Aaron Thomas reckons he wouldn’t be here today if he wasn’t a dairy farmer.
Having suffered a serious mental health breakdown and endured the ravages of alcoholism, Aaron is now back on his feet and keen to share his story with other farmers who may be struggling through difficult times.
“It’s about one person reading an article or hearing my story and them going to seek help,” he said.
“If that could happen, it would be the greatest thing that could come of all this — more even than getting my health and life back.”
Aaron’s health and life were both almost gone when he collapsed on January 20, 2017 at the Binginwarri farm he managed for Won Wron dairy farmers Paul and Lisa Mumford.
From the moment that Paul bundled Aaron in his car and drove him to hospital, he was literally on the road to recovery from a decades-long spiral of depression and anxiety that started with a sometimes traumatic upbringing and ended with him drinking a slab-and-a-half of beer each day.
“Everyone looking in thought I was kicking goals, smashing it, looking unstoppable. I was a finalist for Weekly Times farmer of the year, people thought I was flying. But it was all fake and it was exhausting keeping it all up.”
With his partner and children moving out of the house, a drought starting to bite and his drinking increasing, Aaron’s priority was maintaining a façade of normality.
“I have always been house proud and like gardening so I thought if I kept the garden looking sweet, then no-one would ask questions I didn’t want answered.”
Eventually though, the façade started to crumble as the emotional toll and physical exhaustion combined to bring Aaron to the point of collapse.
“I was on the grog big-time — a functioning alcoholic. I was drinking through the day to the point that I was blind by the time I finished milking.
“There were even times when I skipped afternoon milking because I just couldn’t get out of bed. I couldn’t face things.”
Inevitably the walls of deceit that Aaron built collapsed and brought him down with them.
From the time Paul took him to hospital until today, Aaron has endured physical and mental withdrawal from alcohol, the confronting path of dealing with his past and the shame of how he treated the Mumfords. It’s the last of these that is his hardest cross to bear.
“I had an incredible feeling of guilt for what I perceived I had done to Paul and Lisa,” he said.
Asked how important Paul and Lisa have been in bringing him back from the brink, Aaron’s normally swift flow of words dries up and tears well in his eyes.
“Thinking about that gets me all the time; if it wasn’t for them, I’d be dead.
“They don’t just talk, they walk the walk. The proof is in the pudding with what they have done for me. The only way I can repay them is to run this place the best way I can.”
When Aaron’s life collapsed, the Mumfords moved him back to the home farm, sending another farm employee, Damian “Dubba” Becker, to Binginwarri as the new manager. The swap has worked for both men, as well as Paul and Lisa.
Finding an outcome that looked after the farm business as well as the people in it was always at the forefront of Paul and Lisa’s thinking.
“We’ve always looked at the people who worked in our business as very important to achieving happiness for everybody,” Paul said.
“There was no way known that Lisa or myself was going to throw someone out on their ear when they were dealing with those sort of issues. That’s not good business and it’s not good humanity.”
Aaron now runs day-to-day operations on the Won Wron farm while Paul deals with his off-farm workload as United Dairyfarmers of Victoria president.
Despite Aaron’s “implosion” of the Binginwarri farm business, the Mumfords always saw the welfare of those under their care as just as important as the bank balance.
“We’re proud because it also assisted Dubba towards his future. All this chaos and turmoil was extreme at the time, but it has all worked out,” Paul said.
“Maybe there’s also pride that we achieved that marriage between what was best for the business and best for the people in it. But there was also a whole lot of heartache on the way.”
That heartache is still with Aaron as, strand by strand, he has pulled the threads of his life back together. He’s maintained a good relationship with his children and former partner, cycles instead of drinks and continues to work on self-improvement.
A key to rebuilding his life has been the ability to do an honest day’s work on the farm. Life as a dairy farmer and the people in the industry were among the few positive things he could cling to during dark times.
“I’ve always loved it,” Aaron said.
“It’s the people in the industry that saved me. It wasn’t just Paul and Lisa, there were other dairy people that saved me. Not once did anyone make me feel useless or call me an idiot.
“I look back and think that I’m incredibly blessed that I have relationships with people in the industry who were willing to be there for me.”
For farmers struggling with their own personal problems, Aaron urges them to make that first step by simply talking to someone.
“All I can say and plead to people is just to talk,” he said.
“You don’t have to open up and bare your arse on the street like I do. Just find someone to talk to.”
For help or information contact Lifeline on 13 11 14, or beyondblue on 1300 224 636.