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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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!
Some of us have served, some of us haven’t; some of us ride for recovery, some of us ride for fun. But we all share the commitment to ensuring Australian veterans are afforded the support and help they deserve.
The month of June was incredibly hectic for me. My job decided it wanted to try and take over my life and then my daughter, Celeste, decided she wanted to enter the world. Only one of the those events was a priority in my life and it definitely wasn’t my job. My training as a result suffered and I barely managed to get a handful of short rides under my tyres before our second Team Soldier Ontraining camp came around. The second training camp was based out of Kingscliff, just south of Tweed Heads near the NSW/QLD border over the weekend of 28-29 June 2014 . The plan was simple; coach Scott Sunderland was going to make us climb some hills and ride some big kilometres akin to what we will be facing in France for the Trois Etapes. I don’t enjoy flying and certainly don’t enjoy flying with an expensive bicycle packed inside an expensive bike bag that screams “stack as much heavy crap on me as possible”. While the flights to Coolangatta went off without a hitch (top effort QANTAS) – the flights home came very close to being labelled a cluster-f**k (thanks VIRGIN Australia) complete with delayed/cancelled flights and high-end bicycles being sent to the wrong state and being ignored by the Virgin airport staff!
After arriving at the Peppers Salt Resort & Spa at Kingscliff we headed off to the local restaurant strip for dinner before heading back to our rooms to ready our bikes for the next day’s riding.
On Saturday we set off about 20 minutes out of Kingscliff with coach Scott following us in the support vehicle and photog Matt zooming past us in the search for optimal photo locations.
The ride started easily enough with a few short climbs before suddenly becoming a decent 8km climb followed by some very sketchy (for me) descents. I was definitely in the red zone early on in the ride and was finding it very hard to regulate my breathing and lower my heart-rate.
The months of training was certainly evident in the other guys, but as the ride progressed I knew I wasn’t keeping up. Some more sketchy decents saw our driver Bruce (this time on a bike) overshoot a corner and meet the bushland up and close.
As the day was drawing to a close and we were heading back to Kingscliff, I was steadily dropping off the pace and eventually pulled over and jumped in the SAG wagon with Matt.
The evening culminated with a group dinner and short presentation to coach Scott.
Sunday saw us step off from the hotel nice and early for a brisk ride before tackling some more climbs. I pulled up reasonably well from the day before and was looking forward to some more riding.
The morning air was cool and very nice to ride in. We eased into our first 20km at a nice quick pace with all riders taking turns at the front.
At around the 35km mark I knew I was in trouble. In just two short days I had ridden further and harder than I had in the past three weeks. My troublesome knee wasn’t the issue this time; it was my hip. I had ridden past being uncomfortable and was now experiencing some fairly acute pain in my hip and glutes. I made the hard decision to stop riding and once again jump inside the SAG wagon with Matt.
I watched the other guys ride from inside the van as Matt drove the van and took photos. I was quite disappointed in myself for not riding through the pain; but considering I’ve just spent a week of intense physio and rest I’m glad I didn’t injure myself any further.
At the end of the weekend we were all tired (some sorer than others) but more determined for the Trois Etapes in August.
Please support us we head towards this once in a lifetime opportunity to raise awareness and much needed funds for Soldier On.
Over the weekend of 10-11 May 2014, I was lucky enough to attend the first Team Soldier On cycling training camp at Thredbo NSW.
Thredbo? Really?… Well that was my first reaction when I saw the week before the training camp that it was in fact snowing in Thredbo Village; exactly were our base camp was to be. Combine this with one of the worst weeks of my working life as a civilian and I was not exactly enthusiastic about attending a Scott Sunderland training camp.
I drove down on the Friday night after work (in retrospect this was a very bad idea) and met up with some of the other guys at Cooma before heading to our accommodation in Thredbo; the Navy Ski Lodge. The drive was itself was uneventful, white line fever had set in and the alpine roads were starting to look like a rally track. Luckily we arrived at the lodge, unpacked and headed to the pub for some late night beverages.
Let’s get something out of the way early. Thredbo is a very small town in the off-season. The locals are young, in their early twenties and all work at the resort in some capacity. The moment we stepped into the pub we stood out more than the bollocks on a bulldog. This was fact not missed by the locals; both male and female. After a few quick drinks we left and retired to our rooms for the night.
The temperature was colder than Canberra and the weather was expected to take a turn for the worse the following day. The change swept through in the early hours of Saturday morning in the form of howling winds and pouring rain/sleet. By the time we woke up it was apparent the rain was set in for the day and that the last thing anyone wanted to do was go outside and ride bikes.
Breakfast was a sombre affair and I soon took over the TV room and switched on RAGE; my usual Saturday morning routine. The general (un-official) consensus was that riding in the rain and cold was not the preferable option against a warm ski lodge. We broached the subject with coach Scott, who while enjoying a coffee, was in agreeance that riding in the terrible weather was not a good idea and we should get through some required administration and team tactics instead.
After a couple of hours spent in the TV room discussing our next few months and future Soldier On Cycling plans; it was time to break out the trainers and don the lycra. What better place to set up than in the kitchen?
I sat in the kitchen, ate my risotto for lunch and awaited my turn on the bike. As I watched the other guys sweating profusely I regretted my decision to eat just prior to riding my bike.
After my turn on the bike I spent some more time with my hand in a box of BBQ Shapes and headed to the pub….to rehydrate. Andy cooked an awesome pasta dinner for everyone and we discussed the next day’s plan. Option A: Good Weather – drive out to Jindabyne and ride for a few hours including the climb back to Thredbo or Option B: Bad Weather – pack up, head to Canberra and ride around the Brindabella’s.
When we woke up to clear skies and relatively warm weather it was clear Option A was a goer.
A quick coffee stop in Jindabyne and it was time for some rolling in the Jindabyne hills with Scott dishing out some quality coaching.
The ride was enjoyable and we were quickly warming up on the climbs; but the flats and rare descents reminded us that we were still in alpine country.
The climb up to Thredbo was a quad burner and an exercise in heart rate management. We took turns at the front and found our rhythm all the way back to the Ski Lodge. Our first real test as a cycling team tackling some decent climbs similar to what we will be facing during the Trois Etapes later in the year.