Normie Rowe: How my battle with post-traumatic stress disorder raged on after Vietnam
Pop icon Normie Rowe opens up on Grey Matters about his battle with post-traumatic stress disorder upon his return from the Vietnam War, and how it changed his outlook on life.
“What are you doing in a place like this? You of all people…” I’ve never forgotten those words.
And one thing I noticed during that three-month stint in hospital with post-traumatic stress disorder was that there were no flowers. I was there with a whole lot of Vietnam veterans and a lot of other people who were dealing with depression, anxiety, panic attacks and other psychological conditions, and nobody got flowers. But if they’d broken a leg, the place would’ve been like a florist shop.
PTSD may not be as tangible or visible as a broken leg or poking your eye with a sharp stick, but finally, these days, it is becoming more and more accepted and recognised in society.
Of course, there was no less PTSD at the end of the Vietnam War than there would have been at the end of the First World War, or even now, with a new generation of veterans returning from the Middle East. It’s just that now it has a name.
Before, people who were severely affected were called “battle scarred” or “shell shocked”. And I even have an antique book given to me by a friend, about Napoleon and written within a lifespan of Napoleon’s reign, and it was quite clear in the descriptions of post-battle soldiers that Napoleon had witnessed it and recorded it himself.
When they first coined the phrase “post-traumatic stress disorder”, the concept was all very new. When I was asking for treatment, a guy from Veterans Affairs said: “You can’t possibly have post-traumatic stress disorder, you’re in the public eye.” It was evident that he had no understanding of the condition.
So, I’ve made it my life mission to talk about my experience. It’s terribly important we talk about it, and part of the reason for that is that it doesn’t just go away. It’s something you always have to deal with.
In hindsight, I can look at certain events earlier in my life and say, “Oh yeah, that was definitely a PTSD symptom triggered by a stressful event”. It was at a time of enormous pressure when it all came to a head for me. Since then, upon sharing with other veterans the phenomenon has become known as ‘crashing’. So prevalent was the question, “When was it that you first crashed?”. In many ways it was a relief to know that I wasn’t the only one who felt so dreadful.
In hindsight, I can look at certain events earlier in my life and say, “Oh yeah, that was definitely a PTSD symptom triggered by a stressful event”.
Once again, in hindsight, I can see now that the PTSD was raging and because I hadn’t been diagnosed yet, the stinking thinking took over. I reached a point where I felt there were no saving graces.
The things that go along with PTSD, like depression, anxiety, anger spells and the feeling of being overwhelmed with it all – seemed so normal, that a lot of the times you just breeze through, thinking that your value on the planet was not even zilch. That you’re a liability. That’s the way you think, stinkin’ thinkin’. That’s a terrible state in which to dwell.
Then I found myself in this hospital on the Gold Coast.
Those first six weeks, I was in the foetal position. I couldn’t move.
Then I started to do group sessions, along with another 13 Vietnam veterans who were resident, all dealing with their own versions of PTSD. We had amazingly knowledgeable psychologists. I stayed the course, but early on, I can remember, I said, “Look, I’ll go but I’ve got to sit right next to the door so I can leave straight away if I feel I want to get out of it because I don’t think I want to be there.”
I felt scared. And when I got into the room, everyone else was scared too. We were all scared that we were going to have to relive stuff or that we were going to find out stuff that we didn’t even remember had happened.
It was at that point the realisation started to kick in: I wasn’t on my own.
I remember saying to my psychologist one time: “When do I get to a stage when my entire life isn’t about distraction? If I don’t distract myself, I’m going to be living this horror constantly.”
And she said, “Be patient. You’ll get the hang of it, and eventually what you’ve been distracted with will become your main mode of living and the things that have been causing the extra pain will just slide aside. They won’t be as important as they have been in the past.”
Performing for me was a major distraction. The problem was that it wasn’t enough. And I had to find other things that distracted me. I became quite obsessive about my distractions.
Without doubt, apart from my family, my one joy in life is being on the stage and entertaining people. But I couldn’t do show business the way that I used to do it, before I went into the army.
Because then it was for self gratification. It was sort of like: “Hey, look at me. Aren’t I pretty? Aren’t I great? I’m a good singer. Don’t I look great in these clothes?”
Then you try to be humble with all this other stuff that’s happened in your life and the whole charade just didn’t make any sense to me any more.
So when I decided I was going to come back into show business, it had to be for something. I had to be able to use the notoriety that I gained from being in show business, and not for myself, but for other people, people who perhaps have no platform to amplify their needs.
So I’ve always tried to help raise money for charities and I talk about PTSD wherever I can.
I was spending a bit of time last night just talking on Messenger to a fellow who is having a tough time with it at the moment.
He said, “It feels like my whole world is crushing me,” and I know how that feels. It’s an awful state of mind.
I said, “Well, just understand that there are many of us who have a great deal of love and respect for you and that you’re just going through a period that requires help. Talk to your healthcare professionals and talk to other people in your same situation and eventually all of a sudden you’ll start to understand your own approach to strategies that can work for you.”
I’m not a professional. I always remind people that the first step is always going to see your GP, and if they suggest that you see a psychologist, I say, “don’t try to con the psychologist either”. You see, usually, we’re pretty good at hiding our feelings.
Always surround yourself with people who love you unconditionally.
It’s never too late to ask for help. It doesn’t matter how old or young you are.
At the end of the day, we are all in this together. Here I am, 50 years later, and still some of my closest mates are the ones from back in Vietnam. There’s this incredibly strong comradeship.
Tonight I’ll open up my Facebook and there will be at least a half a dozen of my veteran mates talking to me, and sharing common interests, and I’ve got to say that it’s made my life so much more worthwhile. Then you start to think, “Well that stinking thinking. What exactly was I thinking? How silly was that?”
The light at the end of the tunnel is not the oncoming train. Just as, it’s darkest before the dawn. The sun will rise. The sun will rise and there’ll be a day, and just enjoy that day.
The last thing I say to any of my family before I hang up, before I go to bed, is “I love you”. It’s the last thing I say to let them know how happy I am that we are back in communication after 12 hours of sleeping. It’s really imperative that we let each other know how important we are to each other, and how linked together we are in this world.
If you or anyone you know needs help, get in touch with your local GP or call Lifeline on 13 11 14 or MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978.