A Mental Health Journey

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To raise awareness of Australian mental health month – Propel Her shares this honest insight into a senior ADF leader’s story. If this article is challenging and you need to speak with a mental health professional, please call the ADF all-hours support line on 1800 628 036. Thank you Kelly for sharing your journey. 

One major misconception initially held me back from sharing my story. I didn’t think I would be able to help others if they knew I was struggling. Thankfully, it was my drive to help others and my belief in the power of story-telling and the connectedness that it can bring which allowed me to be open about my struggles with mental health.

I have been incredibly lucky to have had a life and career that has afforded me incredible opportunities. I have had people believe in me when I often didn’t believe in myself, and I have been surrounded by the best people and teams. I’ve achieved more in my 42 years than I thought imaginable but if you’ve ever heard the phrase ‘don’t measure your life by my highlight reel’, then that can most certainly be applied to my story. Like most of us, my journey has also come with tragedy, challenges and potential roadblocks.

My story 

One of the hardest things as a service person is that often people make a snap judgement about you based on stereotypes, or how many medals and commendations we wear – which is a narrow part of your whole picture. They see someone who is happy or confident but no-one sees the constant internal battle to hold all those pieces together. I look at the photo of me as an 18 year old recruit and me now 23 years later as a Commander and often wish people still saw and judged me as the young woman who initially joined.  Although now, much older and with a wealth of experience, I still face the same insecurities and am riddled with the same self-doubt.

I carry far more physical and mental scars than I did as an 18 year old recruit, even though my exposure to mental health started at a young age.

This photo is one of the only memories I have with my Mum. She took her own life a couple of years later when I was 8 years old. I was too young to understand at the time that my Mum had been struggling with mental health for years. Suddenly my world was turned upside down as Mum was the only constant I had ever known. She was the most important person in my world; and then she was gone.

Although the anger has long passed, there are days I am still really upset at Mum’s decision. At the time I felt like she had abandoned me and left me with no-one as I couldn’t live with my Dad as he was an alcoholic. To this day, I suffer with incredible abandonment issues. I never feel like I am good enough and often wonder what it is that others see in me that I can’t. Now a Mum myself to two beautiful boys, I struggle with Mum’s decision even more. I look at them and think how could a parent ever willingly leave their babies and this world behind. I am aware that I can’t understand because I have never suffered with depression and I have never thought that suicide was the only way out.

Since losing Mum to suicide, I have since lost eight other people I have loved or been close to, to suicide. This includes family, friends and shipmates. After standing at my friend’s funeral and listening to his 13 year old daughter speak about how much she loved her Dad and how much she would miss him, I realised that it didn’t matter how devastating my history has been, I was in a unique position to try and make a difference.

Moved to action

In 2013 I created an initiative called ‘Choose to Live, Love your Life’. This initiative began as a team name for a number of fundraising initiatives, but quickly evolved into something bigger. Every time I spoke publicly about my experiences with mental health, I had several people approach me to share their own story. I am incredibly grateful that my life has given me the opportunity to help others and I wanted to create a safe environment where everyone had a chance to tell their story, to feel connected, and to see that they are never alone.

Choose to Live – Love your Life’ has extended to a Facebook page and website where people can share their stories online to help each other and themselves. Helping others is something that helps me with my own struggles, but it also caused me to hide my own battle with mental health as I always wanted to be the ‘strong’ one. Finally, realising I could help more people by being honest about my own struggles and wanting to be the best Mum I could be, I finally sought professional help in 2015 and began to open up about my own battle with mental health. The behaviour and feelings I had normalised and accepted as a part of who I was had a name, and I was diagnosed with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Obsessive Compulsive Traits.

Anxiety for me is the ball of knots and butterflies that sit in the pit of my stomach. Driving to the supermarket, walking my dog, coming to work, most nights even just waking up. These everyday activities make me nervous because I am always waiting for the worst possible scenario to happen. When I drive to the supermarket I think I am going to be in a car accident; when I walk my dog, I think he is going to get attacked by another dog; when I come to work I feel like I am going to let somebody down; and when I wake up multiple times through the night I overthink the most minor scenarios. I honestly thought it was normal to feel this way. My body and mind is constantly in ‘fight or flight’ mode and it is exhausting.

I am also in the very early stages of unpacking some of the service events that affect my everyday life and have recently been diagnosed with complex PTSD. But I honestly feel like I am one of the lucky ones. I recognise my mental health challenges are a combination of childhood trauma and challenges I have faced in my 23 years in Defence. I often speak to my psychologist and while some days are better than others, I believe I am on the right track.

Removing the stigma

When I opened up about my struggles, one of my peers said to me: ‘If YOU struggle, what hope is there for the rest of us!?’  I’ve also had people question whether my battles are ‘real’ because I have been fortunate to continue on and have a successful career. I think it’s important to highlight that we all respond differently to traumatic or stressful situations and that’s ok. For years I carried a huge amount of guilt that I got to progress forward with my life and career while many of my shipmates and friends didn’t.

Mental health doesn’t have a one-size-fits-all, and sometimes the happiest and most confident people around you are facing struggles of their own. I joke that my anxiety makes me a wonderful logistics officer because I am always planning, checking, triple checking and I have a ‘to do’ list for absolutely everything. Lightheartedness aside, I want to validate that it really is ok not to be ok. The road to recovery may be long, challenging and exhausting, but it is the right road to be on. To me, it is incredibly important to have purpose and I believe my purpose in life, apart from raising our boys, is to help people.

One of my favourite quotes is by Mark Bezos, who featured in a wonderful TedTalk ‘Not every day is going to offer us a chance to save someone’s life, but every day gives us an opportunity to affect one’.  I will spend the rest of my life ensuring I stay true to that quote.

Today and every day, ask the people in your life if they are ok. Have the courage to look in the mirror and ask yourself the same question and if you’re not, please don’t wait as long as I did to seek help and start having conversations about mental health.

I’ll wrap up by saying that I don’t think I am unique but I believe I was put here to help others. Why am I sharing my story? I truly believe in the power of story-telling and the connectedness that it can bring. I believe we all have a story to tell, please never underestimate the impact yours can have on the world.

Authors Bio:

Commander Kelly Haywood is a Maritime Logistics Officer and the current Navy Women’s Strategic Advisor. She has served in multiple HMA Ships; deploying to the Middle East three times, performing numerous border protection operations and serving on various peacekeeping missions. Kelly is extremely passionate about raising awareness about suicide, depression and mental health, and is a Lifeline Ambassador. Through her initiative ‘Choose to Live, Love your Life’ Kelly actively fundraises and speaks in the community about her own personal experiences with suicide. Kelly won the Western Australian and National Telstra Young Business Woman of the Year Award in 2013 and in 2015, and was named as one of Business News 40under40 entrepreneurs, taking out the Intrepreneur category. Kelly lives in Canberra with her fiance; Dean, and their 3yo and 1yo sons.