On the 18th of May 2016, Sebastian Peter Dobbs entered this world in a big hurry.
The past two weeks have been a blur with multiple visits to multiple hospitals and a new addition changing the family dynamic.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Facebook post below summed up my feelings and experiences in the hours after the Sunrise segment went to air.
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.
The JetBlack 12 Hour at James Estate Winery was the first road trip/short holiday that included our new addition, Celeste, tagging along.
I’ve enjoyed the past few Rocky Trail events and this was guaranteed to be one of their best. Martin and Juliane are amazing people that put on mountain bike events that are second to none. So to say I was looking forward to riding around the James Estate Winery was an understatement.
But before I was able to ride the grinding fire-roads and flowing singletrack I had to move the family 550km north of Canberra; not an easy feat with a 5 week old. Many pit stops followed with some roadside feeds; but finally we arrived at our cottage B&B near Denman.
We spent Friday morning admiring the Hunter Valley before heading to James Estate Winery to register for the next days race.
As we weren’t camping at the winery with the other Bermers; the offer to have dinner with the Hills down the road was too good to refuse.
The next day I prepared my bike, bottles and food and drove out to the event centre with family in tow.
The race started as planned, Chad in the front of the middle pack and a slow but steady start to warm up; and warm up I did. Despite the single digit temperatures I was soon shedding my arm warmers and wishing I wasn’t wearing my knee warmers.
The initial fire-road was a grinding battle against sand, rolling resistance and a gradual incline into the singletrack. The singletrack was a mix of sweeping tracks and flowing corners with so many drop-offs I lost count. My normal aversion to A-Lines in races was soon overcome by the fact I missed the B-Lines each time and still managed to keep my bike rubber side down.
As I rounded my second lap of the 11.5km course I was suitably warmed up and feeling quite good.
By my fourth lap I was feeling a great deal of discomfort in my left hip and upper glutes. The same feeling I got during the Soldier On Training Camp at Tweed Heads.
I headed out on my fifth lap knowing full well that it would be my last, my hip was starting to hurt and my lower back was well and truly seized up. Every-time I left the saddle the pain grew more intense. So I put my final effort into the final climb and descent into transition before calling it quits for another year.
At the end of the day I wasn’t disappointed with my effort, I knew full well I wasn’t going to give 100% due to what was at stake in the coming weeks with the Trois Etapes. Instead I went on a holiday with my family and went for a little ride in between.
As more and more returned veterans put their hands up and ask for help the processes for support services are steadily improving. Thanks to people like MAJGEN John Cantwell the stigma that is attached to persons with PTSD is slowly disappearing. It takes a lot of courage to speak openly and honestly about an issue that often results in self-harm, substance abuse and even suicide. For a high-ranking, high-profile ADF member to stand up and acknowledge that his service to his country has caused a mental illness is incredibly brave. By shedding his uniform, rank, and medals; John Cantwell has empowered other returned veterans to admit that they too need assistance.
Recognising that there is an issue is the first of many steps towards recovery and rehabilitation. The second step is often the most difficult and at times the point where a person in uniform will retreat and hide; raising your hand and asking for help.
The Australian Defence Force and Australian Army in particular are constantly in the media tackling varies issues such as sexual misconduct and gender equality. While both are extremely important in their own regard, the spotlight rarely shines on another equally important issue; the culture towards members with PTSD and depression.
I’m not going to pretend I know about every single ADF member’s details about living with mental illness. I know about my own experience and also others that were brave enough to share their stories with me. I struggled for months before I put my hand up and asked for help. As I’ve stated before I was rebuffed by the one person at my unit whose primary duty it is to look after Soldier’s welfare. Being told to “Harden the fuck up” struck a huge blow to my confidence and I started to withdraw from those around me.
Others have related the same kind of experiences to me with regards to their first encounters within the chain-of-command. Some superiors ridiculed and some provided that much needed assistance. It took several months for me to ask for assistance again. Many around me were extremely supportive; there were a small group of supporters from the Army that fought tooth and nail to get me the help I desperately needed. But there were others that seemed determined to prove that what I was living with was my fault and I should get over it.
There were words spoken to me in private while I was at my lowest point which were delivered with such venom a day rarely goes by that I don’t hear his words in my head. “You are a fucking lying soft cunt”. These words were delivered at me as I lay in a hospital bed awaiting the arrival of my parents from interstate. I had suffered an anxiety episode so severe I admitted myself to an Army hospital. This would also be the moment where others further up in my chain-of-command became aware of what was happening and after almost 12 months of living with PTSD, anxiety and depression I was finally able to acknowledge I couldn’t continue without help.
While my story is not uncommon it is certainly not the norm. Many ADF members ask for help and are looked after very well with counselling, rehabilitation services and flexible working arrangements. One of the first things that occur once an ADF member seeks professional help for depression, anxiety or PTSD is the implementation of restrictions on their terms of service. You are no longer allowed to do certain tasks that are deemed to be dangerous to yourself or others and your career and posting options are effectively stalled. While many of these restrictions are incredibly important and beneficial, such as no access to weapons or limited field time, others such as removal from your normal job into an administrative role often causes more undue stress.
I had several restrictions placed upon me when I was posted to Brisbane. No access to weapons, security clearance review, no promotion courses, regular drug testing, six month alcohol ban, weekly performance reviews, fortnightly counselling sessions and no field exercises among others. At the time of my new posting I was incredibly fatigued, I was 10kg under my ‘ideal’ weight, insomnia plagued me, anxiety attacks were the norm and of course I was acutely depressed. My new unit; in particular my Troop Commander and Troop Sergeant were incredibly supportive; and as I got to know the rest of the Squadron members I was able to continue my rehabilitation with very few interruptions.
My life was well and truly back on track and my symptoms had abated. I had met and started a relationship with my future wife and I was enjoying the availability of time to spend with my family; in particular my Twin nieces. But as with all things in the Army, resources were stretched thin and when my restrictions of service expired I was called upon to step up and take on extra responsibility. I relished the opportunity to prove my worth and performed some very big tasks with very limited resources and manning.
When the time for the new posting cycle to be reviewed came about I was bounced back and forth between a heavily constrained Career Management cell and a senior Soldier that should never have been allowed to look after Soldier’s welfare and career issues. In the end my career plan was completely discarded and the aspirations of another Soldier were forwarded to my Career Manager instead. During this incredibly stressful period I spent the majority of April to August on exercise in Northern Queensland with very little consultation on my next posting. By the time I was actually consulted about what locality I may have wanted I was given one option; Kapooka, home of the Army Recruit Training Centre. It was decided that I was to become a Recruit Instructor.
During this time I was having depressive episodes and anxiety attacks. However instead of shying away from the issues that were causing this; I tackled them head on. I solicited the advise of family, friends and colleagues on the pros and cons of taking this unwanted posting or leaving the Army; my only two options. Just as many people advised I accept the posting as those they suggested I discharge and find a new job.
Finally I gained employment outside of the Army and started my separation process. This is usually a long and drawn out process, however as it was nearing the end of the year and I had to move interstate; my paperwork was rushed through the system. My unit was incredibly helpful during this stage with many of my in-trade superiors expressing that I had made the right decision and that “The Army had changed”. It was true; I no longer felt like an individual Soldier, instead I felt like a number that was being shuffled around a giant spreadsheet.
I left the Army without a farewell, without a discharge certificate being presented and without any ongoing assistance for my depression and anxiety. Months later, after I was settled into my new home and job, did I start realising I was relapsing; I was missing my friends and previous life.
Without the support of the ADF I relied heavily on my family and friends for the ongoing support I needed. I did reach out to the Department of Veterans Affairs after the death of my Grandfather and was placed on a six-week waiting list to see a councillor. Two days before my appointment I was advised it had been cancelled and my rescheduled date was another four weeks away; I never turned up to it. Instead I started talking about my issues with others and realised that many other Soldiers had been experiencing the same obstacles as me especially those that had separated from the ADF.
This is the reason I’m so passionate about the mental health of returned veterans. The system is not yet good enough and so we rely on each other to be open and honest for ongoing support. The Australian Army was built on courage and mateship. Those that speak up about their battles with mental health issues and the lack of ongoing and adequate support services are continuing that tradition even if they no longer wear the uniform.