Surviving depression and alcoholism, what it took to break free and thrive

Surviving depression and alcoholism, what it took to break free and thrive

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Dairy farmer Aaron Thomas has a lesson for anyone battling depression and alcoholism.

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NEW MAN: Aaron Thomas and daughters Breanna and Lexi, with helper, Alex Macdonald at the Won Wron farm.

NEW MAN: Aaron Thomas and daughters Breanna and Lexi, with helper, Alex Macdonald at the Won Wron farm.

Aaron Thomas had built a wall around himself so high and so impenetrable that it took a loaded gun in his mouth to break through.

On a hot January day three years ago, a salesperson made a routine but unannounced call to Mr Thomas' dairy.

"If he hadn't turned up to check the dairy chemicals, I would have pulled the trigger," Mr Thomas said.

"I remember dropping the gun, walking out, and I honestly thought he would have picked up there was something wrong because I was just a blithering idiot.

"I was just an absolute mess and that's when it all changed."

It's not the type of story often shared but Mr Thomas wants to tell anyone who will listen, anyone who needs to hear it, that there really is always a better way.

It had taken a long time to reach that point of desperation and without any of the financial distress so often blamed for farmer depression.

In fact, Mr Thomas had been a rising star.

His former employers, Paul and Lisa Mumford, had purchased a farm at Binginwarri for Mr Thomas to share farm, and it was doing so well he'd been named runner up in the 2014 Farmer of the Year.

Married with young daughters, everything seemed set for success and this larrikin attitude made him a popular identity around the Yarram district.

"Everything was grand, I'd managed to put around me quite a substantial amount of equity in terms of cows and equipment but there was a sinister little thing lurking in the background," he said.

"And that was my depression, anxiety and alcoholism that no one knew about.

"I'd been battling it for years, absolutely battling it for years."

But Mr Thomas could not talk about it.

"I just hid it from everybody," he said.

"I think a few people may have had a bit of an inkling that, yeah, Aaron's a bit of a scallywag but I just had this big, fake facade around me the whole time.

"If anyone got close, you know, and pulled a brick out, I'd stack them 10 high.

"I think I was able to disguise the pain and the anguish somewhat in the first year at Binginwarri and started to get recognised for some of the stuff that I was doing.

"But I was dying, physically, emotionally, mentally and I wasn't opening up, I wasn't telling anybody.

"Hindsight's a beautiful thing but I was convinced that I would be ostracised, I was convinced that I would lose friends, I was convinced that Paul and Lisa would say, 'Right on your bike, mate, you're not stable, so piss off'.

"I had convinced myself that no one would listen.

"No one would truly understand what I was going through and, at the time, I didn't know how to explain it myself.

"Even though I used to be a nurse, I had no idea what was happening to me.

"I was a strong, fit, capable person but I was drinking so much and struggling big time."

The crunch came after Mr Thomas's wife left and he found himself alone on the isolated property.

"When [my wife] left and I was up at the farm on my own, doing everything on my own, drinking as much as I wanted, when I wanted through 2016 and early 2017, I just spiralled out of control," he said.

And, while the chemical salesperson left seemingly unaware of his role in saving Mr Thomas's life, that moment was the turning point.

Mr Thomas turned to his friends and employers, the Mumfords, for help.

"Basically, I came clean to Paul and Lisa that I was absolutely stuffed, that I had nothing left in the tank and that I'd lost my licence for drink driving," he said.

"I just opened up and said, 'Look, you've gotta help me, I'm nearly dead, I'm going to die'."

Things moved quickly after that.

"People said, 'Oh, Aaron, we knew there was something wrong but we also know you're a pig-headed shit," he said.

"'We had to wait for you to crash but we're always going to be there to pick you up.'

"And that's exactly what everyone did.

"I remember Paul took me to the doctors and I just sat there for half an hour, not saying a word.

"Paul did all the talking, he did everything."

Things had to change on the farm, too.

Mr Thomas literally left everything behind, changing places with a colleague from the Mumfords' home farm.

He had been buying the cows via the Mumfords but made a clean break.

"I walked away from my life, the cows, equipment and everything," he said.

"I couldn't pay for it so I basically gave it all back to Paul and Lisa, I could barely look after myself so there was no way known I was going to be able to continue on with the arrangement."

"I was pretty much under supervision for 16, 17 hours a day by Paul and Lisa.

"I was still working, milking, but without a lot of responsibility.

"All I had to focus on was my health and doing the jobs that I'd been set.

"For the first couple of months, I was sleeping for probably four and a half, five hours during the day; I was detoxing.

"I went off the grog, gave it up cold turkey.

"I was on medication so I was getting used to that.

"I was getting used to, I suppose, my new life.

"My new life of being the true Aaron I knew was there deep down and it just took a little while to find it.

"For the first time in a long time, I had an amazing amount of clarity, I could actually think straight and I knew it was going to be a rough road."

Mr Thomas's weeks were filled with mental health and alcohol counselling appointments in a nearby town but one outside the local community to lessen the sense of scrutiny that small towns often bring.

And, contrary to expectations surrounding rural mental health services, he quickly found counsellors that "clicked".

As medication kicked in and Mr Thomas learnt new skills, he began to sleep less during the day and make fewer counselling appointments.

"I was learning how to handle all the stuff on my own with the help of my counsellor, who I still see on a regular basis and who's probably a bit more of a life coach now," he said.

"I had to learn what would trigger me and one of them was frustration.

"I'm still not good with frustration but I was able to learn the coping strategies to deal with it and put things in place to make sure my frustration levels don't get out of control."

In that short time, his life has turned around completely.

He no longer "needs" alcohol, has taken up road cycling and loves to tell his story.

"I'm 10 times the person that I was," Mr Thomas said.

"I'm a better farmer, I run Paul and Lisa's farm pretty much single-handedly with the help of staff.

"I'm a better dad, I'm just such a different person and so much more calmer now, things don't rattle me.

"I have never experienced life like it is, I had no idea life could actually be this normal, this calm.

"I talk about it now because I reckon if I was feeling that way, there's going to be plenty of other people that are as well.

"And by talking about it and normalising it, hopefully, other people won't get themselves into that state."

  • If you need help, help is available. Contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, BeyondBlue on 1300 224 636 or turningpoint.org.au.

Read more stories like this on Australian Dairyfarmer

The story Surviving depression and alcoholism, what it took to break free and thrive first appeared on Stock & Land.

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