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Transforming trauma to triumph

When an armed holdup left Claire Clarke with debilitating PTSD, she thought she’d never be able to work again. Now seven years on, the determined mother-of-six has not only overcome her trauma, but has turned her lifelong goal of becoming a hairdresser into reality.

For as long as she can remember, Claire has admired the transformative power of a good makeover, finding joy in making the ordinary extraordinary.

“Even before I'd started school, I was constantly in trouble for cutting and styling both my own and my sister’s dolls’ hair and clothes into what I believed to be much funkier styles. Barbies were just too boring as is,” Claire said.

“As I started to get older, I began to cut and colour my own hair, and design and make changes to my clothes – I even managed to convince many of my friends and family to let me ‘improve’ their hairstyles as well,” she laughs.

Keen to turn her passion into a career, a then 16-year-old Claire began a school-based apprenticeship in hairdressing, which she says only strengthened her resolve to one day enter the industry. But when circumstances forced her to reassess her priorities, Claire put her plans on hold.

“I decided to move away from Brisbane to the Gold Coast just after I turned 17 and unfortunately given how young I was, I couldn’t afford to continue my traineeship, and I was unable to attain an apprenticeship,” Claire said.

“I managed to get work in hospitality, as well as doing bookwork for a small company, and I continued working in hospitality and retail throughout my early years of parenting, which allowed me to focus on raising my four young children as a single mummy.”

After finding love with her now husband in her late twenties, the pair started their own successful personal training and fitness business, and were in negotiations to work with a local private school when a surprise pregnancy once again left Claire reassessing her priorities.

“We realised early on that I was going to face a very challenging pregnancy, and that turned out to be true – it resulted in the loss of one of our triplets, and our twins were born premature at 28 weeks.”

“With three children still in primary school, one having just started high school, and a set of premature newborn twins – one of whom has multiple special needs diagnoses – I made the decision to become a full time mummy.”

Claire re-entered the workforce in 2013 once her twins had settled into school, taking a job at a bank. But her return to work was short-lived, with Claire facing yet another setback just six months later when her branch was robbed in an armed hold-up.

Claire was left with severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – a condition that has taken her years to overcome.

“I was unable to go anywhere near a bank, including shopping centres and even ATMs, without suffering a complete nervous breakdown. I retreated into my home setting and refocussed all my efforts on my parenting and caring responsibilities again,” Claire said.

“Even though concentrating my energy on looking after my children kept me grounded, I struggled constantly with lack of sleep, nightmares and high anxiety. It was incredibly challenging – I didn’t think I’d ever be able to work again.”

“It took five years of treatment to get me to a stage of being able to even contemplate going near a bank or a shopping centre that had a bank in it, let alone working again.”

Claire and her family moved to the Sunshine Coast, and with their love and support, as well as the support of her close friends and health professionals, Claire eventually gained the confidence to consider her options for returning to work.

“I gradually was able to start discussing possible training and career options to again give me purpose and empowerment beyond my home life, and I’d often spoken about my experience hairdressing and my goal of one day finishing my studies," Claire said.

“While working in a retail environment was not going to be possible for me, the desire to go back and complete my hairdressing qualification grew."

“My favourite part of hairdressing is the fact that in one short session, regardless of what service I am performing, I am given the opportunity to make someone feel great about themselves, and I knew that by making others feel good, it would make me feel good."

“I started thinking about self-employment options for a home-based hairdressing studio and even a ’studio on wheels’ option, so that I could service clients who may be less able to leave their homes,” she said.

Claire enrolled in a Certificate II in Salon Assistant (SHB20216) in 2019 under the Queensland Government’s Certificate III Guarantee funding, and went on to complete her Certificate III in Hairdressing (SHB30416) in 2021. And although she faced a raft of other challenges along the way – including an ankle injury, having to undergo bi-lateral carpal tunnel surgery, switching to remote learning during COVID-19, and nursing her son after major surgery – Claire’s determination saw her finally achieve her goal.

“While it’s been challenging for me being outside of my comfort zone, and difficult at times to balance my parenting and carer responsibilities with my studies, I’ve not only thoroughly enjoyed my learning experience, but I’ve grown incredibly in confidence and in my abilities,” Claire said.

“I felt very much out of place at the start, but my trainer Sharon (Berry) was incredibly supportive and encouraging, and I grew in confidence mainly due to her one-on-one support.

“Besides the fact that it has enabled me to fulfil a lifelong dream, I really loved the friendly, fun, safe and encouraging environment that we had in our training salon.”

Claire is now self-employed and is about to open her very own boutique home salon Mimmi and Co, where she will work alongside a former classmate who she now calls a friend. She still hopes to one day get her studio on wheels up-and-running, but for now she's rightfully proud of how far she's come, and grateful to the people who've supported her in achieving her dream.

“When I left my job due to PTSD seven years ago, and couldn’t see a positive future for myself, I could never have imagined enrolling in this course, let alone completing it with new skills and a determination to build a business for myself and family,” Claire said.

“Where I am today is thanks to my family – who are my biggest cheer squad – TAFE Queensland, and my wonderful trainers, who never let me take my eyes off my goal.”