Slay Your Demons
ALLAN SPARKES – Former Policeman
This highly decorated policeman fought and won a brutal battle against post-traumatic stress disorder and chronic depression
I joined the police force as a 19-year-old in 1977. I loved the job, loved being a cop. But two events led to me becoming seriously mentally unwell.
The first took place in July 1995, at Crescent Head on the NSW north coast. A gunman murdered two of my colleagues. The events of that night were terrifying – the most challenging I’ve ever been involved with.
The second event happened in May 1996, when a little boy who’d been playing in a flooded creek was washed into a stormwater drain. Along with my partner, Gav Dengate, and paramedic Michael Marr, we got him out of there, but it was an insane situation. I came very, very close to drowning that day. (Sparkes was later awarded the Cross of Valour, Australia’s highest bravery decoration, for his part in the rescue.)
Those events commenced the process of chronic PTSD coupled with severe depression. I developed feelings of worthlessness. My body was locked in an excruciating pain. I was continually reliving those horrible experiences; hearing the sounds, smelling the smells. I was in physical and psychological agony. When I slept I had nightmares about hurting my wife and daughter.
For me, the greatest challenge was to admit I wasn’t well. Back then, it was felt that people couldn’t recover from psychological injury. If a policeman developed a mental illness they were discarded from the Force – which is what happened to me in 1998. So the option of putting a bullet in my head seemed a better option than admitting I was ill.
The day I was going to shoot myself – it was in October 1996 – I was taken to hospital for crisis counselling, where I broke down and disclosed all the horrors I was going through. The next day I saw a psychiatrist and he asked me, “Did I want to live or did I want to die?” I wanted to live but I was terrified about what was going to happen. That’s when he told me I was suffering PTSD and depression. And as soon as I had that diagnosis my mind sharpened. I thought: Okay, this is what I’ve got. Can I get better?
In my eyes, I was exposed as a failure. I wasn’t a father, a husband, a policeman – I was nothing. I had to go to the local psychiatric unit three days a week. It was also the local methadone clinic, so I was sitting there with heroin addicts. This was in a town where I was the president of the local rugby club, an accomplished detective – and here I was classed as a mental wreck.
I’ve always been a proud man and I see now that during the years after I was discharged from the Force I was searching for something that would give me back my sense of self-worth. I built a successful marine surveying company. Outwardly, I was a success. But I wasn’t happy. I began to feel sick again. So I went back to my psychiatrist.
He asked: “What is it that you truly want to do?”
“I want to sail across an ocean,” I replied.
“Well go and do it.”
So that’s exactly what my family and I did. In March 2009 – almost 13 years after I considered suicide – my wife and I and our two daughters went to London, bought a yacht and spent 19 months sailing it back to Australia.
I’m proud of my story. And I’m proud of the fact that my story gives hope to those who are struggling with mental illness, people who are unsure if they’re ever going to recover. You can recover. You can get better. And when you do, you become a more resilient person.
ASK FOR HELP
This, for Sparkes, was the hardest but most important step of all. “To admit that you’re struggling and need help takes phenomenal courage,” he says.
BREAK A SWEAT
According to a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine, exercise can relieve depression as effectively as antidepressants. During the early days of his recovery, Sparkes was spending up to eight hours a day in the gym, something he says assisted greatly in achieving his goal of ending his own antidepressant use.
FIND YOUR CALLING
For Sparkes, the recovery process was all about rediscovering his sense of self-worth. Find that thing you truly want to do and pursue it like a bloodhound on a scent.
– Allan Sparkes is an ambassador for beyondblue and Soldier On
Redefine Your Limits
CHIEF BRABON – Ultra Runner
After suffering a crippling neck injury, Brabon has gone on to win some of the world’s most demanding foot races.
The most pain I’ve ever been in during an ultra? That would have to be the last few kilometres of the 2014 Palm Ultra in Florida. I was jetlagged and it was 38°C, but for the first 45km I felt great. Then I started to cramp. And cramp. And cramp. By the last 3km, the cramps were so bad I couldn’t even bend my arm to get food or water in my mouth. Every muscle in my body was cramping: my hands, my neck, my jaw – everything.
For those last few kays, I was just telling myself: Get to the next corner, get to the next sign. I broke those kilometres into 50-metre goals. That’s what kept me going. But the pain was incredible. I couldn’t even run across the finish line. All I could muster was a weird stiff-legged shuffle. Luckily I’d worked hard enough in the first 45km that I was able to hold on and win the race . . .
Running was the only sport I was good at as a kid. After faking my age on the entry form and running my first marathon at 16, I discovered that the longer the race, the more I liked it. So I kept going longer and longer, finding whatever I could that would challenge me in different ways.
Then in 1998 I fractured my C1 vertebrae. I was working as a security guard and copped a two-by-four across the face. A nerve was caught inside the fracture and I basically had headaches 24 hours a day. During bad periods, I’d go three days without sleep.
I didn’t do any competitive running for 16 years. But then my wife, Em, signed on to run Sydney’s Centennial Park Ultra and I decided to do it with her. I came up with a training plan that didn’t involve long runs, rocked up on the day, and came third. I’ve built on my ultra running from there. I’ve probably run about 30 ultra marathons now. I’ve won the Hunter-Gatherer Ultra in Texas twice and hold the course record for the Palm Ultra.
People say to me, “Wow, your headaches must be better”. Well, no. They’re no better than they were when I was taking horse tranquillisers to sleep. The difference is, I’ve learned how to cope with the pain. It’s like having a pierced ear – you don’t notice it’s there until you stop and think about it.
GET OUT OF YOUR COMFORT ZONE
"Work to your weaknesses in training,” says Brabon. “Get to that point where you feel like you’ve been worked over with a baseball bat, take your recovery, then go again.”
ONE STRIDE AT A TIME
Don’t fixate on the finish line. “Just focus on that next stride,” says Brabon. “Then focus on the next one. And the next one . . . ”
PAIN OR DISCOMFROT?
“I have a mantra I put to my clients when I’m training them: this is not pain – it’s discomfort and distraction.” In discomfort? Then keep going.
Reach Your Peak
ANDREW LOCK – Mountaineer
Australia’s most successful mountaineer has spent three decades bagging summits in the deadliest environment on Earth
When things are going pear-shaped on a mountain, I get angry – and that anger fuels me. The more the wind blows, the colder it gets, the more I relish it.
I remember spending a night on an ice shelf at 8000 metres on Shishapangma (the 14th highest mountain in the world). A storm was blowing in and my climbing partner and I were in real danger of freezing to death. That night I locked myself in a head battle with the mountain. The colder it became, the more determined I became to beat it. It’s empowering; the worse the conditions, the stronger I feel in my ability to fight them.
I got into mountaineering in my early twenties after watching a slideshow on climbing Everest. I was inspired; it became my life goal to climb that mountain. But my first two Everest expeditions ended in failure. The second expedition was the worst I’ve ever been on: it was dysfunctional, there were competing egos, a climber died.
After that expedition, I realised I couldn’t rely on the momentum of a team to carry me to the summit of Everest – I needed to drive my own success. So I decided to climb other 8000m peaks before coming back to Everest. It was all about breaking that long-term goal down into achievable chunks. I went away and built my skills until I was in a position to lead an expedition to the summit of Everest, which I did in 2000. It was a long process that taught me a powerful lesson: the greatest challenges in life require self-leadership.
I’m practical on mountains – some might even say “cold”. On Dhaulagiri (the seventh highest mountain in the world) I got buried in an avalanche. My climbing partners had to dig me out of the ice. It was a terrifying experience – I survived by the skin of my teeth. Afterwards, everyone else in my party wanted to go back down but I wanted to keep going up. From a pragmatic perspective, that was one less avalanche that was going to come down. Mountaineering is all about seizing the moment. If you allow the external factors to dictate how you operate then you’re never going to reach the summit.
Yes, I feel fear – there have been plenty of times where I found religion on those mountains! I remember an avalanche on Annapurna that swept four of my companions down the mountain, killing one of them. As this thing roared towards me, I had a split second of pure fear – I was certain I was about to die. Then my rational self kicked in and said: You’ve accepted these risks for years; it would be hypocritical to be afraid now. And I realised in that moment that all those risks, challenges, losses – they had all been worthwhile. It was comforting to reflect rationally on the situation and to reconcile that it was okay to die at this point. Fortunately I didn’t . . .
For more information go to andrew-lock.com
DO IT YOUR WAY
Don’t rely on the momentum of others to carry you towards your objective – drive that progress yourself. “You’ve got to take the bull by the horns,” says Lock.
CHUNK IT UP
Breaking up your goal into achievable steps militates against stagnation. Want to run a marathon? Snap out a 10-kay first, then build from there.
THRIVE ON OBSTACLES
Facing difficulties? Use that energy to keep moving forward. “On mountains, I absorb the energy of the attack against me and convert it into my own energy to fight back,” says Lock.
Silence Your Pain
MICHAEL CLARKE – Former Test Cricketer
Behind battles waged against the world’s most fearsome fast bowlers, Clarke was locked in a private struggle against searing pain.
I had my first lower-back flare-up at 17 – an MRI scan showed I had degeneration in three discs. I could count on one hand how many Tests I played with no pain. There were days it felt impossible to get out of bed. Days I’d have to walk around barefoot because I couldn’t put my shoes and socks on, and other days when I’d hold on to my wife’s shoulders while she put them on for me. Then she’d drive me to the SCG because we had a Test match starting that week. Somehow I’d get in the car and get to training. And after warming up and stretching, things would get a little easier.
Nerve pain meant I lost a lot of strength in the right side of my body, particularly my calf. By the end of my career the quick bowlers sensed I was vulnerable. I don’t think anyone knew it was because of my back, though. They thought: Michael’s got a problem with the short ball so we’re going to attack him.
The quicks thought I had a weakness and they weren’t wrong. It was hard for me to sway out of the line of the ball, and hard for me to get on top of the ball with not enough strength in my calf to get on my toes. When you’ve got a rock coming at your head at 140 or 150km/h, your natural reaction is to get out of the way. But that kind of quick movement would cause my back to flare.
One way I coped was to acknowledge that everyone has injuries. You accept you have a problem, you learn as much as you can about it, and then you manage it. I made sure my core and back muscles were as strong as they could be. And I carried very little excess weight. At those times my back was at its worst and I’d have four or five days in bed when it was hard even to get to the bathroom . . . well, in those periods you do whatever you can to survive, I guess.
People ask me whether my back problem hindered my performance. I look at it this way: I turned the pain into a strength. It made me get out of bed every day that I could with the goal of becoming fitter and stronger. I knew I’d have to do extras. And I knew recovery for me was just as important as batting in the nets. I’m proud that I missed only one Test match because of my back.
Don’t catastrophise discomfort. “Pain levels do not depend on what’s happening in the tissue, but on what the brain thinks is happening in the tissue,” says Moseley. “Pain is 100 per cent about protection.
“The buffer between pain and serious damage is a reasonably big one. When your body is truly in trouble it will find a way to stop you.”
Your takeout: you can generally push though pain without wrecking yourself.
EYE THE BIG SCORE
Distraction is your friend when it comes to pushing through pain. “The people who cope best with pain are the ones who can find something that’s more important than protecting their body,” says Moseley.