Another ANZAC Day has come and gone. As with previous years I donned a suit with my medals affixed and attended a Dawn Service. This year, however, something seemed different. From the moment I stepped foot onto the rain-sodden grass of Warrawee Park and walked towards the Oakleigh Cenotaph I felt like an interloper at an event that I should have felt at ease attending. As far as I could tell under the glare of the nearby street lights, I was the only Modern-Day Veteran in attendance.
As I do when I attend any Military commemoration service by myself, I circled the crowd looking at faces and chests to see if I could recognise a former colleague or identify someone who has deployed on the same campaigns as I have. For the first time, I spotted neither; in fact, the only medals that were being worn were those of the attending Victorian Police Officers for their service to VICPOL, descendants wearing World War One and World War Two medals, and the Vietnam era medals worn by the local RSL Sub-branch representatives. At this Dawn Service I was alone; and I felt alone
The Service was like most others, the requisite boxes were ticked and despite some technical glitches due to the wet weather, the Service was completed as intended. However, two things occurred that would ensure I will not be attending another Dawn Service at the Oakleigh Cenotaph. A man, more than old enough to know better, spent the entire Last Post, Minute’s Silence and the Reveille with his concentration focused firmly on the iPhone glowing brightly in his hands; something I very much doubt he will do ever again after some quiet words from me. The second incident highlighted a growing trend I have noticed over the past several months. I was approached by the representative of the local council to pose for a photo with the attending local member for Monash Council. There was no request for my name, service details or any other personable interaction, I was requested to act as a prop in a photo opportunity to make a politician seem like he cared about ANZAC Day
Due to my previous volunteer work for Soldier On, I am no stranger to standing in front of a camera and playing the part of the modern-day Veteran for a cause or fundraising event. In the few short years since my participation with Australia’s highest profile ESO and subsequent withdrawal from Veteran Support Organisations and media engagements, I have seen an increase in the number of modern-day Veterans step in front of the camera and share their experiences with the community. A Veteran’s experiences on deployment are very personal and something that isn’t easily shared with others; especially strangers. When speaking to the media I would have a pre-prepared script in my head that I would follow. Even the details that I would share that seemed extremely personal were details that I had censored or had omitted entire events from to protect friends, family and myself.
In an age where so many rely on social media and smart devices for their news and real time information it should be no surprise that many Politicians, businesses and ESO’s have embraced a more arguably aggressive media campaign leading up to and on ANZAC Day. From my vantage point at the back of the crowd during the Oakleigh Dawn Service it was easy to spot the dozen or so camera flashes each time a local Politician or business owner laid a wreath at the base of the Cenotaph. A brief check of two of the attending member’s social media accounts the day after the Service indicated that the photos taken during were posted online less than an hour after the actual wreath laying. Such instances are not rare, in fact, during the Dawn Service itself I could see multiple groups of younger persons taking selfies with either the congregation or Cenotaph in the background. The same was clearly evident during the day when television news programs reported on the various Capital City Dawn Services; it was a sea of smart phones glowing brightly, replacing what used to be candles providing a sombre atmosphere.
A concerning emergence this ANZAC Day was the promotion of the ‘Struggling Modern-Day Veteran’ identity by various media outlets and some ESO’s. It’s a very fine line to tread at the best of times, but on the one day of the year when patriotism, jingoism and emotions can become blurred, some media reporting and ESO social media posts/promotions were seen by some people as being in bad taste.
On one side of the coin is an article published by the ABC and written by Jane Cowan regarding Australian Veteran Chris May’s experiences during and after his deployments to Afghanistan. As co-founder of ESO Young Veterans, Chris is at the forefront of Veteran advocacy and often speaks of his personal experiences as way to engage, educate and de-stigmatise the issues many Veterans face regarding mental health and suicide. As someone who has done this previously and quite openly, I applaud his stance and candour on these issues and without a doubt the decision by both Chris and the ABC to publish this article on ANZAC Day was one that was not made without careful consideration. In this instance it was an article that was published with an aim to inform and educate; and not push an agenda or promotional angle.
On the other side of the coin was a text message I and many thousands of others received in the afternoon on ANZAC Day from ESO Soldier On.
Without being too critical of an organisation I once supported and represented, the timing and wording of the text message leaves a lot to be desired. I openly question the aggressive tone of the message, especially considering the audience receiving it would be primarily made up of Veterans and Veteran’s families. Have we not served and sacrificed for our country? Do I really need to honour the memory of my dead friends, men killed in action on foreign soil, by sending $25 to Soldier On now?
The Veteran ESO network is particularly vast in Australia with some organisations focusing on providing support and support programs tailored to a specific activity or operating within a small geographical area. Other, larger ESO’s, aim to engage with and provide support to a larger community of Veterans across many states and sometimes nationally by providing a multitude of support programs, activities and fundraising opportunities. It is via these fundraising opportunities that many ESO’s engage with the broader community and raise the necessary funds to continue to provide support services to Veterans and their families.
It is often through this engagement via a fundraising platform that the wider community, without any direct connections to a wounded or service-affected Veteran, learns of the issues facing those of us that reach out to an ESO for assistance. Our experiences enter the public domain, with the aim of helping others; we share details that are often very personal and sometimes tragic. As I have written about before, some ESO’s are competing over finite sources of funding while simultaneously exploiting the experiences of Veterans and maintaining their focus on a what is a predominately negative narrative.
Of course there will always be articles and social media posts written about the negative experiences of Veterans. Whilst we await the provision of adequate Government provided support services and wade through the quagmire that is interacting with the Australian Defence Force and the Department of Veterans Affairs; Veterans will continue to express their frustration and anger to a wider audience. We will continue to reach out to ESO’s for support and they will continue to reach out to the Australian public to open their ears, hearts and wallets to fill the gaping hole left by failure of the Government and DVA to provide timely, tailored and adequate support for Australia’s Veterans. But must they do this by continually presenting the Modern-Day Veteran as a victim?
Those of us that live with physical and mental injuries deserve the best chance at a positive recovery. Each day is treated as a new step on a long journey to better our lives and the lives of those people we call friends and family. Our relatively new identity as an Australian Veteran is not and should not be treated as a burden. We are told to focus on the positives in our lives as we continue with our recovery. Should not those organisations purporting to assist us do the same?
It is the question that gets asked every year; What does ANZAC Day mean to you? The quick, neat and politically correct answer is: “honouring the brave men and women who have served our nation in war and remembering those that died doing so”. But is that what the day really means to people?
As a child, I remember waking early and attending the Dawn Service with my Father at his various Units. I knew my Father was in the Army and I knew he had been a Soldier since long before I was born. The many medals he wore on his uniform reflected a lifetime spent serving his Nation; the same uniform and medals he would meticulously set up and layout the night before each Dawn Service.
Growing up, my Father rarely spoke of his time in Vietnam; there was never any depth or emotion to what he would tell my sister and I. Each year as ANZAC Day approached, my Father, a very quiet yet authoriative man, would become withdrawn and focused. To me this wasn’t unusual, this was just something my Father did prior to ANZAC Day; the one day of the year he would go drinking with his friends.
I look back to those years and I wonder if my Father and his brothers experienced the same with their Father; a Veteran of World War Two.
I have spent previous ANZAC Days attending the Dawn Service, have taken part in and commanded Catafalque Parties, have marched through a number of Capital and rural cities and have stood on foreign soil and listened to a bugler play The Last Post. This year I will once again take a set of medals from a box deep within my wardrobe, pin them onto a suit jacket and attend a Dawn Service close to my home. This will be the sixth ANZAC Day out of uniform since leaving the Australian Army. Not long into the day I will take off my jacket, un-pin my medals and place them in their box and back into the wardrobe to await the long year until they next see the light of day.
But why do I and so many others wake up early, put on clothes that often make this one day of the year our best dressed, and attend the various commemoration activities? If you listen to the media, various football codes and the RSL, it’s about remembering the men that landed at ANZAC Cove more than one hundred years ago; an act that helped to forge our National identity of a small yet determined Nation. Even as a child I found this a hard concept to understand. Unlike my Grandparents and Parents, I wasn’t born after a World War; there had not been a major conflict involving Australia since the Vietnam War and Australia was more than a decade away from participating in major Peace Keeping operations in Cambodia, Rwanda and later; East Timor. My generation was born into relative peace time, we weren’t baby boomers, we weren’t exposed to the hardships and austerity measures of our parents’ childhoods and we were long removed from those few left that had fought at Gallipoli.
For many of us that joined the Australian Defence Force in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s we were quickly thrust into an operational cycle that would see many service-people deployed to East Timor, the Solomon Islands, Iraq and Afghanistan. For the first time in decades, Australia was sending men and women to fight for their country on a large-scale. During these deployments we lost friends, young men, who’s names now join the more than one hundred thousand others on the walls within the Australian War Memorial.
In the years since our withdrawal and subsequent redeployment to the Middle East, we have continued to lose more and more service-people to suicide, yet this is not something that is spoken about widely in the lead up to ANZAC Day. We continue to hear about those that fought in Wars and Battles from the last century. Our elected Politicians will wear a memorial pin for the day, and of course, a few modern-day Veteran’s will be thrust in front of the camera at sporting events across the country and used as a prop to sell a false kinship between professional sportspeople representing a team and someone who has represented and served a Nation.
To some Australians, ANZAC Day is, and will always be about the original ANZAC legend; the subsequent generations that have served Australia are little more than another contingent of Veterans marching down the main street of their town or city. For others the day is an opportunity to enact a misguided interpretation of jingoism by starting their drinking early and displaying various patriotic symbols and emblems.
The disconnect between the general population, media, Veteran community and Veteran Support Organisations has grown over time. The days of the stereotypical Australian Veteran – the cocky and stoic Digger – are far behind us; yet the legacy of that era still remains. This ideology has been so ingrained into the Australian psyche that is comes as shock to many that Veteran suicide, substance abuse, homelessness and unemployment are so rife. The RSL and some ESO’s use ANZAC Day as a foundation for their fundraising efforts, the shock value behind the struggles of many modern-day Veterans is used in the same way the AFL and NRL use the ANZAC legacy to sell tickets and make money.
The individual Veteran is once again being replaced by what the Department of Veterans Affairs, the RSL/ESO’s and media believe the archetype should be presented as.
Instead of Australian men and women standing tall, side by side and sharing with other Australians their experiences in uniform in faraway lands, we are experiencing a degradation of our collective Veteran Identity.
That is the foundation on what ANZAC Day is built upon. Veterans supporting Veterans and entrusting our legacy, stories and experiences to a Nation that will undoubtedly provide more generations that will go to war; continuing a cycle that has existed for more than a century.
For me ANZAC Day is about the days and nights I spent in uniform, both in Australia and overseas. The men and women I shared good and bad times with. The men I called friends who spilled their blood on foreign soil and didn’t come home alive. The men and women I knew – and those I never met – who took their own lives long after their feet touched Australian soil again. We each have a story and it is up to us with who we share that story with.
One ANZAC Day a few years from now I will sit down with my children and begin with… “I was once an Australian Soldier…”
In an age where it seems a new External Support Organisation (ESO) starts up every few months, it would appear that there is an abundance of choice of support service provider available for a struggling Veteran to choose from. In reality it’s difficult for an affected or wounded Veteran to find an organisation that is best suited to support them and their families. As I’ve discussed before, there are geographical constraints in place, some ESO’s don’t provide a certain service and increasingly it seems word of mouth travels quickly. For both good and bad reasons.
One of the key reasons why Veteran ESO’s are continually relied upon so heavily is due to the issues many of us face when dealing with the ADF upon discharging. Stories of supportive transitions from the ADF into the civilian world are becoming increasingly rare; with many long-term servicepeople claiming (insert service) has changed. Couple this with often frustrating interactions with the Department of Veterans Affairs and the RSL; it should come as no surprise many Veterans seek out an independent entity for support.
With so many Australian Veterans putting their hands up and asking for help more than ever, I, and many others, expect a more collaborative environment between ESO’s, Veterans and the ADF. Sadly it seems to be the norm that no open dialogue exists in this realm. Instead it seems increasingly more common for ESO’s to align themselves with and become more entrenched with the ADF way of thinking.
For many, including myself, this is moving away from what makes interacting and engaging with an ESO a more valid, positive and crucial experience; we crave and need separation between the ADF for a chance at a positive recovery from injuries both physical and mental.
What we need more than ever is not to have our collective voices heard but to have our individual stories listened to. In the past few years actively supporting, and being supported by ESO’s, it has become very clear that a shift across most organisations has occurred with charities set up to support Veterans transforming into an organisation competing for a bigger profile and more funding. In order to achieve this new goal and fight over finite sources of funding, Veterans’ experiences and stories are constantly being mined and treated as a commodity in order to achieve that new goal.
I’m aware that this opinion will evoke a large amount of criticism. But I counter with my own experiences with ESO’s over the past four years. The shadow cast by expectation of both the ESO and yourself to keep providing your time and representing Veterans is a cold darkness that is hard to escape from. It makes those critical steps to recovery much harder to scale without a beacon to guide us. With the commercialisation of the modern Veteran, we are rapidly losing our identity under the guise of supporting others like us.
The recent appointment of former CDF and current NSW Governor, GEN The Hon. David Hurley AC DSC, as Patron in Chief of arguably Australia’s largest and most well-known Veteran ESO, Soldier On, is indicative of a larger culture change in ESO’s from supporting Veterans to expanding profile.
As another ANZAC Day approaches and emotions come to the fore, many Veterans who have been quietly fighting their own internal battles choose this time to open up to their mates and family and ask for help. Many harbour feelings of resentment and sadness from their treatment in the ADF and towards the upper echelons of rank of their respective service. Was it really the best decision to appointment a previous Chief of Defence Force, especially one so divisive with his attitude in-regards to PTSD and Veteran Suicide, as the new Patron In Chief and most public representative of Soldier On?
Cycling is a (r)evolution. The simple action of wheels, cranks and legs turning over and over is metaphor for life. We navigate through the ups, downs and obstacles life throws at us and we use those experiences on the bike to do the very same with the climbs, descents and technical sections of a mountain bike race. Wildside 2016 was the race and event that would realistically (for me) combine the challenges of the past, the present, the future and make you use all of that, and more, to push your body to its limits in order to ride a bike along the west coast of Tasmania.
The idea was simple. A team of Australian Veterans: ten days in Tasmania and a four day stage race; renowned for its beautiful scenery and decidedly difficult course. The basic premise of lead up and event has been explored and undertaken by various ESO’s in the past and an idea/strategy I had helped to establish and participated in previously with Soldier On Cycling and during the Trois Etapes in France 2014.
Many lessons had been learnt from these various events and sadly, across many ESO’s, not a lot had been done to mitigate the issues that ultimately arise when people physically, emotionally and psychologically wounded undertake a challenging and sometimes life altering event. Akin to riding up a mountain you are faced with the arduous climb, the elation of summiting and then the relative ease of descending. But what happens when the riding stops? This is where the adventure ends and the routine of life starts up again. Combine this sudden stop with the fragile mental state of a vulnerable person and not only do new issues arise; but older, more dangerous issues can be compounded.
Surely this is something that is taken into account when ESO’s conduct big marquee events? Well yes, yes they are but… Service affected Veterans do not act or react like the general populous. And this is why when the cameras and lights are packed away, when the celebrities disappear and when daily routine becomes the norm again, comprehensive and sustained follow up is a must.
The majority of Veteran ESO’s are established on three pillars: Empower, Encourage and Enable. Each pillar is strong on its own, but by adding another to a Veteran’s recovery you are laying a stronger foundation to building a better quality of life upon. While the three E’s are a great foundation for a Veteran’s road to recovery, a three pillar system isn’t the most stable for an organisation looking to provide a robust, tailored and reliable support system for an extremely complex and varied group of people needing support. A fourth pillar is needed for an ESO to function effectively and achieve the results it sets for itself. That pillar is Collaboration.
Collaboration has many forms in the ESO environment. In the Veteran community several ESO’s are providing similar, if not identical, programs and services, whilst some specialise in one area. Collaboration between these organisations may be the simple act of recommending and establishing contact with another ESO on behalf of a Veteran that would be of better assistance. Be it due to geographic constraints or the fact that they either don’t provide the service or the other ESO is simply better at it.
Collaboration between ESO’s also requires the absence of Ego. These organisations are all competing for funding from commercial, industry and Mum and Dad benefactors. Sometimes this search for critical funds from finite sources leads to a loss of focus on what is effectively a life and death issue; improving Veteran Support Services. A recent increase in new ESO’s and smaller initiatives targeting single areas highlights the areas in support services that aren’t being addressed or have been put on hiatus by the bigger organisations. Some of these areas are integral to Veteran’s recovery and just as importantly, establishing connection with and maintaining a high level of awareness with the wider community.
One such area is cycling as a facet for both recovery and raising awareness. Soldier On Cycling was one such initiative that quickly built a very strong foundation of Veteran and community support. I’m very proud to say I helped to found and establish this initiative; but like all things that should be kept simple, complications soon arose. The aforementioned presence of lack of Collaboration and excess of Ego have ensured that the wider Soldier On Cycling community is experiencing an indefinite hiatus whilst a small South Australian contingent experiences a high profile resurgence. Whilst the original premise and aim of Soldier On Cycling is long gone, it is encouraging to see the aim to support, encourage and educate is still alive with other ESO’s; in particular Mates 4 Mates and Ride 2 Recovery.
Because of the no frills/KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) approach, I applied for and was accepted as member of the Ride 2 Recovery Wildside 16 #VeteranTeam. The team was comprised of current and ex-serving contemporary Veterans who were all members/active supporters of either ADFCC (Australian Defence Force Cycling Club), Mates 4 Mates Cycling or Soldier On Cycling. Each of us would bring the very different perspectives of our service and cycling experiences to the team. The intra-team collaboration between Officers and Enlisted persons, racers and weekend warriors would ensure a fluid and adaptive experience that could become the benchmark for all ESO cycling events in the future.
2015 was the year that I learnt no matter how much time, effort and care you put into training, racing and social cycling; injuries, illness and life will always derail the best laid plans.
My goal for 2015 was to enjoy cycling. I lost a little bit of my love for the bike towards the end of 2014. My failure to finish the Scott 24 Hour Solo in October was a huge hit to my confidence and the toll it took on my body would follow me late into 2015.
One major crash during the year
During a relaxed ride on the XTC during wet weather I lost traction and hit the ground hard. A hairline fracture in my collarbone followed and a few weeks off the bike was required.
Number of notable injuries in 2015
Injuries: Collarbone, torn glute
Number of new bikes in 2015
Number of events I raced in during 2015
The amount of vertical kilometres I climbed in 2015
In kilometres, my longest single ride of 2015
How many times I rode my bike(s) in 2015
The amount of hours I spent riding in 2015
In kilometres, the total distance I rode in 2015
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.
Round 4 of the Rocky Trail Shimano MTB GP was my return to riding and racing.
I had a plan, and that plan was to ride my bike and finish the damn race. I was under no illusions that I was going to be competitive nor was I going to be setting any new Strava PR’s out at Mt Stromlo (for the record I set two). This was my return to mountain biking after what has been a pretty tough three months for me physically and mentally.
I’ll address the big issue first, my rapid decline into poor health over the past three months. I was hit by a bout of influenza, a chest infection, enlarged kidney, kidney stones, feeling constantly fatigued and generally dealing with a huge case of the #CBF’s! Forget about riding, just getting out of bed and going to work was an effort that more often than not ended with me calling in sick and spending the day in bed or laying on the couch playing my XBOX. There were even entire days where I would sleep, experience raging fevers, chills and have no energy to even sit up in bed.
Finally after much prodding, prompting and nagging I saw a Doctor, had an abnormally large amount of blood taken, pee’d into a heap of containers and BAM!; Seemingly out of nowhere, I’d gone from a very fit, (usually) healthy 33 year old to a diabetic, high cholesterol having, unfit, unhealthy 33 year old.
Oh and those days where I would sleep and it was sort of like my body was shutting down, yeah well, they were hypoglycemic episodes; the sort of thing that can kill people.
<Language Warning!> Well shit! That’s fucked! <Language Warning!>
My next step was to grip this up… I wasn’t Type 1, so no insulin injections which is good, but I was going to have to look at my diet, so a dietician was consulted. As with the various Doctors I’d spoken with, it came as a fairly big surprise to her that I was in fact healthy, fit and a vegetarian. So time to look at exactly what I was eating and unsurprisingly it was time to cut out a heap of the unhealthier things I was eating such as cakes, slices, soft drinks and other high sugar foods.
What would this mean for me for day to day living? Put simply, I have to eat healthier, eat more, eat more often and monitor my blood sugar levels
What does this mean for me for riding and racing my bike? Put simply, I have to eat healthier, eat a hell of a lot more, a hell of a lot more often and bloody well make sure my blood sugar levels don’t drop.
But this raised more questions than it answered. As most cyclists know, energy gels and bars are the go to for nutrition when riding. Now I can’t just go and smash a heap of high sugar/high glucose syrup into my body when I feel like it now; but I can still use them. In fact they are very important if my blood sugar level drops too much. The key is moderation and eating proper food while riding/racing. Everyone’s favourite fruit banana is out of the question thanks to an allergy to the yellow bastards so I stuck with my old friends’; Vegemite sandwiches and liquid food drink.
So with a somewhat redefined nutrition plan in mind I started riding what was my first race since deciding to get on with life now I finally knew what was making me sick and holding me back.
So back to my plan, which was to ride and finish the 4 hour race. Fitness was going to be an issue, a lingering injury was going to be an issue and the ever present Black Dog biting at my heels was going to be an issue. One lap at a time I said to myself; 4 hours give or take on the bike should get me 5 laps, but I’d be happy with 4 as I didn’t know how my body would handle the riding and how much time I’d be spending in transition during laps.
The start of the first lap was the always grinding fireroad of pain leading up the start of Bobby Pin Climb. It was during this grinding, heavy breathing prologue that I realised I should have warmed up before the start of the race. With my heart-rate monitor feeling like a boa constrictor across my chest I could see my heart rate rapidly climbing on my GPS… 181, 182, 183BPM… 2 more BPM’s and my GPS would start beeping at me. But suprisingly it dropped, it steadied and I was climbing Bobby Pin quite easily, albeit, slower than usual. Only another a few more kilometres of climbing before the descent back into transition. Wash, rinse, repeat!
Lap 1 turned into Lap 2 and my thoughts changed from “I wish I warmed up” to “I wish I wasn’t wearing a long sleeve jersey!” My body was feeling good, my bike was feeling good and the tracks were immaculate. I was in a rhythm and more importantly I was enjoying myself. Surely my Flow would be around the next corner or on the next descent. Of all places I found it on Rollercoaster; a track that in its previous lifetime was a rocky, rutted, churned up track of death and despair. But Rollercoaster MKII was a fast flowing, tight cornered track that kept the line between fast, fun and faaark! a very fine line indeed. It was on one of the tight corners that I keep my fingers off the brakes and let my bike do what it was designed to do. I let it decide how to best take the corner with a little extra speed behind it. Sweet!!!
After a change into the short sleeve jersey; Laps 3 and 4 followed without fuss. More of the same with some cramping starting to set it thanks to my recent time off the bike.
Lap 5 culminated with an extended break to say hello to my Wife, Mother and Daughter who had arrived to see the end of the race. And of course the little incident of Jamie I falling off his bike and onto mine during his rapid fire transition. A quick straighten of the bars and it was time to head off again.
The final climb took a little longer than the previous laps as more cramping set in but with no more time left on the clock it was just a matter of finishing my final lap. As I crested the final section of Echidna Gap I stopped and enjoyed a brief moment looking out to the surrounding Brindabella Mountains. With a great view and a big day almost over it was time to say my goodbye to a mate who had recently lost his battle with PTSD.
After a quick descent including a little race to the finish line against Adam ‘Rocket’ Rolls my race was over.