Chris Bogusis has survived three major bushfires including Victoria’s Black Saturday. The accumulated stress, however, left him with PTSD causing him to lose his home and marriage. If it hadn’t been for the extraordinary action of his dog Grizzly, he would also have lost his life. Chris’ story explains how to reduce “mental injury” by seeking help early, why it’s important to find the support that’s right for you and how looking out for your community can result in “post traumatic success.”
Read the transcript of Chris's story
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Not all effects from the bush fire are visible. If you or someone you know have been affected by bushfire, it is important that you talk about it with someone you trust or you can call Lifelines dedicated bushfire recovery line on 13 43 57 to speak confidentially to a crisis supporter.
When these fires hit, and they hit 11 years almost to the frickin day, on New Years Eve. I'm sure there's a lot of people out there right now that feel the same way I feel about New Year's Eve this year, it was it was hell on earth. It was so bad, and that was the day I was like, I have to do more
As we recorded this podcast Lifeline was experiencing a 15% rise in calls, mainly as a result of the Bush fires that began sweeping down the east coast of Australia in 2019. A survivor of the 2009 Black Saturday fires, Chris Bogusis knows how those callers feel. Here, he explains how he was affected, and how, with the help of trauma counsellor Rosie Saxton, he's moved on by helping others.
In 2009 I was 19 years old, I had a fiance and we're saving up for our first house. At the time, I was living with not only my fiancee but her brother, his wife and their newborn baby son. And we were living in a house that was built by my fiancee's dad, who built it right in the middle of the bush. So we were basically on the fringe of the town of Healesville. So right where the Bush started and the township started, that's where we were living s. So it had been incredibly hot and dry weather for months, but particularly leading up to Black Saturday, the weather was nasty. I ended up getting a text message from a friend of mine who was in the CFA up in Beechworth. And he said that there were some fires starting up and that we should be watching out. Now he let me know because I had been through the 2003 high country fires and the 2006 Canberra fires. I've been involved heavily in both of those, and we had a open communication channel about it because we knew how dangerous it could be. When I actually got that message, I went outside to call him to get some more information, and that's when I saw the fire. There was a huge fire starting up on the hill right in town, and I immediately grabbed my fiancee took her back home because we had the dog and a few other things we had to manage and organise there. When we got there, the sky was already turning very dark. I mean, extremely dark. And I knew we were in a lot of danger from the previous fires I've been in. Like when it goes when it gets that dark and you can hear the fire. In the middle of that my fiancee came inside from doing a trip to pack the car, and she said, It's raining fire outside. Is that bad? And she'd never been through anything like this, so she she had no comprehension of what that meant, which means we were under the direct ember attack at that point, and we, we'll I say we, but I grabbed her and her brother and forced them out the door. Her brother's wife, Janice, was sort of dazed, would be the best way, confused, I'd say unsure about what to do. So she was trying to go back in the house to get more stuff and what not, and I had to forcibly grab her and move her towards the car and told her to get in the car and go now. It was all instinct. Like I look back at it, I can kind of see what I did. But it's not something that at the time, at the time I remember consciously thinking about, it was sort of just like I've been here before, Done this before in those other fires. I know what I had to do, and my main goal was to get my fiancee and her family out of that danger zone. So we drove through the fire and it was absolute chaos. I mean, we had it was a 60 K an hour winding the road and we have people going 100 to 110 on the wrong side of the road to try and get around these fires and flames and stuff. And there was traffic jams and there was people who had crashed because of the mayhem was going on. There was police everywhere trying to help people evacuate and what not? And I distinctly remember getting to the end of my road and seeing this strike team, the guys, the guys that are farmers and factory workers and that they have a ute and 1000 litres of water and they throw in the back and they just go and try and do their bit. So we saw them at the end of our road, and everything they had trying to put this fire out was on fire like their fire hoses were on fire. So, like that was one of those images that really stuck with me like you feel completely and utterly helpless when the fire hose is on fire. It's not something that you expect to see.
After I got my wife, my fiancee and her brother and wife out, I tried to get up to see where Dad was and it turns out my dad had managed to evacuate his wife and his dog out of the town. He'd gone back to make sure the house is okay to try and fight the fire. And I couldn't get through the roadblock. So I spent all day and night trying to run roadblocks, going all the back ways I knew, like done extensive hunting and four wheel driving up in those hills. I knew every possible way, and every single way that I could try was blocked. And so the communications were down with everything. It was either overloaded or the infrastructure was damaged. You couldn't. You couldn't communicate with anyone. Everyone's information was hours behind where it needed to be. Even my friend in the CFA up in Beechworth would call me and say it's about to impact the town and it already had. Because of the winds, it was happening so fast you couldn't keep up with it. There's no way. We knew people that were driving out of King Lake doing 150 kilometres an hour and the fire was directly behind them. That's how fast it was moving like it was quick, as hard to describe to people what it's like to see 100 metre tall wall of flame come towards you in those towns. There's nothing you can do. It sucks the air out. You can't breathe, you can't see, the noise is deafening and it's it's akin to standing next to a jet engine starting up and you can hear it from many kilometres away coming and it's a sound that you'll never, ever forget. And so the roads were closed for quite some time. After that day, everything happened in one day. It happened in like, super fast. It was like one day of absolute bedlam. And then after that it was weeks and weeks and weeks of just controlling what it had done. And so I stayed there, making sure the house is OK. So because I had a bit more time to breathe, I was doing things like cleaning up leave litter, making sure the lawns were as short as possible. All that stuff that goes into making your property and your house as fireproof is you can make it. That's what I did for a couple of weeks on my own. It meant not sleeping because the fire would flare up at night and just staying awake for a couple of weeks. Basically, you get two or three hours sleep a day, and then you wake up the next day and you might have to go do a shift so you could buy food. So you go to work and you have the radio on constantly with you to make sure that you stayed up to date with any alerts that were coming through. And it was, it was a state of alertness, readiness preparedness for weeks. And then once they finally got the fire that was directly behind our house under control that's when I got my fiancee, and her brother and wife to come back to the house because by that stage, everything and calmed down enough to feel like the area was safe again.
Chris was on the face of it, one of the lucky ones. His entire family had survived, including his granddad and dad. Everything looked good, So why was he so emotional?
I've never really experienced depression or anxiety. About a year after Black Saturday ended, I was lying in bed with my wife. She was asleep. It's 3-4 o'clock in the morning and I hadn't been able to sleep and by this stage knowing something was wrong, not understanding what it was and just lying there and wanting to die with every ounce of my being, not wanting to go on. I would rather die than feel what I was feeling because what I was feeling was the depths of misery and I couldn't place it. I didn't know why I was sad, you know, I was just about to buy a house, we'd put a deposit on it. We've done all that sort of stuff. I just got married, got a good job that was paying okay with okay hours, you know, like it was perfect white picket fence, middle class life. But I I wanted more than anything for it to end and just and just go away. I would rather choose death. And that's when the whole self medicating thing started, because when you don't understand the emotions that are going on and you don't, you can't place it. You've not got any experience to reference this too. And furthermore, there's no information that was out, like there was no warnings about symptoms of anxiety and depression after a traumatic event. And not for the civilian population that I was part of. And when you feel that bad, you'll do anything to feel otherwise, anything at all. Like from alcohol and drugs, to the opposite end of the scale, which is exercise. I treated exercise with an extreme level of abuse as well. You know, it was there was these solutions out there that were there were extremely dangerous. I mean, you did no idea what's in these pills, but you know that if you have one, chances are you're not going to have to deal with thoughts of dying. You're not going to have to deal with the thoughts of why you can't stop your heart racing and why you just want to cry and why you get it rage. I mean, beyond anger, forget anger. Anger is nothing compared to the rage that I was feeling. It would take nothing to set it off. By then, the dreams were constant. I was just constantly dreaming about fire. It was that was all I could do. I could hear helicopters at night. I could I could see the flames. I could hear jet engines roaring like it was just all there, every time you closed your eyes. So there was no reprieve. Before all this, I never did drugs. I didn't abuse alcohol. So what drives you to do something like that? Why? What depths of misery do you have to go to change your mentality that quickly? And to that extreme, that extreme was like I look back at it and I don't know how I'm still alive some days. I had some support from my partner. It's not to say she wasn't unsupportive. It's just that she was in the same boat that I was. She didn't know what was wrong with me. I didn't know what was wrong with me. And she worked in a medical practise. So we had a bit easier access to GP's at this time. I started seeing different GPS about it and talking to them and what not? And I got heaps of different diagnosis is which were all physical. All the doctors looked at what I was experiencing, which was like rapid heart sweating, feeling really dizzy, not sleeping properly, really light sleeping as well. They all looked at it as a problem that was based solely in my physiology. And so when we moved it was eating me alive by this stage, I self medicated, I'd been misdiagnosed with heart conditions that I was still trying to treat because we all thought it was physical and and my anger and that rage was building. And I've never been a physically violent person ever. But I can be nasty when I'm triggered. Being triggered in post traumatic stress disorder is something else. It's not a memory, you're there. That's the best way to describe it. It's not like you're thinking about it. You're physically there and your body is reacting as such. So when you get triggered. My whole response to it was action. I needed to do something. If I chose to fight. My fight was, I'm going to get by family out of here no matter what. I don't care if I have to drive through a fence over a ditch, you know do 100 kilometres an hour on a road that's on fire with bedlam around. I'm going to do it. So when you get triggered and your back there, I would get aggressive like super nasty with my with my words, and it kills me to say it because I know it affected people around me people that I cared so deeply for. And in the end it cost me my marriage. It cost me my marriage, I lost my house, I lost my business, I lost everything. I was sleeping on the floor with no furniture, nothing but my dog. That's it. Had a dog, I had a TV. I had some like blankets. And at this point I'd had enough. And so I got hammered one night and decided that I'm going to do it. I'm over this. This is crap. Nothing's helping. I've been to doctors. I'm apparently healthy. I must be broken.
Not all effects from the bush fire are visible. If you or someone you know have been affected by bushfire, it is important that you talk about it with someone you trust. Or you can call Lifelines dedicated bushfire recovery line on 13 43 57 to speak confidentially to a crisis supporter.
Chris's suicide attempt was thwarted by two things. A gift from a friend and his dog Grizzly.
The only thing that saved me was a gift from a friend who had stopped by. And she didn't know what I was going through. She'd stop by the day before and she gave me a gift that really meant something to me. Should really listen to me and that that kind of slowed me down. I suppose would be the best way to say it. It wasn't going to stop me. But it gave me pause for thought that someone still cared about me. There was someone out there that didn't hate me. The only other thing that saved my dog, who at the time was less than a year old and big. And he just, he just didn't leave me laid on top of me. I was on the floor because I don't have any furniture and he just lay on top of me. And I couldn't stand up because I was too drunk to push him off because he was too heavy, too big and dopy and beautiful. And he wouldn't let me up. When I asked him to move, I did all the stuff you do is a dog owner and try and get it to move. And he didn't move. And he knew, so he stayed with me all night. Eventually I passed out and the next day, I woke up on my 27th birthday. That incident was what got me eventually diagnosed.
After trying six different psychologists. Chris eventually met GP and trauma counsellor Rosie
So Chris approached me, I mean, he came to see me at the clinic in relation to physical stuff that he had, but also quite aware of the fact that there was an emotional component underneath that and he'd been referred by one of my colleagues who realised that there was some significant emotional stuff going on. So I then took a history from him, and it was immediately clear to me that he had significant PTSD,
The work of done with my trauma counsellor, we've kind of come to an understanding that what we call this PTSD is not a mental illness or it's not to do with mental health. And I personally really don't like the term mental health because there's nothing healthy about it. But it's also not necessarily an illness. You are not sick with a virus or want not. We call it a mental injury because what's happened to you is that you've been injured. You were fine before this, and then something happened and you got stuck in fight flight and you're hurt. So how do you treat a wound? How do you treat a physical wound? Because that's what we're dealing with. We're dealing with something that has physically jammed your brain into a pattern that's not working for you in day to day life. Just like you treat a broken bone or a cut or something, there are a heap of different things that you need to do to get these to work right. This is why you go to a psychologist. A psychologist is not for you to talk to, even though talking can help validate you and it can help you feel better to get it off your chest and make it make it feel tangible and real. But what they're there to do is give you the tools or, in other words, the first aid for you to repair that injury. The first step a lot of people think about going to is something like an anti depressant or an anti anxiety, such as Valium or Xanax,
Chris's doctor prescribed Valium. Supervising it's use throughout his recovery,
And this is sort of like getting stitches or putting a plaster cast on a broken bone. It's a support tool to allow you to heal. So I had about two years of pretty continuous Valium use. But it wasn't like when I was abusing drugs. It was I would get triggered. I would have a Valium. I would then use some techniques that my psychologist told me to work my way out of that fear and that trigger. And what this does overtime is repairs your nervous system, just like how putting a plaster cast or stitches on gives your body the support and time for it to heal itself. So the first step, the answer, is not going to be drugs. You're not going to take a pill and feel better. This is not going to happen. You still need to do the work. And the work is not necessarily easy, but it's hugely rewarding at the end of it.
When I spoke to Chris initially, I spoke about my feeling that most mental illness originates from mental injuries, and that most of us have experienced mental injuries during childhood or at other points in our lives. And when those injuries are not given proper first day, they can then become secondarily infected, so to speak. And that maybe with substance use, which of course, is something that he had turned to in desperation. It may be secondary mental illness such as anxiety or depression, or it may be in behavioural stuff that's going on. So people ending up in in trouble with the law and things like that
Triggers are weird because they don't necessarily follow the laws that you would think they follow. Triggers are just your nervous system reacting to something, and because it's an automated process, you don't have control over when or how it happens. So I could do avoidance for things like smoke. I didn't have to go near a campfire. I didn't have to look at a house in terms, like a normal fireplace fire. I could avoid that sort of stuff, right? But someone barbecuing next door, and the smell of smoke comes over. That's a trigger, and I don't have the choice. I know that's a BBQ. I can smell the meat. You know, it's a barbecue for sure 100%. The nervous system doesn't know that. It just smell smoke. It just knows that the smoke and therefore I must be in danger. That's the same thing with people might be afraid of snakes. Your nervous system doesn't know the difference to any garden hose, and a snake doesn't know they just look similar. So being triggered is highly individual, depending on what you've gone through, what your coping mechanisms are, who you are, what you've learned your environment. It all comes into play.
What Chris learned from Rosie was that his struggles weren't just due to Black Saturday. They've been festering ever since his first experiences as a child.
So one lot of the work that I was doing with Chris was to help his nervous system realise that he had actually survived those events. Because in many ways, when the nervous system has been overwhelmed, which is what one of the probably most common definitions of trauma is when the nervous system is overwhelmed. When that occurs, we go into this fight flight fright, faint freeze responses. We may get stuck there. And the nervous system, doesn't actually realise that we've survived the events. So it's still doing ground Hog day on that state off hyper vigilance and survival. So part of work that I did with him was to enable his nervous system to kind of complete that and recognise that it actually survived each of those events. Not only had he survived, but he'd also learnt stuff from them. So part of the healing is actually taking what we've learned from each of those traumatic events and incorporating that knowledge bank.
It's an interesting piece of psychology, isn't it, Right? Like and you can think back to a heap of different times. The thing is that PTSD starts in childhood because we learn coping mechanism that once got us through something that happened to us when we were younger. That's now being applied to an adult situation. And that application of those coping mechanisms is what sticks you in flight flight. So I learned coping mechanisms, which was my response to Black Saturday "Get my family out of here and deal with it" because that's what I had to do when I was 13 -14. I had to deal with it. When I went through the 2003 fires, I was quite young. I was only just barely in high school, I was only in year 8, and I didn't understand what was going on fully. All I knew was that we were surrounded by fire and people were shooting animals, you know, that had been burnt by the fires, and I was seeing that because I was living in the country. And our house was under Ember attack and so on and so forth, and I didn't understand that. No one told me and my parents were away. So the coping mechanisms that I brought Black Saturday were born from being alone. And then that isolation led me into everything and led me into all the alcohol, all the drugs or the physical abuse that I put myself through and the self destructive past that I went on. I had to do it alone. I had to do it alone. That was my choice. That's what I chose to do, because that's how I learned how to cope with things. No one was there for me. No one was ever going to help me. That was my mentality. Learning about that and learning that I now I can change that anytime I want. I don't have to deal with things like that. I've got people around me that will support me. It's a foreign concept when you've grown up differently. It's a very foreign concept. That's why I keep saying it's about putting in the work. If you're not, if you're not willing to put in the work, then you're only going to have a level of recovery, but not total. You're not going to get back to a place that you want to be. So I implore people to be just ready to really hammer that work. Then, to be really kind to yourself, to be kind, you're not dumb. You're not stupid. The things that you're feeling, a lot of people are feeling right now and you're not alone in it. It's really important that you recognise that what you're going through is not a journey you have to do alone, and there will be people there around you. You might feel incredibly isolated from your family and friends and not wanting to talk to them about it. And I'm going to say that you don't necessarily have to. You can walk up to a family member and just say I need a hug and get that hug. If you're not ready to talk about it right then and there, you don't necessarily have to talk about it right then and there. But treat yourself with the most kindness that you could possibly give yourself.
If the wound can heal, it'll often heal from the bottom up. And it may leave a scar, and that scar may be remind, remind you of what's happened, but it can actually heal to the point where it's not painful anymore
A friend of mine took me out gold prospecting. And the thought behind it was that I had sort of lost my freedom to the bush. Being in the bush was uncomfortable, and it used to be fun. So through Black Saturday I gradually lost my access to the bush just mentally. And he took me out gold prospecting, he's like get in the car, we're going. We live 10 minutes away from a Goldfield. So he took me there and he showed me a pan for gold showed me how to sluice for gold. Basically, he got me socialising again and he got me doing something physical in the bush, which is where I really liked be. That's that's my past life, that's where I want to be. So he took me out and showed me freedom for lack of a better word within, within what I wanted to do, which was be outside in nature, The exact thing that has taken it from me. That's where I was. And I'd always been interested in videography and telling storeys. So when I started gold prospecting, I wanted to sort of share that stuff that I was doing because it was fun, exciting. So I spent my last little bit of money on a GoPro. I just started filming these little adventures and making videos of putting him on YouTube.
What's up guys, Chris and Grizzly here from Vogus Prospecting. If you're new to the channel A big, warm welcome, and an all morning like this one. Welcome back. Today I'm going to give you some of the tips and tricks, the trade secrets of gold prospecting that I used to find better deposits.
People really resonated with them. It just, they seem to latch on to it. I don't know if it's like me or if it's grizzly because he's a big drawcard. But people really caught onto it, and the channel just exploded.
After Chris set up his Facebook page and YouTube channel journalist Sophie Boyd picked up his storey. Chris's struggle with PTSD was on the front page
Gold prospecting got me back in the bush and I'm going to repay that by talking about it. So I did that. I talked to Sophie about PTSD and my journey with gold prospecting and how it got back into the bush and that that went massive. That video for me it got thousands of views and the newspaper ran it. And then I got contacted by an ADF soldier who had severe PTSD from Afghanistan. And he's going through ECT every couple of weeks to manage it and medications don't work. He's been in psych wards, and attempted on his own life. Anyway he saw my article in the newspaper, it got the front page of the Border Mail, so hundreds of thousands of people got to read it. So he calls me up off my channel and it was the first conversation he'd had with a stranger in years. And he talked to me about his journey with PTSD. And we just really clicked. And gold prospecting literally was what brought him back because he was able to get outside socialise with someone which was me, and he was able to do something physical and productive. Not only him, but with his family, with his kids and his wife. So that that made me feel really proud that after everything I've gone through there was there was not only a positive silver lining from me, but for other people, my storey could help other people. And once I clicked onto that, it's like right, it's my duty because I've done this and I survived. I've been there and I'm still working it out, but I'm going to share this as far as it goes. So that's what I did. I shared it as far as it would go. I made a video on my journey with PTSD when I was still trying to figure it out. I know I wasn't better I was still getting triggered every other day and all that, it wasn't gone. So I made a video. I explained what it was like.
There's been research and lots of storeys about the possibility or instead of having post traumatic stress disorder, is actually having post traumatic success. I mean a good example of I think is Jill Meaghers family who did the reclaim the night programme.
I am not qualified in any way to be dishing out advice to people, and I don't. I push people towards recovery, their own journey of recovering and that's super important to remember. When these fires hit and they hit 11 years, almost to the fricking day on New Years Eve. I'm sure there's a lot of people out there right now that feel the same way I feel about New Year's Eve this year. It was It was hell on earth. It was so bad. And that was the day I was like, I have to do more. There is no way that I can sit on all the information and everything else that I had done and not spread that as far as I could take it. And so I started doing almost daily live streams where I talked people through everything that we've been talking about, but in great detail on my Facebook page and on my YouTube channel. I put it up and I talked about getting help and people that are going to feel it. I said, There's three level of people are going to feel the first level of people are going to feel it are the first responders and the people who are directly impacted by the fires, they're going to feel it hard and they're gonna want help as immediately as we can give it to him. The secondary people are the people like myself, who were involved, but not in a really direct way. So I saw the fire. I was there, I heard it. There were events going on around me, but I wasn't like on the fire front fighting it. That's the secondary ones. And the last ones, the far more insidious ones that are likely to fall through The gaps are the ones that I worry about and they're the ones that were affected by the people who were directly affected. So you might be the wife of a firery and you never saw any of the events. But you were deeply affected and all the people that saw all the traumatic videos and photos on social media.
One of the really heartwarming things that comes out of anything as dreadful as these Bushfires is the level of community that's formed. I think everybody's been blown away by the level of support that people are showing. And I think it's incredibly important that that community spirit is kept going and harnessed into the recovery process and that people are actually supporting each other. I think there's a lot of people could do in terms of peer support. I think all of those things can then, people who are travelling a little bit better could help the ones that I'm travelling so well. Keep an eye open for anybody who is particularly isolating and certainly after Black Saturday, that was one of the big issues was people would isolate. I know Chris talks about people that he knew of in the community who suicided, because they had been so isolated. That shouldn't be happening. If people in community can keep an eye open for people who are more vulnerable, and then shout out for professional support for those people. But there's an awful lot that people could do that doesn't require professional input. There are so many things that will help the nervous system to function better. Moving, exercise, for instance, is incredibly helpful. So getting walking groups going together, walking and talking. People talking about their experience, but not in terms of all the gory details, because that can actually traumatise other people. But talking about how they felt in terms of going through that experience so that they talk about how they felt and they'll discover the other people felt similarly. But music is really good. Music is a very good way of lifting the nervous system and helping to balance the nervous system, get it back out of fight flight. Doing puzzles, sudoku and that sort of thing actually can help that the cognitive mind come back online. Then we can think more clearly, people going along on doing things together, just being together
So I'm saying, if you're feeling funny, if you're feeling weird and you weren't part of those fires, go and talk to someone about the fires. Do it because if it's on your mind constantly and it's playing over in your head and you're just thinking about the social media feeds, it very well could have affected you. And the quicker you get on top of it, the easier it will be to mitigate any of the effects it might have had.
Thank you for listening to holding onto hope. Lifeline Australia is grateful to all our interviewees, who share their storeys in the hope of inspiring others. We also acknowledge all of you who provides support to people in crisis and those on their journey to recovery. If you found this podcast helpful or inspiring, please share it rate it, write a review or subscribe wherever you download your favourite podcasts. If you or someone you know has been affected by Busfire, it's important that you talk about it with someone you trust or you can call Lifelines dedicated Bushfire recovery line on 13 43 57. You can do this at any time or visit lifeline.org.au to access Web chat every night from 7 p.m. to midnight. If it's inspired you to be a lifeline volunteer or to donate, please visit lifeline.org.au. With thanks to Wahoo Creative for interviews, editing and production and the voice of lived experience, which is essential in the development of our work.
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