Overcoming trauma: My life will never be the same

February 7, 2009. Black Saturday. A date etched into the memory of so many Australians. For Cliff, a CFA firefighter at the time, it was the following day that would alter his life forever.

We’re going house to house to look for survivors.

That Sunday, Cliff witnessed death and devastation on an incomprehensible scale. However, instead of acknowledging the trauma he had been exposed to, Cliff buried his emotions. His weakness. His inability to get the job done.

Then there was the guilt. He felt personally responsible for the deaths of 173 people.

Trauma can challenge everything we have come to know about the world and ourselves – categorising life into two simple states: before and after.

In this episode, Cliff tells his inspiring story of coming to terms with his trauma, and ultimately, growing from it.

 
Photo of Cliff with quote, “I felt like I was in this sealed glass box that just moved where I moved.”
 

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Transcription

CONTENT WARNING
Just a heads up: this episode of Not Alone contains a firsthand account of a first responder during the Black Saturday bushfire crisis. It references suicide and trauma. If you or someone you know need support contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, the Suicide Callback Service on 1300 659 467, and if it’s an emergency please call 000 immediately.

NARRATION
Hey there, my name is Marc Fennell and from Beyond Blue, this is Not Alone, remarkable stories from everyday Australians talking about their mental health journey, to help you with yours.

And this episode is about overcoming trauma.

(music - Sense of Home by Harrison Storm)

MONTAGE

FEMALE VOICE 1
I feel alone…

MALE VOICE 1
I don’t think what’s happened to me is enough to leave me as broken as I am…

FEMALE VOICE 2
I can’t coordinate myself to organise more than one thing at a time.

FEMALE VOICE 1
I’ve been pushing people away…

FEMALE VOICE 3
I don’t want to be a burden to the people around me.

MALE VOICE 1
And for that, I hate myself deeply.

FEMALE VOICE 4
How do you get through this?

MALE VOICE 2
I’m scared…

FEMALE VOICE 1
It’s debilitating.

MALE VOICE 2
I feel a bit numb.

FEMALE VOICE 1
I can’t deal with everything.

FEMALE VOICE 2
I just feel like my trauma can never be fixed.

MALE VOICE 3
I just feel like my trauma can never be fixed.

MALE VOICE 4
I just feel like my trauma can never be fixed.

MALE VOICE 5
I just feel like my trauma can never be fixed.

(music - ambient drones)

CLIFF
I was looking at buying a ute and was waiting in the showroom floor. And this elderly gentleman was standing there. The next minute he wasn't standing, he collapsed. And I'm looking at the guy behind the counter who's freaking out, and I’ve said “It's a stroke, ring the ambulance.”

Ambulance got there in no time, and dealt with him and he survived. And the ambulance said, “you told us it was a stroke on the phone, so we knew straight away what to do, which was great.”

And I felt fantastic. I saved someone's life. You know, one down. That was the strangest thing, I went “there’s one down, I can tick it off the list. 172 to go.”

NARRATION
So back in the 90s, Cliff was living in Melbourne’s outer-east. And he had this itch within him that just wasn’t being scratched, so he made a decision: he was going to sign up as a volunteer for the Country Fire Authority, or the CFA.

MARC
If you ask a five year old kid what they want to be when they grow up, you get, police, pilot, firefighter comes up a lot. Was some of that feeding into the decision to want to go fight fires in the first place; this idea that firefighters are heroes?

CLIFF
Look, I think that grew. I think I discovered the Sassafras and Ferny Creek Fire Brigade because I kept driving past the fire station, and I thought “those trucks look cool.” It’d be interesting, that’d give me something else to do.

You know, I spent two years on a Sunday morning, taking my dog down the hill, to dog training, and I got the dog to level four, it would respond, you know, be a good dog. I thought, “well I got a good dog now, what am I going to do on Sundays?” And I literally drove past fire station, dog in the car and thought, “I wonder what that's like.” And I walked in.

MARC
What do you think was the appeal? Once you went in and spoke to them and saw the trucks, what was it that pushed you over the edge and went “yep, this is something I want to be a part of”?

CLIFF
It’s that… that community service. The volunteering. I don’t where I get it from, but the opportunity to help other people, look after other people, respond to other people’s urgent needs, and do it in a volunteer sense.

MARC
What were your biggest fears? Like, before you signed on the door to become a volunteer firefighter? What were your biggest fears?

CLIFF
Stuffing up.

MARC
Seriously? Of all the different things that can happen in an emergency, stuffing up. Why stuffing up?

CLIFF
I don't know. Look, fire doesn't scare me, what scared me was stuffing up in front of everyone else. Because you’re being trained how to do the job, you know you get the right gear off the truck, and you use it in the right way. And for me, it was like I've got to get this right.

(music - “Cliff’s theme” - acoustic guitars, finger plucking)

NARRATION
Before long, an opportunity opened up for Cliff to make a career change. He took a paid job with the CFA in Community Safety, in central Victoria. He also moved just a little bit closer to where he was working; he moved to Diamond Creek in Melbourne’s north-west. And at the same time throughout all that, he was continuing as a volunteer with his local CFA.

MARC
So what was your actual role with the CFA? What were you going out there doing?

CLIFF
In a career aspect? From the community safety point of view, it started with the face to face meetings with communities holding groups to talk about fire risk. Particularly leading into summers each year, you’d advertise meetings: COME ALONG, LEARN ABOUT THE RISK IN YOUR LOCAL AREA, LEARN WHAT YOU CAN DO.

And prior to 2009, the key messages out of the CFA were based around the STAY OR GO. And if you were going to choose to do one of those, it was about preparing yourself for those two options. If you're going to go, go early and take what you want with you. If you're going to stay, be prepared to defend your property. And so we would spend a lot of time investing in helping people understand what “defending” means, what they need, how it would impact them, how the fire would behave and what to expect.

So I spent years in that area. And a lot of that was in the field talking to communities on street corners about their local areas.

MARC
Do you think that some of your sense of who you are as a man was caught up in being a firefighter?

CLIFF
Yeah, you do, you become part of the mythology. And I would wear the mantle of ‘Firefighter Hero’ as a component of the service I was providing. And so then if I started to feel that I was failing personally, you would feel like you were failing that imposed masculine hero mythology awarded to us by the community.

MARC
How did you think you would respond to seeing death and destruction? Did you have a conception of how you thought your body would react to that?

CLIFF
Not really, you know? And it's interesting, I had not seen a dead person prior to 2009. And then I saw a whole lot all at once.

(music - low ambient drones)

NARRATION
In the weeks leading up February 7th, 2009, south-east Australia was suffering through one of the worst heatwaves in the nation’s recorded history. Melbourne had three consecutive days above 43 degrees, while Mildura, which is in the state’s north, they went through 12 consecutive days above 40. Twelve!

On Friday 6th February, the day before what would later be known as ‘Black Saturday’, the Victorian premier issued a warning about the fire conditions that were coming that weekend, saying that it would be the “worst day in the history of the state”.

The next day, the temperature peaked at 46.6 in Melbourne, with winds over 100km hour and the humidity was at just 2%. Everyone was on high alert.

From the CFA transmission radio, Cliff learnt there was a fire breaking out at Kilmore, which was between his home and work. As planned, he started driving the 100kms to Seymour, but he only made it as far as Whittlesea, 30 kms down the road, before he was told that fire was blocking his path.

So, Cliff made himself busy at Whittlesea CFA. He was relaying messages to his work about where the fire was, predicting its movement, handling the media, and of course, helping to set up a staging point for the CFA’s defence of the area.

CLIFF
Towards the afternoon, there were things happening that we were getting very uncomfortable about. We started hearing on the radio about fatalities. And we had a CFA Operations Officer - a staff member - in the station with us. And I just remember looking up at him across the map, and you know, the look on his face. You know, the things you remember. For me, Black Saturday, I think the first feeling of foreboding, of uncomfortableness in the gut, about “uh oh, this is bad”, was just eye to eye contact with him and him feeling the same thing.

MARC
How does that change the feeling in the room? When you start to realise that?

CLIFF
It's in the back of your mind the whole time from then on. You're now aware of the loss that is occurring and the potential for it to continue. And this was radio telling us about single individuals. You know, so we had no concept of how big this was going to get. But you started to feel this fire is now killing people. We're not stopping it. And we were pulling back.

NARRATION
As the afternoon became evening, the fire, which had been north of Whittlesea, had now travelled south-east. It was just 20km to the east of where Cliff was. The situation had become so dangerous that many of the CFA trucks were just unable to fight the fire.

CLIFF
And then at night, the fire had moved on and we could get up to Kinglake West and Kinglake. And we needed to get some food up to the firefighters of the Kinglake West fire station. So I said “look, I'll take it up.” CFA car, so I can go through the roadblock. Loaded 40 freshly made pasta dishes, drove up the hill. And that was my first exposure to the actual fire ground. Because where we were in Whittlesea, we weren't being threatened by the fire itself.

So driving up the road into Kinglake from Whittlesea, and it starts to get burnt out and you driving around corners and there’s ash across the road. And then you start to see burnt out cars on the road. And you think “woah, where are the people who were in those cars?” But you're driving, so you’re not stopping to look.

And I got to Kinglake West fire station to deliver food for the firefighters. Carried this box in, and there's like 100 people on the floor of the fire station that have all taken shelter there. Kids, families. And I walked in with this box and you saw these little kids their heads lifted up and they smelt… And I took it into the firefighter looking after the strike team, and he said we can eat this, we’ve got to give it to the kids. We’ve got to feed these people first.

So we did we handed it out to the community said “here have this food.” Did a second run, went and got more for the firefighters, but had no concept of what was going on up the hill till we got there.

(music - high ambient drones)

NARRATION
At 1am the next morning, on his way home, Cliff’s last act for Black Saturday, was to call around to the Diamond Creek CFA station where he was a volunteer. He was there to put himself down for a shift the following day. And it was going to be an early start.

CLIFF
Six o’clock, we drove up to Arthurs Creek fire station, and got on our trucks and had a productive morning going out and visiting homes that had been impacted and talking to people that had stayed and defended. And did the best work chainsaw work I've ever done in my life clearing a driveway of a tree and helped people out.

So the morning was good. Then we had a lunch break, and in the afternoon it turned to shit.

We were briefed and they said “look, be prepared. We are now going to go house to house and we're going to be looking for survivors. But don't be surprised at what we might find.”

I was thinking, “okay, this could be the day when I see what a fire does to people.”

NARRATION
That Sunday afternoon, Cliff witnessed death and devastation on a scale that, quite frankly, is hard to comprehend. Cliff told me a lot of what he witnessed, but there are some scenes he described in our interview that we have decided to leave out.

However, Cliff’s experiences that you are about to hear, they do remain quite graphic. And if you think that could be distressing for, please, by all means, just skip the next two and a half minutes.

CLIFF
The landscape is just burnt out. You're looking at shades of gray, you're looking at black trees and gray fields and ash and anything that had paint or colour on it has been stripped off. Grey cars, black cars, buildings. You know, total absence of colour.

The first confrontation, the state emergency service were working clearing trees off the road and there was a van that was burnt out. And there was a glimpse of something in the back of the van. And you thought “ooh, that was probably a dead person.”

And then drove further up the road to the football oval. And back then we're on a fire truck, where three people sit up on the deck on the back facing backwards. And so you're out in the open air, sort of, with a little bit of shielding. So you could look at around at everything and I looked out and I looked down, and there's a guy lying on his back on the side of the road. And at the first I looked, I thought, “who's that having a rest?”And it was only, probably to me a minute of going, “he's dead.”

It was like, you know, a scripted movie where you get exposed to a little bit and then a bit more and a bit more.

I can with absolute clarity remember every body I saw. But when we were doing the house-to-houses, we walked around the houses and sort of lifted some team from the burnt out house and peeked inside. Not seen anything. And then it was later, second hand, and I heard - I think it was the police that were with their crew said - “oh, why didn’t you put up any tape around so-and-so house?” And one of the crew said “oh, we didn't find anything.” And police said “there’s a family in the bath in the house.”

You know, stupid me, I then created the tableau in my mind as to what that would have looked like. So bizarrely, I can remember quite clearly the actual people I saw, but I can still remember quite clearly the made-up images I built of what we would have seen in the bath had we lifted the tin up and looked further. Which has become just as real in this strange part of my mind.

NARRATION
When Cliff arrived home later that night, he told his wife, Tanya about what he’d seen, but he kind of skirted around much detail.

Then he was back at work the next day, where there were things to be done and no time to really dwell on his experiences.

But then he was heading to work on the Tuesday of that week when he pulled into McDonald’s for a coffee. And the guy behind the counter, seeing that Cliff was in his CFA uniform, gave him the coffee for free, commended Cliff on the work he and the CFA was doing. And in that moment, with someone outside of his private life or his work environment acknowledging the fire - that really to Cliff was just this surreal movie - suddenly everything became real. Cliff managed to make it to his car, and just as he closed the door, he burst into tears.

CLIFF
I never cried that way my life. Never have. It was almost like throwing up tears. I wasn't crying, I was throwing up tears. And I looked up and I could see two state emergency service volunteers walking up the path towards the entry into McDonald’s, and I thought there's no way they're going to see a CFA person crying in a car. So I ducked down behind the dashboard and hid.

MARC
Why?

CLIFF
Pride of organisation. Hero mythology. We are the resolute. We are not going to show that we are broken down. There's a fire on folks and we can't stop. We're not going to take time to cry. We're gonna we're going to save everybody and fix this. And that's running through my head. And I thought, “no way, no way, am I individually going to show weakness or allow my weakness to be perceived as an organisational weakness.” And I think that was the big one, so I hid.

Finally stopped crying, drove on up to work. And on the drive thought, “oh, I'm sorted. I've had the big cry.”

MARC
Ah, so you thought that was your one big cathartic moment.

CLIFF
Massive physical release. Done. That's it. I can get on with work now.

MARC
Was it?

CLIFF
No. Gosh no.

NARRATION
Over the next few weeks, the death toll from the fires rose. The final number was 173 people, many of whom had come from Kinglake and Whittlesea, the area where Cliff had been on the day. It’s also an area Cliff had been many times before as a Community Safety officer.

MARC
What did you think when you saw that number? 173 people dead?

CLIFF
Couldn't believe it at first. Thought “how does a fire kill that many people?” And then thought back to, you know, that day in Whittlesea when we heard about the first couple, and thought, “woah, I let 173 people die.”

MARC
You let them die?

CLIFF
Yeah, It started, it really started. The communities that I had stood with on street corners and spoken with about fire safety had not listened to what I was saying at the time or had listened to what I was saying - this is the one - had listened to what I was saying at the time, followed what I was suggesting they should do, and they died.

And if you break it down afterwards, how dare I think it was all my fault. Really. But emotionally at the time, no I was clinging to those connections that I’d made with those communities and looking at the result and saying, “oh, that was me.”

NARRATION
One day, Cliff got a call from the psychologist attached to the CFA. And the psychologist asked him to take two weeks stress leave. And while he was on leave he had a few sessions, but he tells her, pretty much what he believes she wants to hear.

CLIFF
I would deliver what was required without actually being a part of it. You know? I’d compartmentalise myself out of the session and almost observe it.

NARRATION
And then he went back to work, telling himself that with the cathartic McDonald’s carpark cry out of his system, and a few sessions with the psychologist complete, he was now all good.

CLIFF
It got to about October. And I remember we were up north. I had a two day workshop with general managers and I was driving home from the end of the day, I thought I was having a heart attack. I pulled over by the side of the road and absolute freaking out: shaking, sweating, heart racing, tingling, “this is it.” Took myself to Northern Hospital in Epping, walked in and said, “I think I'm having a heart attack.” And they were like very quick, put me in and check me over and they said “no, you're not. So whatever's brought this on is not physical as far as we can tell.”

MARC
What happens next?

CLIFF
I think I had another one. I can't quite remember, I know I had two. But I think the clinician on the second one said “this is not a physical.” They said “to us this presents as a panic attack.”

MARC
What did you think when that was said to you?

CLIFF
I thought “yeah, I probably know why.”

NARRATION
This led to some more sessions with a different psychologist, where like before, Cliff compartmentalised himself out of the session and he just didn’t engage. But then the psychologist said to Cliff. They said, “you are experiencing post traumatic stress disorder”, or as most of us know it, PTSD.

CLIFF
I went, “okay, well, I can relate to that. I get that. I went through trauma, it's now afterwards, I'm experiencing stress, you break it down, it's post traumatic stress.” And that was like, “yay, I've got a label for it now. I don't have to think about what the hell's going on inside my brain. I can just say I've got PTSD.”

I could have happily worn the T shirt saying, I HAVE PTSD. I would have worn it as a badge of honour, because you start to associate it with that whole male macho mythology of the grizzly return serviceman who fought in ‘Nam who's now living in a cabin in the woods because he's got PTSD, and growls at people.

MARC
PTSD actually feeds into an archetype you are comfortable with, that you were happy to wear.

CLIFF
Yes, yes. I was comfortable to perform the character role of the hero who had suffered and now had PTSD. Because there's some great movies about it.

MARC
Did that in any way help you actually deal with it, though?

CLIFF
No, I think in some ways, it may have gone the opposite. It's almost like “I've got PTSD, and I'm not going to let go.”

MARC
Because it helped make sense of what you were going through.

CLIFF
I was like “this is cool. Hey, I've got the THIS MAN HAD PTSD badge, which means he must have done something incredibly heroic and suffered a very big trauma. So that can build into the whole hero mythology of the wounded soldier. And I think the period from when that was diagnosed and applied to me, I would happily talk to people about it. But I wasn't doing anything about it.

NARRATION
Eventually, Cliff left the CFA for a job in the city at the Metropolitan Fire Brigade. But then, in 2014 - five years after Black Saturday - he started at the Volunteer Fire Brigades of Victoria, which if you’ve never heard of it before, it’s an advocacy and support body for CFA volunteers. And it was there, at the VFBV, that Cliff was once again exposed to the people, the stories and the experiences of that Black Saturday.

(music - high ambient drones )

CLIFF
It all came back. I started to have some really weird shit going on at work. I'd get to work and look at that black screen with a rectangle in front of it with a bunch of buttons and think, “what does this do?”

MARC
You were just catatonic in front of the computer.

CLIFF
“How do you turn a computer on? Ah, give me 10 minutes, I’ll work it out. Can you all stop hanging around me?” And when I say “can you all stop hanging around me”, I'm talking about the people in my mind that were all hanging around me and watching over me as I was trying to do something good to help CFA people.

I invented ghosts, you know? I had that, “who's behind me watching over me? Who's judging me?” I reckon I had 173 people imagined in my head judging me. And I went to that number because of the number of fatalities. And I said “that’s it, they're all watching me now.”

And it just got worse in my head and I can still remember the most bizarre experiences. I really started to disconnect from reality. I felt like I was just in this sealed glass box that just moved wherever I moved. And I couldn't connect with anything outside the glass box. I was disconnected from reality.

It wasn't so much at home because I love my wife, Tanya, and she's so good for me that we remained connected no matter what. But you could start to feel that coming through. And she could remember how I was. I was not focused, I was away with the fairies, I was disconnected, I was, you know, not really there. You stop being present.

And I really started to look at, “well, what am I doing? If I'm this bad, and no matter what I've been through, I've been to a psyc., I've been to this and that. None of it’s worked. In fact, I'm worse than I was back in 09. So I'm no good. So, what's the point of even trying to stay alive and help other people if I can’t? I'm only gonna be one of those people who needs help. And I don't want to be that.” So I started thinking about how do I end my own life? How do I stop living? So I don't end up being one of those people who needs help.

MARC
Why was it so bad to be one of the people that need help?

CLIFF
I don’t know. I don’t know. I didn’t want to be a victim. Didn't want to show weakness. Didn't want to be the one who broke down and couldn't cope after CFA, after Black Saturday. I didn't want to be judged by my CFA peers as incapable of continuing to work.

And I realised what I was contemplating. I think this is where that little compartmentalisation and intellectual view of myself paid off finally. Is that I went “oh, Clifford, look at yourself. You know? Clifford the victim, who's contemplating suicide, and then there's Clifford the observer going, “no, no, you need to really start talking to someone about this.”

NARRATION
The person Cliff decided to talk to was his wife, Tanya. He told her how he’d been feeling and what he’d been contemplating. He told her that he’d been clinging to the emergency services sector in an effort to try and fix all the things he felt he got wrong back in 2009.

And then with Tanya’s support Cliff told his boss what he needed to do next. It was time to quit and focus on just getting better.

It turns out that there was a psychologist next door to where Cliff and Tanya were living at the time, and so Cliff, he got himself a referral and he started sessions.

CLIFF
And she and I worked together for eight months. I could get up in the morning, I didn't have to go to work. I had the freedom of just getting up, make a cup of tea, carry the cup of tea next door to my session, sit down with a hot cup of tea, have the session and then walk home.

MARC
Were you telling this one what she wanted here? Or were you doing something different?

CLIFF
No, I was being me in the moment. This was not Clifford the observer, step back, watch Clifford the participant. This was me in the moment because I knew I had to commit. This is it. This is no longer pretending I've been going getting the right things done and going “tick”. This was “no, commit. This is the session that's going to help you survive.”

And I was given techniques and I was given homework. I was given exercises to go and do.

MARC
Like what?

CLIFF
All the cognitive behaviour therapy stuff. It’s fascinating. Because I would describe how I would say to her “look, I've got this PowerPoint I've built in my brain of every single dead person I saw on Black Saturday. Including the ones I made up because we missed them.” It used to be parked and I could run it whenever I want. But then it's like the computer jammed and the PowerPoint show just runs nonstop in front of me. So you know, I can be trying to look at something but I can't see it because I got this slideshow running in front of my eyes of continual flashbacks.

So we, you know, we worked on how you… things like, “okay, clearly remember one of the scenes and just hold it for a period and then let it go.” And then you know, the techniques to normalise those experiences and consciously park them, you know?

So now my software is improved in my head, I can actually turn it off and I can, you know, move it into a folder and put it away. I can still get it out when I want, but it's put away. It's not in my way anymore.

(music - low ambient drones)

NARRATION
Cliff visited his psychologist twice a week for the better part of eight months. And during that time he learnt actually quite a few strategies he could use to maintain good wellbeing.

CLIFF
I've done no real formal coaching or training or understanding of what is called Mindfulness, but I recognise that there are activities and locations I can go to that give me that mindful space. I'm involved with the Healesville community garden. So growing vegetables, incredibly mindful experience. Because you go down to the plot when you feel like you need some time out. I'll go down to the plot, come away feeling very rested. Same thing with, you know, tinkering on a motorcycle.

But they’re solo things. So for me, creating that space to relax and adjust is a very personal solo thing. Because I just want to turn my mind off and think

NARRATION
Before long Cliff felt like he was ready to return to work. But he had decided to leave the emergency services behind, this time for a job with the local council. Now that meant a move out east to Healesville. And in Healesville his new house was not that far from the local CFA station. And it wasn’t immediate, but the day did come when he felt like he might be able to go back to volunteering. He was ready to help again.

Then towards the end of 2019, close to 11 years after Black Saturday, one of the worst fire seasons in the history of Australia began. And once more Cliff was asked to defend a town. This time, the Buchan Valley.

CLIFF
So we did some saves. And when we say saves, it's like fire threatening a house, go down, put the fire out around the house so the house stays there. Did some saves. Watched some losses, because we fell back into the centre of town and we had to defend the pub, the fire station, the public hall, the police station, the private school, kindergarten, the recreation reserve where the community was sheltering. So we had critical assets to protect, which we did.

So, the high fives you're giving yourself after that. Everyone's come at the other end. You know, ‘Task Force 1313 - First Rotation’ we call ourselves The Buchaneers. So corny.

MARC
So here's what I want to know about that. So these things don't come out of nowhere, you know they're coming, the nation's talking about fires at this point. I want to know mentally, how do you approach this fire season differently knowing everything that you've been through?

CLIFF
Well, the day after we defended the town, we went back up, and we were going to be tasked to go house to house to do some blacking out around house ruins. And our crew had a discussion on the way up. Now one of them he kind of knows what I've been through. So he understood and we were talking about the different roles we would perform if we were to go to a house to house to do this work. And this is CFA. I'm Cliff everywhere else, but in CFA I’m Cliffie.

MARC
Cliffie The Buchaneer, yes yes.

CLIFF
And he goes, “Cliffie, if we're going to a house and there’s any chance of anyone being under it, you will be staying in the truck.” And I went, “yep, good idea.” I don't need to do it again. So I'd actually made the conscious decision, “I don't need to expose myself to things that might make me feel bad again.” Right? I don't need to be as mucho as everyone else on the truck and front up to the mess. You know? I can make a mature decision and step back and say, “leave that to someone else, your choice. Me? I'll go and talk to the community members that are alive.”

NARRATION
The fires in Buchan destroyed 24 homes and claimed one life, but Cliff says that he isn’t blaming himself this time. He’s not going to let the tragedies that occur impact on his capacity to contribute to the saves.

MARC
I've been umming and ahhing about the right way to frame this for the duration of this conversation, but the impression I get is that the Clifford of 10 years ago is a profoundly different person to the one I'm talking to today. Is it possible that what happened to you could be classified as good?

CLIFF
Yes. And there's a thing called post traumatic growth. You can change for the positive as a result of the trauma. My values have changed. I value life experience, good relationships, over stuff. It's a much better place than focused on loss.

(music - “Cliff’s theme” - acoustic guitars, finger plucking)

NARRATION
Cliff’s experience of overcoming trauma is one that is unfortunately quite common among first responders and emergency services. I wanted to get an understanding of this mental health condition from one of the experts. And so I consulted with Dr. Grant Blashki, who is Beyond Blue’s Lead Clinical Adviser.

MARC
Dr. Grant, thank you so much for talking with me.

DR. GRANT
Great to see ya.

MARC
One of the things that Cliff mentions is this idea of imagining things that he wasn’t directly exposed to, but then having this impact that certainly was comparable to something he’d actually seen. Is that common for it to have that kind of impact?

DR. GRANT
Yeah, so we know that with post-traumatic stress disorder there’s really not a set version. Everyone has their own sort of personalised view. The sorts of things that people have are flashbacks, replaying of images - usually something they’ve seen, but it can be as in Cliff’s situation, it can be something they’ve imagined behind the door.

MARC
To that point, if somebody’s listening to this who may well be a first responder or an emergency worker, and you think you might have some of the symptoms of PTSD, what would be the first things to look out for, to identify?

DR. GRANT
Yeah, it’s a great question. So often people will first notice that they might be replaying images in their mind, that they’re having intrusive thoughts; feeling numb and disconnected from things is quite common. Sleep problems, or perhaps using drugs and alcohol to try and numb some of those feelings. So these are common things.

And Beyond Blue was involved in a study called ‘Answering the Call’, which involved 20,000 first responders, including firies. And we know that this group of people have higher rates of post-traumatic stress than the general community. And they’re often quite slow to recognise it in themselves, which is quite interesting. And sort of what happened with Cliff took awhile for him to realise what was actually going on.

MARC
Of everything that you heard from Cliff, what’s the one thing that’s going to stay with you?

DR. GRANT
I think it’s so important that we look after our first responders. You know, they’re out there often protecting their community, and to have a serious mental health issue, like he experienced after all the work and help he’d done in the community was so important. And I was very moved by his comment that when he actually went back out there, you know, and there was situation where one of his colleagues said “ah, you can stay in the truck, mate. It’s not going to work this bit, for you.” This sense of collegiality.

One of the things the ‘Answering the Call’ study found was one of the most protective factors for first responders was how supportive the workplace was, which was really interesting. So you’re going through a hell of a time out there, you come back, if there’s a really supportive environment, that’s really quite protective.

MARC
Dr Grant, it’s lovely to see you again.

DR. GRANT
Thank you

(music - Sense of Home by Harrison Storm)

CLIFF
If you're on a journey of recovery from trauma, don't be afraid for things to come up. Understand this is part of your mind helping you to deal and recover. And don't necessarily think there's an end and it stops. You know? Be open to further investigations, conversations, experiences along the way, because they're all going to contribute to your healing.

The number of times I thought “done the five sessions - tick, that’s me fixed. Had the big cry - tick, that's me fixed.” No, that was just the start. Your recovery journey never really stops because it becomes your growth journey.

MARC
It's a mistake to think about yourself as fixed or unfixed.

CLIFF
Yeah, because so many other things in life are never fixed or unfixed. Your relationships, your career, your experiences, that's all part of growth. It's all part of change. It continues.

NARRATION
And we do want to say a massive thank you to Cliff for sharing his story.

You can join the conversation and share your story anytime you want at beyondblue.org.au/forums

If you or anyone you know really needs support, you can visit our website or call our Support Service on 1300 22 4636. We have also included some resources in the show notes. Just check them out there.

Not Alone is a podcast by Beyond Blue. It’s hosted by me, my name is Marc Fennell, it’s produced by Sam Loy, and executive produced by Darcy Sutton, Sarah Alexander, and Tom Ross.

This podcast was recorded and produced on Wurundjeri, Boonwurrung and Gadigal Country, and we pay respect to the traditional owners of these lands.

Thank you for listening to Not Alone.

Not Alone is hosted by Marc Fennell, produced by Sam Loy, mixed by Saskia Black, and executive produced by Darcy Sutton, Sarah Alexander and Tom Ross.

Our theme song, Sense of Home, is by Australian artist Harrison Storm.


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