A family resurrected03 February 2020
Andy Cullen’s battle with PTSD put enormous pressure on his young family. But having benefited from the REBOOT Recovery program, he and wife Zoe are on a mission to bring it to veterans and their partners here.
Watching Andy and Zoe Cullen interact with each other and their children, you can’t help but notice how close they are. So it’s a surprise to hear them talk about how disconnected Andy was from his family after his second deployment.
“I thought that him going away for a year was the hardest thing I had to do. But when Andy came back after that second deployment, he changed into a completely different person. It was like somebody had flicked a switch. He had gone from being a wonderful father, very compassionate, very sensitive to his kids, sensitive to me. And came back and there was just no care factor at all,” Zoe says.
Andy explains that his deployment had lived up to every expectation he’d ever had, but also challenged him both emotionally and spiritually. “I started to have some issues. Over there I was confronted with a lot of death and murder and value of life that differed to my understanding of the world. And that challenged me. It challenged my spirit, it challenged my understanding of the world that we lived in and it started to impact me internally, a lot more than I really expected it would,” he says.
With a father whose Army career spanned 50 years, Andy thought he knew what to expect from a life in service. He joined the Army straight out of school, serving six years in the Royal Australian Infantry and 11 as an Officer in the Royal Australian Engineers where he specialised in Explosive Ordnance Disposal. During that time, he was deployed to Afghanistan twice.
“I was so looking forward to just coming home, seeing the kids, seeing Zoe. I had just that sort of romantic idea of coming home to my family and everything's going to be great. And it was. It was like that for a few days at least,” Andy says. “But then I'd just find my mind wandering back to Afghanistan. I felt like I was letting my mates down that were still there. The war was still going on, but I was at home or walking around a supermarket and it didn't feel right. I felt like a square peg in a round hole.”
Andy first became aware that he was suffering some of the symptoms of PTSD after his first deployment, but pushed back his concerns for fear he’d be seen as weak. When he was given the opportunity to go back to Afghanistan, he jumped at it. And while he was over there, the symptoms eased.
“It wasn’t until I got back from that second deployment that I really started to understand that these symptoms weren't going away,” Andy explains. “In fact, they were getting worse. I'd started to get stress rashes on my body and I was extremely agitated all the time. Loud noises would freak me out. I was jumpy, I was on edge, I was tired because I'd never really slept. I isolated myself from my family and my friends. I wouldn't tell anyone what was going on, I didn't want to talk to anyone about it.”
“I think the scariest thing for me, was I had a complete loss of empathy for the world. It was like I just became so internally focused on my own trauma that I didn't give a crap about anything else.”
“When they come back from war, you're told, ‘Oh look, it's going to take about three months before things go back to normal.’ So you're sort of used to walking on eggshells for a little bit. But about six months in, I realized that we were still walking on eggshells,” Zoe says.
journey to recovery
The couple began searching for answers, visiting doctors, psychiatrists and psychologists, and attending various group therapies.
“Some of the stuff helped in certain ways but it didn’t in others. And I was just left with this great void in my heart and in my mind that was saying I was broken and I didn't know how to put it back together,” Andy says.
Having written a book together about their experiences, Andy and Zoe were on a book tour in the United States when they first heard of the REBOOT Recovery program.
“It wasn't a program where you come in and just talk about your feelings like I'd been exposed to in Australia. This was a course that was designed to give people real tools and equip them for dealing with the symptoms that were going on in their life as a result of PTSD.” Andy says the course echoed many of their experiences and the healing mechanisms that he and Zoe had stumbled across in their own five-year journey. “We just knew we needed to share this. We needed to take this to Australia.”
REBOOT Recovery is a four-day course that provides practical long-term solutions for dealing with the internal values conflict that can be caused by traumatic experiences.
“We don't just look at the symptoms like anger or isolation or alcoholism and drug abuse,” explains Andy. “We go a little deeper. We look at the root cause of why that's happening in their lives and that's often triggered by trauma. So we look at things like forgiveness of self and others, guilt, shame, suicidal ideation. We start to take a deeper look at some of the impacts and an emotional experiences they're having or the personal responses they're having to the trauma that they've faced. And we give them real tools to be able to deal with issues when they occur.”
The Cullens encourage veterans and their partners to do the REBOOT Recovery course together.
“REBOOT focusses on the understanding that PTSD doesn’t impact an individual. It impacts everyone around that individual, including the kids, the spouse, the friends and family,” Andy explains.
Zoe agrees. “You're not meant to go through the recovery process alone. You need a partner, you need a team, whether it's your support person or your friends. It's very important to communicate what your needs are so that people around you know how they can support you.
“Communication breakdown is one of the first things to occur in a relationship with somebody with PTSD. When Andy and I had the opportunity to do the REBOOT course together, I found it incredibly enlightening for me as a partner. It was a wonderful way to gain an insight into what Andy was going through without him being the one to tell me,” she says.
“After we did the REBOOT course, our relationship improved for the better. For the first time, I got a bit of hope that we could actually navigate through this difficult journey together. It gave us the skills to be able to recognise when the other person was struggling, and to be able to ask the right questions.”
Andy realises how lucky he is to have regained his connection to Zoe and their four children.
“I'm so thankful now I've recovered that and I'm in a loving relationship. I love my kids, and I've got a beautiful relationship with my wife.”
Thanks to support from RSL Queensland, PTSD Resurrected is able to provide the REBOOT Recovery course to veterans and their partners at no cost. Find out more or register for the next REBOOT Recovery course here.