Nick’s story…

Where to begin?! I guess the best place to start would be to explain a bit about where I’ve come from.

I am what’s considered to be a “lived experience” practitioner, meaning instead of taking the conventional scholastic route to becoming a psychotherapist, I went to the “school of life” and my initial teachers were my mistakes.

I was medically discharged from the Armoured Corp in the Australian Army in 2002 with a permanent knee injury along with anxiety and depression. I had been training hard because East Timor was just kicking off and as a recon soldier based in Darwin, we were going to be first cabs off the rank to go and calm things down a bit.

That’s when my knee blew out, and it all started spiralling downhill from there. The operation I had was not successful, meaning the rehabilitation I did had no real effect. I was on crutches and in a knee brace for 3 months, then on restricted duties until I discharged.

I’m not entirely sure how it is now but at the time, being in an all male regiment, there was a lot of testosterone pumping through the unit and as a result, a fair amount of toxic masculinity and machoism. Because I could no longer do my job, I was seen as a “gimp” and “malingerer” and quickly became a target for bullying.

My Sergeant at the time wasn’t my biggest fan and saw my downfall as a weakness, one that he seemed to take great pleasure in exploiting. Countless times he would charge me with disobeying his commands…commands I was not able to meet due to my injury. I feel those under his command looked to him for guidance on how to treat me, and when they saw how he kicked me while I was down, they took that as a cue.

I’ll spare you the intimate details, but I’ve since come to learn that one experience involving 6 or 7 of my fellow corp members amounted to what has been labelled as “sexualised violence”.

I didn’t notice at the time but looking back can now see there was a mental trauma as well as the physical one. I loved my job…especially the physicality of it. I had run for the Army in the Defence Force Games, had a beep test score of 15.3 under my belt, was running 6km in 19 minutes and 2.4km in 7.13 seconds. I was bloody fit and loved running.

To have that taken away at a young age (I was 22), I wasn’t equipped to deal with the loss or to handle the bullying and bastardisation. Add to that my future was suddenly gone, my family were on the other side of the continent and most of my friends deserted me in fear of getting caught in my crossfire…it was never going to end well.

At my medical discharge, the Army doctor’s parting words to me were “I’m going to make sure a malingering bastard like you never gets back in this man’s army again!” acting like it was my fault my knee no longer worked. That about sums up that year of my life.

People ask me “What was it like in the Army?” and I’m very thankful I can now say “It was a really important chapter in my life” rather than all the expletives I used for awhile there.

So off I went, back out onto “civvy street” a bit banged up mentally and physically with no plan or goals. They had kindly suggested I do a barista course but not being a coffee drinker, it didn’t really interest me. There was no support from the Department of Veterans Affairs (DVA) in relation to ongoing counselling or physical rehab so no strategies were put in place to sort those things out.

Fast forward 6 years and a much heavier (alcohol was my drug of choice to ease the pain which piles on the kilos) and toxic version of myself hit rock bottom. I’d left a trail of broken relationships and empty bottles through Europe and SE Asia, eventually finding myself in Mt Martha on the Mornington Peninsula, an hour south of Melbourne. Lovely part of the world if you fancy a visit.

Rock bottom for me consisted of depression feeling so heavy that the only way out I could envisage was to take my own life. I had no purpose, felt I had no value and nothing to live for. Meanwhile, my anxiety became so debilitating that I developed agoraphobia (fear of crowds and public spaces) and I literally could not open my front door.

There were no physical barriers…it wasn’t nailed or blocked or bolted shut; my mind had created an invisible barrier that I couldn’t get past. The catalyst for this was that I had recently linked in with DVA which nearly crushed me. I became that afraid of receiving their correspondence that I couldn’t bring myself to even go out and check the letterbox.

It was standing at the door wondering how it had come to this that a thought struck me out of nowhere - “If my mind is capable of doing this, what’s it capable at the other end of the spectrum?” That then triggered another thought - “Am I really here, in this life, just to experience this pain and then kill myself?” Thankfully I found the answer to be no.

I reached out to a GP who had helped me and he put me in touch with a psychologist a few minutes from home. Somehow I managed to make an appointment, open the door, nearly throw up as I walked past the letter box and made my way into her office.

Psychologists study in different fields, and I was fortunate to come across one who was trained in Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) which seemed to resonate with me. I remember her saying when I no longer felt I needed her help that all she did was create a space for me to “break down and then build up again”, something I’m now fortunate to be able to do for my clients.

So nearly 12 months was spent in this space, deconstructing and then reconstructing myself. I had a lot of baggage to offload, a lot of forgiving and accepting to learn, and a hell of a lot of rewiring to do. Once I had created a much healthier “foundation” it was amazing at how everything changed. How when I changed, everything else changed. How when I freed myself from the past and brought my thoughts back from the future, how happy and at peace I was.

With a clean slate, it was time to start building a life worth living again. It was different this time - I didn’t have the same capabilities as I once had and I had been forged by experience, but what I did have I felt was much more valuable.

I had no idea what a psychotherapist was, let alone dreams of becoming one. In fact if you had have told me back then that I would be typing this whilst sitting in a 5 star, internationally acclaimed luxury health resort in Thailand where I was working as a visiting mental health practitioner, I would have dead set laughed in your face.

But here I am. 10 years, lots of study to become qualified to help people and and many versions later, I have a smile on my face which comes from within.

If you have made it this far, I sincerely thank you for taking the time to read this. I welcome any feedback or questions you may have so please leave a comment below and I will answer as best I can.

Thank you.

Nick Sutherland.