Gregg Heldon is in no doubt that his dogs saved his life.
Along with his wife Tina, they have been the mainstay for the Tuggeranong man, 56, who is living with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Gregg worked for the Australian Federal Police for over 13 years and in the Child Protection Unit for almost three years. Six months after he left Child Protection to work in another area, he had a breakdown and was diagnosed with PTSD. A few years later, it was re-diagnosed as complex PTSD.
“In Child Protection, I viewed somewhere between 7 and 8 million images and videos of child abuse and child exploitation material,” he said. Much of that work was classifying images.
“Some days it was the best job in the world when the work you did led you to an arrest or a conviction. I worked in Child Protection until the day my brain told me it was full and I had a breakdown,” he explains.
“I was diagnosed with PTSD and developed symptoms, like a stutter, which I never had before, also panic and anxiety attacks. I’d shake and I’d cry at the drop of a hat.
“I was still doing 24/7 shift work when I was diagnosed, but then I was suspended from work and spent some time in a psychiatric hospital before they pensioned me off.
“My file says I am unemployable.”
Gregg describes complex PTSD as a mental injury as well as an illness.
“I was injured while I was at work and it’s a permanent injury. My type of C-PTSD is Moral Injury Complex PTSD, which is very similar to what soldiers in battle receive. You’re seeing something every day that you know is wrong, but you can’t do much to stop or alter it.”
Gregg said two weeks after he left work, the family’s 13-year-old dog died. A little later, they were offered a Skye terrier, a rare breed. It was, he said, perfect timing.
When Monte the Skye terrier entered his life, a dog he jokingly describes as “14 kilos of intent to menace”, Gregg said he couldn’t have been at a lower ebb.
But Monte soon became Gregg’s best mate. A favourite of Mary Queen of Scots, who reportedly had one under her petticoat at her execution, the breed is now deemed one of the most endangered in the UK.
Today, Gregg has three of the breed, Monte, Coco and Kingston – and yes, they’re all named after biscuits. It started when Gregg and Tina had two dark chocolate-coloured corgi crosses called Tim and Tam.
The Skye terrier, Gregg says, is the most empathetic of dogs. It knows how he feels and acts accordingly. If he’s in a good place, the dog will be too. If he’s not, the dog will be on alert, watching him, looking for ways to calm him down.
“If it wasn’t for my wife, an incredible support and the most patient of women, and these three dogs, I wouldn’t be here today. I know that. We don’t have children. My dogs are my substitute children. They give me a reason to get up in the morning. They can tell changes in my moods and adjust accordingly. They can tell when I’m having an off day or when I’m stressed.”
Gregg said he was sharing his story publicly in the hope that it may help others.
“When you have a mental illness, people always tell you to ‘do stuff’,” he said. “Some things they suggest may work, others may not. People have told me they can cure PTSD. They can’t. You have it for life.”
He said it was important to be honest and open with people about mental illness, although some people might turn away, he said. “If they do, forget them.”
“I’ve had family friends of 30 years walk away. It is heartbreaking and hard, but a lot of people are uncomfortable with you. You just have to take it on the chin.
“I believe everyone with a mental illness should have a pet … although these three together have cost us $6000 in damage bills chewing things, including a certain pair of $400 leather shoes my wife bought in Italy – and a set of blinds.”
Despite his dark days, Gregg reckons he is lucky to have such a wife – and “children”.
If you or someone you know needs help, you can contact:
Lifeline’s 24-hour crisis support line – 13 11 14
Suicide Call Back Service – 1300 659 467
Beyond Blue – 1300 224 636
Kids Helpline – 1800 551 800 or kidshelpline.com.au
MensLine Australia – 1300 789 978 or mensline.org.au.