It took more than three months for Brooke Mead to fight through a gym session without breaking down in tears.
Panic attacks would set in, anxiety would cripple her.
The aftermath of her military service, and the trauma and physical anguish that came with that, proved overwhelming.
Upon hitting rock bottom, she admits she “didn’t want to live any more”.
Yet here Mead stands, eagerly awaiting her first Invictus Games, reflecting on the journey back from the brink that saved her life.
“I was discharged when I was 22, and the navy was all I ever wanted to do in life,” Mead said.
“It was my only aspiration, so for that to be taken away at such a young age, I just fell into depression, and I didn’t have much support.
“I had my husband, who was medically discharged after me, but apart from that, I didn’t have a friendship group.
“When you leave the service, you’re all alone.”
Mead joined the navy as a 17-year-old. Shortly after, she was thrust into the thick of Operation Resolute, which prevents unauthorised entry to Australian territory.
As a patrol boat sailor, her daily life featured body recovery missions and “generally not nice work”.
But on the ship, Mead was part of something – a brother and sisterhood that bonded each member.
Medically discharged with a spinal cord injury, PTSD, depression and anxiety, Mead’s transition away from service proved so confronting, it nearly cost her life.
“I guess the first five years [since my discharge], I was very in and out of mental health hospitals. I had surgeries all over my body, so it was spent just trying to save my life,” she said.
“There were a lot of times I didn’t want to be alive any more.
“I was obese, I was 120 kilograms, and everything was too difficult. My spinal cord injury was debilitating, and I just kept getting darker and darker in my head and thoughts.”
Mead’s turning point came suddenly. Waking up one morning, something ignited in her – she needed to change.
That catalyst led her to the Invictus Games, a safe haven for wounded veterans and a competitive outlet founded by Prince Harry to unite the community.
The now 30-year-old Mead applied, then joined the gym straight away, first getting involved with CrossFit before broadening her horizons.
For the Games in Germany, beginning on September 9 in Dusseldorf, she will compete in powerlifting, indoor rowing, and table tennis – the latter of which she first tried just two months ago when she was forced to withdraw from swimming due to a recent knee reconstruction.
Mead has come to appreciate that the Games represent more than a medal. The role that even her preparation has had on her wellbeing is a victory in itself.
But the Brisbane athlete, mother and veteran has always been competitive. Accolades are firmly in her sights.
Early in her spinal cord recovery, she was told she would never lift more than 10 kilograms off the ground. Now she’s adamant she has a genuine chance of reaching the powerlifting podium.
While enduring recent setbacks – her knee injury preventing her from even walking up stairs for several days, as well as suffering shoulder tears while snowboarding – Mead is sure she has overcome enough to possibly make an impression at the Invictus Games.
“I think I’d always been waiting for that one day when I woke up and it would shift – and it did,” she said.
“I just woke up and thought, ‘I need to change my life’. I put in my [Invictus Games] application and have lost 50 kilograms since May 2021. And I had my spinal cord stimulant removed, which is pretty rare to have done.
“I joined the gym on the same day, and it took me three or four months … to finally last a full session without crying or having an anxiety attack.
“It took me two weeks to get out of the car alone.
“I’m an incredibly competitive person – I have been my entire life – so it’s been hard to switch that off and realise the journey is about bettering myself.
“But I want to win … I’m excited and overwhelmed, and really proud of how far I’ve come and what I’ve achieved in the journey.
“Invictus is more about the journey than the performance on the day – I’ve overcome so much to get this far.”
Mead’s recovery remains a constant journey, one that will continue after the curtain draws on the Games.
She and her family – husband David and a young son – will take a year-long trip around the world in a bid to earn back the years she felt were lost due to her struggles.
“We lost so many years to my depression, time in mental health hospitals, and surgeries and injuries,” she said.
“I want that time back, I want to spend it with my son and husband, so we’re going to do something crazy.”
Mead’s battle upon being discharged from military duty has been one shared by many veterans, sparking a federal government declaration that changes are afoot.
In late August, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Defence Personnel Matt Keogh announced the Veteran Transition Strategy, which will aim to better support exiting servicemen and women, and their families.
In addition to initiatives already in place – including skills recognition programs, rent-allowance leeway, and access to health support – the strategy will strive to provide employment and education pathways, financial literacy, and pre-emptive preparation for transition.
The strategy will continue to evolve and will respond to the findings and recommendations of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide’s final report, expected to be released mid-next year.
Mead said when she left the navy, she felt largely unsupported, finding her own way to outlets such as Survive to Thrive Nation to help with her recovery.
Sport will remain an active part of her life, and she’s determined to return to Brisbane Table Tennis after her overseas adventures.
While she supported additional federal assistance to help veterans transition back to civilian life, she encouraged more of them to engage with external services.
“Once I was discharged, I didn’t want anything to do with it [the Defence Force] any more. I was really disappointed that I didn’t get the support I asked for in regards to my PTSD and things like that,” Mead said.
“I wanted to wipe my hands of it. But if I had my time over, I would contact Survive to Thrive – they have saved thousands of lives.
“There are so many more opportunities now when you get out.
“You’re not alone any more.”