Ben Aldridge: The Military, Mental Health and Living With My Disability
Imagine you are a veteran of the military.
You are the epitome of an Aussie bloke. You love the outdoors and camping, but you ignore your mental health and drink to cope.
Then one night you are so drunk you fall off a cliff, a real one. You fall 10 metres or 30 feet. You survive.
This week Ben Aldridge talks to Peta about his life after the accident and his life now as a disabled man.
Find out more about Ben:
Connect with Peta:
The website: www.icantstandpodcast.com
Peta [00:00:00] Before we get started this week, I just wanted to let you know that this week's episode discusses issues around mental health. So if you don't feel up to listening to this week's episode, I totally understand. If this episode does bring up any issues for you, can I encourage you to contact beyondblue on 1322 4636? Men's Help Australia on 1378, 9978. Or for our Australian veterans open arms on 800 011046. Hello and welcome to the I Can't Stand podcast. The podcast answering your questions on what it's like to live with a disability. My name's Peter. I have cerebral palsy and I'd love to answer your questions. This week I have been on from a 30 foot drop, 30 foot drop you might have seen on my Instagram. We work together a few months ago now. Ben is such an amazing guy with an amazing story. Instead of feeling sorry for himself after his accident, he created this amazing foundation and he was such a pleasure to chat to. So I'm going to stop blabbing on and handed over to Ben.
Ben [00:01:45] Hi. I'm Ben Aldridge. I'm a systemic advocate living in the south west of Western Australia.
Peta [00:01:51] So everybody listening better understand who you are. You said you're a systemic advocate. What is that?
Ben [00:01:59] I have lived experience of disability and as an advocate I work between the disability community and organisations and governments to actually improve the systems and how they interact with the disability community. How this all came about. I was serving in the military, was quite young. I was 22 at the time. My ex and I'll serve in the infantry just come back from overseas and was suffering quite badly from post-traumatic stress. That was due to, you know, events that happened over there left quite scar on me. But instead of seeking the professional help that I needed, being young, male, not really smart in the ways of mental health. And I ended up turning to alcohol as a coping mechanism. I started taking two risks, and one night I found myself urinating off the edge of a rather large cliff for one drink. I've lost my balance and over I've gone. So I've fallen ten metres or 30 foot and small. Behind. A lot of what I do is looking at what I want other people to know earlier and how we can actually make sure that people get educated. People understand more about mental health and the courage that it actually takes to properly face your own mental health demons.
Peta [00:03:33] How long between you coming home and you becoming disabled? How long was that period?
Ben [00:03:39] So that period was like I was thinking nine months.
Peta [00:03:45] Okay. So who was Ben before the accident?
Ben [00:03:49] I was very much a bargain would be the best way of describing myself. I was very, very much physically interested in using my body. So before I joined the military, I worked a lot of very physical jobs from being a builder's labourer through to all the truths of solider exploration talks in the middle of the tatami desert. I joined the military because I wanted to make a difference. I travelled a lot during my younger years and at the time, you know, it was off the Bali bombings after 911. I really wanted to make a difference because so many people would was scared of travel. There was this fear and it wasn't right. Nobody should be able to dictate someone's life in that way. And that's why I joined now. Idealistic, definitely. Definitely. You know, there are other ways to make a difference, but that's how I felt I could do it.
Peta [00:04:52] Wow. So, you know, and I think that's not uncommon for young people to be idealistic. I was certainly very idealistic when I was younger, too. So I think many people could probably relate to where you were coming from. Ben So given that Ben before his disability was so focussed on the physical and being able to be outdoors and accessing old things and everything and travel, how was it to. Redefine yourself as a disabled person when you were so, you know, pro on being physical in your own identity.
Ben [00:05:33] Not easily in it to be, to be really honest. It has been a real journey. I was described by accident as the crucible that has shaped my life. It's to go from being this very physical person to. Not being able to do the things that I used to do to build my resilience. You know, going camping, four wheel drive and challenging myself. This was how I'd put my resilience prior to my accident. I've had to reinvent myself. And in a lot of ways it's actually been a really good thing, but hasn't been easy without the love and support of so many people around me, friends who have stuck by me, friends that I've made along the way, including my best friend, my wife, who I didn't meet until after my accident. Without them. It would have been so much harder. To do. And I suppose what the biggest thing that I've learnt is that the stigma around. Needing to be strong and independent and look after your own backyard. A man who can't deal with his own problems is a man. The truth about that stigma is that it's absolute baloney. There's nothing that there's nothing true about that at all because we are all impaired in our own different ways, regardless of whether you identify as having a disability or not or anything. We all have things that we put out and things that we're not. And try to pretend that you are great at everything and asking for help is really damaging. We need to actually have the strength to ask people for help. And I suppose that's the epiphany that I came to eventually.
Peta [00:07:47] You were talking about resilience before. Did your military training help you with gaining that resilience or would you say that it was totally different skill set that helped you?
Ben [00:07:59] The thing about every lesson throughout life is that you can reflect on it and take from it what you want. The 19 year old learnt from the military is stubbornness. This ability to be able to look at a goal and know that you're not going to get there immediately, that it is going to take time to actually reach it, and that sometimes you're going to be banging your head against a brick wall until you get past a barrier of some sort. That was definitely a big learning that I've continued not taken on.
Peta [00:08:38] How do you go from having your accident, having a military background and then forming this company and choosing to name it after your accident?
Ben [00:08:49] For me the journey to where I've gotten to now. Came from a lot of reflection. I. About five, six, seven years after my accident, I'd started working again and I started to get really frustrated and bitter about a lot of the ignorance in society around the treatment of people with disability. And for me it was very stark because it was actually the first time that I'd actually properly experienced discrimination. Part of my accent. I'd lived a very privileged life. You know, there was very little that I had actually experienced. And so to suddenly. Experiencing this discrimination. Was an eye opener. And I had this epiphany where at the age of 22 sort of had my accent. That was exactly how I was treating the disability community. You know, the poor little, poor little guys, the four there, you bring them out for special occasions, give them a penalty, and that's all they need. That's how I saw the community. Now. How could I? Make people realise how how can I go about educating 22 year old me to be a better ally to the disability community? How can I show them the reality of it? Millions and millions of dollars get pumped into disability awareness initiatives every year. Yeah. At the time, I obviously quit working. For me, it was about how can we do things differently? How can we be the leading edge? You know, what's missing here in Western Australia at the moment is a leading edge company that's willing to try new things and willing to fight. And that's what we do and that's how we operate, is through innovation. The aim of our business is to put ourselves out of business. Employment means so much, but it's more than work and also so much of the non disability community don't. Really understand the the importance that comes with meaningful, lasting resilience employment. This ability to be able to be financially independent. The the societal norm about this. You know, when you meet somebody for the first time, normally in the first couple of questions, it is what do you do for Christ? You know, what do you work as? And being able to do that in a way that is meaningful, has a path towards growth as well, is huge. What annoys me a lot about it is just the lack of expectations. You know, the idea that we should be happy with these pitiful handouts or, you know, a job with no career prospects or that we should be happy with a job that's way below our skills and our ability, you know, potentially. I was meeting with somebody. Now I do this occasionally because it's an interesting social experiment. They had no idea I had a disability. I've rocked up to the meeting without any warning. And the change of facial expression and demeanour is really stark. You know, they get that look of. But always discomfort.
Peta [00:12:48] Like anything exposure make something normal. So representation is the key. Right. So if it becomes like a normality that somebody with a disability will come to a business meeting, then people are more likely to become more comfortable.
Ben [00:13:05] It is you are completely right. The exposure of that, the going. Oh, well, okay. Well, this conversation is now just the same as any other. It's just I didn't stand up, shake my hand.
Peta [00:13:20] What is it like as far as being a person with a disability who identifies as male and the sort of pressures that you feel are very precious? I'd love to know.
Ben [00:13:32] Yes, yes, yes, yes. There are very much as as a male in society, somebody who identifies as male in society, there are these expectations that you are to be strong, that you are to be had. That you are. Going to be able to defend yourself and those around you. I can't. And learning to become comfortable with that has been part of the journey, learning to deal with that vulnerability, to know that if I'm at home alone at night and somebody breaks in, well, Miles will just have a chat with them because there ain't nothing else I can do about. I struggled a lot after the first time. I start with the idea of even being able to have. A relationship, a meaningful relationship. One of the best things about my accent is the fact that without it, I would never have met my wife. And I didn't even think about relationships in that way until she mentioned it. And it took me by surprise.
Peta [00:14:49] So how did you internally resolve or at least come to terms with the fact that you can't, quote unquote, fulfil the masculinity that society requires of a man?
Ben [00:15:04] I started to. Instead of looking externally for validation in my physical sense. Instead, a lot of validation comes from. My relationships around me, the value that I bring, the respect in which people interact with me, the. Those relationships are probably what has made me realise that there's so much more to than anything else. I mean, I'm the father. I was petrified of having of having kids because I could not. I didn't have anybody to model off of. So much of being a parent is it's modelling of what your parents did. I couldn't do that because I couldn't take the footy, I couldn't build the cubby house, I couldn't do all those things. It's about becoming comfortable with who you are and what you have to offer society. Your happiness should never rely on other people's opinions of you. And that takes time. It's not easy. It's. It's still something that I struggle with. Still something I wrestle with. Yeah, it's. Yeah. I don't know. I know. I've kind of diverted blabbed a little bit. They have I hope that's really answered your question because I haven't. It's not an easy question to answer.
Peta [00:16:43] No, I fully appreciate that. And I think you answered that beautifully. I just I as a female with a disability, there are so many innate pressures being female as far as body image and presenting as an why. And really, when I think about it, you've got the same thing. It's just the different side of the coin. So for me, it's really interesting to sort of hear about how you've come to terms with it and how you've managed it. Because as somebody with cerebral palsy, I've never not had a disability. So this has always been me. So it's it's hasn't been so much a process because it's always been embedded in my own identity.
Ben [00:17:26] And that was what I was about to mention. There is identity. Identity is so important. And something that what's happened before my accident and up until five, six, seven years ago is not something that I ever thought of as important. But understanding your identity and understanding the ways that it can change and being comfortable with it.
Peta [00:17:50] What would you tell the pen before he went to go stand on the cliff? What advice would you have for previous pen?
Ben [00:18:01] That life isn't always easy. But the only time that you can ever stop. Trying to improve your life is when you give up. I am at the point of my life now and have been for the past decade that I will not go back and change a thing. This is my life and I am extremely happy and confident, in fact, the direction that I was going before my accident. There's a good chance that I would be in jail or have I was not I was not in a good place and I was not heading towards anything great. It's okay to pose every now and then to stop trying to forge forward, to be kind to yourself. But as long as you get up and try again.
Peta [00:19:03] What do you love about having a disability?
Ben [00:19:07] My life. I have a life that I never could imagined that I would be able to have. I am in a committed, loving relationship. I have a son who, although unfortunately has inherited a lot of the cheekiness of myself, is the apple of my life. I live in a beautiful part of Australia. I have built this life that I love, and that's what I love by having my disability without Abbott. My life would be completely different. Would it be better or worse? Who knows? Who cares? This is what I have. I know.
Peta [00:19:54] And if people are listening today and thinking, Oh, I feel like I'm Ben Prey disability, I'm really not coping with life. Life is really tough. We've all struggled through COVID. There's financial pressures. There's all sorts of things going on. What advice would you give those people listening today?
Ben [00:20:21] Mental health and mental illnesses. The most. Under respected part of health. We need to, as a society, take it seriously. If you're struggling. With life if things. Don't seem to be getting better if things are just too hard. The more that you seek help, the more likely you are to be able to turn things around. If you've. Don't take that action. Then it becomes so much harder. And the bravest and strongest thing that you can do. Is to reach out. Is to talk to somebody is to actually have that conversation. It's not weak to speak. It doesn't make you any less of a person. We all have our struggles. And seeking help is the bravest thing that you can do.
Peta [00:21:43] What do you hope for in the future for disabled people in.
Ben [00:21:48] What I want for the future. Is. The people. And not one bit surprised. When the person who rolls through the door to a meeting. Has a disability. That the not one bit surprised. When the next person they interview has a disability. That's the disability community. A given the support. The time needed to reach their individual potential. That's my hope for the future.
Peta [00:22:33] And what a great hope. I couldn't agree with you more. Thank you so much for today. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to you, Ben.
Ben [00:22:41] Thanks, Peta.
Peta [00:22:44] Thank you so much for listening to my chat with Ben from a 30 foot drop. I will link all his details in the description if you want to get in touch with him and work with him. I highly recommend it. As always, if you could please leave a writing interview, I'd really appreciate it. And also, if you want to get in contact with me, all my links are in the description as well. All right, guys. Thanks again for listening. Have a good week. Bye.