TV

Traitors star Julia Vahry’s secret struggle: ‘My battle with PTSD’

After suffering in the wake of the Christchurch terrorist attacks, former cop Julia has now found the perfect recipe for a happy family life.
Juliette Drysdale

Blending families can be a challenge, but for The Traitors NZ star Julia Vahry, the key has been simple – not merging all elements of the brood she and partner Richard Briggs have created a wonderful life with.

While the combined clan has enjoyed endless adventures together, Julia makes constant efforts to continue separate activities with her 10-year-old daughter Isla and nine-year-old son James, while Richard does the same with his daughter Mackenzie, 10.

It’s an approach that’s worked so well that when Julia went off to film Traitors, Richard held down such a fun fort, the kids declared they didn’t want Mum to come home! His impressive efforts included orienteering trips, writing a play for the trio to perform and organising a Mexican-themed night, which ended in an epic food fight.

“They did a full-on fight with Wattie’s spaghetti while wearing swimming goggles outside – I was jealous when I saw the photos!” says Julia, 37.

“Giant kid” Richard kept the young ones entertained at home while Julie dealt with The Traitors.

Knowing her children would be well cared for was reassuring for Julia as she navigated Traitors, the Three murder-mystery reality series where contestants are faced with the task of catching undercover “killers” hidden among them.

Having to assess character and see through lies is something Julia has some experience with as a former cop, an eye-opening job she entered at age 22. Of her early days in the job, she says, “I’d been raised so straight that I had no idea how a significant portion of society lives – the poverty, stress and generational cycles. I became fascinated and bewildered at what people go through, given it had been such smooth sailing for my first 20 years.”

Julia initially experienced imposter syndrome and felt she needed to be a “gruff, dominating and assertive” officer. It wasn’t until she was sent to Christchurch following the earthquakes and partnered with a rural officer named Bruce that she saw she could simply be herself.

“I saw how Bruce interacted with the community and the penny dropped in terms of policing with empathy. It was a beautiful moment.”

She subsequently found great joy in helping others as a cop, but everything changed when she and her ex started a family. Being assigned to jobs involving children became emotionally difficult and she felt pressure to upskill when she was already missing crucial time with her kids, so she quit and launched Vahry Insurance in 2016.

Julia with (from left) Mackenzie, James and Isla.

It was a time of change, with her marriage ending shortly afterwards, but it was two years later when Julia faced one of her biggest obstacles.

Triggered by Christchurch’s Mosque attacks, which made her feel powerless given she was no longer a cop, Julia developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), becoming hyper-aware and safety-conscious.

She avoided driving during high-fatality holiday periods, became suspicious of people in supermarkets and had policing flashbacks she’d forgotten about.

“Getting diagnosed was worse than having PTSD because I was so embarrassed,” she recalls. “I’d gone almost 10 years with no issues, so when PTSD kicked off two years after I left the force, I felt shame and was disappointed I wasn’t as strong as I thought.”

Consulting a former police psychologist, who helped her through her struggles, Julia now works to raise awareness of PTSD among frontline workers. She’s also active in philanthropy, which is how she met Hawke’s Bay partner Richard, who she contacted on LinkedIn for help with a breast cancer fundraiser.

“I thought she was trying to sell insurance,” laughs Richard, who was CEO of Hamilton City Council but now runs a consultancy. He later noticed Julia’s LinkedIn post about the success of her event and suggested they grab a cuppa. Julia saw it as a networking opportunity.

She laughs, “I very determinedly thought, ‘I’ll never be in a relationship again.’ Not because I had a sour taste, but my mum and sister are very independent, so I had it in my mind that I didn’t want to wash anybody else’s knickers except those of me and my kids – which is funny because Richard does the washing now!”

The pair bonded over their love for their children and dogs, and Julia helped Richard venture outside his comfort zone. “Since knowing Julia, I’ve had confidence to do things I’ve never done before, like get on skis for the first – and last – time!” quips Richard, who also has five adult children from before he met Julia. “I’ve become more outdoorsy.”

Although Julia was conscious of introducing Richard, 50, to Isla and James, it “felt right”. She explains, “He has an exceptionally giving heart. I saw how he embraced the kids and would step in to help. If somebody’s willing to love your children like they’re theirs, that’s a beautiful thing.”

Richard adds, “I’m pretty much a giant kid, so it was straight into ribbing and giving each other a hard time!”

As the clan adjusted to their newly blended family, they decided to maintain some separation. Julia says, “Mackenzie and Richard would go for walks so that she had dad time and wasn’t suddenly in this difficult transition with my two random children. And with my kids, we had long conversations or went on trips so they still felt like they had time with just mum. I think that’s totally acceptable and important.”

Richard says this approach has helped the kids maintain their own identities and avoid jealousy when someone gets special attention from their genetic families. “Recently, Julia, her parents, James and Isla went fishing off grandpa’s boat. Mackenzie saw photos and thought it was awesome. She was excited they got to do that with their grandparents.”

Equally, the trio adore their time together – like when Julia took on Traitors, which was a relief to the former cop, who was initially wary of reality television, but soon realised it was a chance to show off her skills after feeling underestimated her whole life.

Richard was her “biggest cheerleader”, easing Julia’s fears, encouraging her and writing her letters to open while she was away.

“I wanted to showcase what ordinary people can do and the skills I’ve developed,” says Julia. “During filming, people went, ‘You’re nothing like what I expected.’ The way someone looks doesn’t direct who they are inside.

“I also wanted the kids to be proud. My biggest drive was for them to go, ‘My mum’s strong,’ because my own mum’s an exceptional woman. She was the first female to complete Outward Bound and is a superhuman, amazing, inspirational woman. I want my children to look up to me like I look up to her and for them to know they can do anything they want in life.”

The Traitors NZ screens 7.30pm Mondays & Tuesdays on Three

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