It’s funny how life works out sometimes. How a simple decision — one that is seemingly so insignificant — can change the course of your life. In my case, the simple act of deciding to watch an Australian television show might have saved my life.
I don’t think Craig McLachlan gets the credit he deserves. Not only is he a wonderful actor, but he is also an incredibly talented musician. I feel so fortunate to have stumbled across The Doctor Blake Mysteries on my local PBS station one quiet Sunday night. At the time, I only thought I’d found another great show to watch. I had no idea that Craig’s performance would be the lifeline that I didn’t even know I needed.
Craig’s portrayal of a WWII veteran and former prisoner of war with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is nothing short of magnificent. In fact, I’m not sure that I’ve ever seen a better performance. He flawlessly captures the complexity of the disorder and delivers it with such grace and perfection. The mixture of pain, fear, rage, and shame that swirls within and consumes Lucien is palpable; yet; Craig’s subtle delivery is tremendous. I’ve seen many actors in other television shows and movies portray PTSD well, but they always seem to be overly demonstrative. The performances are usually a bit over the top. I can still remember watching another drama where the actor screamed and ran out of a room after being startled. It was so ridiculous, I actually chuckled.
In reality, most veterans with PTSD suffer in silence. It’s a very lonely existence, and the isolation one feels from his or her friends and family only serves to exacerbate the problem. Although Craig does a wonderful job throughout the entire series, I still remember the scene in the first episode that literally took my breath away. It’s a powerful scene where Lucien catches his housekeeper, Jean, looking at his collection of graphic sketches that captured the atrocities of war. When Lucien confronts her, I expected to see the usual overreaction where the actor either ends up screaming, crying, or storming off in a rage. Instead, once Jean leaves, Lucien sits down as if the strength in his legs has abandoned him, and just stares straight ahead. Without uttering a sound, Craig does such a sensational job of depicting how much Jean’s glimpse into his past has shaken Lucien to his core.
Craig’s performance is subtle, yet so powerful. It was as if he was terrified that, after years of fortifying the walls to shut people out, someone finally got through and really saw him. I was stunned because I couldn’t believe an actor finally got it right. I was stunned because I only realized in that moment why so many of us shut ourselves off from those around us. If our loved ones actually saw the darkness that lies within, would they still be able to love us?
Eventually, Sunday nights with a glass of wine and my new favorite show became the highlight of the week. Not only did I enjoy the escape that watching a good show offers so many of us, but watching Lucien navigate his way through life made me feel a little less lonely. Even the way Craig portrays Lucien’s tendency to self medicate by consuming too much whisky is a perfect example of something you’ll often hear in the military crowd — “I don’t drink to get drunk. I drink to get my inner demons drunk, so they’ll pass out and give me some peace.” Through such a subtle and nuanced performance, Craig made it clear that Lucien wasn’t just a drunk. He simply needed an escape from the pain for a while; to be numb for a few precious hours.
As the series progresses, Lucien slowly begins to heal. As strange as it might sound, this gave me hope. Although my own experiences pail in comparison to Lucien’s, I could still identify with the character on many levels. I certainly understood the allure of being numb for a few hours, related to his penchant for taking risks, and I found myself sharing some the same reactions Lucien has when a sense of panic and dread washes over him. While his anxiety mainly manifests when he is forced to spend time in confined spaces, my own panic occurred while I was on the highway and felt trapped by the surrounding vehicles. After hundreds of convoys throughout Iraq and a couple of other hot zones, It’s hard to turn off that mindset that this drive will probably be your last. I was never afraid of death; however, I was terrified of losing multiple limbs or suffering third degree burns all over my body. Logically, I knew there wasn’t a real threat of being ambushed or striking a roadside bomb in the States, but I found myself avoiding driving
more and more often. I turned down work opportunities and would skip social events, only to feel ashamed of being so weak and hate myself for it. The vicious circle of dread, avoidance, and self loathing continued to get steadily worse…until I found Doctor Blake and Craig’s brilliant performance.
Trust me, I realize how ridiculous this sounds. It seems absurd to be so affected by a fictional character, but sometimes you find what you need in the places you least expect them. Despite all the available resources in this day and age, it’s still hard to ask for help. It’s even more difficult if showing vulnerability is the opposite of what you have been trained to do. In the late 90s, one of the quickest ways to get dropped from the Marine Corps Officer training program was to show weakness. Asking to go to medical more than once, or falling back on a run due to injury or illness was a sure way to get dropped. This isn’t a criticism of the program; the training is absolutely crucial to ensure the candidates who prevail have the resilience necessary to lead from the front in any scenario. Asking for help is just not part of our DNA, which makes it that much more remarkable that Craig’s talent inspired me to do just that. It wasn’t one of those “aha” moments and it didn’t happen overnight, but feeling less lonely and having a bit of hope set the process in motion. I finally worked up the nerve to call the Veterans Affairs clinic, and started the process of desensitization and counter conditioning. I can’t tell you how liberating it is to be able drive again without feeling that constant sense of dread. I still get a bit nervous in certain situations, but I have the tools to handle them now. Since I have always relied on music to get me through just about anything, I still pop on some of Craig’s music when I know the ride is going to be tough.
Thank you Craig, for taking the time to research what it’s like to come home after witnessing the worst in humanity. Thank you for putting so much work into making Lucien such a wonderful and complex character. You absolutely nailed it. Bravo.