“I don’t fall apart so easily”: Trauma survivor shares his PTSD recovery journey

Clinical psychologists Janice Liew, Jo Hew and Jo Del Riccio, senior clinical psychologist Dr Denise Chu and IVPRS clinical senior Batoul El-Husseini. Together they form the WSLHD Mental Health Service comprehensive dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) program team.

Homeless at seven, Barry suffered abuse and alcoholism before he was old enough to drive.

But the Harris Park resident is on the right track thanks to mental health support received from Western Sydney Local Health District (WSLHD).

From a young age Barry experienced symptoms as a result of his neglect and abuse, including daily suicidal thoughts, severe mood swings, hypervigilance and an inability to handle stress.

It wasn’t until his 30s that he was diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and began getting the help he needed.

“I wouldn’t be here without therapy,” Barry said.

Therapy doesn’t make you better. My symptoms don’t go away. But it helps you cope better. I don’t fall apart so easily.

“I have skills now. I know what to do to look after myself.”

Around two-thirds of Australians will experience a potentially traumatic event – such as a natural disaster, assault, or being involved in or witnessing a serious accident.

Between 7-12 per cent of people will develop PTSD in their lifetime.

The condition is characterised by vivid, intrusive memories and flashbacks or nightmares, accompanied by overwhelming emotions, particularly fear or horror.

Sufferers will often avoid thoughts and memories of the traumatic event and live in a constant state of heightened vigilance for threat.

The prognosis for recovery from single-event PTSD is good, while complex PTSD – a result of prolonged abuse or multiple traumas – requires longer treatment.

Complex PTSD results in additional difficulties in expressing emotion, negative self-beliefs, problems maintaining healthy relationships and ongoing feelings of emptiness.

Without diagnosis and treatment, PTSD sufferers risk turning to self-medicating with alcohol or drugs due to the overwhelming distress of their condition, explains senior clinical psychologist Dr Denise Chu.

She and her colleagues at WSLHD Mental Health Service run the comprehensive dialectical behaviour therapy (DBT) program, working with patients who are suffering from the serious effects of complex PTSD including self-harm or suicidality, extreme difficulty regulating emotions, and interpersonal conflict.

“The people referred to our service have often been suffering for a long time and have a history of repeated suicidal or self-harm behaviours, sometimes aggression, and a lot of stigma, shame and judgement. They experience the double injustice of trauma that is not their fault, and being judged for their response to that trauma,” Dr Chu said.

“We validate their experience of distress rather than judging them for it, and try to reflect back to them that how they feel is natural, if not inevitable, based on what they’ve been through.

It’s not what’s wrong with them, it’s what’s happened to them.

“The goal is to help them build a life they see as worth living based on their personal values, and empower them with skills they never had the opportunity to learn while trying to survive their trauma.”

For Barry, it’s been 11 years since he was diagnosed with PTSD. Over that time he has had ongoing therapy and medication, several hospital stays, and taken courses to learn how to deal with his anger, anxiety and relationship struggles.

“I’m good at tracking my mood. I always have suicidal thoughts but if I start dwelling on them, that’s when I know it’s time to admit myself to hospital,” he said.

“I know my triggers are my responsibility.”

Barry has a good relationship with his daughter, his best friend and some of his neighbours – all of whom understand his condition and know how to help.

The main thing he still struggles with is an inability to find work, despite experience and qualifications in manual labour, retail and hospitality.

“I wish people understood we’re not dangerous, we’re not going to lash out,” Barry said.

Sunday 27 June is National PTSD Awareness Day.

For expert help and support in western Sydney, contact the Traumatic Stress Clinic at the Westmead Institute for Medical Research.

Other support options include:

  • Blue Knot Foundation for treatment of childhood trauma: 1300 657 380
  • Domestic Violence Line: 1800 656 463
  • 1800Respect, a 24-hour counselling line for sexual assault, family and domestic violence: 1800 737 732
  • Lifeline: 13 11 14
  • Mental Health Line: 1800 011 511

In a life-threatening emergency, always call triple zero (000).