real life

'I had petrol bombs thrown at me while I slept. This is what I've learnt since that night.'

Since I was 20 years of age, I have worked, lived, and holidayed on and off in Vanuatu. 

For 13 years, I had an education not-for-profit where we partnered with local communities to deliver literacy and girls' empowerment programs.

Our most impactful project was the build of a small library with a community on the island of Tanna, where they wanted more than anything to improve the literacy levels of their children.

The library we built with the community. Image: Supplied.


Unfortunately though, only months after this beacon of education was opened, Vanuatu experienced its most catastrophic natural disaster in its history in the form of Cyclone Pam, and everybody’s hard work was instantly destroyed.

The library after the cyclone. Image: Supplied.

After months of raising enough funds for the rebuild, we could finally go back with a team to get that started. 

But on the second night of that trip, we got caught up in some local cultural conflict that had nothing to do with us.


Attackers threw petrol bombs at our bungalows as we slept, intending to burn us all alive.

In some countries they call them Molotov Cocktails; a crude weapon which consists of a glass bottle semi-filled with flammable liquid and a cloth rag fixed securely around the mouth. The rag is lit prior to throwing the bottle, and once it hits its target and smashes. The burning rag causes the flammable liquid to explode and inflict terrible damage.

I’ll never forget that night. As I opened my eyes, I knew something was horribly wrong. It filled my whole room with smoke and there were ferocious flames right outside my window.

The night of the attack. Image: Supplied.


As I sprinted from the burning building, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Everything around me was on fire.

I started bashing on the doors of my team members and screaming, “Get Up. Get dressed. Get out.” People were shrieking in horror as they ran from the engulfing flames while dodging the balls of fire that were shooting from the burning roofs.

We trekked up a hill to what we hoped would be a safe spot away from the danger as we waited for the help that never came. You see, we were in an isolated corner of a remote island in the Pacific - there is no 000 to call. 

And because they had destroyed our vehicles with petrol bombs, we had no means of escape, so we spent the long and terrifying night waiting for dawn to break so the Australian Embassy could airlift us out.

I’ll never forget at about 4am as I was anxiously watching over my team who were scared, confused and injured, I felt such a deep sense of shame and guilt that this group of incredible humans had been harmed – physically and psychologically – on my watch. 

Although I logically knew that I could never have foreseen this cannonball coming, I felt like I should have seen it. I felt like I should have known it. I felt completely responsible.

By the time we got back to Australia, I knew that this wasn’t going to be one of those curveballs that life throws at us now and then. This was a cannonball that would knock me to my knees, and I’d have to fight really hard to get back up again.


I suffered terribly with post-traumatic stress disorder, crippling insomnia, physical pain from my top-to-toe injuries and emotional scars from the deep levels of stress that this adversity had caused me - and the people who had trusted in me.

To tell you the truth, it took me years to properly ‘recover’ from that night because of all the betrayal and loss and trauma that I experienced.

What I know now though, is that all of us have had to grapple with our own traumatic experiences, haven’t we? They have come in many shapes and sizes – personally and professionally – from grief, loss, heartbreak, divorce, unemployment, bankruptcy, abuse, illness, lockdowns and so much more.

So, what can we do when we feel like we have hit rock bottom? What can we do when we are grappling with pressure and overwhelm and uncertainty from the things that we have no control of? 

There is no easy answer to this, but what I can tell you is that when we are open to learning something from the adversities that we have gone through, it helps us to persevere and move forward.

I recently returned to Vanuatu in an attempt to close the loop on all the sadness and revisit all the joy and happiness I had previously experienced there.

I wanted to laugh in the places that I had cried, because even though that night changed my life forever – physically, emotionally, professionally – hitting rock bottom gave me the opportunity to apply everything I had ever learnt in textbooks from my health education background to a real-life adversity.


Heidi on her recent trip back to Vanuatu. Image: Supplied.

This was such a cathartic trip for me, because it made me realise I had transformed my post-traumatic stress into post-traumatic wisdom. 

This is what I learned.

1. Focus on the right gap.

For such a long time I have focused on everything that I lost after that event. It felt like there was such a big gap between where I was in life and what I had expected my life to be. 


What this trip did was remind me to focus on everything I had gained due to all the times I’d had in Vanuatu. No one can take those memories away from me. It imprinted them in my life and there is no reason I can’t focus on all the good things. There is no reason I can’t focus on the right gap. The positive gap. The growth gap.

Returning to Port Vila has made such a difference to the way I view my life again. It has given me the confidence to be proactive, and change the way that story about ‘Heidi in Vanuatu’ ended.

2. The importance of connection.

We all know that being connected with good humans helps us when times are tough. I know I wouldn’t have made it through after the initial event if it wasn’t for some incredible family members and friends. 

What has surprised me, though, is that on this recent trip where I went back to close the loop, I had family and friends volunteer to come with me and support me because they knew it would be such an emotional time for me. 

They gave up their annual leave days and their time with their families so they could stand by my side. They spent their hard-earned dollars so they could help me unlock all my good memories. Can you believe I could be lucky enough to have such special people in my life that were willing to do this for me?

3. Try to find forgiveness.

I made decisions leading up to the petrol bombs being thrown at myself and my team that were the wrong decisions to make. Of course, this is easy for me to say now on reflection, but I have absolutely flogged myself over the years because of the decisions I made back then.


This, of course, has not been helpful to my recovery. Guilt and shame do not go side by side with healing.

Over the years I have tried to let it all go, telling myself that I did the best I could under the extreme circumstances, but I never really forgave myself until recently.

Yes, I made errors, but I didn’t make them because I was a bad, incompetent person. I made them because I was faced with a situation that one could never expect on a tropical island in the Pacific.

Gaining post-traumatic wisdom from our challenges doesn’t occur overnight, and it definitely doesn’t come easily. But we do only have one life, and when we can learn something from the adversities, it helps us to continue to move forward and persevere through the curveballs and cannonballs that we can’t control. 

Although I would never wish trauma on anyone just so they could learn something new, it definitely has created opportunities and wisdom for me I would never had known if I didn’t go through those hard times.

Heidi Dening is the author of 'Her Middle Name is Courage: How self-leadership transforms pressure for performance, chaos into clarity and rage into resilience.' You can get a signed copy by going to

Feature Image: Supplied.

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