Case study - posttraumatic stress disorder

Mick, 41 years old, currently MEC3 on sick leave from ADF, 20 years in the infantry

Most of my life I thought people with mental problems were wimps or fakers who needed a good kick up the arse. I’m a soldier, that’s what I’m good at. Over the years I got promoted to warrant officer, had a lot of younger blokes looking up to me, expecting me to be a strong leader. And I was. I was bloody good. Until about a year ago.

I’d seen some pretty horrible things in my time. All part of the job. I coped by blocking it all out. Job done, put it behind you, have a few beers. And that worked well for me. Until we went into this little village, a few hours after the militia had left. They thought the villagers were collaborators and wanted to set an example. I won’t go into details because it was bloody horrible, but I’ve never seen so much destruction. Homes burnt down, people screaming, many of them with terrible injuries or crying over the body of a dead loved one. We did our job and we did it well. We called in the medics, did all the right things, and managed to track down some of the militia. Enough said.

But when I got home a few weeks later, I couldn’t get those images out of my mind. There were lots of them, but one in particular – a young child who’d been mutilated but left alive – came back to me over and over again. Pictures jumping into my mind during the day, nightmares at night. I was short-tempered and on edge, shouting at my wife, losing my cool with the kids. Couldn’t think straight. Just wanted to lock myself away and draw the curtains. I was losing my mind. I was one of those wimps.

Taking action

I’d heard vaguely of PTSD but even when I had all those problems it never entered my head that I might have it. I figured I was going round the bend and I was the only one who’d ever felt like this. Yes, I know that sounds stupid, but that’s what it felt like. It was my wife who got me to ask for help. She saved my life by doing that. Someone she knew at work had a husband who was a cop with the Feds, one of the first into the Solomons after the trouble. Seems like he’d developed PTSD and, like me, refused to admit it. He got sicker and sicker until eventually he had to see a shrink. Apparently he’d gone on some brain pills and got some therapy and was doing OK now. So my wife made an appointment and dragged me along to see the psychiatrist. I tried to tell him what I was going through, but I kept crying. Felt like a complete idiot. But I managed to tell him enough.

He put me on some tablets. I don’t like taking them – they stuffed up my sex life something terrible (although to be honest I wasn’t feeling much like sex anyway since this whole thing started). But I’ve been on them for four months now and I think they’re helping. The psychiatrist said that down the track we can look at a different type of medication that probably won’t muck up my bedroom performance. I’ve read a lot about PTSD, and spoken to a few people who’ve had it but recovered, so I’m feeling optimistic. I’m also seeing a psychologist every week. He’s given me a whole lot of tips about how I can control the anxiety. We’ve just started the really hard part – talking in detail about that day in the village. It is hard, but I also feel a great sense of achievement. I’m not blocking it out, I’m facing up to it (maybe that makes me a real man after all!). And we’ve been through it a few times now and it’s getting easier.

I’ve got a long way to go, but I hope to go up before the medical review people in about three months. I reckon I’ll be back with the boys by next year. It will have been a long break, but we had a bloke who injured his back and he was off for a year – came back good as new. Mine’s not that different really. Just happens to be my head instead of my back.

Helping yourself

Seek help if you or someone you know might have PTSD. Start by visiting a GP, as they can refer to specialists (psychiatrist, psychologist, mental health social worker) and prescribe medication.

If you have served one day in the ADF, you are eligible for:

Open Arms – Veterans & Families Counselling (formerly VVCS) supports defence members, ex-serving members, veterans and their families with counselling for individuals and group-based programs. Call Open Arms on  1800 011 046.