Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in the bush

Host: Yougawalla Pastoral Co.
Written by Jane Sale ­– Manager, Yougawalla Pastoral Co.

“Ah, you gave me a panic attack” . . . sounds pretty harmless – you got a bit of a fright.

If only that were true.

For anyone who has suffered from one or more panic attacks you will know that it is so scary and if ongoing, debilitating, leaving you in constant fear of the next one.

In 2011 I had an accident where I was attacked by a bull on our isolated cattle station. At the time we were in the middle of the Live Export Ban. My injuries, the emotional stress of facing my mortality and the possibility of never seeing my children again on top of having to be back in the yards within two weeks of getting home from hospital, left me suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). When the year started to slow down in October 2011 I had my first panic attack, alone and on the dirt road from our yards to our house. Again, I felt the horrible fear of something being wrong and having medical help so far away.

From then on the internal turmoil I felt, loving the work I do, and the business I have as well as the lifestyle it provides my family, but hating the isolation and the pressure of the care and safety of all our staff and animals as well, lasted four years. The biggest worry was having myself and my young children living in isolation so far away from medical help. Also, the guilt of knowing I should be feeling lucky and pleased to be ok, and I knew I was lucky, I just didn’t feel ok.

The anxiety that I suffered from caused stomach and headaches. I literally was obsessed with the thought I was dying, even though my very rational and logical self, knew this was unlikely to be true. When I was in town I would visit my GP with one terminally googled disease after another.  Even though I wasn’t ill physically, my brain was actually making me feel these things physically often via panic attacks. It is very hard for someone who has never suffered this to understand, as my husband Haydn discovered, but all too real when you are in the middle of one.

This photo taken during that time I find represents my emotions –  all is still over my family but a dark cloud looming – and hey it’s just a great photo.

I had tried to be strong for so long so my staff, business, and family were confident in me as a strong leader. I was heavily involved in the day to day of business, the establishment of this website, and my family in a physical sense but I was emotionally void and isolated. Don’t get me wrong, we had lots of time out, holidays, and fun times and if you looked at my Facebook page you would see a happy smiling face. This is what I mean by a very personal struggle and not wanting others see your failure to cope, I made sure I looked perfectly happy on the outside.

This all came crashing down in April 2015 when I was suffering from a panic attack at least once a week and didn’t want to be away from my work, children, and station but felt happier when I was in town near a hospital, even though every trip seemed like an overwhelming effort. Haydn was travelling a lot and not having him around made me particularly vulnerable and I battled with being completely in charge of the station. On the eve of him leaving for another trip to meetings in town I broke down at the thought of being left behind and in charge again. Haydn insisted we pack up that morning and head into town for me to get some help. I didn’t want to but Haydn insisted.

Packing the kids up, and Haydn telling our closest staff what was going on with me was an awful feeling. My fears of not coping were a reality. I felt I had failed myself and everyone else. This still makes me shed a tear as I type and think back to the hopelessness I felt.

The story from here on is a good one but to this point it was a very private and emotional struggle. I can talk about the accident, that was not the problem. The reason I have never spoken extensively about the years that followed before was because these feelings of failure in the aftermath were so great. So much worse it seemed than the physical injuries.

Haydn contacted a good friend who is a GP and had some experience with anxiety and from my first conversation with her the most memorable part was her telling me “You will get out of this. It may feel like you are in a really dark place but there is a way out.”

Those words were so promising for me. I spent a couple of weeks in town and had a few counselling sessions. I was put onto medication and taking that was a further feeling of failure. I remember putting the first tablet in my mouth thinking “Here I go, taking the easy option.” At that stage I didn’t realise how ridiculous that was, I mean how hard had my previous option been and for four years! On top of this the treatment recommended to me was, a week every month in town with counselling and time out from looking after things back on the station. This over a couple of months was lifting me gradually out of the fog. I was much improved although still not myself and suffered a couple of panic attacks in that time. My GP friend discussed with me a technique for the treatment of people suffering from PTSD. This was called Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR). I read into it and discussed it with my psychologist, and although she was not qualified in the treatment, she referred me to a psychiatrist who agreed to see me and amazingly gave up his public holiday to discuss and commence the treatment.

I won’t go into details about what happens, it is easy to research but it is a natural and straight forward therapy, and for a lot of people it works! I had a four hour session that day, it was emotionally gruelling and I walked away exhausted. Over the next few weeks a few things came back to me about the emotions of my accident and I was definitely vague and listless but I didn’t put too much pressure on myself to be productive.  Within a month I was feeling like my pre-accident self again. I walked back into the psychiatrist’s office a month later and asked “What voodoo did you do because I am me again” and for the second time writing this blog I have tears in my eyes, however these are accompanied by goosebumps.

With many people suffering from PTSD, anxiety and panic attacks, I do understand how hard it is to stand up and say something, the alternative to suffer on your own is the tougher of the two options by far though. With medication and treatments available like EMDR anything is worth a try, it has worked for so many. I am surprised how little is known about EMDR. Most friends I have told about my treatment had not heard about it but I have since seen a 7.30 Report on the treatment and the difference it is making with Paramedics suffering from PTSD. I was so pleased to see it out there and encouraged.

Brighter times ahead.

It has been two years now since the EMDR therapy and my last panic attack. I think I will always be a different person to the one who hadn’t previously stared mortality down, but one thing I did learn that day is I have a huge will to live and since then I have learned to take time for myself and my own mental wellbeing. There will be more bumps on the road I am sure but hopefully I will be a little more capable of coping and if not I will not be too scared to ask for help. Reaching out for help and taking that first step, putting aside the fear of failure that can be all consuming, is the hardest step of all . . . but once taken can be life changing.