You can’t put an old head on young shoulders

Michalle Alves Todhunter

At the age of 27 I had already lived a very colourful life and had found what I thought I was good at - helping people to help themselves. I was so inspired with life I felt I was ready to ‘change the world’ as a full time social-welfare student and was committed to making a difference in welfare. Previously, I had worked as a student counsellor in schools, and to pay for my tuition at Uni, I was working three jobs. I was a carer for clients with disabilities and worked with psychiatric patients taking them out on day passes. 

Life was great and going to plan, and I had even met a nice guy; we had been dating for five months. He was an Army pilot and I had fallen in love; life in my world appeared perfect. Little did I know that what was to come would change me, my life views and where I was heading.

The 22nd of September 1995 dealt my new partner, Glenn and I both a horrific blow. It was one which we would recover from, but life as we previously knew it was gone. My life’s journey and how I seemingly recovered from that day onwards is still a work in progress, but as it has been said “it is not the end of the journey you focus on but the journey itself”.

Glenn had been in an horrendous plane crash and was just hanging onto life. As I sat in the surgeon’s office with chaos around me, the surgeon asked me to decide, “His legs or his life”. It seemed an easy question to respond to at the time - of course his life, figuring I could deal with the leg problem later. I remember leaving the surgeon’s office numbly stepping into the lift and heading straight to the toilet where I spent the next 25 minutes dry retching, thinking that this couldn’t be happening and have I made the right decision on behalf of someone else? All the ‘what-ifs’ crept in and I knew he would either love me or hate me one day for this decision. That was the beginning of my carer’s role, making decisions and watching the back of someone who had become so important to me.

For four days I sat by Glenn on life support in intensive care. I didn’t cry, as I had a job to do, and I was damned if I was going to just sit back and allow this to rock my world. Every day I sang to him, I wore bright coloured lipstick and repeatedly told him what a fine future we had planned if he decided to hang around. This was the start of my journey attending to Glenn’s every need in hospital and thereafter. I bathed, fed and dressed his stumps every day for his two month hospital stay, sleeping beside him every second night because the nights were his loneliest times. Through this entire process I was still trying to complete my study and manage my own life. I often look back and admire my stamina at that point. I broke the news to Glenn that both legs had been amputated and continued by pledging to him what I felt was an important promise to make. I sincerely promised that I would work with him so he would walk and fly again someday. Hell - I was in love and happy to be fulfilling his wants and needs.

Did I regret the decision to become a full time carer? No - not at the time, I did what I felt needed to be done. We all talk about love, commitment, loyalty and integrity in relationships, yet as soon as things don’t appear the way we picture it, these are often the qualities we forget that we promised. Upon reflection, I never realised how profound these values were for me. They are just words for some, but they required ‘show by example’ for me - a philosophy that I continue to aspire to. I strongly believe that all of those qualities must go both ways for a relationship to work, especially today. Yet in saying that, whether it was because of my ignorance or lack of experience with relationships, I believe I was handpicked for this position, for everything I had done leading to this point seemed to have a purpose.

About 3 months down the track we were now expected to cope on our own.My life had become frantic; I was exhausted, post traumatic stress kicked in and all the feelings with it. I was dealing with the emotional stresses alone, the loss of my own future direction and the adjustment of caring for Glenn with no family around.

Suddenly, I was missing the fact that we had had such little time together as a new couple. Physically caring for someone and having to attend to their most private needs is not romantic and sometimes it changed the way I felt about and saw Glenn. Facilitating these personal chores that most couples don’t do was difficult, especially when you had been together for such a short time. This was compounded by the fact that I was so isolated from family and friends. It was as if everything I had worked towards was slowly slipping away and I didn’t know how to recover it as well as look after Glenn’s physical, emotion and psychological needs along with my own. Yet, the sun would rise every day and I seemed to move with the flow of life whilst ignoring the personal torment which was and still is underlying.

For six months we were busy engaging in intensive physiotherapy, still trying to become accustomed to this new life and then just to add to this euphoria, we were also planning to get married. Glenn had proposed to me whilst still in intensive care, his first words after coming off the ventilator were, “Will you marry me?” I had decided to allow him a good few months before reviewing that request as so much energy was needed elsewhere. With Glenn still in the wheel chair, we decided to elope, and it was as romantic as it could be considering - no wedding frills were needed because we had each other and after all that had happened, we believed we had it all.

In hindsight, the two years that followed the accident was indeed probably the happiest time of our life together for it was just us. Every day was about surviving from one day to the next with this huge adjustment. Our life was filled with physio appointments, and to accommodate this and Glenn’s future plans, we were required to move from Townsville to Canberra. Together we became reclusive, only accessing the outside world when we needed - it seemed more than enough to just have each other for the healing process to begin. We would sometimes peer through the blinds watching our neighbours and the traffic going about its business for the day. I would often comment that our world had appeared to stop as life continued on as normal for everyone else. I now look back and realise that it was not my healing but Glenn’s. I was distracted from myself and suppressing all feeling I had for my loss - the loss of who I was and was to be. The guilt I felt when mourning my loss would hauntingly remind me that this was not about me but about Glenn.

As time went on we started a vigorous rehab schedule as we were eager to push on and get out of the wheel chair. Glenn and I had a vision that he would walk and fly again and these goals would require all of our determination and focus as well as enrolling others in this dream. The physical part of being a carer during Glenn’s rehab never bothered me as much as the emotional and psychological part. I felt I was the motivator - the person nurturing someone who had been smashed physically as well as emotionally. However, in pouring myself into Glenn, I soon realised that had I lost myself - when and where I’m not sure. Jobs fell on my shoulders for most of every day. As Glenn was becoming increasingly determined it seemed to occupy his whole existence. As his obsession for getting back into the cockpit grew, my quality time with Glenn (on which I was surviving) became less. This left me feeling empty, unhappy and ultimately resentful, for it was always about Glenn. By now I was sensing what appeared to be early stages of depression.

At the same time, I was able to experience amazing and incredible things including people I met who inspired me and I began recognising who I was becoming. This was an important and vital component of my journey. In fact, it has taken me this long to allow myself the permission that I am partly responsible for many of Glenn’s successes to date. I have seen first hand the struggle of an individual re-inventing themselves as a bilateral amputee, and dealing with the physical pain and frustration of the reality of that. As a bystander, the emotional roller coaster is hugely demanding - knowing when to help and when to be strong. I was there to wipe the tears away and to reassure him. Many times I felt the wrath of his anger. Never a truer word was spoken than ‘you always hurt the ones you love the most’. I may not know what it’s like to have a disability, but I sure have a pretty clear understanding of the range of emotions that come with it and particularly how it can impact on a carer’s world.

Many years had now passed and Glenn was well on his way to achieving his dream. Yet I was lost in my world experiencing ‘empty nest’ syndrome. I couldn’t return to welfare as I felt as if every last drop of compassion had been squeezed out of me, so I just kept busy continuing to support Glenn’s needs and maintaining our home.
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Our commitment to recovering our life was blessed by the birth of our two beautiful, healthy children, but it was around this time that my depression grew heavier. At this point I recognised I needed the support of extended family around me, especially whilst Glenn’s obsession with regaining full time army flying grew, so too did his anger and frustration. By this time I was not a full-time carer for Glenn, there were things he could do to help me around the house, but I still remained carrying the load for most things. I believe the roles within our relationship became confused and Glenn never resumed his position. I was also now a full time mother of two babies and had a husband that was still struggling emotionally with unresolved issues.

At this stage we spent very little quality time together. Coupled with my deepening depression and the constancy of caring for two small children things were certainly not looking good. I still reflect on those difficult times and remember how lonely life was and how my feelings of anger and resentment grew towards Glenn. I felt that for all that I had done for my husband - this was how he supported me in return! Again it seemed it was always about Glenn. Ironically though I never felt the need for recognition from people in general to tell me how great I was, but 

I desperately yearned for that acknowledgement from Glenn. It seemed to me that he had forgotten my love and dedication to him during his time of need and now I was disorientated and swinging in the breeze by myself. It wasn’t even necessary for me to hear his words… I just wanted to feel his respect and love in his actions. This is what I craved the most in our often one-sided relationship. Glenn said he cared and was thankful. He even articulated that once his career was in order and the children were more independent, he ‘promised’ to support me in regaining my career goals. I held onto those words more than I realised at the time.

Ultimately though, I chose this path of caring - certainly not knowing the full implication of the job description! When you love someone and invest so much of yourself in them, it’s easy to lose your identity and self worth. I take responsibility for becoming lost in Glenn’s world, but I now realise that in placing my needs last, this slowly became a way of life for both of us. My journey was to learn to not feel the guilt when you put yourself first; to not always be thinking about how to make things better for someone else; and to never allow anyone to occupy your whole space. You must stay in touch with what makes you unique and happy. These are things that I am now aware of, and I am constantly telling myself I deserve and have the right to fulfil my own needs and aspirations.

When I began the carer’s role, I didn’t realise that I would end up forsaking myself for the well-being of another. During this process of re-developing my sense of self, I have learnt to always see the positives no matter how small. I now strive to be courageous when self doubt tells me I can’t do things and that I will fail. I have learnt that being responsible for my decisions allows me to change outcomes. The most empowering lesson I have learnt is that I am the author of my life and can dictate the outcome of each and every day. In saying that I don’t think I have mastered it yet, for the struggle still continues with the frustration of not fully knowing my purpose yet.

Finally our dream was reached and Glenn is not only flying again, but is the only bilateral amputee pilot serving in any Defence Force in the world. My children are now nine and eleven, so they still keep me busy and are truly my inspirations for striving to be the best I can be. Even though Glenn is fully functional, there are days where I still feel the load, as if I’m still his carer. As for me … my stamina and perseverance payed off – ‘my promise’ was kept and my integrity is intact. I’m not sure if Glenn really understands the personal sacrifice on my part, of what I contributed to his journey at the cost of my own personal well being. Life in Glenn’s world is at times a struggle between his physical and emotional demands, and finding that balance is often a point of discussion. Glenn and I are not the only people to take this journey, but in our own individual ways we have triumphed and have much to be thankful for! 

This journey has also been shared amongst friends and family whose dedication and continued support I truly appreciate. I continue to actively seek a profession, other than social work, so I can work towards identifying my self, my purpose and thereby saving my world. You see, I could not wait on the ‘promise’ once intended for me.