27 September 2018
New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) Invictus Games team member Vanessa Bawden-Pere has a message for anyone suffering from mental health issues: “Please just seek help.”
The Invictus Games are the only international adaptive sporting event for wounded, injured and ill active duty and former service members. This year’s event, in Sydney from 20-27 October, will involve competitors from 18 allied nations in 11 different adaptive sports. The NZDF is sending a team of 24.
The idea behind the Games is that competitors heal through sport. That has certainly been the case for Mrs Bawden-Pere, formerly of Napier but now living in Rolleston, Canterbury, who works as a civilian for the NZDF following a 26-year New Zealand Army career.
“If you’d seen me at the Orlando Games in 2016, compared to where I am now, it has just been a huge improvement. It’s just brought me right out of those four walls,” Mrs Bawden-Pere said.
“I spent so many years being so angry, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on. I had flashbacks and nightmares. I found it really hard to go out in public. I’d just rather stay at home in my little safe zone.”
She used to get angry with her children – Sean, 19, and Monica, 13 – over little things, and her anger was hard on them and husband Al Pere, she said.
“The final straw was when Monica popped a balloon. I got really, really angry with her – and it was just over a bloody balloon.
“I was diagnosed with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) in 2014, after struggling with symptoms for almost a decade. I was exposed to multiple traumas within New Zealand and while serving overseas, and due to the stigma and my own stubbornness at the time, these symptoms were never dealt with.
“It took 10 years to accept something wasn’t quite right.”
Seeking medical help enabled her to begin healing, and her Invictus Games involvement has been a huge part of that process.
“It’s a journey that is making me a stronger person, and a better wife, a better mum and a better friend,” she said.
Monica said it was great to see her mother excited about competing in Sydney, and the whole Invictus Games experience.
“She’s much more excited about things. She’s very into Invictus. I’m very proud of her and she’s really proud of herself and I think she just loves it when she goes out there and gives it a go,” she said.
Monica and Mrs Bawden-Pere’s Napier-based parents, Dianne and Denis Bawden, will all be there cheering her on in Sydney – and quietly hoping to see her repeat her gold medal-winning effort at the Toronto Games last year.
“The whole thing was surreal. It didn’t really sink in until a couple of weeks later, when I got home. To me, I got that medal because there was a lot of people that helped. It was a team effort,” she said.
The gold came in the powerlifting but Mrs Bawden-Pere has chosen not to compete in that sport again this year, instead focussing on new challenges with shotput, discus, wheelchair tennis, wheelchair rugby and wheelchair basketball.
She’ll also be focussing on continuing her healing journey, and on helping others grappling with the same issues she did.
“I’ll be stoked if I can help just one person,” she said.
This year’s Invictus Games are being presented by Jaguar Land Rover. The NZDF team is sponsored by Auckland RSA, Christchurch Memorial RSA, Fulton Hogan, Jaguar Land Rover and Direct Sport.
Throughout the Games the team’s journey can be followed on:
NZDF Invictus Team Facebook: facebook.com/NZInvictusTeam
NZDF Invictus Team Instagram: @NZInvictusTeam
NZDF Twitter: @nzdefenceforce