Darren Flanagan should have been feeling on top of the world in the weeks after the Beaconsfield mine disaster. He helped save two men’s lives. The nation was calling him a hero. Others referred to him as “the gun”. But instead of basking in the glory of his success, the explosives expert locked himself in the family bathroom, slid down the wall of the shower and cried. And his wife was the last person he felt he could talk to about it. “I never really spoke to her because I was too scared it would open a floodgate of emotions,” he said. “I was scared if I let it out, I would just be a mess.” As Breanna Tucker writes, he’s not alone in feeling that way.
Nowra’s Darren Flanagan admits blokes have a hard shell to crack, and he was no different.
He broke down after spending 29 hours straight blasting his way through solid rock to rescue trapped miners Todd Russell and Brant Webb in April, 2006.
It took 65 explosions for him to reach them, each blast increasing the risk of the rock collapsing and crushing them all to death.
“When I got home I didn’t understand what was happening to me, I couldn’t figure it out,” he said.
“For a few months I would fly out of town and pretend I was on business trips but instead I’d hide in a motel for a couple of days and just try to fix it.”
It wasn’t until he met other rescuers at a reunion and discovered they had to undergo counselling that he realised “mental health was real”.
Feeling liberated, he embarked on public speaking engagements to warn other men of the importance of supporting and looking out for each other.
But he still couldn’t bring himself to tell his wife, Tracey.
“When I first came home from the rescue I used to lay my head in her lap, watching TV, and she’d say ‘are you ever going to tell me about it’ and I’d say ‘no, not yet’,” he said. “I could bare my soul in front of 300 strangers but I couldn’t tell my wife.”
Eventually, a mate snuck Tracey into one of Darren’s public speeches and she finally heard his story.
“It was such a relief,” he said. “Finally I didn’t have to be so protective of the things I said or careful how I replied when people asked me about Beaconsfield in case my family saw me get emotional.”
Darren commended his wife for being so patient and not pushing him to talk when he wasn’t ready, but he wished he had spoken sooner.
“As men we don’t want to be seen in our wives’ eyes as weak,” he said.
“But she didn’t see it that way. I don’t think any woman does. She told me that she loved me and that she was there for me, and that was all I needed.”
Australian Men’s Shed community engagement co-ordinator Gary Green said it was much easier to start a conversation if you understood how men’s brains were wired.
“I think it might boil down to the fact that half the time, the men don’t know how they feel themselves, so when you keep asking ‘How do you feel?’ he’s thinking ‘I haven’t got a clue’ and gets frustrated because he hasn’t got an answer to give,” he said.
He added it was important to understand that men need other men.
Gary said it was vital for men to join sporting clubs, hobby groups, business networks or even to spend a few hours down at the pub with their mates because men need male-oriented support.
“If you walk down the street it’s rare to see a group of men all chatting at a cafe, but give them a task to do like build a shed for the local pony club and it’s a different story,” he said.
“They’ll get stuck into it, design it and build it but in spits and spats, they’ll talk about their lives as well. It might be two minutes of talking about their wife or their job, then back to the practical task of joining a corner or sanding back timber, but then it will move back to life again.”