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Conquering PTSD with sport

Image: Supplied

Conquering PTSD with sport

Conquering PTSD with sport

This excerpt is one of several powerful personal stories of the Sydney Invictus Games participants shared in the  new book ‘Unconquered: Our Wounded Warriors‘. Royal Australian Air Force servicewoman and Sydney Invictus Games participant, Emilea Mysko, shares how physical and mental injuries from her time as a medic in the navy – which lead to PTSD – were overcome by competitive cycling.

Emilea Mysko grew up in a military family. Her father and sister were both members of the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) and she was keen to join too. A personal trainer and fitness instructor, Emilea was looking for a change and applied to enter the RAAF as a medic.

She was accepted, but with a proviso: there was a waiting period of several months before she could actually begin her training. She hesitated and was also offered positions in the Army and Navy which were immediate. She chose the Navy and never looked back.

Enlisting as a medic in the Navy in 2007, Emilea began her career with basic training at HMAS Cerberus in Victoria. ‘It was good,’ she remembers, ‘It was different. It was the first time I’d been away from my family for any length of time. So, adjusting to military life as an actual member of the military and also being away from the family, took some time.’ Once she had completed her training, Emilea spent time on the military ward at St Vincent’s Hospital in Sydney. She was also involved in peacekeeping missions throughout South-East Asia. In total, she served eight years in the Navy.

But Emilea’s duties as a medic saw her sustain a series of injuries, both physical and mental, that would rob her of her ability to play sport. This was a bitter blow: ‘I have a real passion for health and fitness, I have had since I was quite young. This led me to the fitness industry and then on to becoming a medic.’ Emilea also worked with the Victorian paramedics as part of a program to increase the skills and broaden the experience of Navy medics and it was during this work that she sustained her most serious injuries. She was particularly affected by the death of a patient she was treating in the back of an ambulance on the way to the hospital. ‘He was the same age as my father,’ she recalls, ‘and he was just talking to me and then he died.’ The man’s death shocked her, but she received no support. Alongside her physical injuries, her traumatic experience of her patient’s death affected her mental state.

Emilea was medically discharged in April 2015 with physical and psychological illnesses and injuries. ‘At the time of my discharge, I was a really broken person.’ Adds Emilea’s mother, ‘Before her injuries, she was a really happy, outgoing person and took everything in her stride. But after, she took everything as a personal affront. She just didn’t smile any more. She wasn’t the same daughter I sent to the Navy.’ Emilea agrees. ‘I had a lot of physical stuff going on and a lot of mental stuff, so I was a pretty angry person and was quite bitter towards the military for some time.’

In 2017 Emilea was admitted to a psychiatric hospital no fewer than three times. ‘After my third admission, my psychologist suggested that I explore the Road Home program in South Australia and the Invictus Pathways program. I went to an information session — I was quite hesitant actually, because I didn’t like meeting new people. But I went — I sat at the back of the room and just listened and then I spoke to someone later and asked for some more information.’ Later, Emilea met one of the coaches and discussed the sorts of sports that she could attempt. ‘I said, “Look, I can’t run or anything like that, my sports previously were running and netball, but I had my foot fused.” And then he said, “But you can ride a bike.” And I said, “I can’t ride a bike, I haven’t ridden a bike since school.”’ But ride a bike she did.

The Invictus Pathways program introduced Emilea to cycling and indoor rowing. It was a very gradual start: I fell off my bike a few times because of having to clip and unclip the pedals and stuff like that. I was put in some races which are part of the Invictus Games, a criterium and a time trial. I was introduced to the criterium to give me some idea of what I’d be doing if I went to the games. There were no females there that day. I was lapped by the boys quite a few times. I finished the race, but I was very deflated obviously.

Emilea Mysko. Image: Supplied

I threw my bike at the coach and I said, ‘I can’t do this. I’m not doing this thing again, have your effin’ bike.’ But he didn’t give up and, in the end, neither did I. I just learned more and more about the bike and more and more about what I could do. 

The road to the Invictus Games has changed Emilea so much in so many ways. ‘I’ve now become an ambassador for the Road Home because of the way I am with people and I have helped many people even throughout my journey.’ She also understands that different veterans have different needs. ‘I do acknowledge that sport isn’t for everyone. So you do have to remember that it’s an opportunity, but that not everyone wants to go to that level. You have to be quite understanding and that’s what’s really good about the Road Home program, it does have other avenues as well, including the Pathways program.’

For those suffering PTSD or mental health issues, Emilea adds, ‘I was in a very bad state. But you’ve got to be able to let people help you. You’ve got to let them in.’ She believes that the games are so varied that even those who have little experience of sport will find a niche. ‘You’ll find that you may not be great right now, but if you have a passion for a sport and it makes you feel good when you do it, then keep going. Set yourself little goals. Don’t set the Invictus as the goal to start with, set little goals. For example, you might want to be able to ride a bike and not fall off. If it’s a wheelchair sport, you might try to get out there and participate once a week for the next month and see how you like it. Just setting little goals like that and making sure that sport provides fulfillment and achievement can make a huge difference.’

Emilea is quick to point out that the Invictus Games are not about winning gold medals. ‘It’s not about being the best at your sport, it’s being the best version of you within your limitations. It’s about not letting your limitations define who you are or what you can do, but defining what you can do and who you are by your own standards. It’s about really finding who you are because that’s what the journey is, that really helped me find who I am.’

To get your copy of Unconquered: Our Wounded Warriors, click here.

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