life. We've listened to what everyone else thinks we should do, or we're doing what we 'should' be doing, but we have forgotten to listen to the most important person -- ourselves.
How do we know when we're out of alignment if we don't know what we truly stand for, what our deepest principles are and what we truly value? These things provide the matrix for us to make decisions in life. Not knowing them causes us to be vulnerable, builds rigidity in our life and weakens our resilience.
As the new year approaches, give yourself a real 'present'. Spend some time asking yourself:
- Who am I really? Without the labels, the roles I play, just me; who am I?
- What do I really stand for? If I was to be on my death bed tomorrow and my kids/grandkids stood next to me, what messages would I want them to take from my life? And how can I live these messages more passionately today?
As Abi approaches 11 years of age, we are best mates who can talk freely about any subject and value the ability to hold each other accountable for living true to who we really are. Kirsty, after withstanding every reason to leave me, is my strongest confidant and biggest fan. Why? Because I had the courage to own my inner demons and let them go, knowing my past doesn't have to govern my future.
And it all starts with putting your hand up.
If you are a current or former member of the Australian Defence Force or a family member of one, you are offered free and confidential support through Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service. You can call their Australia-wide crisis counselling helpline 24/7 on 1800 011 046.
Alternatively, if you would like to seek help elsewhere, you can contact Soldier On, who help men and women physically and psychologically affected by war.
If you need help in a crisis, call Lifeline on 131114. For further information about depression, contact beyondblue on 1300224636 or talk to your GP, local health professional or someone you trust.