“I grew up in Melbourne and got into art school when I was 18, but I couldn’t afford it, so I joined the Navy. I thought I’m not good enough to do art anyway, so I just didn’t do it.”
Marie-Louise Jones offers this information as a throw-away comment, but after hearing her story it seems this just might have been her sliding doors moment.
More than 30 years on from this all-too-casual pivot, Marie-Louise is finally getting her first solo exhibition: Entangled at Umbrella Studio contemporary arts. It’s sadly satisfying that the exhibition should reflect on the torment and trauma that Marie-Louise faced during her 11 years with the Royal Australian Navy – an experience she is only now ready to shed light on, in hopes that it will spur some meaningful conversation about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and its boundless reach.
Marie-Louise was among the first women deployed to the frontline by the Navy, and naturally faced some resistance from the men she served with.
“It was that mentality of crusty old sailors,” Marie-Louise said. “I actually had one say to me – and this was in the 1990s – ‘females shouldn’t be on a ship. Women aren’t meant to go to sea.’ And a lot of men had that mentality.”
Despite the not-so-warm welcome, Marie-Louise threw herself into her work, taking her first of two deployments to the First Gulf War at just 23 years old. It was a mission that would almost cost Marie-Louise her life, and certainly changed it for ever.
“We were in a helicopter and we had an engine malfunction at 4,000ft. It took me 25 seconds to fall out of the sky, to crash and in that time…” Marie-Louise pauses as her voice catches in her throat and she tries to keep composed, “In that time, all you think is ‘I hope it doesn’t hurt when I die’.”
Miraculously, Marie-Louise survived. Without offer of a psychologist or psychiatrist from the Navy; and with very little time off to recuperate.
“Here I was, this 23-year-old thinking, what do I do? I lived in Darwin, my parents lived in Melbourne, I was in a relationship and that started to breakdown and I didn’t understand why, and no one was talking about PTSD. It wasn’t until I read a book called Piper Bravo, about a year later – it was about this guy who was on an oil-rig that had exploded and he wrote a book and started listing all these symptoms and I was like Yeah, I’ve got that, I do that, that’s what I do, yeah my relationships are breaking down and finally I went to see a doctor and he said ‘Oh. You’re a girl. What could happen to you that was so bad?’
“So I was groomed on that mentality for a long time – only men get it, only soldiers get it. That’s how naive and stupid I was – I actually believed them! I thought you’re right – I just can’t handle it, I’m not strong enough.
The near-death experience prompted Marie-Louise to follow her goal of becoming a Navy Physical Training Instructor (PTI). At the time only two of 80 PTIs were women, but Marie-Louise wouldn’t be deterred by unfavourable odds and she completed her PTI training, which would ultimately lead to her second deployment on a warship, where she’d face an enemy much closer to home.
“I walked across the gangway [on my arrival on the ship] and the first thing the Quartermaster said to me was ‘We broke the last PT in six weeks. We’re taking bets to see how quickly we can break you.’”
Over the following nine months, the crew would subject Marie-Louise to relentless physical, emotional and psychological abuse – daily threats and humiliation, insubordination, destruction of her personal property, and bullying.
“I’d been to the Captain and the Captain ignored it numerous times,” Marie-Louise said. “He’d say ‘Harden up. You’re on a warship now’.
“The things they were doing were…” Marie-Louise falters again “really horrible… It wasn’t about hardening up. I’d been in nine months training to be a PTI, I’d been in a helicopter crash, I’d been in all this shit so I didn’t need to harden up. In the end I felt I could go to no one for help, so I just took it.”
Eventually, an official investigation was mounted into the behaviour: five people were held accountable for their actions, and Marie-Louise was given an option to finish her term early.
“I spoke to my brother (who was also a Royal Australian Navy PTI) and he said ‘If you leave, people are going to say that you didn’t finish your time’; and so it was about doing the right thing. I stayed the two years, finished my term.”
It wasn’t until Marie-Louise left the Navy to have her first child in 1998, that she was officially diagnosed with PTSD.
“They actually thought it was post-natal depression (PND) and I was lucky that I had a female doctor who was really quite aware of things, especially 20 years ago. And she said ‘you know what, I think this is more than PND … there’s this Professor here, why don’t you go and speak with him?’ So I did.
“But it took me about 10 years to get through it all, because it’s really traumatic to recount.”
Marie-Louise also found many people were misinformed about just who could be affected by PTSD.
“When I went through [the Navy] I was in the Gulf War, so I didn’t know about females getting [PTSD] and I was in the Navy, so it was never really looked at. I was told once that it was just ‘a pre-genetic disposition to weakness’ and I thought you don’t know what you’re talking about.
“I really do believe if you hit something often enough, eventually it will break. And my PTSD is what they call ‘the overflow’, where I had a lot of things happen and kept going on and on and on and on and eventually mine just broke. I was ashamed and humiliated, embarrassed. When I had young children I was afraid that other parents would say ‘Oh there’s something wrong with her’ and not allow their kids to play with mine, so it was this whole black thing to hide behind.”
It’s only been in the last two years, through her rekindled love for art, that Marie-Louise has found the strength to talk about her experiences. Entangled is a series of large scale drawings of sailing knots done in a subtractive charcoal medium. The drawings’ domineering size, moody hues, and intense ambiguity deliver the ominous, foreboding presence Marie-Louise sought to create.
“It’s all about that entanglement. On a ship, there’s a lot of rules about rope – the way you fake it, the way you store it, the way you handle it. I think it was the best way to explore it [my experience] nautically and aquatically.
“It’s about bringing awareness that PTSD isn’t gender specific, or service specific; and that it might be one thing, it might be a thousand things, but there are somethings that we just can’t handle. That’s what I’m doing. I want to bring a conversation about women needing help. Because women are starting to suicide more and more now and it’s starting to become… they’re not even acknowledging it – the men they’re acknowledging, but for women it’s this thing they don’t want to talk about.”
Entangled will be on display at Umbrella Studio contemporary arts until 8 April 2017.
If you or someone you know is in need of mental health support, speak to a GP or medical professional, or contact the SANE Australia helpline.