Guest Editor : Allan Sparkes CV, VA– Inspirational Speaker, Author – The Cost of Bravery
Job Seeking is a very lonely affair. Isolation, loneliness and depression are common side effects of a job seeker’s day, particularly for those candidates who have been on the hunt for more than 6 months. I regularly receive personal emails from Job Seekers who ask me to address this unspoken and uncomfortable subject in my blog.
Allan Sparkes offers great insight, advice and encouragement on adversity and his guest contribution is far better than anything I could ever pen for you. I encourage you to read his guest blog post and his book, and if you find this contribution valuable or if you know of a friend or co-worker who is suffering from depression or adversity as a result of recent job loss, please share it.
Allan Sparkes was the first Australian police officer to be awarded Australia’s highest decoration for bravery, the Cross of Valour. He had no idea his rescue of a young boy from a flooded storm water system would culminate in the ignominious end of his police career. His life hung in the balance.
The Cost of Bravery is a brutally frank and honest account of what happened to Allan. It is a valuable insight into the debilitating mental illnesses of post traumatic stress disorder and chronic depression, caused by 20 years of exposure to the horrors and trauma of police work. It is also a love story; a story of an incredible relationship with his wife and children that was tested in ways that few could ever contemplate.
Allan sought to rebuild everything that mattered so much to him. He had been left with a void that, to most, seemed impossible to fill. It was a roller coaster of disappointment and achievement that was going to last for over a decade, rebuilding his mind, body and soul. It was an arduous search for fulfilment. It is the story of Allan’s journey to hell and back.
Allan’s contribution to my blog:
There is no darker place in your soul than the place you are when you are planning to take your own life. It is a very private place. When I used to visit this place it was as if I was going down into a deep, deep cave where there was only darkness, silence and loneliness. The thing I remember most, though, is how quiet it was. There was no sound apart from the beating of my heart. It was a very sad place because in this place I had no hope. I felt as if I was nothing and I had nothing. I felt totally worthless as a man, a husband, a father and a human being. I felt nothing apart from inescapable, excruciating pain. In this place, I could cry and I could scream, and I knew no one could hear me. I didn’t want anyone to hear me, I just wanted to leave the life I once knew and never come back. This is where I used to sit and plan ways of killing myself.
I had simply given up all hope of ever knowing a life free from the searing psychological pain that was torturing my mind. The prospect of being free from that pain by taking my own life was a far more appealing alternative. The reality was, I didn’t want to die. If there was just something, anything that could give me hope, before my mind spun completely out of control. I had to dig deep, very deep into the recesses of my mind to try and find that something. But first, I had to find the courage to admit I desperately needed help. I was terrified of the person I had become and the situation I was in. It was the lowest point in my life.
That was 16 years ago and now I am able to enjoy the contentment of reflecting on how I turned things around. Was there some magical formulae? Did I have any special skills? The simple answer is no. Those small steps started with accepting I was suffering from not one but two mental illnesses. In reality, to be told by my psychiatrist that I wasn’t mad was one of the most reassuring things I had ever heard. To be told that I had been diagnosed with two distinct mental illnesses, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (P.T.S.D) along with Chronic Depression was the start of my psychological rehabilitation.
It wasn’t a time to be jumping for joy though. It was a time of isolation and discrimination. For most of my former police colleagues, it was like I had developed leprosy and people could not move away quickly enough. Mental illness is not contagious but the stigma of it certainly developed rapidly. The love and support of my wife was one of the main foundations of my recovery. And so was a vision I had carried with me since I was a child, a vision of sailing across the oceans of the world.
I did what anyone can do, I set myself goals. My first goal was to stay alive each day. Anti psychotic drugs certainly helped me do that. Stick with my counselling sessions with my psychiatrist 3 times a week, stick with my anti-depressant medication, stick with the rehabilitation plan. Just stick with it. Determination was necessary. I believe that is an innate character within us all. Everything else was put aside, I had to getting my mental health improving, not matter how small the improvements were, as long as the improvements were outnumbering the setbacks.
And so counselling, medication and meditation were combined with improvements to my physical health, a massive reduction in alcohol, caffeine and nicotine was countered with an increase in physical activity, little bits at first which increased on an ever increasing scale. Combining all of those gave me back strength, both of my mind and my body. I devoted a lot of time to very worthy community projects, to help people who I believed were suffering far more than I was.
A major setback was my unwanted discharge from a career I cherished so much. I grieved so badly and the realisation I could never go back to what I had once given so much of my life was a bitter pill that could not be swallowed easily. In reality, I had to start all over again. I had to create a new career for myself. I had to reinvent myself.
But what in the hell was there for me? Who would want a 40 year old ex-cop kicked out of his job because he was a mental case. Packing shelves at a supermarket? Washing cars at a car wash? I was so lost and there wasn’t much hope on the horizon. It wasn’t the right way to think I know but it was how devastated I was feeling.
n Coffs Harbour, where I lived, any form of paid work was scarce, the only thing on offer was the chance to serve some subpoenas for local law firms. How much pride does one have to swallow I wondered. I made inquiries about what, if any, licences I would need to take on this work. , I submitted my application for a Private Inquiry and Commercial Agents Licence at the local court house. I had no reason to think the licence would not be granted. Sometime later, a letter arrived from the court house. When I read it, I sat there, staring at it in disbelief. A deep burning anger quickly followed.
The New South Wales Police Force had lodged a formal objection against the granting of my licence. The grounds for this objection? According to the Licencing Sergeant, I wasn’t qualified or experienced enough. My only course of action was to lodge an appeal. The appeal was set down for hearing at the Coffs Harbour Local Court in April 1998. Not qualified or experienced enough? I could not wait for this hearing to take place. I could not wait for the Licencing Sergeant to be in the witness box. To hear his evidence and justify his objections. As you could imagine, I was incensed. I researched every qualifications and experience required for a Commercial and Private Inquiry Agents licence in New South Wales. There weren’t many.
My defence case was scrutinised by friends in the legal fraternity. They jokingly suggested I give up the idea of serving subpoenas and become a Solicitor. For the first time in my life, I went to Court to represent myself in a matter against the New South Wales Police Force. The magistrate issued my licence with an apology. The Licensing Sergeant never bothered to turn up: It was a hollow victory.
With a sack full of sadness, I went cap in hand to legal firms in the area, to let them know I was now licensed and qualified to serve subpoenas. I asked them if they had any work available. “Thanks Al, we’ll let you know” was the most polite response I received. Others, such as “Sorry Al, we’re pretty happy with the firms we’re using” or “Bit of a come down for you isn’t it Al?” were greeted with a nod and a despondent smile. The reality of where my life had come to evoked overwhelming sadness and despair. ‘You’re just a f—king failure mate, what a loser.’ The words just kept repeating themselves over and over again in my head.
Eventually, I did get a bit of work. I soon found out however there were no rewards for me serving subpoenas; either psychologically or financially. At $20.00 a subpoena and maybe serving three or four a week, I wasn’t making enough money to pay for the cigarettes I was burning through. Time and time again I sat in my in my car, shaking my head in shame, feeling humiliated. My mind could not work out how or why my life had reached this point.
The effects of the chronic depression I had been diagnosed with started to tighten the screws on my mind. The thoughts of killing myself were again starting to offer a far more favourable alternative. My psychiatrist had moved away; the newly appointed psychologist and I were not on the same page; the anti-depressants were holding me together, just. I had to talk to someone. I didn’t want to open these thoughts to Deb, my wife. Outwardly, she thought I was doing better. I didn’t want to look the complete failure to her anymore than I already had done. In the end, I had no choice, she was the person who knew me the best. I hoped she would understand. I did not know how I could cope if she turned against me, especially at this time when I needed her the most. God love her, she understood and as usual, she could see things I couldn’t.
Inspired by support
Inspired by Deb’s support, I spoke to a local solicitor who was also a good friend. She knew about my problems. Being the caring and compassionate person she is, she listened to my proposal. She explained when people are injured in public places they have a right to seek compensation. Her role as a lawyer was to represent those people as best she could and provide all relevant and available evidence to support the case. I listened intently, realising the civil cases had many parallels to the criminal cases I used to prepare briefs of evidence for. It was a matter of gathering facts in search of the truth. At the end of the meeting, we both realised there might be a chance I could contribute in a beneficial way.
It was the first time since I had begun my search I felt there was a chance I might be able to find something that was rewarding. A sense of hope entered my mind. I decided I was never ever going to serve another subpoena. Initially, there were few opportunities to speak to victims and take their affidavits. Most cases listed in the forthcoming district court sittings had already been completed. Be that as it may, I enjoyed the chance to use some of my old skills.
Word spread amongst the legal community about the work I was doing. As time went on, I interviewed more and more clients for other legal firms. My scope of work increased. Taking photographs, recording details and measurements of places where people were injured, finding corroborative witnesses. The more material and evidence I collected, the more people were being helped. I felt less like a failure. I was making a positive contribution to the lives of people who had been severely injured.
Solicitors and Barristers were grateful for the work I was doing and the valuable evidence I was gathering. Cases were being settled rather than being strenuously defended by the Insurers legal representatives. The difference between the work I was doing now and the work I did as a police officer was I never took the brief to the end of the legal proceedings. My work finished in the offices of the legal firms not in the witness box. I still had some involvement with the Police, mainly if the civil litigation involved motor vehicle collisions. The void which remained from my police discharge was still there, I was working harder to try and fill it. As painful as it was, I knew somehow, someway I had to let my old career go, I had to try and move on.
Changes in legislation brought about the end of plaintiff work. It is when and why I changed over to conducting defendant investigations on behalf of insurers. The shift from doing work on behalf of plaintiffs to defendant work brought a new set of challenges. Like all industries, there was a limited amount of work available and a large number of established firms vying for it. How was I, brand new in the industry ever going to break into the mix. I realise now, part of my make-up is I relish challenges. Telling me I can’t do something, or it will be too hard, inspires me.
To have a chance of getting any of this work, I had to make applications to go on various panels. Had any of these companies ever heard of Allan Sparkes and his new company, Allan J Sparkes & Associates Pty Ltd? I doubt it very much. There was only one thing to do, head down to Sydney and knock on doors.
I arranged face to face meetings with the various company representatives and set out to tell them how much benefit my company would to be to them. It didn’t work for all the companies I approached but it did for some. I started to get some work. It was all I needed. A chance to prove what outstanding service my company could provide. To get some runs on the board so to speak.
To be competitive against the bigger, more established firms doing the work I was after, my company had to stand out. I engaged a designer to completely re-brand my company. Sparx Investigation was developed. New Web-site, impressive full colour booklet, letterheads, business cards. It worked, Sparx Investigation was accepted onto more and more national panels. Our work load was increasing rapidly and we had to take on more and more sub-contractors and staff to meet the demands.
My role as an investigator shifted to being a manager. I preferred investigating but the challenges of the new role was, initially, rewarding. An opportunity to become involved in the investigation of commercial marine claims arose. This was a new area of interest for me, one I thoroughly enjoyed. I had a small number of clients and I built a solid relationship with them, both with the specialist marine lawyers who were instructing me and the marine insurers who had engaged them. I continued to develop new skills in business and marketing. I also went back to College, studying at the Australian Maritime College in Launceston in Tasmania and gained new qualifications as a commercial marine surveyor. Combining the new skills I developed and utilising old skills I had developed over such a long period of time put me in a pretty powerful position to offer unique services to my clients. My business improved, along with the bottom line of my company. My self-esteem was starting to re-build.
But did I ever feel whole again? Being brutally honest, no I didn’t. I anxiously needed to be able to feel that. I had to identify what it was that I really wanted to do with my life that would allow me to feel I was once again worthwhile as a husband, a father and a human being. In 2008 I decided it was time to sail across those oceans of the world. We worked out a plan and again, we set those all important goals. Training, preparation and determination led us to England in March 2009. With my wife, my 2 daughters aged 14 and 9, we set sail across the English Channel and onwards across the oceans, sailing 16,000 nautical miles (nearly 30,000 kilometres) back to Australia. It was on that journey that I became the person I had sought to be for all those years. It was on that trip back to Australia that I decided I was going to leave my past where it belonged – in the past. I was going to look for new opportunities and take on new challenges.
Networking,marketing and not giving up
When we arrived back in Australia, I started writing my book, The Cost of Bravery. I engaged a professional editor to help me with it and as luck would have it, the sort of luck that is created rather than magically appears, Penguin Books Australia took an interest in my book and it was published in May 2013. During this time, I also decided I would take on the challenge of speaking professionally, probably one of the most competitive industries there is. My efforts of networking and marketing and not giving up have paid off and I am humbled by the response I have received as I tell my story around the country. Apart from the professional work I undertake, I have never forgotten my community, i.e. the people who live in this wonderful country. I was honoured to be offered a position of a beyondblue Ambassador and I spend a great deal of time, volunteering to speak at community events, trying to tear down those walls of stigma that still surrounds mental illness.
There was, and is, nothing unique about me. I just developed the courage to overcome the fear of failure and adopt my very simple philosophy on life, If you have nothing left to lose, give it everything you’ve got. I carry that philosophy with me every day.