My Journey With PTSD

Written in January 2018

I have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder

My Beginnings

I grew up on the Gold Coast, Queensland. My upbringing was full of love and my school-life rich and busy. Looking back, I would describe myself as a textbook overachiever; school captain, tennis team captain, debating team captain, chosen for young leader development programs, section leader and concertmaster (saxophone) of all the school bands, to name just a few. I was everything you might imagine a 17-year-old teenage boy would be; bright-eyed, energetic, optimistic, ambitious, materialistic, naive and the life of the party.

In September 2009, I graduated from Bond University with an undergraduate Business Law Degree. At the age of 20, I didn’t know much about the world, but I did know enough by then to realise that I didn’t want to be a Solicitor or join the proverbial hamster wheel and climb the corporate ladder. I had a solid grasp of the judicial system and was well practised in interpreting legislation and presenting evidence in a court setting. I was also young, energetic and considered myself to be quite fit and healthy.

Having just graduated from a degree that it seemed increasingly likely I wasn’t going to put to use, I assessed my career options for ways in which I could put my legal background and youthful exuberance to good use. At the time there seemed to be only one obvious choice, and that was to become a Queensland Police Officer.

The Queensland Police Service Academy

In February 2010, I began my journey to becoming a Police Officer at the Queensland Police Service Academy at Oxley. During this time, I was taught the essential skills of becoming a Police Officer – legislation, policy, firearms, driver training, physical skills and the field training program. On the 27th of August 2010, I marched out of the Academy as a sworn Constable of Police and began my first year of active duty as a First Year Constable, stationed on rotation in the Logan District. Logan was the ultimate training ground.

The Initial Years

My time at Crestmead Police Station, was a baptism by fire into elements of the community I not been exposed to previously. Domestic violence incidents, pursuits of stolen vehicles, armed robberies, murders and street brawls became my bread and butter. I adapted to this highly stressful workload (or so I thought) incredibly well and began to receive recognition and accolades from my peers and the Logan community alike quite early on. 12 months after my initial posting to Crestmead Police Station I became a Field Training Officer and began to mentor First Year Constables and recruits who would visit Crestmead Station on rotation. I thrived under the additional responsibility and took great pleasure in sharing my knowledge and promoting the growth and professional development of other officers who were fresh to wearing the suit of blue.

At about the same time as the experiences at Crestmead Police Station were unfolding, I remember beginning to feel fatigued for the first time. I put it down to the adrenaline dump of high-stress situations and the toll of shift work. I ignored the exhaustion and compensated with sugar and caffeine hits to help get me through each long day or night. Without understanding the emotional and physical debt that was slowly building, I found it difficult to sleep and without the skills to talk about it.  I also started to have mood swings, often easily irritated or offended over the slightest inconvenience. As I began to harden myself against the negatives of a job I was so good at, I had no idea that I was starting to unravel.

The Unravelling

It wasn’t until late 2012, when I had returned home from a suicide incident, that I began to experience nightmares. I had been to many suicide incidents before this one and still to this day I’m not sure what made this incident so significant. I won’t go into too much detail here, but needless to say, the death of a 12-year-old boy in Marsden hit me. Hard. I couldn’t sleep and when I did I would have nightmares. I couldn’t be alone with my thoughts because when I was, I experienced flashbacks and hyper-awareness of my surroundings. When I was on shift I would actively avoid patrolling or attending incidents on the same street of where this suicide occurred. This was the beginning of my PTSD journey.

I remained at Crestmead Police Station until 2014. During this time, I attended countless critical incidents where firearms were drawn, murders, suicides, home invasions, domestic violence, fatal traffic crashes and sexual assaults. All types of incidents that resulted in high stress and high adrenaline. A state of heightened conflict became the norm for me. I became addicted to the adrenaline rush of being first on the scene to a ‘hot job’ and all modesty aside, I was good at responding to critical incidents.

Unfortunately, I was not very good at processing these incidents and I carried the emotional load of them with me each day. My moods fluctuated all the time – I was up and down all at a given moment.  I was sad, happy, angry and distant. I would hardly ever sleep for fear of nightmares and reliving certain situations.  I also cried – a lot. I wasn’t able to understand what was happening to me and at the age of 23, I didn’t have the perspective or experience to understand that something may be wrong.

Police Officers weren’t meant to be flawed or vulnerable, they were strong, resilient individuals who wore a suit of blue Teflon.

I thought that Police Officers shouldn’t be flawed or vulnerable. My perception of Police Officers were that they were strong, resilient individuals who wore a suit of blue Teflon. I could’t reconcile what I was experiencing with what I thought to be true.

I also didn’t want the weight and the gravity of these situations and how I was feeling to affect my amazingly supportive partner Lisa, the result of which ultimately caused a relationship breakdown. And if you ask her, she’ll tell you about the agony of watching this change happen and the struggle to keep me communicating. That’s a whole other blog post. Well before I reached any state of self-awareness, I kept my emotions bottled up and immersed myself in high risk and high-stress situations.

S.O.S.

At the age of 23, I put my hand up for help. I recall asking Senior Officers for assistance as I knew I was struggling. The flashbacks, the nightmares, the hyper-vigilance became too much for me to bare and I couldn’t go through this any longer. When I had these conversations with Senior Officers, I wasn’t greeted with the reception that I had expected. I was told not to submit any official documentation or to reveal my struggle publicly or on the record for fear of what it may do to my reputation and my career prospects. The Officers I chose to confide in knew me well. They knew me as a young and ambitious Officer who had achieved a lot in operational Policing in a relatively short time. Because of this, I was told that if I needed help that I should source professional assistance privately and outside of the Service. Looking back now, after working through some anger, I don’t blame these Officers for their response. I harbour no animosity and place no blame. They were trying to protect me in the best way they knew how. They were working in a broken system that still perpetuated the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality. They were just looking out for my career and I still have a great deal of respect for each of them. But it leaves me with questions about Police culture, support and safety nets.

The PTSD Diagnosis

In late 2013 I hit rock bottom. I drank to excess, I pushed away those closest to me. I did things I’m not proud of. My relationship broke down.

I was no longer the Teflon Officer. I felt broken.

Looking back, this was my divine moment.  I had the choice of letting things get worse and wallowing further into depression and self-destructive behaviours or I could take decisive action and set about rebuilding my life and repairing the relationship damage that I had caused.

It took me a while to gather the courage to seek out professional assistance to help make sense of what I was experiencing. Looking back, I believe the reason it took me so long was a great deal of shame I felt for needing to reach out. I also didn’t want the Police Service to find out that I may have a mental illness for fear of what it would do to my career.  It took me until a point of complete overwhelm where I couldn’t think or do anything clearly. At this time, I visited my local GP and asked to be referred to a psychologist – privately. I was fortunate enough to be referred to one of the most esteemed psychologists on the Gold Coast who specialised in mental health and providing Cognitive Behaviour Therapy to emergency service personnel.

Having lived the experience of reaching out for help, the two things I couldn’t recommend higher would be to:

a) start with an appointment with your GP or treating physician AND

b) find a treatment option that works for you and keep trying until you’ve found it.

Whilst talk therapy/Cognitive Behaviour Therapy in combination with exercise worked for me,  it’s not the only treatment option available. There are a number of complimenting treatments available. Chat with your GP about what they would recommend and don’t be afraid to try a number of options until you find one that works for you.

I endured 3 months of intensive one on one Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, relaying the primary and secondary exposure to trauma and how they manifested and affected my personal life. During these sessions, the psychologist told me that I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. I had a mental illness. Part of me was relieved. Relief that someone finally has listened and that someone was taking my encounters with trauma seriously. I was also overwhelmed, vulnerable and felt a great deal of shame. I felt that I couldn’t let anyone know for that would be weak – the exact opposite of the Teflon officer who is bulletproof and resilient.

I decided to keep this diagnosis confidential for fear of what it would do to my occupation. I did, however, read extensively about what it meant to have PTSD. I tried my best to understand and better my situation and reached out to those I had pushed away. With a great deal of effort, courage, compassion, and love Lisa allowed me back into her life.

The Queensland Police Service Child Protection & Investigation Unit

In early 2014 I applied for and received my dream job – Plain Clothes Investigator with the Logan District Child Protection and Investigation Unit. The Officers in the Logan CPIU are amongst the most professional, diligent and resilient Detectives in the entire Police Service. They are skilled investigators, interviewers, critical thinkers, and innovators. I recall sitting a psychometric assessment prior to being appointed to the Unit. Part of which was disclosing any mental illnesses that I was or had experienced. I omitted the fact that I was suffering from PTSD as I knew I wouldn’t be successful in obtaining a position.

When I received the notification that I was successful in my application I was so proud and grateful to be a part of such an amazing team of investigators. We undertook many protracted and complex investigations of child abuse, instances of child harm and juvenile justice. Serious sexual and physical assaults and extreme cases of neglect became by bread and butter. I acknowledge that I write about these incidents with a degree of distance. It’s still a coping mechanism to distance myself from the emotional load that I carry with each of these incidents.

Leaving the Queensland Police Service

In 2015 I knew I had to leave the Queensland Police Service. I was truly grateful for the opportunity to be a part of the CPIU and contribute towards meaningful outcomes for some of the most vulnerable people in our community. But, despite these outcomes, I was still suffering from PTSD. Lisa had been successful in obtaining a position at Melbourne University to undertake a PhD in Music Composition. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. In August 2015, I made the difficult yet empowering decision to resign from the Queensland Police Service.

When we moved to Melbourne I tried a number of career options including Case Manager and Team Leader for a not for profit child welfare agency and Child Protection Practitioner with the Victorian Government. Nothing felt right and although I thought I was helping to better the lives of others, I was just another cog in the red-tape machine of government policy. I was also experiencing what I labelled a ‘detox’ period from the Police. Part of me was still seeking the thrills, adrenaline and the need to help and serve others that comes from being a frontline Police Officer. I was conflicted with thoughts of wanting to join Victoria Police, but after a considerable amount of soul searching, I knew this would be a detrimental choice to make.

At the same time, I signed up to a local gym and undertook several personal training sessions. I became fitter, stronger and faster than ever before. But the ultimate benefit? With a focus on fitness and overall wellness, my symptoms of PTSD – the flashbacks, the nightmares, the hypervigilance all dramatically decreased. My stress levels and sleep became regular and my relationships were thriving. I found great solace in the profoundly positive correlation between exercise and positive mental health regulation.

Vulnerability Can Equal Strength

To truly own my PTSD journey, I know that I have a personal and public responsibility to raise the profile of PTSD and to empower those who suffer from the debilitating disorder to seek the support of professionals who can help them recover. I have chosen to assist others who may be suffering from PTSD and lead by example by making my story and my journey public. I have chosen to do something which terrifies me, but for all the right reasons.

Up until now, I have been unable to sit for long periods of time in my own thoughts. For it’s in this quiet or reflection that thoughts, feelings, and memories associated with traumatic incidents generally occur. I am terrified at the thought of enduring these nightmares for a sustained period.

So, what am I going to do about it? Well, true to my ‘all or nothing’ personality, I’ve crafted up a scenario that gives me no option but to do exactly what I’ve been avoiding. In late August I will be facing this fear head-on by tackling an ultra-endurance event where I will be forced to sit with my thoughts and negative cognitions associated with my PTSD journey over six self-reliant days. I can only imagine how emotionally confronting this might be, more so than the physical challenges.

Extreme Measures: Passion meets process

In August 2018, I will be competing in the ‘Fire and Ice Ultra Marathon‘, one of the toughest multi-terrain races in the world, spanning 250 km through undulating terrain situated in the Icelandic Highlands. I will be representing Australia in Iceland, competing against some of the world’s most elite ultra-runners.  Whilst training for and competing in this gruelling event I am championing support and raising the awareness of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and the exceptional work conducted by Phoenix Australia – The National Centre for Excellence in Post Traumatic Mental Health.

Fire and Ice looks a little something like this…

My pursuit is to assist in changing the stigma that surrounds mental health, raise the profile of PTSD and to empower those who suffer from the debilitating disorder to seek the support of professionals who can help them recover. No one should suffer from this condition alone – I am racing to bring about change, raise awareness about trauma and PTSD and let others know that there is help available.

In competing in this event, I have the honour of being sponsored and supported by Kathmandu, who are supplying the technical gear and apparel required. I am truly grateful for their support! However, I am still responsible for my own training, travel, race fees, insurance, accommodation and on the ground expenses.

I know this is a big ask in so many ways: emotionally, physically and financially. I’m reaching out to ask for your help. I cannot complete this task without your support.

How To Show Your Support

  1. If you wish to support my participation in this ultra-marathon you can do so by making a donation through my ‘mycause’ page www.mycause.com.au/page/162984 until 1 August 2018. Funds raised through this platform will help to offset the significant preparation costs in representing Australia on the world stage as I run to raise the profile of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
  2. Help me in my goal of raising awareness of PTSD and support options and my journey by subscribing to this blog, sharing it with your friends and social  media platforms
  3. Pledge a donation to Phoenix Australia: Centre for Posttraumatic Mental Health via my ‘mycause’ page www.mycause.com.au/page/162984 as well. Your support means more than you realise, not only myself but to others who endure Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

2018: Where To From Here?

My next series of blog posts will cover both the physical and mental elements of training for the ultramarathon race (including strength, conditioning, mobility, recovery, mindset and nutrition), as well as my ongoing journey with PTSD. This will include the highs and the lows of relapse (being triggered and re-experiencing primary trauma symptoms), recovery and the residual symptoms associated with the reality of living with PTSD.

Further, in upcoming blogs, I look forward to sharing resources, books, podcasts and publications that are essential to have in all PTSD toolkits. If you’ve read or listened to something that you think is worth including in this list, please reach out – the more the better.

If you or someone you know and love experiences Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I invite you to get in touch via email or leave a comment below. If you were impacted by this post, I encourage you to contact a service from the list below and reach out for support.

Seeking Help for PTSD

Credit: Black Dog Institute

If your life is in danger call emergency services:

  • Australia – 000
  • New Zealand – 111

Lifeline Counselling (24 /7)

  • Australia – 13 1114
  • New Zealand – 0800 543 354

Men’s Line Australia – 1300 78 99 78

Beyond Blue Support Service – 1300 22 4636
Kids Help Line – 1800 55 1800
Suicide call back service – 1300 659 467

You can also: talk to someone you trust, visit a hospital emergency department, contact your GP, a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

Yours in health,

James

Blog Part 3: World Record Attempt, 24-Hour Ski for Charity

Written May 2019

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Team 24-Hour Ski

On Saturday the 11th of May 2019 – Sunday the 12 of May 2019, alongside teammates Kieran Bingham, Jordie Wilcock and Roy Hanford, I will attempt a small team ultra-distance world record for the furthest distance travelled in a 24-hour period on a Concept2 SkiErg machine. What’s a SkiErg machine? This is a SkiErg (click here!)

Whilst training for and performing this gruelling ultra-endurance world record attempt, the team are championing awareness, support and raising much-needed funds for two Australian based Non-Governmental Organisations – Beyond Blue and the Lighthouse Foundation.

Beyond Blue is an independent, not for profit organisation working to increase awareness and understanding of anxiety, depression and suicide and ultimately aims to help Australian’s achieve their best possible mental health. The Lighthouse Foundation is a non-denominational and independent organisation that provides homeless young people from backgrounds of long-term neglect and abuse, with a home, a sense of family, and around-the-clock therapeutic care that is individually tailored, trauma-informed and proven to work.

The world record attempt will be held at The Fit Project, a performance-driven functional training studio in Brunswick, Victoria. We are applying to have this world record recognised and approved by both Guinness World Records and Concept2.

We have created this event because we want to make a difference. We are inspired by the work that Beyond Blue and the Lighthouse Foundation undertakes and want to support both of these incredible organisations.

How To Show Your Support

If you are reading this blog and engaging with our world record attempt,  thank you. Your subscription to this forum is incredibly humbling and we definitely appreciate your time and energy. If you feel inclined to do so, I ask that you continue to support this forum by one of the options below.

  1. Help us in our goal of raising awareness of Beyond Blue and the Lighthouse Foundation by subscribing to this blog, sharing it with your friends and ‘liking’ our world record attempt social media pages: Instagram Facebook MyCause.
  2. Pledge a donation to Beyond Blue and the Lighthouse Foundation via our ‘MyCause’ page: https://www.mycause.com.au/page/192647/world-record-attempt-for-charity-maximum-distance-travelled-on-a-skierg-in-a-24hour-period

Thank you in advance for supporting this world record attempt for charity, and for reading this blog entry.

Yours in health,

James

Blog 2: Running Fire and Ice

Written October 2018

Hi all,

Thank you for reading Blog 2: Running Fire and Ice. This blog post will cover the incredible and life-changing experience of running in the ‘Fire and Ice Ultra’ 250KM ultra marathon event located in Iceland and held across the last week of August and the first week of September 2018. It will include the highest moments and the soul-crushing lows that are associated with ultra-running and the symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Before I launch into my account of what is known as one of the most challenging and technical multi-stage ultramarathon courses in the world, I wanted to briefly share a fundraising update.

Together, with crowdfunding and offline donations, we raised $4,500. This has gone such a long way in helping me realise my goal of embarking on this journey as well as raising much-needed funds and support of Phoenix Australia – The Centre for Excellence in Post Traumatic Stress. Also as a side note, these ten blog entries have been read by thousands of people and have been shared with complete strangers who are quite literally located on the opposite side of the world. I never could have imagined the reach a simple blog post could have and the true power of sharing stories and connecting with others. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for reading my story and for displaying the courage to be vulnerable and share your own with me. There is tremendous strength in vulnerability and ultimately it assists in breaking down the barriers to seeking and accessing help and removes the stigma associated with mental health conditions. To those who donated and to those who followed this journey – I love and cherish each of you. Your kindness will help change the face of mental health. Thank you for your generosity, support and kind words. At times during this event, your support was one of the only things keeping me together and empowering me to continue through some pretty harsh and adverse conditions.

The Fire and Ice Ultra Marathon

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Imagine the night before a major event. You can’t sleep due to a combination of excitement, nerves, anxiety and overthinking what’s to come. You’ve lost your appetite and currently running on fumes. Now add that you are sharing a tent with 7 other complete strangers who are feeling the exact same, in a country on the other side of the world, with mountainous and volcanic terrain, in sub-zero temperate – a cold like you have never felt before. This is how I started my race on Monday the 27th of August 2018. Whilst The Fire and Ice Ultra Marathon is a race, a more appropriate description is when a spiritual experience, overwhelming physical exhaustion and a constant mental battle meet to create an ultra-endurance event. The ‘Fire and Ice Ultra’ is a 250KM ultra-marathon event that is divided into 6 stages, across constantly changing Icelandic terrain. It’s also to important to mention that it’s a self-reliant event – everything you need for the run including food, water, clothing and first aid is carried on your back as you run, with most packs coming in at approx 12KG – 15kg worth of extra weight on day 1 of the race. 80 competitors registered from across the globe registered in this event, with 63 individuals making it to the start line.

Instead of creating a lengthy blog post with detailed entries, I’m choosing to provide an overview of the experience and the challenges faced. The summary of each day is contained below. If you would like further information, please feel free to get in contact.

If you are more visually inclined, check out the video link below which documents the highlights of the 6 day event.

Fire + Ice Ultra 2018 Iceland’s Toughest footrace. 250km in 6 days from Extreme Adventure Races on Vimeo.

At the start line on day 1, I experienced the magnificence of the Viking Clap – Huh! (link can be found here) It was about minus 8 degrees and to my absolute shock two of Iceland’s most fierce and hardened locals ripped off their shirts, pounded on a bass drum and lead us through a stirring pre-event ritual. I kept my clothes firmly fixed to my body as I shivered through the Viking Clap, looking to the snow-capped mountains and glaciers of Vatnajökull National Park in the distance.

Shortly after, we were off. I couldn’t contain my nervous energy and completely ditched my conservative race plan. For the first 5KM, I was within the top 10 and had eyes on Taiwan’s ultra-marathon champion, Tommy Chen, in first place. On a steep descent down the side of a mountain, I fell. Hard. At exactly 5.4KM into the 250KM endurance event, I had slammed my left knee into a large volcanic rock and was in considerable pain. I couldn’t stand and decided to untether my backpack and sit on the same rock that I had embarrassingly injured myself on for the better part of 20 minutes. With a rip in my compression tights and a swollen bloody knee, I assessed the damage. My mind immediately raced to unhelpful thoughts of shame, doubt and negative self-talk. Luckily it didn’t appear there was any race-ending damage and I was able to walk gingerly down the mountain and try a gentle canter. Obviously, my pace suffered and the race plan went straight out the window and I had to think on my feet – literally. I finished the first stage of the event in a very conservative placing. It was a very painful but timely reminder to check my ego at the start line, not worry about the other competitors in the field and run my own race.

Day 2 was more trying than day 1. The winds overnight were horrendous and the temperature dropped to about minus 12 degrees Celsius. I think I got about 3 or 4 hours sleep. I awoke to falling snow (which I had never seen before!) and watched the dark grey storm clouds roll in. On the start line for day 2, I experienced my first blizzard and thought that there was no possible way to run in these conditions – turns out, I was wrong! The ever strong and half-naked Icelandic Viking clap occurred once more and moments later, we trudged along a snow-covered track, battling ice, rain and high winds. At about the 25KM mark, I recall feeling sharp pains along my upper and lower back, both hips and across my abdomen. The wet weather in combination with a backpack that was more appropriate for hiking than it was for ultra running, was rubbing against my skin and creating large and painful friction burns. Each step on the undulating volcanic terrain was more painful than the last and as I ran my hand along my back to ascertain exactly what was happening, I felt the raw skin and blisters underneath my fingers. I recall running through the coldest weather I have ever experienced, with tears of agony running down my face from the friction burns. This was a very personal and an exceptionally painful moment. To make things worse, I felt a series of foot blisters developing and a torn toenail floating in my sock. At the end of the marathon distance of day 2, I visited the event medics to assess the damage. The friction burns were deep, painful and tracked along most of my back and sides. Taking off the backpack and removing wet clothing was excruciating. Thoughts of not being able to finish, with a bung knee and horrible back burns, started to enter my mind. Fortunately, the medics patched up the injuries, popped the blisters and taped down my floating toenail. They also reminded me of why I was doing this event in the first place – to shine a bright light on mental health, to help remove the associated stigma and to empower those who endure mental health difficulties to seek the support of professionals who can help them recover. With this in mind, my resolve hardened and I knew that I would finish this event, no matter what challenges were presented.

Day 3 was a welcome change. a slight change in weather, a change in scenery, a change in mindset and a change in performance. I began to focus less on injuries and adversity and focus on the picturesque surrounds of Vatnajökull National Park, remembering how lucky I was to be a part of an amazing event in the most beautiful country I have ever visited. I could write for days about how stunning the Icelandic wilderness is and it wouldn’t do it any justice. It’s just something that has to be experienced. I remember looking up at snow-capped mountains looming in both the background and foreground and thinking how amazingly fortunate I was to be running through this terrain. Although the injuries were still very present, I ran like the wind on this day. It felt amazing to be running the course, and I finished the marathon distance within the top third of all competitors. When I crossed the line I was absolutely elated. I then began to panic, as the very next day was the big one – 70KM of ultra running and my placing on day 3 would put me amongst the faster runners for day 4. Regardless, I remember crawling into the tent, setting up my blow up mattress and tucking into a bland dinner of freeze-dried pasta with a huge smile on my face. Today was a good day.

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Day 4 was brutal. Absolutely brutal. I awoke to a feeling of nausea and complete loss of appetite. The smell of my oats, peanut butter and protein shake for breakfast made me sick. As a result, I disposed of my breakfast and approximately half of my overall remaining food for the race. I couldn’t fathom the thought of eating (for those who know me well, this is completely out of character!) We set off at about 7:00am that morning and ran 70KM of the most technical, undulating and challenging terrain I have ever experienced. To say day 4 crushed my spirits was an understatement. There were freezing cold water crossings, mountain climbs that seemed never-ending and thick lantana scrub and bushes that were incredibly draining to run through. To make things worse, I ate hardly anything that day and had nothing in the tank to power me through. At the 50KM mark, I collapsed and vomited next to a large boulder on the side of a 4 wheel drive track. I sat there for a few moments, as my legs stopped working momentarily and I couldn’t stand. I was totally overcome with emotion and sobbed uncontrollably. The final hours of the 70KM day were filled with mental health triggers and their corresponding symptoms. I spent hours in isolation battling some very challenging and intrusive mental health demons. I could only focus on the slideshow of vivid imagery relating to the occupational trauma (the dead bodies, the adrenaline-filled response of pulling a firearm on an armed offender, the child abuse and sexual assault investigations etc.) and workplace culture issues that I experienced in my previous occupation as a Queensland Police Officer. As I neared the finish line I could hear a faint cheer in the distance. The problem was, I couldn’t see the finish line. I was so delirious from the calorie deprived, PTSD symptom filled 70KM run, that I actually travelled away from the finish line instead of towards it. I remember being coached towards the finish line and upon reaching the end, I fell to my knees and sobbed, again. I was guided to my tent by a fellow racer and lay on the floor of the tent in tears, forcing multiple jelly snakes into my mouth for a final burst of energy needed to roll out my sleeping mat and collapse.

On the morning of day 5, I remember feeling very fatigued. The lightweight blow up mattress wasn’t thick enough to elevate my aching body from the rocks underneath the tent floor. My knees were swollen, my back was raw and I was very hungry after having thrown out my breakfast supplies the day before. To add more complaints to the list of body ailments, I lost feeling in two toes and the arch of my left foot. I could hardly fathom running another marathon distance. After a visit to the event medics for a quick patch-up job of my back, we set off along tricky volcanic rock terrain and thick scrub like bushes. A number of highlights for this day included running past boiling volcanic mud pools, and steaming sulphur geysers. Iceland is truly a wild natural landscape. At the finish line, I recall feeling absolute relief. After this day, I knew there was only 20KM left to run on day 6. We had done the hard yards and we had completed 230KM. The journey was almost complete. The campsite for night 5 was the first location where I had phone service. I remember calling Lisa and the moment I heard her voice, I broke down into a blubbering mess of tears, homesickness and epic stories from the race.  As a special treat, we were all given a small bottle of soft drink (it doesn’t sound like much, but this dramatically improved the mood at camp!) and we were transported to a beautiful hot spring pool, to soak our battered bodies and to celebrate reaching what was almost the final stage of this 250KM ultramarathon. It was a magical day.

Day 6. The final 20KM stage. Naively, I thought this would be a short sprint to the finish line. Usually, I would easily run 20KM  in under 1.5 hours. However, when I was greeted with a massive hill climb and very technical terrain 100 metres into the run, I knew this wouldn’t be a walk in the park. I recall sliding down very steep mountains, twisting my ankle in between rocky crevices and losing the contents of my backpack on far more than one occasion. The route for the final leg of the 250KM ultramarathon was gruelling and every single kilometre felt like 10 kilometres of ankle snapping terrain. I remember thinking ‘slow and steady. You haven’t come this far just to get this far. Finishing is the only objective.’ At the 19KM mark, I remember climbing a hill, running down the other side and hearing loud cheers and the beating of a bass drum in the distance. I knew I was almost home and it was time to put the foot down and leave nothing in the tank. For the first time in days, I didn’t feel the injuries, instead, I felt a surge of adrenaline. As I rounded a corner and saw the final 100 metre straight, I was handed an Australian flag by one of the race doctors. With tears streaming down my face, and my country flag firmly held by both hands above my head, I crossed the finish line. Never before have I felt such relief, pride and elation. I was handed a medal so large that you could eat a meal on its surface, and shared many embraces the friendly faces of those who had finished before me. After a quick phone call to Lisa and a dash to the pub (the finish line was literally located on the same grounds as a local pub), we stayed for hours and celebrated the achievements each competitor, who proudly planted their flag in the ground as they crossed the finish line.

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There is so much more to document. I could write endlessly on what it was like to train for, compete in and finish this event. To some, it may seem like from reading the paragraphs above that this event was a horribly painful experience. Whilst the injuries were very much present, this wasn’t my take home or overall feelings about the event. This was an incredible experience. I was challenged beyond belief physically, emotionally and mentally. The symptoms associated with my PTSD diagnosis were prominent on many occasions and there were some moments where I was completely overwhelmed. However, this race showed me that I am far more than a diagnosis of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and that even though this is very much a part of my life and the way I experience the world around me, it doesn’t define who I am or what I am capable of. What better way to learn this about myself than to have this realisation in the most spectacular country I have ever visited. To those who have difficulties with their mental health or those who have a mental health diagnosis – you are not broken or weak.

There is nothing ‘wrong’ with you, and even though you sometimes face adversity with mental ill-health, it’s entirely possible to feel well in many aspects of life, thrive and excel at your passions and achieve more than you could possibly imagine.

To the Fire and Ice crew and medical team- you are all exceptional. Without your support, I’m not sure I would have found the spirit to push on. I definitely wouldn’t have been able to go another day without the care and aid of the medical team! Seriously, thank you for all you do to make this event such a success and a life-changing experience. To Race Directors Dave and Jorunn – you have created something amazing. Thank you.

This race and the advocacy work that has occurred in the lead up, has inspired me to not only passionately continue with my professional role at Beyond Blue but also to assist in changing the stigma that surrounds mental health conditions and to share with others the knowledge that it’s ok to not be ok and that there are a variety of mental health professionals who can provide the supports necessary for recovery. This is just the beginning of this journey and I’m excited to see what amazing things are to come.

Thank you all who supported my Fire and Ice journey and read the blogs detailing my training regime leading up to the race event and my journey with mental ill-health. I am forever grateful.

Seeking Help for PTSD

If your life is in danger call emergency services:

  • Australia – 000
  • New Zealand – 111

Lifeline Counselling (24 /7)

  • Australia – 13 1114
  • New Zealand – 0800 543 354

Beyond Blue Support Service – 1300 22 4636

Men’s Line Australia – 1300 78 99 78
Kids Help Line – 1800 55 1800
Suicide call back service – 1300 659 467

You can also: talk to someone you trust, visit a hospital emergency department, contact your GP, a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist.

Thank you for reading and for being an integral part of changing the face of mental health.

Yours in health,

James