“I always had this sort of short fuse that would kind of just go off.”
Ross Read grew up in the 80s on his family’s dairy farm in central Victoria. Even as a kid, Ross put in long days helping with the cattle. He was used to being frustrated, shouting or swearing when something wasn’t going right.
"My brother would just walk the other way. Mum or Dad would probably just absorb it. They just thought I was angry because the cow was doing something wrong,” says Ross.
“I just thought that was who I was.”
While he didn’t recognise it at the time, Ross was bottling up something that had happened to him years earlier. As much as he tried to bury these feelings, they started to seriously affect his mental health.
Taking over the farm, dealing with drought
In the mid-90s, Ross and his brother took over the farm and expanded, taking on more land and more cattle. Then came one of the worst droughts on record in Australia’s south.
Having experienced drought in the past, Ross and his brother assumed this one wouldn't last more than a couple of years. So they just knuckled down.
But by the late 2000s, the drought still hadn’t lifted. The strain of life on the farm, coupled with Ross’ anger, started to take a toll on his relationships. With his brother. With his wife and two young children. And with himself.
“I was going off; I had no control. It was just me venting... letting out everything that I could at that point. So, whatever I was frustrated at – that cow, or that tractor, or whatever else I was angry at – that just took the whole brunt,” says Ross.
“I felt like I didn’t have control of the situation, that I was a failure and I started hating being a dairy farmer. My stress levels were off the chart, my mental health was terrible, but if you asked was I okay, I would have smiled and said, ‘I’m fine’.”
Reaching a crossroads, asking for help
All of this came to a head one day in 2008 when Ross was driving home from a trip to Adelaide. Alone with his thoughts, Ross began questioning whether his life on the farm was a life he wanted.
“I was driving and I remember the sign in front of me was an arrow to Sydney and the arrow to the right was directing me back home. And I sat at that intersection for half an hour or so, just deciding which way.”
For Ross, the turn to Sydney not only represented escape, it meant giving his family some relief Ross had convinced himself that his wife and two young boys would be better off without him.
After some time, Ross chose to go right. Back to his farm. To his family. And to face his anger.
That’s when he booked an appointment with his GP.
Uncovering trauma, understanding the impact
At that appointment, somewhat unexpectedly, Ross opened about something he had buried for a long time: the abuse he had experienced as a child.
“It started when I was about five. I didn’t recognise it as abuse. I knew it didn’t feel right. It was just what happened,” says Ross.
“I couldn’t tell anyone. Mum and dad never knew. It was kind of this wall that I put up."
By not talking about the abuse, Ross had hoped it would just go away.
"That’s what I did. For years.”
This visit to the GP became a turning point.
“I felt a sense of relief, that I didn’t need to hide the truth. This was the first time I spoke about living with the guilt and shame of being abused and how I blamed myself for what had happened,” says Ross.
“It was no turning back. It couldn’t be stuffed back away.”
The GP walked Ross though a mental health treatment plan and referred him to a psychologist.
“My first few sessions were an emotional roller-coaster. I don’t think I have cried as much as I did in those first few visits, but it was like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.”
It’s well over a decade on and Ross has been seeing his psychologist ever since those first sessions.
Cognitive behaviour therapy has empowered Ross to work through the feelings of hurt and humiliation stemming from his abuse.
“[My psychologist] was able to explain how traumatic events that happen in your life that are no fault of your own. They can develop into a serious mental illness if not diagnosed and treated properly,” says Ross.
Therapy has also helped Ross to understand his anger and why he reacts as he does when he feels like he’s not in control. He’s learnt that he needs to take a breath, think about who or what is causing him to feel angry and why that might be happening.
Making peace with himself
Ross has come to realise that despite the strain of trying to run the farm through drought, the property holds a special place in his heart.
“I really think for those early years, the farm did save me. Yes, it was a means of hiding, but it allowed me time to grow, allowed me time to build some confidence,” Ross explains.
“It’s just that sort of safe space.”
Listen to Ross' story on Beyond Blue's Not Alone podcast.