Identity (…aka Letting Go & Moving Forward)

It has been over two years since I wrote two of my more reflective pieces about leaving the Australian Army.  Taking Off The Uniform was a brief post written on the eve of ANZAC Day 2013 and Standing In The Shadow Of The Green Giant followed a few months later in early July 2013.

The central themes of both posts were my pre-discharge months of being treated like a number and not a Soldier and the subsequent months post-discharge when I struggled to deal with no longer being a Soldier and adapting to life out of the uniform.  Since I wrote both pieces, a lot has changed in my life and I recognise that I have also changed.  I am now married to a beautiful Wife, I have a gorgeous Daughter who brightens up the darkest of days and our family will include another member in May next year.

I often think about whether or not this scenario would have been possible if I was still a serving member, and quite honestly I don’t think it would have been.  I grew up in a Military household; my Father was a career Soldier, who would often be away for many months at a time.  I am acutely aware of what it is like having a Father who was incredibly supportive and loving; but would also be away for Birthdays and other milestones in his children’s lives.  I see this realisation in my Father’s eyes today, when he spends time with his Grandchildren, he is living some of the events he missed out on with his own children; and this is something I never want to do.

In this regard, I know I made the right decision to leave the Australian Defence Force.  But this doesn’t stem the feelings of being out of place a lot of the time.  I struggled to put my finger on it for quite some time before I came to the conclusion that not only did I stop being a Soldier by hanging up my uniform; I also lost my identity.  It’s a throw-away line by most ADF members that life is a balancing act; you take the uniform off at the end of each day and you are instantly a different person.  The reality of this assumption is that you aren’t a different person out of uniform and the expectations placed upon you are very different from the vast majority of society.  There are months away from home on courses and exercises and months away from home, often in harms way, spent on foreign soil.  There is no other job that is like this and put simply, this is why most people are not suited to the ADF.

My transition back to being a civilian was not an easy one.  To this day, almost four years later, I still feel like had more to achieve and more to prove to myself and others.  The identity that I had forged as a Soldier is no longer mine and I have struggled to establish a new identity; to establish who I now am.  I have attempted to fill the huge void in my life by interacting with and assisting a Veterans’ support organisation; trying hard to keep the link to my previous identity.  But like many attempts at self-reinvention this was akin to trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.  My attempts to help others by speaking out for PTSD affected Veterans came at a huge personal cost.  Multiple relapses into depression that were harder to climb out of each time.  The very feelings of isolation and obsolescence I felt in the final months of my time in the Army were once again occurring.  Ironically, by trying to help others I was slowly but surely breaking myself apart.

Somewhere along this journey, my identity had changed to that of a quasi-Veterans’ advocate and I was not able to see that some activities were detrimental to my own mental health.  Due to opportunities afforded to me for my own recovery I felt I couldn’t say no and when asked if things were okay, I would lie and say they were.  History was once again repeating as I didn’t want to put my hand up for support in fear of seeming weak and letting others down.  Because of this willingness to keep putting myself out there I kept digging further and further into the darkness.

When the time came for me to try and get myself out of the hole, I was too far down and to be brutally honest the support often advertised, that I thought I had worked for and earned, just wasn’t tangible or there.  Once again anger and resentment joined forces with my depression and I was forced to withdrawal from something that was effectively keeping grip on the last thread to my identity as a Soldier.  I had to let go and I had to do it not only for myself, but for my Family.

In order to move forward I once again had to look backwards.  My journey up to this point had been difficult and if I stayed on the current course it wasn’t going to get any better.  It was time to let go of that final thread.  I had to accept that I was no longer and never would be an Australian Soldier again.  I wasn’t a voice for service affected contemporary Veterans.  I wasn’t a person that could inspire others with their recovery.  I will never forget the road I have travelled to get to here; and my past will always cast a shadow on my future but it isn’t who I am today, it is not my identity.

I am Chad; Husband, Father, Son, Brother, Uncle; a man who once wore a uniform and served his Nation.
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Reclamation (…aka Starting To Take Back Control)

Even during the darkest moments in life, lightness can and will shine through.  This is not an epiphany, nor is it an instant fix to all of your woes.  The most appropriate word to use when describing this evolution is lucidity.

When living with with a depressive illness; it is easy to dismiss the positives and dwell on the negatives.  Climbing out of the deepest, darkest holes in your mind is half the battle each day.  The other half is standing up and learning how to hold your head high.  Each and every day is a fight to keep the balance in your life.  Tipping one way brings the risk of depressive relapse, tipping the other brings momentary highs; but an inevitable slide back into the darkness.

I always use the term living with instead of suffering from, when describing life with depression and PTSD.  This is not an attempt to be politically correct, this is intentional on my part as a way to personalise and own a very dominating aspect of my life.  A person suffering from a mental illness rarely sees a reprieve in their life.  I shy away from this term as I see it as way to justify using depression as a crutch in your life.  Why try to live with and overcome when you can just settle with the issues and obstacles that litter your journey through life?

While many of us affected by our military service choose to hide and be deceptive about our illness and troubles, others choose to speak openly about what life was and is now like.  I have swayed between both; and both have had positive and negative effects on my life and my overall well-being.  My period of lucidity came mid-year when prolonged illness took hold and I was eventually diagnosed with type 2 diabetes.  For the first time in a very long time, I was able to regain control of a seemingly uncertain part of my life.  A change in diet, health and lifestyle was cathartic.  It also removed a deep rooted sense of doubt and negativity that had been plaguing me during days when fatigue was dominating my every waking minute.  I was relieved when I found out my symptoms weren’t psychosomatic and an unforeseen progression of my mental health illness.

A great weight had been lifted from my shoulders and I took that uncertain first step in deciding other areas in my life now needed to be addressed.  Changes to circumstances in life are quite often triggers for depressive relapses that can manifest into erratic and dangerous behaviour.  It is force fed during counselling and wellness sessions that routine and structure in life is key to living with and overcoming mental health illnesses.  I have also found this advice to be a roadblock in a number of key events in my life post my military career.  It’s akin to walking around your house in the dark and not knowing where your next step will take you despite the fact the you have trod this very ground a thousand times before.  It is true that this tentativeness in life can protect you, but it can also hinder.  Sometimes that next step into the darkness may actually be a step out into the light.

I have used this system of routine and structure for a number of years, but I have also deliberately allowed for the routine aspects of my life to be fluid; and myself accessible and open to change.  This doesn’t work all the time and I find myself becoming either defensive or aggressive in response to unplanned change.  This is quite evident when interacting with my family.  Not all things go to plan despite my and other people’s best efforts; but understanding my negative reaction to such disruptions does in fact inflame and often overshadow the actual issue is important to keep in mind.  Learning from one’s mistakes and (over)reactions may not help the next time life doesn’t go to plan, nor the time after, but eventually big issues don’t seem that big all and you can better control how you react to them.  There will of course be relapses, but knowing you can and have reacted more positively is very reassuring when the dust settles.

I am often guilty of living life through a negative and obstructionist point of view.  Surprisingly, in mid July this year, I came to the conclusion that my routine, my structure in life had in fact become askew and this negative way of seeing the world and living my life had become the norm.  My first step out of the darkness and into the light it would seem.  But what about my next step?  It was time for me to start owning my ongoing recovery and stop using other people and avenues of supposed support as aids to navigate through life.

It was time to take stock of where I had been, my journey to now and where I wanted to be in the future.  For probably the first time it was overtly apparent that my actions in life had a direct effect on my Wife and Daughter.  I was no longer a singularity, responsible for only myself.  I was and had been for quite sometime, responsible and accountable for other people.  This new moment of lucidity brought with it not uncertainty; but certainty.  It also came at an entirely unexpected and surprising moment; during a Death Cab For Cutie show at Canberra’s ANU Uni Bar.  I dare say I can credit Ben Gibbard performing Passenger Seat to an enthralled audience for being a catalyst for jump starting my recovery.

Over the next few weeks I felt as if I was sharing those days when the literal and metaphorical skies where blue and the sun was shining with the two people I love and cherish the most.  I wanted more days like this for not just myself; but for them.  I wanted my Daughter to grow up with a Father who would look after her and not the other way around.  It was time to drop some of the excess baggage in my life.  This is the next evolution in my recovery and something I can honestly saw I am looking forward to.

Sometimes A Step Backward Is A Step Forward

Quite often we stumble when making our way through life.  There are ups and downs and, of course, many detours along the way.  Recently I have had many ups in my life, but it seems the downs have had a much stronger pull than usual, and I find I am struggling to pick myself up.

It has become apparent in the last several weeks that what I perceived as helping other service affected Veterans through Soldier On Cycling just wasn’t hitting the mark.  It was as if I was my efforts to provide assistance through cycling and other avenues was being humoured and that nothing substantial was being achieved.  I thought hard about this realisation and wondered what I should do differently, what I could do to revitalise what I thought had stalled.  It was at this point that I realised it was in fact me that had stalled and everything else had moved forward without me.

At first this upset me.  This was something that with a handful of others I had built from scratch.  An avenue for Australian Veterans to find a sense of purpose and enhance their recovery through cycling.  It had worked for me and surely would work for others.  And work it did, and it has grown into a massive community of Veterans and supporters across different Veterans support organisations.

This was my first step backward.
I needed to look back at what had been achieved in the past three years and look forward to what I realistically could contribute into the future.  I was giving too much, offering too much and ultimately it was not helping at all.

Another step backward to try to step forward.
I ceased managing the Soldier On Cycling social media accounts and being the main point of contact for group members to contact.  Recently the majority of interaction had been quite critical of the way the cycling initiative has been run, with a small number of interstate members were questioning the overall goal of Soldier On Cycling.

This was my first step forward.
My interaction with these members changed from acknowledgement to rebuttal.  Like them I was just another member of an online social cycling group.  I was a volunteer and I was having my integrity questioned by semi-anonymous Facebook profiles.  More than anything this angered me, and after the criticism and threats I received post Trois Etapes 2014, it was obvious that the best course of action was to remove myself from the situation.  The critics now had their chance to stand up and to make a worthwhile contribution to the group.

I started riding for my recovery when I separated from the Australian Army in 2012.  Somewhere in the last few months I forgot this.  I forgot cycling was supposed to be fun.  I forgot cycling was supposed to be about connecting with friends.  I forgot about my recovery.

A big step backward to look at moving forward.
I put too much emphasis on supporting Soldier On and Soldier On Cycling when it was me that needed the support.  Since I procured the first Soldier On Cycling jersey three years ago I have ridden a total of three times in a different cycling strip.  I felt obligated to fly the Soldier On banner; even more so since I was given the opportunity of a lifetime to ride as a part of Team Soldier On in last years Trois Etapes.  Willingly and unwillingly I became the face and voice of Soldier On Cycling and every ride seemed to have a certain level of pressure and expectation attached to it.

Small steps forward.
Something as simple as deciding to wear a different cycling strip has been liberating.  A new opportunity to embrace my cycling roots again has invigorated me.

While I am moving forward I am not turning my back on Soldier On and Soldier On Cycling.  I will continue to interact with Soldier On and wear the Soldier On strip when I want to.

I am just taking control of my recovery and doing what it best for me.

To quote a very wise person: People should come and go, so go with a warm welcome back and a way to light the path.

Redemption (…Or What Happens After A Relapse)

It’s difficult overcoming obstacles in life and a lot more difficult overcoming obstacles that you set up in your mind.  Depression is a mental illness that can, and often will, manifest into the physical form.  I have experienced anxiety attacks, rapid weight loss, nausea, migraines and of course self harming behaviour.  A lot of people describe living with depression as living with the Black Dog.  A silent companion that is always following you, lurking in the shadows, waiting to bark and bite.

For me a depressive episode is like being alone in the ocean.  One minute it’s sunny and calm and the next, it’s stormy with waves crashing down upon me.  It’s a struggle between trying to stay afloat in between holding my breath and being dunked under; and just accepting my fate and sinking down to the bottom.  But what happens when I sink to the bottom is hard for most people to understand.  Imagine the contrast between the rough seas and the struggle above you, and now the calmness and introspective nature of looking upwards to all of that.  But of course this moment is fleeting, while you may no longer be exposed to the what is adversely affecting you; you will eventually drown from being underneath it.  The battle to swim back to the top and fight against the waves is what ultimately calms the ocean once again.

For me the end of last year was spent fighting the waves in between sinking to the bottom.  For the first time in a number of years I spent a lot of time on that bottom looking up at the crashing waves.  This was my Relapse.

An important part of Recovery is what happens next; and that is what I call the Redemption Moment.  It is the moment you realise your Relapse has finally let go of you.  My Redemption Moment occurred when my daughter Celeste smiled at me when I went to get her out of bed one morning.  In that one moment I knew everything I have experienced, everything I have done meant nothing to this little girl who wanted only for her Father to cuddle her and protect her.

For so long I have felt my life and who I am has been defined by the years I spent wearing the uniform of an Australian Soldier.  Now, as I move forward with my life post Army, I’m becoming more aware that what I have done in the last few years, is how my friends and family see and think of me.  It’s a difficult transition for me to come to terms with.  The events and experiences, the choices and decisions, the good and the bad; and of course the darkest day of my life can be attributed to my military service.  But slowly, as the years pass, I’m able to stop looking in the mirror and seeing a Chad wearing an Army uniform that no longer exists.

Late last year, I was extremely fortunate to have been surprised with portrait of myself by renowned Australian artist Caroline McGregor; gifted to me by my very good friends Jason, Sarah and wife Carly.  Caroline is well-known for her portraits depicting Australian Soldiers and capturing the person behind the uniform.  My portrait was a different direction for Caroline, who usually depicts the subject on operations.  A number of photos were submitted to her of me including some from Iraq and Afghanistan, with background information about me over the past few years.  The one photo that struck a cord with Caroline was of me in my Soldier On Cycling kit during last years Remembrance Ride.  The photo was taken by SO Cycling photographer Matt Connors on the first day of the ride; when I was acting like a fool with the other riders, some of whom I would later travel to France and ride in the Trois Etapes with.

Caroline chose a photo of me, doing what has been integral to my recovery with PTSD and depression; riding a bike, representing Soldier On, building my confidence and connecting with others that have been affected by their service.

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.:Matt’s original photo:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography
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.:Caroline’s Portrait:. https://www.facebook.com/CarolineMcGregorArt http://www.carolinemcgregorart.com/

 

Representation, Relapse, Recovery #takeanextraminute

Where do I start?  This has been the common theme over the past sixteen days.  The draft of this post has been sitting in my draft folder for a little over two weeks now.

The intent was clear, I was going to dedicate a post to the Take #AnExtraMinute campaign that I helped Soldier On launch on the lawns of Parliament House on Monday 10 November 2014.  I decided to hold off and wait until the pre recorded interview I did with Sunrise went to air on Remembrance Day, 11 November 2014.

.:Below is the link to the Sunrise: Honour Those Who Are Often Forgotten segment:.
https://au.tv.yahoo.com/sunrise/video/watch/25480373/honour-those-who-are-often-forgotten/

The Facebook post below summed up my feelings and experiences in the hours after the Sunrise segment went to air.

https://twitter.com/ChadPD/status/531960116640112642

In the days following the launch and interview airing, I found myself regressing more and more each day.  As is the norm after I speak publicly and share my story, I became depressive and withdrew from my support network; my family and friends.

This time was quite difficult for me.  The Sunrise segment was the first time my story would go out to a very large audience.  For those that think it’s not a big deal; imagine the one thing that you are most ashamed of, the one thing you would take back if you could, and now imagine that being shared with over a million other people.

Once the realisation of how many people saw my interview hit me, it became a battle to keep my head above water.  As I type this, I’m still reeling from the knowledge that so many people now know the most intimate detail of who I am, the single most confronting aspect of my life to date.

While that decision I made four years ago may not define who I am today, it set the foundation that I have rebuilt my life upon.  And that foundation is has not quite set.

Trois Etapes 2014 – Part 2 – Suddenly! France!

Sunday, 3 August
My first night in Lourdes was shared in a room with two other Soldier On riders; a tight yet restful night after trying to get sleep the day before without much luck.  After breakfast Adam, Matt, Justin and I met Andy and Jodie for a coffee in down-town Lourdes.  Although we were still down two riders (they were en-route from San Sebastian) a quick walk around the busy square followed before we decided a lazy spin to get the legs moving after all the travel was needed.

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.:Mucho posing:.
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.:The Berm in France:.

The easy 63.5km ride saw us head out to Luz-St. Sauveur for some sight-seeing and a taste of the Pyrenees’ weather.  This was the ride in which it finally sank in that we had actually made it to France and in a few days time would be representing Soldier On in the Trois Etapes.  The ride out was quite an emotional experience for me as it was the culmination of months of training, many set-backs (physically, emotionally and mentally) and a few late minute changes to the travel that threatened to delay our arrival.  The ride was very enjoyable and we all soon found a nice rhythm riding together after a few weeks apart.  Not wanting to push too hard on the first day in France, we headed back to Lourdes to catch up with the other two riders, Dan and Shane, as well as team driver Bruce.

Dinner was a casual affair at a local restaurant (not called a French restaurant in France) which proved challenging for this vegetarian; luckily salads are quite common in most European countries – albeit with an excess of tomato and cheese.

Monday, 4 August
The next day’s ride was a typical coffee ride that would see the entire team, and driver Bruce, explore some of the local countryside over a relatively easy 47km.  There was of course a couple of ugly ramps leading up to a hill-top church including a nice little 28% stretch that left me trying to bite my front wheel!

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.:Not a bad view:.
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.:More posing:.
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.:Cafe time:.
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.:Cafe time:.

For the first time since the Trois Etapes was confirmed, Team Soldier On had it’s full roster and was gearing up for the race in four days time.

Tuesday, 5 August – My 33rd Birthday
The plan was simple…  Breakfast and then an easy ride to the Col du Tourmalet followed by a quick descent back to Lourdes.  But like all simple plans; this one wasn’t.  Not even 10 minutes into this ride and I was separated from the rest of the group thanks to some red lights and me not knowing the route out of Lourdes.

Suddenly I found myself riding alone and heading out of Lourdes towards the airport; definitely not the way to Tourmalet.  After stopping and some back and forth messaging later, I decided I was too far away from the team and went for a solo ride instead.

I spent my 33rd birthday riding the French countryside; not a bad day at all.

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.:Hayley and sunflowers:.
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.:France!:.

Wednesday, 6 August
A very unexciting day of eating, resting and tapering for the three-day race.
Lourdes put on a fantastic day of sun and warmth; the perfect day for a slow and steady ride to spin the legs.

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.:#Euro:.
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.:Fountain lean:.

Thursday, 7 August
With the entire Soldier On team finally in Lourdes, photographer Matthew and manager Clare arriving the night before, it was time for us to have a look at some of the unknown sections of the race; this time in the cars!

We drove up the Col du Soulor, Col de Spandelles and Col du Tourmalet.  I can honestly say after the day-trip I was dreading each of the climbs, especially the goat track that was Spandelles!

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.:Col du Soulor horses:.
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.:Not a bad view on the way down from Col du Soulor:.
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.:Col de Spandelles was intimidating:.
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.:Géant du Tourmalet:.
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.:Team Soldier On and the Géant du Tourmalet:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography
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.:Much beard and much hair:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography
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.:Team Soldier On and manager:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography
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.:Tough guys:. https://www.facebook.com/matthewconnorsphotography

In the afternoon we set off for another short ride to keep the legs fresh for the first stage of the race the next morning, this time we were joined by coach Scott Sunderland.

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.:For the first time on their bikes, the entire Team Soldier On together with coach Scott Sunderland:. Photo courtesy of Mark Howard

Trois Etapes 2014 – Part 1 – The Long Journey To France

My journey to France wasn’t as simple as three planes, two trains, a cab and countless hours spent on a bicycle.  My journey to France started on January 6, 2012; my last day as a soldier in the Australian Army.  Over the previous decade I had made many friends, shared countless experiences, served on foreign soil, and ultimately returned back home when others did not.
My decision to leave the Army was a culmination of differing opinions on what my career path should have been, the lack of ongoing and adequate support for my mental illness and not wanting to force my future wife to live in the shadow of a Australian Soldier.  Having spent my childhood as the quintessential ‘Army Brat’, I could not ask the woman who I would ultimately marry and have a child with, to follow me around Australia and put her own career aside.  So I left the one thing that had provided, up until my wedding and daughter’s birth, the most defining moments of my life; both good and bad.

In mid 2012 I started mountain biking, something that would ultimately serve to fill the huge void that had been left in my life when I hung up my uniform.  A tight-knit community of caring, encouraging and like-minded people enabled me to feel part of a team once again.  And in late 2012 I approached a the contemporary veterans group ‘Soldier On‘ and asked if I would be able to fund-raise in a mountain biking event called The Battle of the Beasts.  When the dust had settled and my aching body had calmed I had raised a substantial amount of money that would directly assist younger veterans like myself that were struggling with the visible and hidden scars incurred during our service in the Australian Defence Force.

.:Battle Of The Beasts 2012:.
2013 would see me design and commission a set of Soldier On cycling jerseys and participate in a full calendar of mountain bike events at which I would wear the Soldier On strip.  I would assist Soldier On at various veterans events and fundraisers and ultimately become a very vocal advocate and critic of contemporary veterans issues especially veteran suicide; an issue that has directly impacted my life and ongoing recovery living with depression and PTSD.
.:Racing with the mk1 Soldier On cycling jersey:.
Throughout earlier 2014 I continued to race and commute wearing the Soldier On colours.  For me wearing the Soldier On jersey was a way for the public to see Soldier On was active in the general community and to let other veterans know that they weren’t alone.  It was because of my somewhat visible presence across social, print and visual media that I was asked by Soldier On to participate in the 2014 Trois Etapes Pro-Am in France.  At first I was apprehensive as it would mean a change from my mountain bike to a road bike and many, many hours training.
First there was the Sydney to Canberra Remembrance Ride commemorating both ANZAC Day and the 60th anniversary of the opening of the Remembrance Driveway along the Hume and Federal highways.  This was soon followed by two training camps, one at Thredbo and then followed by the second at Tweed Heads; and a long-term training program to follow.  Of course life, work and injuries interfered with what could have been a relatively smooth timeline; but where would the fun be in that?!
Finally on Friday, 1 August 2014, after many months of training, preparation, stressing, emails and waiting… The time came for me to leave Canberra, Australia and travel to Lourdes, France.
I’ll spare you the intricate details of my trip, but rest assured 39 hours of travel is not an enjoyable experience.  Why 39 hours?  Well, as I mentioned before, there were the flights, the trains and the cab; and of course there was the the 30kg bag containing a bicycle and a very large amount of cycling related equipment and paraphernalia.  It is a fact an EVOC cycle bag is just not train, train station or train passenger friendly. Combine this with French people, a language barrier, jet lag and a person with an anxiety disorder and you have recipe for disaster.  Luckily nothing bad happened and we arrived at our hotel in the middle of the night.
After much stressing, a bad case of cankles and a long-awaited shower I finally went to bed knowing the next day I would be riding my bicycle in France!

Mental Health Stigma, The ADF – An Ongoing Cycle

I sit here typing this with my infant daughter asleep in my arms. For me the days, months and years since I was at the lowest point in my life have been a road to recovery. For many others this isn’t the case.

This week we farewelled another Australian Soldier who had succumbed to the emotional wounds he suffered years ago while serving his county in Afghanistan. The reasons why he never recovered from his invisible injuries may never be known; but the fact still remains he is another lost to a battle that still continues in the minds of many. A never ending war of light versus dark, good versus evil and ultimately life versus death.

Four years ago I lost this very battle. Four years ago I found myself alone in a dark hole I couldn’t escape from so I accepted what I believed to be the fate I deserved. Despite the odds stacked firmly against me I am here today. The reasons for this are solely due to the unwavering support from my family and friends.

When I hear of an Australian serviceperson taking their own life I feel a deep sadness for not only them but for their family as well. When a person decides to take their own life there is nothing you can do to stop them; nothing. This of course does nothing to comfort them in their grief; but knowing a tortured soul is finally at rest should.

I don’t pretend to know everything about mental health issues, mental health support or suicide. I know only of what others have shared with me and from my own experiences. And one of the most harrowing aspects to this silent battle is the ever present stigma that is attached to admitting you have a mental health illness.

Support, like the causes of mental illness, is very much an “experiences may vary” scenario. I have heard of support avenues being offered that were exceptional, some mediocre and some downright dismissive and a catalyst for suicide attempts. My own recovery was made up of all three; although the bad experiences often overshadow the good.

My initial experiences with asking for support from the ADF reads like a how-to-guide on rejection, dismissal and victim blaming. The desired effect for me to shut up and go away worked; albeit long enough for it to become someone else’s problem.

I don’t begrudge the ADF as an institution for this; but a stigma against mental health, especially PTSD and depression, still exists within the upper ranks. My time in the Australian Army ended two and half years ago. I was happy with what I had achieved as a Soldier; especially on operations. If I had my time again I would definitely sign up to serve, but in saying that I would certainly do some things very differently.

In regards to my mental health support, in hindsight, I wouldn’t have accepted the dismissive and intimidating culture of the SNCO’s and Warrant Officers I encountered. I experienced a level of bullying from people of certain ranks that should have known better. The attitude of some pushed me over the edge and directly attributed to my attempt at ending my own life. I am still angry and bitter at how I was treated and how I didn’t act to better protect myself. But when one is so mentally exhausted everyday activities such as eating become a chore, so the seemingly simple act of speaking up for yourself just does not happen.

This stigma still exists and is still prevalent within the ADF. Not a week goes by that I don’t get asked for advice and help from a still serving friend on how to deal with someone acting as a roadblock to their recovery. Sadly, more often than not, this person will be a SNCO or Warrant Officer in a position that requires them to be responsible for Soldier’s welfare; something that they clearly fail at.

I don’t know how the ADF can fix this in the long term, but I do know that the majority of SNCO and Warrant Officers are incredibly supportive to mental health support. One thing that the Service Chiefs and CDF could try is taking action against those that hinder Soldier’s recovery by denying their access to support, bullying those at risk and continuing to deny illnesses such as PTSD and depression exist.

Before I left the ADF I named two Warrant Officer Class One’s, both RSM’s and two Warrant Officer Class Two’s both SSM’s in a minute to the Chief of Army as habitual bullies who made physical and psychological threats to me and others; yet no action was taken.

It is the cycle of generational suicide in the ADF that still continues that proves the current system for mental health support, reporting and ongoing care is not yet good enough.

An Evening At The Australian War Memorial – Updated

ABC’s Big Ideas has released the Boys Don’t Cry program online for viewing.
The televised version is shorter by about 20 minutes and doesn’t include my speech at the end of the forum.  The online long version does.  I invite you to watch is however please be aware that some of the program is fairly confronting including what I have to say at the end.

Long version of the Boys Don’t Cry segment

Big Ideas Boys Don’t Cry segment

On Wednesday evening, 20 November 2013, I attended a panel discussion at the Australian War Memorial on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.  The event was hosted by journalist/writer Paul Barclay on behalf of ABC TV and Radio National.

On the panel were former Chief of Army LTGEN Peter Leahy; author and Beyond Blue ambassador Allan Sparkes; Beyond Blue board member Professor Brett McDermott; and the wife of a former British Royal Marine, Emily.

I was asked about attending the panel a few days earlier by my friend Jason.  Originally I didn’t want to attend as I honestly thought it may be a trigger for an anxiety episode; so I declined.  It wasn’t until the night before that I decided to go along and hopefully have a chance to speak to whoever was on the panel.  I had no idea who was participating in the discussion other than LTGEN Peter Leahy and hadn’t really thought about what was going to be discussed.

In the afternoon prior to the start of the forum, I rode from work up to the Australian War Memorial.  As is the norm, I was wearing my Soldier On jersey and happened upon new Soldier On team member Tony; who many moons ago was my Troop Commander when I served in Iraq.  Jason arrived next and soon we were joined by Anna, Meredith and Dion from Soldier On.  After I got changed into something more appropriate than skin tight lycra, we went into the BAE Systems Theatre.

After the introductions Paul started the discussion with some questions about PTSD in the military for LTGEN Leahy.  The conversation and questions started to flow freely within the panel with some very emotional stories being shared by Emily and Allan.  Prof McDermott gave some very interesting insights on PTSD for not only military personnel; but also for emergency service persons and of course their families.

I wasn’t the only veteran in the crowd; but I was the youngest.  There were a few Vietnam Veterans present, family members of veterans with PTSD and a few senior Defence officers that were skulking around the back pews in civilian attire.

As the discussion progressed LTGEN Leahy was asked some questions about support services available to veterans.  I have a lot of respect for this man; he was an exceptional Chief of Army and has done a lot to help veterans with his current position as Chairman for Soldier On.  But there is a distinct level of detachment from what a high ranking officer is told and what happens on the ground.

Some of his responses started to irk not only me, but a lot of the crowd listening to him.  There were more than a few audible scoffs at some comments about the Department of Veterans affairs doing their best to help all veterans.  One comment in particular drew a very audible “get fucked” from me.  The former Chief of Army said that when a Soldier asks for help, he or she will always receive it.  Paul mentioned the story of MAJGEN John Cantwell and LTGEN Leahy was in agreement.  Whilst MAJGEN Cantwell has done a lot to help break the stigma of PTSD in the ADF; it is also true that a very senior Officer is never going to be turned away when they ask for assistance.

Allan Sparkes shared his story of PTSD and depression from when he was a Police officer; and the ostracising that he experienced as a result.  His story was a very raw, no punches pulled recount of his darkest days and his termination from his employment without his knowledge.  His story was very reminiscent of many veterans from the Vietnam War up until today’s conflicts.

Emily’s story was one of amazing courage from both her and her husband Adrian.  She spoke of her time in the United Kingdom when Adrian returned from deployment in Afghanistan a changed man.  He had experienced traumatic events and as a result developed PTSD.  His struggles with mental health affected his wife and two daughters as they watched as their husband and father dealt with his issues now that he was back at home.  His eventual discharge from the Royal Marines was a result of a physical injury and just like the majority of occupationally injured Australian servicepersons; Adrian was soon pushed out the door with very little support and preparedness for his transition to civilian life.

As the forum was drawing to a close Paul invited Dr Brendan Nelson, director of the Australian War Memorial to speak and field some questions from the panel.  He spoke about the AWM’s role with supporting veterans of recent conflicts by having interactive exhibits and involving them with other projects the AWM is conducting.  As a former Minister for Defence he expressed his desire to see more support forthcoming as the Afghanistan War draws to a close.

As 7pm was quickly approaching a few of us in the audience were wondering if we would get a chance to ask questions of the panel.  Adrian was next to take the stage and he recounted some of his experiences post deployment and how support for veterans is extremely slow from the government in Britain.  He spoke of having his claim for assistance being rejected on the first submission; a trend very similar to that in Australia carried out by DVA.

Adrian expressed his concern for veterans being forgotten after the withdrawal from the Middle East and a strong desire for them to be able to access the support they deserve and not repeat the mistakes of the past.  He likened the struggles of today’s returned servicepersons to that of the Vietnam War era in the way that the fight for support continues even after the war on foreign soil has ended.

Adrian’s address to the panel and audience had clearly reached out to everyone with many of the Vietnam Veterans visibly moved by his honesty.  As he sat down Paul checked his watch and asked us sitting in the audience if anyone had anything questions or comments.  I had been sitting and fidgeting for the past 10 minutes waiting for this moment.  Several different introductions and talking points had gone through my head and all disappeared in the instant I raised my hand and Paul motioned for me to stand up.

I was shaking before I even started speaking; this was always going to be an emotionally charged interaction from me and I started by introducing myself.

“Hi I’m Chad, I separated from the Army early last year and have deployed to both Iraq and Afghanistan.  I have been diagnosed with PTSD, depression and anxiety and I want to know why not enough is being done to help Australian veterans.”

I addressed LTGEN Leahy first and exclaimed to him that history was indeed repeating itself.

“I am a third generation Soldier, my Grandfather served in World War 2, my Father served in Vietnam and I have served in the Middle East.  I watch as my Father and his mates still struggle with PTSD with many Vietnam Veterans taking their own lives since the war ended.  I watch as my generation struggles with the same issues and now my mates, people I served with, are killing themselves because of PTSD and depression; and nothing is being done to stop this.  There are more people in the ground because of PTSD and depression than there are that are on the wall outside who were killed on operations.”

I spoke of my efforts to get help when the weight was becoming too much for me to bear and that the first two times I asked for assistance I was rebuffed by my unit RSM’s; a statement that clearly shocked LTGEN Leahy.  I was asked questions from both Allan Sparkes and Prof McDermott about my interactions with DVA and I recounted how I was told that my claim was going to be slow as my PTSD and depression ‘wasn’t that bad’.  I explained to them that is was at this point that I withdrew my claim and stopped interacting with DVA as I felt I was being accused of chasing money and that by not receiving financial assistance my criticism of their practices would hold more weight in a public forum.

I described my battles with depression and that very few people understood; and the simple act of asking for help effectively stalled my career in the Australian Army for a number of years.  The feeling of being ostracised and singled out was always present and that few people would support me when I asked for further help.  I explained that while MAGJEN Cantwell’s story is not an isolated one, the level of support and assistance he received was.  The average Digger in a unit has to contend with the ever present stigma of mental health issues and ignorance present within their chain of command and the probable persecution for not being able to fulfil their duties without restrictions.

I expressed astonishment that the very organisation founded to protect the rights of and provide assistance to veterans was failing in its primary role.  I emphatically asked how in the forty years since the end of the Vietnam War servicepersons are still not being afforded the support we fought for.  How it was possible that DVA can state they are still learning and getting better with a straight face as veterans from multiple deployments and generations kill themselves while waiting to access support services.

By this stage the room was silent and I had been speaking for around 20 minutes.  The panel while sometimes asking me questions and making statements had clearly been unprepared for such a raw and uncompromising speech from someone.  I had brought up some points with personal accounts of systematic failures from within the Australian Army, Australian Defence Force and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

There were some topics that I shared with a public forum that had only been discussed with medical professionals and not even shared with my wife and family.  As my speech drew to a close I expressed the hope that one day veterans would receive the appropriate support from the Government but that it was very unlikely to occur in my lifetime and that my children probably wouldn’t see it happen either.

As I finished speaking I apologised for hijacking the Q&A session; Paul started wrapping up the forum and I sat down nervously.  Jason patted me on the shoulder and most of the audience was either nodding in agreement or wiping away tears.  I sat shaking and started to feel quiet anxious from speaking to a mostly unknown audience about issues so personal and distressing that I had spent the last few years repressing and ignoring them.

The rest of the evening was spent talking with members of the audience and panel.  I received a great number of business cards and offers of assistance and opportunities to speak to other veterans and people with PTSD and depression.  I found the response surprising and was shocked when LTGEN Leahy approached me as he was leaving.  He handed me his business card and told me to email him.  He offered to take me to see the Minister of Veterans Affairs to discuss the issues I had brought up.

He told me that the Service Chiefs would be made aware of what I had spoken about and that I should continue speaking up.  Both he and Dr Nelson expressed the need for younger veterans to be the public faces and voices of our generation and that I should be one of them.  I was very humbled by this statement and thought a lot about it over the following days.

At the conclusion of a big night, I farewelled Jason and the Soldier On crew, thanked the others and started riding my bike back home.  The next 45 minutes were some of the most contemplative times of my life as I thought about what I had said and the inevitable shock-waves that they would create for my family and I when the ABC airs Boys Don’t Cry on Big Ideas in late 2013/early 2014.

The Silent War

Last year on Sunday 29 September, I sat down with Canberra Times Sunday Editor Scott Hannaford and photographer Melissa Adams to share my story about life with PTSD, depression and life after I hung up my uniform and packed away my boots.

Scott had seen this blog and contacted me via Twitter and asked if I wanted to take part in a story he was putting together on Veteran’s experiences with post traumatic stress disorder and life after deployment.

For a few hours we sat down and talked about my time in Iraq and Afghanistan and my fundraising/awareness raising for Soldier On.  On Sunday 13 October 2013, Scott published a story in the Canberra Times about my fundraising campaign leading up to the 2013 Battle Of The Beasts.

CanberraTimes Article.:Click here to read the original story at the Canberra Times:.

After months of hard work Scott’s story was published in all major Fairfax newspapers and online with a suite of interactive media including our interviews and photos from overseas.

Below is my interview from the Canberra Times website and video interview with Scott and Mel.

.:Click here to view my video interview:.

.:Click here to go the interactive website:.

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