Phil puts the pieces back together
I was a twenty-eight-year-old carpenter when I joined the air force and I was probably a bit naïve about how the rest of the world worked.
Time to read: 14 minutes
I thought I was a bit naïve about how the world worked
That first year was very hard. When you first join the RAAF, in the first 10 weeks of basic training, you’ve got to do a lot of study and you’re sleep deprived. It all hit home pretty hard and I had to see a psychologist a couple of times.
I found a lot of the guys used to say to me, ‘Don’t be so serious, loosen up’. But I’ve been like that ever since I was a kid. Anything I did in life, I took seriously. Probably too seriously sometimes. Maybe that’s what brought me unstuck.
My first deployment was to Bougainville and it was a great experience, a really positive experience.
We were there to repair the runway for the peace-monitoring group and we were able to work with the locals on the island. We had no weapons and our uniform was yellow t-shirts so we really stood out. We had our names written on them in texta and the people were very accepting. It was great.
Just before I went to Bougainville, I met Lisa. She was also in the RAAF. It was my first serious relationship.
We were living together but we spent a lot of time apart, doing courses and training. I remember Lisa saying we were apart for about 18 months in our first two years ‘together’. When the Iraq deployment came up in, I thought, ‘Here we go...’ I was thinking I should be able to make us some good money, you know? But Lisa didn’t want us to be separated again. We were married a month before I left, and she didn’t want me to go.
In Iraq, our base was about four or five kilometres out of Baghdad so we were basically living with the Iraqis all around us. You were on alert all the time but night time was the worst time for me. If something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen then.
When I look back on it, I didn’t cope very well. I used to walk around the buildings as my own bit of duty, just to try to turn off some lights so the building didn’t stand out so much. Or I’d go through and check if the Iraqis had left something lying around that was a bit suss. We had about 30 Iraqis working in the building every day. I was on a heightened sense of alert the whole time; everybody was. I was just always on: hyper-vigilant. Everything had to be right.
I think I expected Iraq to be scary but I don’t think I realised how scary it was going to be. We had numerous attacks and rockets would come in from the township. They’d fire off old military rockets and it was hit and miss where they’d land.
During our time away, the stress got to everyone
The one thing I would have liked was some help in understanding the way you feel when you’re overseas and what happens to you mentally when you go home. The only piece of advice I got was from my warrant officer.
We were about to head home and he sat us all down and he said: ‘I’ll give you a bit of a tip guys. When you get back home to Australia don’t just rush straight into telling the family what to do. Just sit back and live life for a while and recognise the hard work that your partner’s doing because if you step back in there and start saying ra-ra-ra, do this, you do that, it’s going to blow up in your face.’ And then he said, ‘You can take it from me!’ Which we thought was pretty funny. But that was the only advice I got.
There was no de-briefing when I came back from Iraq. There was no one to meet us at the airport. I could have come home and been a monster and who would have known? There was Lisa waiting for me and there was no one else there for her, to check she’s going to be all right or to say to her, ‘Look, he’s going to be a bit different. Any problems you ring this number. You will get support.’ There was nothing. There was no one.
I had leave planned when I arrived back in Australia. I’d filled out the leave forms in Iraq and now I think it was the worst thing I could have done. It probably would have been better if I’d actually gone back into a work environment where there was some structure and stability. When you’re on leave, it all goes out the window. You’re sitting at home and you’re just doing nothing, and you end up staying up late and not going to bed and while I never had a problem with alcohol, I know a lot who do.
It was only a few days after I got home that the first shock came. We were driving down the road when a guy just looked across at me and I had this angry outburst like: ‘Have another look mate and I’ll rip your head off.’ Something like that. I’m normally such a passive person and Lisa just went, ‘Holy s**t, Phil! What was that?’
She’d already noticed other changes in me. Like I wouldn’t go out to the shopping centre where young hoons were revving up their cars or had their loud stereos going, or even people who looked Arabic. I was getting so anxious in those situations and so angry in the car. I’d go from zero to a hundred real fast. Or I’d shut down and Lisa couldn’t get a word out of me. She’d ask what was wrong and I’d say, ‘Just give me a couple of days and I’ll be right. Just leave me alone.’
But it was hard for her, you know; the way I’d switch on and off as I needed to. I think for her it felt like sometimes I was in the relationship and other times, I was just a hunk of meat. There’d be times I was the loving husband she married and then other times I’d just be useless. And I think she felt used.
We never got into shouting matches. It was more that one of us would say something that upset the other and then the shutters would go up and you wouldn’t get a word out of her or a word out of me. Or we’d keep prodding and poking each other and antagonising. In the end, it would take days for the mood to change.
Another major issue was sleep: I just couldn’t get any. That meant Lisa couldn’t sleep either. I’d have terrible nightmares and I’d lay in bed and roll around and then I’d get up and then she’d get up to check how I was doing and then next day, she’s tired but then she’d still go to work. We were both tired.
I did a sleep study course I’d go down to my workshop of a night-time just to get away. I needed that time by myself. You’re living it, breathing it. The tension was going through the roof because when I first got back, we couldn’t understand what was happening and we thought it might have been sleep apnoea like my father has. But no, they said I didn’t have it.
I sit back now and think of how it must have been for Lisa because she would always want to cuddle up in bed. But I had the night sweats and the dreams and I would be pushing her away all the time. I always wanted my little piece of bed just so I could try to get some sleep. And Lisa would sort of roll over and cuddle up a bit more and try to be a little more intimate. And there I was pushing, pushing her away. Twelve months ago, it would never have dawned on me how it had affected Lisa or affected anyone but now I think about it. I’ve got time to sit down and think it through now, though. It was Lisa who ended up connecting the dots.
Joining up the dots
Lisa went for counselling first. She was seeing the base psychologist about stress at work. She was trying to deal with me at home and then she was under a bit of pressure in her section. She knew a little bit about depression already and she was explaining to the doctor what was going on for us at home and he coaxed her to get me to come along to her sessions. It was about three or four months after I got back.
That was about the time I started pushing for a de-brief from the Unit. We all met in an auditorium on base and we filled out these questionnaires and they scored you. I can’t remember the questions exactly but they were like: ‘How do you deal with problems? Do you talk about them? Do you feel motivated to get out of bed? Do you stay up all night and watch TV?’ Normally, you bullsh**ed those things but this time, I thought, ‘No, bugger it. I’m going to tell them how I’m feeling.’ I remember handing my sheet up to the sergeant reserves and his lip dropped when he saw the score. I knew I was in a bad way.
Once I was seeing the psychologist, it wasn’t long before my deployability was reduced. Lisa and I sat down and tried to work out what we were going to do.
I think I knew I had to get out of the military at least. Lisa was discharged by then with a knee problem and she just wanted us to make a fresh start. She didn’t want to be a RAAF wife. I discharged and we both decided, with a bit of pushing from me, that we’d get away from our families as far as possible and make a new start. That was the theory anyway.
We decided to go to the other side of the country, to Perth. We had no jobs lined up. We just sent all our stuff over and we got a unit organised.
I’d had no medication prescribed to me while I was in the military. It wasn’t until I left and I went into the RSL and found a good GP. I was referred to a psychiatrist who worked with veterans and then to an ex-army doctor. Lisa was telling him about our problems and he prescribed some anti-depressants. They did help. But there were obviously things I had to sit down and deal with and we both went and got some counselling.
It was the worst time of your lives: I had just quit my job and I wasn’t coping, and Lisa had to have a major operation before we returned to the east coast. It was too much and I knew I just wasn’t going right, so I booked myself into a mental hospital for two weeks and left Lisa at home, all sore from the operation and everything, and trying to pack up a house and having complications and going back into hospital herself. I’m supposed to be the loving, supportive husband and I’m not there for her, but she carried on.
As soon as we got back east, Lisa moved hell and high water to get me on the PTSD course, which was the best thing that had happened to me, and we got our own little place and we set ourselves up.
The course went for seven weeks and I was the youngest guy there but now most of the courses have guys in their 20s. On one course that Lisa came to with me, we saw a guy and he’d come back from Iraq and he just sat there. He was just a blob on a seat. And if you said something to him, you wouldn’t get much of a reaction. Lisa sat down and talked to his wife and sort of said to her, ‘You know, you need to get him to a PTSD course and some couples counselling.’ You could see the wife was desperate to get her husband back.
There’s more and more young guys and girls coming through the courses and a lot of the guys I’ve met who have turned up for things like anger management, turn up in uniform. They’re still serving. The military is a lot more switched on now and they’re actually getting these guys the treatment they need. And what’s good for a lot of the guys is they’re getting medically discharged and getting the support and the rehabilitation as soon as they leave whereas I, I had to chase it.
Well, actually, Lisa had to chase it because I wasn’t much use. If it hadn’t been for her, I wouldn’t have got medical help even if I had landed in a really bad place. I don’t like to talk about it but I reckon I would have wanted ‘out’. And things would have gone very pear shaped. I got my TPI only a couple of months ago but now I’ve started doing a work trial that’s connected me to a brilliant woman who’s helping me with communication skills and interpreting things and a lot of psychological stuff as well. She teed up a work trial in a local library for a while, eight hours a week, covering books and helping people. And now I’m working with Red Cross.
The biggest thing for me now is to be a more productive person and work in society again. A lot of the guys are cut off from the rest of the world because of their PTSD: you live and breathe it. I used to be like that, too. Now I’m much more out and about and talking to people. It’s still hard work from time to time but I think I’ve got the skills now to adapt to a lot of situations.
I don’t have to rush off to a counsellor now if things get a bit stressful. I’ve got a game plan now if I get stressed. I might go to the movies, for example, and I’m more aware of what I watch of TV. I don’t watch stuff about Iraq anymore. And I don’t sit at home staring at four walls. I go to VVCS* on Fridays and we have a music session for stress disorders and I have a bit of a bash. I’m not real good but I make a noise! And if I get a bit stressed, I’ve learnt to go for a bike ride and I ride until my brain turns off. Pets are a fantastic help too. Until recently, I had a beautiful dog called Mojo and I used to sit and talk to her and she’d be there looking up at me, listening.
Relationships and support
Lisa and were separated nearly two years when the divorce came through.
The first thing she gave me was a diary so I could write everything down so I knew where to be and what to do, because she used to do all that for me. We went to Relationships Australia and mediation to sort out all the nitty gritty bits of who gets what and everything. It was quite quick when we separated.
Well, to me it was quite quick but then, considering what Lisa had gone through, she wanted to move on.
Putting the pieces back together
I’ve found that things are slowly coming together. On the relationship side, I haven’t started anything up again yet. That comes with time. It needs a little bit of work yet. As my doc says: ‘Your next relationship will start with your partner knowing about your PTSD. They’ll know your background and they’ll know what they’re up against.’
I remember at one of the PTSD courses we had a session where we all got a pot and we put it in a hessian bag and we smashed it and then we went back inside and we sat on the floor and they gave us a tube of glue. Some guys turned it into a mosaic on the floor. I sat there and started putting it back together again. If I’d had more time I would have found every piece. There’s the pot up there, see? It was like a metaphor: the pot before was me; no chips or dents, not a crack. Now I’m the pot that’s a bit rough around the edges, a couple of pieces missing but it looks all right.
I don’t know whether I’d put water in it just yet though!
* VVCS became Open Arms- Veterans & Families Counselling in October 2018.
Open Arms can provide individual, couple and family counselling to help improve your resilience, as well as enhance your mental health and wellbeing. Call 1800 011 046 for free and confidential 24/7 support.
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