SURVIVING A LIFE 180: HOW I REBUILT MY LIFE AFTER INJURY
By: Melanie Rushby
I have been a serial box ticker my entire life. If I wasn’t actively getting that tick – you can bet I was planning my next big item. I always felt an urgent need to find the proverbial greener grass, in order for my life to feel complete.
Education? CHECK – I am a big nerd for learning
Job? CHECK – You must work until you can get the job you want
Relationships? CHECK – Squeeze them in where possible
I spent years treating my mental health in the same box ticking fashion. If I could just white knuckle it through XYZ I would find happiness and calmness in goal attainment. I spent six years living the broke university lifestyle, rushing to and from work and classes to make ends meet, before I enlisted in the Military – specifically the Army.
In recruit training I felt fulfilled through extreme fatigue for the first time in my adult life. All my boxes could be reduced to one easy to focus on location – my friends were Army, I lived where I worked and I was absolutely learning daily. Unfortunately at the beginning of 2017 during a training exercise I was injured and my career was put on pause. I still lived where I worked – but could no longer do my job. At this point my life was reduced to a series of surgeon and physical therapy appointments – new boxes to check to prove I was healing at an acceptable rate. Okay. Challenge accepted.
I spent 18 months in physical rehabilitation and career pause to find myself unable to completely return to all of my duties. This resulted in the end of my military career. I emerged from the single box I had put my whole life in with absolutely no direction and an intense feeling of failure. I quickly returned to old habits of white knuckling my way through periods of mental illness. For me, this meant depression and anxiety – telling people my story felt like a public announcement of failure. I felt so out of control of my situation that I began reclaiming control in unhealthy ways, such as: over exercising, reducing social connections, and planning every aspect of my day. Eventually I became very angry at my entire life and decided that if I could physically move away from the location of my Army career, I would feel better.
Spoiler alert – I didn’t feel better, in fact I felt worse.
Being physically isolated from the strong network I had built in the Army only served to amplify my depression and left me to obsess over the past two years of my life. I began setting unrealistic expectations for my lifestyle (read: extreme scheduling) and set in motion a self-fulfilling prophecy, that I would never again check another box.
This was far from the truth, I had in fact been accepted into a PhD program beginning 2019 and am currently studying Military leadership practices. I had moved to a beautiful city with my partner and even adopted two kittens. I decided to seek out counseling services, through the ‘Open Arms’ organisation made available to ex-service members to explore why at 27 I couldn’t see a future for myself anymore. What emerged from my time in counseling was ironic – my need for control was stopping me from moving forward in my life.
Being injured was an accident that ultimately changed the course of my life. The simple fact that I had not chosen to leave the Army and start a new career in Academia – was like experiencing a relationship break up were no one was to blame. I began working on slowly picking up the life I had planned and start creating something new. This didn’t mean that my previous experience in the Army meant nothing, in fact it was the foundation on which I began imagining my next chapter.
Coming out of depression and mourning my previous life has felt like emerging from a long time under water. Everything is sharp and exaggerated – but feelings, as they emerge, are much better than the fixation on failure and incompleteness I initially experienced when leaving the Army. Something I have learnt about unexpected life changes is that they blindside you and shake your confidence to the absolute core of who you are as a person. Recovery is not fast or straight forward – but ultimately can leave you better in the long run.
The one thing I think is the most important in recovering from life changes is finding a way to celebrate the path that is no more. I had many experiences in my short military career that I would never of had otherwise. The more I spent energy on ignoring my time in the Army or being angry that an injury had taken away that future, the less I was able to see how I would always carry those experiences forward in my life.
I began journaling daily in April this year. At first it was hurtful, then soothing, and finally insightful – I began to appreciate my life chapter in the Army. I began to see the process of creating a new life as an exciting adventure, rather than a comparison activity with a the life I left behind. Even writing this blog, sitting on my lounge with a cup of coffee is therapeutic.
I don’t think the journey to accepting a life altering experience will ever be complete, however I have continued to build a tool-box full of techniques that keep me from derailing my current life by lamenting the should of, would of, could of that accompany accidents. For me, the tool box is filled with #selfcare and ‘to do lists’, finding balance between needing to strangle my new life into submission and curating healthy behaviours that celebrate my entire life not just the boxes I have ‘checked’.
About the Author
Melanie Grace is a Psychologist and ex-service member from Brisbane, Australia. She is currently working on her PhD in Military Leadership Practices and Gender Equality, due in 2022. In the future, Melanie would like to pursue a career in professional writing and lecturing. When she isn’t nose deep in research you can find her reading for fun. In her spare time, Melanie is passionate about good coffee and breakfast foods, spending time with her partner and spoiling their kittens Sally and Chip. You can follow her journey on Instagram at @milliegrace.