February 7, 2009: Black Saturday
A day that would become etched in the memory of millions of Australians.
But for Cliff Overton, a CFA firefighter, it was actually the next day that would alter his life forever.
He was part of a team of firefighters that received instruction to drive around the surrounding bushfire-affected area and look for survivors.
They piled into their trucks and began the search.
“I was thinking, ‘OK, this could be the day when I see what a fire does to people’,” he recalls.
That Sunday, Cliff saw death and devastation on a scale almost impossible to comprehend.
“We found a lot of people. But we didn’t find any survivors.”
He remembers the shock. The despair. Then the guilt.
As a CFA volunteer and staff member with a history working in community safety, Cliff ultimately felt responsible for the deaths of 173 people. To avoid dwelling on what he had seen, Cliff went back to work just two days later. On the way, he stopped for a coffee. The man serving saw Cliff’s CFA uniform and gave him the coffee free of charge.
Returning to the car, Cliff sat in the driver’s seat and began to cry uncontrollably.
“I had never cried that way in my life. I was throwing up tears,” he says.
When the tears stopped, he started the car and drove to work. “I thought, ‘I've had the big cry, I’m sorted.’”
October, 2009: Diagnosis
After Black Saturday, Cliff had been asked to take two weeks stress leave and attend some appointments with a psychologist.
He’d dedicated his life to helping others. Receiving help though was another matter. He told the psychologist exactly what he thought they needed to hear in order to let him back to work.
“I would deliver what was required without actually being a part of it. I’d compartmentalise myself out of the session and almost observe it.”
Cliff soon returned to work.
Some eight months later, seemingly out of nowhere, Cliff thought he was having a heart attack.
He raced to a hospital and, after several tests, was told by doctors he had likely experienced a panic attack. This led to some further sessions with a psychologist and Cliff was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
He welcomed the diagnosis.
“I could have happily worn the T shirt saying, I have PTSD,” he says. “I would have worn it as a badge of honour.
Though readily accepting the diagnosis, he didn’t engage with the suggested treatment.
In his own words, "I would happily talk to people about it. But I wasn't doing anything about it.”
To his family, friends and colleagues, he continued to present the brave, unaffected front.
2014: Committing to recovery
Years passed and the façade began to wear.
He had trouble concentrating. His relationships were suffering. And he couldn’t turn off the “slideshow in his head” replaying everything he had seen on that Sunday back in 2009.
“It's like the computer jammed and the slideshow just ran non-stop in front of me,” he says. “I had 173 people imagined in my head judging me.”
“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.”
With the help of wife Tanya, he decided the time had come to commit to his recovery. The first step was to leave work in the emergency management sector and focus on his health.
Conveniently, there was a psychologist practising next door to their Melbourne home.
For the first time in his life, Cliff engaged with professional help. No more telling them what he thought they needed to hear.
And so, twice a week for the next eight months, Cliff would wake up, make a cup of tea and walk next door to his session. They worked on ways he could deal with the vivid memories.
“We worked on techniques to normalise the responses to those experiences and consciously park them,” he says.
Today: Post-traumatic growth
Today, Cliff is able to deal with the slideshow that has haunted him for so long.
“The software in my head is improved. I can actually turn it (the slideshow) off and move it into a folder and put it away. It’s not in my way anymore."
Is it possible that, through trauma, he has grown as a person?
“Yes,” he answers without hesitation.
“My values have changed. I value life experience and good relationships over stuff. It's a much better place.”
Cliff has also seen the importance of taking time for himself in activities that allow him to switch off. He finds mindfulness in growing vegetables and tinkering with motorcycles.
Most importantly, he has embraced the continuous nature of his recovery journey. He isn’t working to an end goal, he’s just working on healing each day. It’s a lesson he wants to share with others who are experiencing PTSD.
“Don't be afraid for things to come up,” he says. “...understand this is part of your mind helping you to deal and recover. Be open to further investigations, conversations and experiences along the way, because they're all going to contribute to your healing.”
“Your recovery journey never really stops because it becomes your growth journey. So many other things in life are never fixed or unfixed. Your relationships, your career, your experiences... it's all part of change. It continues.”
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