Dents in the soul – living with PTSD

Two years ago, my untreated PTSD cost me my marriage, and almost my life. Why? Because I didn’t think it was as bad as it was, and I was too ashamed to ask for help, which when you think about life in the military is a completely bullshit excuse.

Military units are the sum total of ALL its moving parts. When one part isn’t working, the unit starts to break down. In uniform, when we saw a mate struggling through the obstacle course, or out in the field, we helped them. But out here on ‘civi’ street where we  often don’t have our mates within arms reach, we try and deal with our shit alone.

The fact that so many of our fellow veterans are harming themselves, and even worse – taking their own lives – is testament to the fact that trying to fight this alone doesn’t work. Whether you’ve been diagnosed with PTSD, or just know in your soul that something just ain’t right, the only way you get better is to understand what PTSD is, and isn’t, and then begin reach out to mates or professionals to get it under control.

Here’s a primer on PTSD, gratefully supplied by the DVA.

PTSD – The Basics

Traumatic events such as those involving actual or threatened death or serious injury, or witnessing human deprivation (eg. regions ravaged by famine or war), can have a strong impact on your mental health and wellbeing. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, is one of a range of mental disorders that individuals can experience after traumatic events. PTSD can be distressing with negative consequences for your health and wellbeing. It can affect anyone, but there is help available.

Army, in conjunction with Joint Health Command and singer songwriter John Schumann, have produced a 30-minute documentary designed to address stigma, offer support and raise awareness of the issues surrounding PTSD for Army personnel and their families. Featuring Army members who share their own experiences with PTSD, the movie supports the important message of look after yourself, your mates and your family.

This documentary aims to de-stigmatise PTSD and to show that it can potentially happen to anyone who has been exposed to a traumatic event. Developing symptoms of post traumatic stress after exposure to trauma is not a sign of weakness it is simply being human.

Recovery rates from PTSD are high but early diagnosis and treatment are particularly important. Generally, the longer the symptoms persist, and go untreated, the longer the eventual recovery will take and the greater the disruption to the person’s work, family and enjoyment of life.

Singer Songwriter John Schumann, who wrote I Was Only 19, is the narrator of the documentary and helps walk viewers through diagnosis, treatment and effects of PTSD on individuals and their families. John Schumann also shares his personal experience with PTSD in the film.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

What is a traumatic event?
What is traumatic for one person may not be so for another. However, it is generally accepted that certain events, like threat of death, serious injury, seeing dead bodies, death or serious injury of a close friend/colleague/family member or witnessing wide spread human degradation, have the potential to cause significant distress.

What are the main symptoms of traumatic stress?
Most people will normally experience strong reactions after traumatic events. Commonly, these include re-living the event, having intrusive thoughts about the event, avoiding anything that reminds them of the event, feeling sad and tearful, feeling highly anxious or panicky, sleep disturbances, being easily startled, extreme irritability, difficulties concentrating or remembering, excessive use of alcohol or drugs, and relationship problems.

If I am experiencing symptoms of traumatic stress, when should I seek help?
The initial symptoms of traumatic stress would be expected to subside after 2 to 4 weeks since the traumatic event. If the symptoms persist longer than this, you should seek professional help to manage the symptoms and to reduce their impact upon your ability to function.

If I have symptoms of traumatic stress, will I automatically get PTSD?
No. There is a continuum of how people react to PTEs or CIs, from mild disturbance to quite severe impact. Generally, the more severe the reaction, the more likely a person is to develop PTSD – however, if the symptoms diminish within a few weeks, it is less likely that the person will go on to develop PTSD.

What is PTSD?
PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a serious mental illness that can occur after exposure to a traumatic event. It is characterised by repeated and disturbing images or memories of the event, avoiding places or situations that remind people of the event and significant hyper-arousal including exaggerated startle responses and sleep problems.

If I have PTSD, does this mean I’m going crazy?
PTSD is a serious mental illness that will significantly impact upon a person’s quality of life. It does not mean you are going to change to an entirely different person, or not be able to lead a quality life.

I have watched the DVD, now what?
The booklet and website accompanying the PTSD DVD includes guidelines for accessing support for issues or questions raised by viewing the DVD. The booklet suggests that questions are written down and then discussed with local mental health professionals or providers. These are described in the booklet as Nurses, Chaplains, Psychologists, Social Workers, Psychiatrists or Medical Officers. The possibility of discussing the DVD and questions that arise with mates or the Chain of Command is also suggested.

The booklet and website includes contact details for additional resources including the Army Wounded Digger website, DCO, VVCS, DVA, Defence Families Australia, Mental Health, JHC, the Australian Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health and the All Hours Support Line.

Additional Resources and Contacts

All Hours Support Line (ASL)
– 1800 628 036
– http://www.defence.gov.au/Health/DMH/AllHoursSupportLine.asp

Defence Family Helpline (Defence Community Organisation)
– 1800 624 608
– http://www.defence.gov.au/DCO/Defence-Helpline.asp

Veterans and Veterans Families Counselling Service (VVCS)
– 1800 011 046
– http://www.vvcs.gov.au/

Mental Health
– http://www.defence.gov.au/Health/HealthPortal/MentalHealthOnline.asp

Joint Health Command
– www.defence.gov.au/health/

Wounded Digger
– http://www.army.gov.au/Army-life/Wounded-Injured-and-Ill-Digger

Defence Families of Australia
– www.dfa.org.au

Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA)
– 13 32 54
– www.dva.gov.au

Australian Centre for Post Traumatic Mental Health (ACPMH)
– http://www.acpmh.unimelb.edu.au/

The text message that saved me from suicide inspired my business

As a start-up founder, PTSD Awareness Week almost killed me… The irony of this isn’t lost on me for a moment. As a veteran with Complex PTSD, maybe putting my foot into the start-up ring before I had all my mental ducks in a row wasn’t such a good idea.

But, I jumped in anyway, because the army taught me that courage is acting despite fear, and relentlessly pressing forward is how we win.

Yet, in the very week the media beseeched us to spare a moment’s thought for those 2M Australian’s dealing with PTSD – the very same week I discover my 66wk old start-up has received Defence funding and received an invitation to meet with the Minister for Veteran Affairs – I’m completely unable to leave my bed. I spent three days wrapped in blankets, working hard to deny the voices that reify my Imposter Syndrome, telling me I’m not qualified. I can’t do this. I’m a failure / fool / traitor / etc.

I just wanted to find some peace

I launched Soldier.ly after my suicide attempt in 2016 was interrupted by an SMS, and we’ve since created world-first, international award-winning tech that lets people detect and manage stress on a Fitbit smartwatch. This year, I’ve been flown to Switzerland to accept a global innovation award and recently returned from the U.S. after meeting with people who will turn our little company into a global catalyst. While all this sounds incredibly exciting, the point is despite all the bright lights and attention, all I wanted to do was pull away from the world and find some peace.

But, I’m a veteran, and this kind of thinking isn’t new to far too many of my veteran mates. Our rate of mental health issues spans depression, anxiety and chronic stress from our service to this country that’s twice the national average. But after 16 months in this space, and after speaking with other founders who’ve burnt out, literally collapsed in the streets from exhaustion, and destroyed intimate / personal relationships out of their commitment to ‘the win’, I’m glad to find I’m not alone.

I’m not here to whinge. Quite the opposite. I’m simply openly saying what too many of us fear to say, start-up life is a fucking hard slog, and things need to change.

Entrepreneurs, according to a study by Michael Freeman, are 50% more likely to report having a mental health condition, with some specific conditions being incredibly prevalent amongst founders. Founders are:

6X more likely to suffer from ADHD

3X more likely to suffer from substance abuse

10X more likely to suffer from bi-polar disorder

2X more likely to have psychiatric hospitalisation

2X more likely to have suicidal thoughts

The first thing that falls away is the time I spent looking after myself

It’s no surprise why. I spend so much time worrying about finding, hiring and firing the people we need, making sure we can keep the doors open, filtering good advice from bad, choosing to pivot (or not), balancing work, life, money, time etc. that the first thing that falls away is the essential time I used to take to look after myself.

Our economy, our society, desperately needs entrepreneurs. Our self-selected, self-flagellating gig is to create jobs, new markets, products and services, and hopefully, make enough money to live…let along thrive and survive. To be honest, I have zero desire to be the next Elon Musk or Mark (the robot) Zuckerberg. But I’m 100% committed to solving the problem I’ve invested my life savings and reputation on.

I’m not going to end veteran suicide; I accept that. The Senator from Townsville’s recent impassioned speech about the burden on our community and the families who are left to grieve – after those we love or served with did the unforgivable and gave up – is what gets me out of bed 99% of the time.

I accept during my dark moments that I have to be alive to play a role in being part of the change that’s needed so we bury less mates. So, whilst it’s difficult to admit that I have a mental health issue, I have to go on record as I’ve discovered I’m not alone.

Ridiculous transparency and admitting when we struggle, fuck up or miss a turn is a crucial part of Soldier.ly’s company culture. So yes, I often contemplate a world where I don’t have to get out of bed, far more than I’d like to admit. But then I remember why I started, and I turn and face the wonderful people around me who’ve been such a significant part of our journey. I do what the women I lost getting to where I am today reminded me almost daily to do: breathe, and be vulnerable.

You must have courage to ask for help

Vulnerability means admitting we can’t do this alone. It also means having the courage to ask for help. Both of which are deeply foreign to me, though I’m slowly learning to step outside my comfort zone.

Darren Chester, Minister for Veteran Affairs Darren Chester is deeply invested in supporting our veterans, and the Department of Veteran Affairs are working hard to serve the veterans who reach out to them for support, but even in my community, far too few of us ask for help, for a range of reasons spanning confusion, social stigma, and lack of time. That’s why it’s essential start-ups like mine, RedSix and Swiss 8 do the grunt work that desperately needs to be done at our level to create change.

I’d argue that the start-up community needs to do the same thing we’ve started doing in the veteran community. Start-up founders need to support their peers. Likewise, we need to have the courage to admit we’re not OK.

Famed TED talk social researcher and vulnerability guru Brene Brown said specifically about my community that when pondering life after service, the problem for men and women who’ve served ‘on purpose’ is that when transitioning to life as a civilian ‘just living isn’t enough’.

I’d argue that’s equally true for founders. We don’t choose this life because it’s an easy path. There’s a measure of hope, belief and sweat required to stay on mission. It’s that certainty of purpose that got us started, but as I’ve recently learned, it’s the support of our cohort that keeps that fire alive.

As a veteran & founder, I find I’m getting better at surviving this epic journey the more frequently I have the courage to admit I don’t have all the answers. Today, when I find myself struggling at this vertiginous life, I actively seek support.

That doesn’t mean that I always find it, but it’s certainly helping me stay out of bed on the days I’d rather emulate a Groundhog and avoid daylight, and that’s a start…