The Long Road Running

Mel O'Sullivan - October 18, 2020

I loaded up the dog, the motorbike, the mandolin, spare fuel & water and just drove. I headed south from Darwin, turned right at Katherine, left at Broome, left at Albany and headed east until I arrived at Mum & Dad's. 8710km of blessed solitude. Just me and the dog.

I just didn't want to talk to anyone. Not family, not friends, not strangers - not even myself. Most of all myself.

It all began when I went to bed because I was tired. I should have been on duty for a field redeployment and I was just too tired. The bucket was empty, no fuel in the tank, no adrenaline pumping incident anyone would want to make a movie about - just done.

 Notice to Show Cause Action (administrative disciplinary action) was initiated and I simply did not have the energy, will or knowledge to fight it. I was too ashamed to even try and find out who could, or would, help anyway. Of course it's not that simple - the cracks had been showing for quite some time. I put it down to the  long term impact of loneliness and an inability to allow myself to make meaningful personal connections. That's another story.

East Timor was the first large-scale overseas deployment of Australian troops since Vietnam. My previous unit deployed in support of INTERFET but my new unit had not. I was posted to 10 FSB when it deployed to East Timor but remained in Townsville as part of 10 FSB (Rear) mostly handling welfare liaison with families in addition to normal Assistant Adjutant duties. The unit I deployed with (Force Logistic Squadron) was a composite unit as part of UNTAET which was disbanded on return to Australia. There weren't many people in my new unit who had deployed, and I don't remember receiving any repatriation information or consideration because I had recently returned. Leadership must have known but may not have seen any necessity for special treatment, or just weren't sure what would be best,  not that I would have accepted it - being Superwoman and all.

I was posted to my new Unit from East Timor and marched in as 2IC Transport Company after 15 days holiday - 7 days of which I spent driving to Darwin from North West New South Wales. I've always loved driving - I was always going to be a tyrebiter. It wasn't enough rest - I left Timor exhausted and marched into my new unit exhausted. Apart from a couple of exceptions, the social connections I established in Darwin were quite superficial. I found it even harder than usual to connect with people on a personal basis. Forget about finding a special partner - I struggled to even make new friends. Quite soon we deployed to Shoalwater Bay for several months.

When the unit redeployed home I just went to bed. For the first time in my life I failed to report for duty when required. As I recall I fulfilled my duties on the convoy back across the Barkly Highway, but my memory is fudgy. I was just so bloody tired - I stayed tired for about the next five years.

It was a long time ago now but as I remember it, I became even more socially and professionally isolated. I was directed to confine myself to my house - not even allowed to walk the dog. With criminals, they call it house arrest.  A pretty stupid directive when you are single and have no-one else to help you buy groceries. Even more stupid when part of the problem was eroded social support structures in the first place. I was ashamed and too proud to call anyone to ask for help - too proud to tell anyone it was even happening - especially the people who could, and would, have helped. I couldn't even tell my best mate. One friend stuck by me in probably the blackest night of my life. No one else would look me in the eye - nor could I have looked back at them. The last time I stepped into an Officers Mess only the Doctors and Nurses invited me to eat with them - everyone else ignored me. Or maybe they thought they were being considerate and giving me space. It's hard to know.

I don't remember being offered any psychological support or treatment - Only Psych Assessment for suitability of service which definitely caused more harm than good. I was offered a farewell function but I couldn't face the people. Two planes flew into the World Trade Centre and I barely noticed. Two old friends gave me a place to stay the night before I left Darwin, but I couldn't look them in the eye, and they were clearly uncomfortable having me around. I have never blamed them - I was a wreck and I looked like it.

So I drove - for two and a half months - just me and the dog. It took me almost twenty years and another near breakdown to stop running.

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