by Dane Greenstreet
[Please note: this story contains details of traumatic events which may be a trigger for some]
I want to start my story with the caveat that I feel I don’t deserve PTSD. I was a solider, but my PTSD is not combat-related. I know of many others who have been through much worse but seem to live a ‘normal’ life. Even others with PTSD seem to ‘deserve’ it more than me.
It was early September 2001 when my life dramatically changed. I had joined the Australian Army in March of the previous year and, after completing all my training and qualifying as a Marine Specialist, I was posted to my unit based in Townsville, Queensland. Shortly after arriving at the unit, I was deployed to the Solomon Islands for around a month, giving me my first taste of a deployment.
Shortly after returning to Australia, I was informed that I would be deployed to East Timor as part of a boat crew working on an LCM-8. Fast forward a couple of months and I was deep into my first real operational deployment. Being only 19 years old, I was lapping it up, enjoying every moment and learning as much as I could.
After a few big weeks of work, two other blokes (men) off the boats and I were given a day off and a vehicle so we could check out Dili, the capital of East Timor. We headed out and checked the nearby sights; the Jesus statue, different areas of the city. We bought some cheap cigarettes and Coke to take back to the boats. Then we decided to head east, out of Dili along the north coast.
After driving along the road for a short while we began noticing injured people heading towards Dili. Then we rounded a corner and saw a military (not Australian) truck stopped in the middle of the road. The other side of the road was a steep cliff going down about 100m to the beach, at the bottom of which we saw a bus filled with Timorese locals. The bus was a mess. My first sight was that of the Timorese driver, literally folded in half. A sight that I know will never leave me.
On consultation with the other military personnel in the area, we decided that we needed to find a decent place to evacuate the injured civilians. We found our way down to a nearby beach where the casualties and deceased were being moved to and we set up a bit of a triage (sorting according to urgency) area. The dead were put to one side, the badly injured were put in a collection point to be transported to the main road, and the remainder were directed to walk to the road.
One of the blokes I was with was taken up to the road to control the traffic and stop vehicles to transport the wounded to hospital, the other bloke was driving the vehicle ferrying the casualties from the beach to the road, and I was left in the triage area.
Everything happened so fast but in slow motion all at once. There was a man I could hear, in the background, constantly screaming. A sound that still haunts me to this day.
When I saw a young girl being carried up to the triage area, I went to help the people who were struggling to carry her. I took hold of her lower right leg, but from above her knee to about halfway down her shin was like jelly. I knew she was in real trouble. We put her down on the ground to wait for the vehicle, and although everyone else left, something compelled me to stay with her.
She was about the same age as me, maybe younger, and she was quite attractive and dressed in clothes similar to what people in Australia would wear on a day out to the shops. I guess this helped me relate to her more. I squatted down next to her. I tried to talk to her and she tried to talk to me, but I didn’t speak Tetum and she didn’t speak English, so I just stayed with her and kept her company. The whole while, the man kept on screaming.
After a short amount of time – which could’ve been anywhere from 2 to 30 minutes, as my concept of time during this period is very inaccurate – while I was sitting there with the injured girl, I watched the life simply drain out of her. Then the man in the background stopped screaming. I turned around. He was also now dead.
I didn’t know what to think at this stage, but something in the back of my mind said over and over “act now, think later”, so I got on with it. When the situation was under control, we handed over to the local authorities and left. I still didn’t know how to react.
A couple of months after this I headed back to Australia. But I still didn’t know how to react. I had made it through all my psychiatric screenings without raising any alarms. Although in my private life I was drinking to excess whenever I could, engaging in risky activities, and dealing with constant suicidal thoughts that, behind closed doors, were nearly being played out with severe consequences.
On the outside, I seemed fine. But out of view, I was a mess.
I weathered this storm for about two years. I eventually got used to squashing my emotions to a state of total numbness most of the time. Any time a bad emotion came up I would squash it, and I got so use to it that I started doing it automatically.
I maintained this until early 2014, when the wheels fell off. The nightmares became unbearable, the intrusive thoughts became oppressive, the anxiety became debilitating and the depression was spiralling out of hand. By this stage I was married, and my wife said to me, “get help or get out”. (I am still married to this most amazing woman.)
I went and spoke to counsellor. After a couple of sessions, the counsellor spoke about PTSD and how it related to me. Shortly after, I was officially diagnosed with PTSD, anxiety, and major depressive disorder. This led to me being discharged from the Australian Army and, in turn, medically retired at 35 years of age – never to work again.
During my treatment I have been hospitalised several times and seen many different psychologists and psychiatrists. Once I found a good medical team, I began to see improvements through the use of medication, cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT), exposure therapy (ET), eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR), and being honest with myself.
I have been lucky to have my amazing wife stick by my side through it all, even through the toughest of times. I know I have stretched her patience and tolerance to the absolute extreme, but I owe so much of my recovery to her support.
PTSD has been a part of my life for so long it’s hard to think back to a time I didn’t have it, but it has impacted every aspect of my life. Everything from how I sleep at night, to what TV shows I watch, to how I prepare for a trip to the shops. I now have an assistance dog so I can take some of the pressure off my family and I can go out on my own.
Possibly one of the best things I have done for my own personal recovery was to start a Facebook page, called “Post Traumatic Life” (click here to visit). Through this page I share my journey with others, and it makes me feel much less alone in my journey through my mental health battle.
I believe the biggest misconception with PTSD is that only people who have been in combat can have PTSD. I am living proof that that is not the case.
This is the most I have ever shared of my story outside of a therapist’s office and I thought I would feel relieved to get my story out there. But I actually feel a bit sick, nervous, and even a bit ashamed, as I worry about the judgement that might come my way. I am my own harshest judge, so I guess it’s the anxiety that is getting me.
Mental illness is the only illness that makes you question your own illness.
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