Updated: Sep 7, 2021
OUR BUSH CHARITY Sober in the Country has a mission ensure our mates always know it's #OK2SAYNO to the beers. When amazing young Australians step up and explain why this message is important for them, we're so grateful. Thanks, Ollie, for your support, for sharing your story, and for being a leader:
.... IMAGINE THIS: you’re a young fella on a big ship out at sea with only a non-English speaking crew and a sketchy internet connection (sometimes) for company. While you know to expect the unexpected in a normal crossing, you're not prepared for when a global pandemic breaks out. What happened for young stockie Ollie Thorne was that instead of a month or two here-and-there at sea with ‘’port time’’ to break up the monotony - he basically ended up on a ship for a year during which time another ship was lost nearby.
We spoke with Ollie a while back and he so very candidly and bravely shared with us how those 12 months took a massive toll on his emotional state and ultimately led to gambling, drinking, and a dose of PTSD and why in 2021 - out on the other side - he’s choosing to share his experience in the hope of encouraging better welfare for stockies at sea:
''When you're out on a big boat in the middle of the ocean with a foreign crew for months on end - it’s incredibly challenging. It's a very lonely feeling. From language barriers to cultural barriers, it just wears you down emotionally... it's so surreal just sitting in a dining area with every other soul speaking a foreign language laughing and interacting ... it just makes feelings of isolation worse. Eating alone in my cabin was easier than feeling alone in a room full of people.
But what really shook me up last year was being at sea when another ship was lost, close by.
We were headed into rough waters towards where it'd sunk. I distinctly remember getting the news late at night and then standing out there trying to reach my parents on the satellite phone - desperately looking for some news.
For weeks after, I was checking the weather maps constantly and sleeping with my life jacket and emergency gear on the floor next to my bed , wondering if we would be next.
During one of those nights at about 1:00 am - the horn sounded eight times in a row (this is how an emergency is indicated) - and the announcement was given in Tagalog (Pilipino), so I literally had no clue what was going on. Eventually I worked out one of the crew had been badly injured in a fall - leaving him unconscious, bleeding and battered. This was terrible for him, but I had thought the worst - that we were going down.
When I think back to that trip, I now realise it had a massive impact on my state of mind. It felt like ... utter helplessness …. knowing you’re on the water, in a boat, and yet completely powerless.
Meanwhile there's constant pressure and constant media scrutiny that goes on in this space. When you are the one on the boat, taking care of the cattle and ensuring the best standards of welfare - you know the truth. But I suppose people are just waiting to assume the worst?
The constantly changing quarantine ‘’rules’’ in 2020 also meant we literally couldn’t even get off the boat at port here in Australia or elsewhere. This uncertainty combined with the scrutiny and stress was hard going. While I had great support in the company I worked with, who helped where they could, I lost contact with friends and family relationships - and that had a massive flow-on effect.
That period really changed me. Perhaps I was more susceptible to it than others? All I know is that the prolonged period of distress, fear and isolation led to PTSD.
I've also realised, since, that there is so much expectation and pressure on young men and women stockies at sea - but almost no mental health support or information for them. I get that it was uncharted territory for us to be left on boats during COVID - but I believe that it was also pretty ordinary that none of us were offered support or tools (on our return) to deal with that kind of extended and unexpected isolation.
The government was happy for the trade to continue during the COVID period - but little regard was shown for stockies and crew. I truly believe this needs to be recognised and the risks acknowledged. If we are good enough to have that burden placed upon us, we are good enough to be heard and provided with the support.
I know I came off that boat a different bloke. My behaviour wasn't really 'me' ... it was destructive both on the boat and when I finally made it off the ship. I drank and gambled way too much and had no sense of self-preservation. This may have been a lack of experience but I believe it was also a massive lack of preparation, education and support.
I don’t personally identify as a ‘’problem drinker’’ but I drank more than I ever had in my life in 2020 and I didn't have any awareness how those circumstances would affect me. When reflecting on that time... it just felt so much easier to open a can of beer (or ten) than to go to the gym after hours .…. and it was easier to numb those feelings than it was to think about where I was at. And it (drinking) was absolutely the only way I was able to fall asleep at night.
What I now understand is how I behaved wasn’t who I really was. I ignored the voice inside and I stopped taking care of myself.
The grog, for me, was simply the by-product of a deeper story. And that's why I think we need to look at mental health as a holistic thing .. at how one behaviour impacts another. The conversations being generated through SITC have been really helpful for me to see that using alcohol the wrong way can have a massive negative impact on overall health.
''For me, the key is to recognise (early) behaviour in ourselves that doesn't feel right and to dead-set look yourself in the face and see what’s going on. For example to ask yourself “am I drinking like this because it’s fun?’’ - or “am I drinking like this as a result of what’s going on in my head?”.
I am someone who will always enjoy a beer, but I now understand the dangers.
Those first couple of drinks should tell you what’s going on.
Really, they are your last line of defence.”
Words & images supplied. Compiled & edited by Shanna Whan, SITC.
We thank Ollie for his candour and leadership and for joining us in the arena of essential yarns via our OK2SAYNO campaign and carrying the SITC message of health & mates before grog.