Reece Newnham, co-owner of Parliament Skate Shop, sheds light on an experience that changed his life forever.
As told to Nat Kassel. Photo by Wade McLaughlin. Taken from Slam issue 217.
In 2002, my old man and I went on a surf trip to Bali. After a couple of weeks on Nusa Lembongan, we got a hotel in Kuta, about 30 metres from the Sari Club. I was only 15, but that night I was hassling my old man super hard to go out and have beers. He wasn’t about it so we went back to our hotel room. Then we heard this loud, crazy explosion.
At the time, I thought it might be some fireworks or something, so I went out onto the deck to see what was going on. I remember seeing the wind drop and everything went still for a split second, and then I was picked up off my feet and slammed into a wall by the bomb. That was when the nightmare started.
I could see this wall, like 30 metres away, with a raging fire and people were screaming. Obviously, a lot of people had been injured, but we still didn’t know what had happened – whether it was a bomb or some kind of accident, like a gas bottle that had exploded or something. There was this atmospheric pressure and the glass windows kept breaking; we thought they were machine gun bullets. We kept our heads down with these windows breaking all around us.
Everything was dark and everyone was evacuating, and we were just trying to find the belongings that we needed, like our passports and cash and credit cards. Once we got that stuff we just left everything else in the room and made our way down to the beach, where we spent the night with thousands and thousands of other people. It was a really hectic scenario for a 15-year-old. I guess on that walk from the hotel to the beach, I would have been exposed to some really heavy things, like people dying or people dead or people with missing limbs. But I don’t really remember.
After that, the airport copped an influx of like 20,000 people trying to get the hell out of there. My old man thought it was best for us to leave Kuta and wait for things to calm down on the other side of the island. I didn’t cope with it very well. I was a mess. There was a 24-hour period where I kept asking my old man, “Am I going to die?” We eventually got out of there and got our flight home and I went back to school. It was a crazy story to tell my mates, but I didn’t really think too much of it.
When I was 18, I went down to Jindabyne to do a snow season. One day I was on the piss, being an idiot, and I came off my snowboard pretty hard and hit my head.
The next day I had a massive seizure, which was obviously caused by the head injury. I ended up in the intensive care unit in Canberra for a week, and they told me I had epilepsy as a result of the head injury. I continued to have fits – sometimes a couple in a week – and they put me on epileptic medication.
When I was 26, I was up on a scaffold at work and had another head injury; I knocked myself out. The fits got crazy worse after that, which I put down to having a fragile head. I thought I’d hit my head too many times and that had given me epilepsy.
At some point it got really bad and my neurologists were like, “You can’t work or drive anymore.” I was a risk to anyone who was on the road and a risk to my employers. I got a disability allowance and had to see doctors all the time, but one neurologist wasn’t convinced. One day he asked me, “Hey, have you ever had anything traumatic happen to you in your life?”
When I told him about what happened in Bali, he described all this stuff to me about my condition that was totally on point. The next step was to go into hospital and stay there until I had a seizure, with all these chords on my head. They caught the seizure on video and read my brainwaves while it was going on, which determined that I didn’t have epilepsy and I actually had PTSD, which stands for post-traumatic stress disorder.
There’s a lot of things that I don’t remember from Bali; I’ve lost nearly all my memory of it. The doctors basically said to me that it’s my brain compartmentalising the memory and blocking it out because it was just so hectic. And then, years down the track, it’s coming out in the forms of anxiety, PTSD and non-epileptic seizures.
Now I’m seeing a psychologist and a psychiatrist. There’s a clinic in Brisbane that deals with it and they’re actually the only clinic in Australia that does it, so I’m pretty lucky to live in Brisbane and get to go and see these guys.
Having the proper diagnosis has been a big thing for me, because I can arm myself with information now. I guess that’s one of my coping mechanisms – to just learn about it as much as I can, and as long as that stuff can make sense to me, I feel a little bit better about it. For four or five years I thought I had epilepsy, which was a little bit scary because there is no cure for epilepsy. But my condition is treatable. I guess that’s the good news that has come out of it.
Through the whole thing, I’ve learned not to judge people at face value. Who knows what people have gone through in their lives to be what they are now? It’s made me a lot more tolerant and understanding of people’s behaviour when they’re going through stuff.
Especially with young men, it’s normal not to talk about feelings or the shit they’re going through and it’s made me think about that stuff a bit more.
Mental health is such a tough one because to look at me, I look fine and most of the time I am, but that’s something that I’m constantly dealing with. It makes life hard, for sure. In my time off, I’ve had plenty of time to think about where I want to be in the future and my career options and starting the skate shop. It’s given me the time to think about that. Skating’s been so good in that sense because it’s a community in Brisbane, and it’s what I want to be doing.