To mark Mental Health Awareness Week, a veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) reflects on the the care provided by the NHS Veterans’ Clinic in London, also known as the Veterans’ Mental Health Transition, Intervention and Liaison Service (TILS):
I left the Parachute Regiment with an injury and, unknown to me, PTSD.
By my 19th birthday I had served in combat tours, but civvy street was proving to be the toughest challenge. My spinal injury I understood and dealt with it in Military ‘P’ company fashion; get it sorted. I exercised diligently but ignored the raging mind-frag.
They had not coined the term PTSD when I left, so most of my adult life was spent tossed this way and that by what I thought was my own madness. I flitted from job to job, country to country, menial work and labouring. Urgent desire to keep travelling, keep one step ahead, running from the unrecognised effect of trauma.
Periods of hyper-alertness and manic activity spiralled into an exhausted well of depression. I’d cut myself away and struggled to fight my way back to the surface, until I felt able to emerge and carry on. Long solo road trips, hiking and camping, far away from people.
Years of wasted relationships, closing myself off from those close to me, fearing that they would see what I felt. A sense of low self-esteem would wash over me like a tide of despair, if I stood still too long. Keep moving and finding missions, self-medicate when it gets out of control. That was my instinctive response.
It was years before I got help: I’d turned 60 and was begging my GP for super strong sleeping pills; flashbacks were keeping me awake. I felt very low. The GP sent me to the St Pancras Hospital Veterans Clinic (the Veterans’ Mental Health Transition, Intervention and Liaison Service).
Like many before me, I had the panic attack. They’ll find that stuff buried in my mind! Memories I had pushed away, a dark disturbing box of images, constantly fluttering subconsciously, a shark threatening to surface. I spent ages in the toilet shaking like a leaf, then pulled myself together and pressed the buzzer for the Veterans Clinic. I was welcomed by a friendly face.
The Veterans Clinic was a revelation. An hour and, several glasses of water and a couple of sniffs of lavender oil later, they explained what I was going through. My symptoms had over the years got a deep hold and would not release their debilitating grip, unless I did something about it and was ready to process my memories. Mission on.
Importantly, I came to understand that they were just symptoms. Over the year of therapy, I began to understand that they were an automatic response system to trauma of months of alertness, switched on for combat. A teenager’s brain has not yet fully formed and these symptoms are driven deep, creating their own neural pathways.
I remember coming out of an intense therapy session, feeling light and as if I floated back home – everything seemed insubstantial, unreal. The therapist had cautioned me to go home and take time out. I sat in my kitchen brewed some coffee and memories bubbled up, all connected to the trauma we had processed that day. These were important memories, buried alongside the twitching, disturbing itch of combat memories. I hurriedly jotted down notes, not wanting these memories to fade.
Coming to terms with PTSD was a liberating experience; I began to audit my life, small steps, to understand many of my mistakes and weird responses to life’s journey. My uneasiness in crowds and my temper and simmering anger, which would bubble up for no reason, all triggered subconsciously. But now I had context and could talk to my teenage soldier self; understanding flowed and the world lost its hidden threats.
After therapy I started writing, I couldn’t stop. Making up for lost time, I not only finished my book, but got it published. ‘Falling Soldiers’, published by brigand.london, is a fictional novel that allowed me to explore injury and PTSD through the safety valve of narrative. It allowed me to take a safe step away, whilst still tackling the memories. My characters had left the army, but they felt lost overboard at sea, grabbing onto anything, which would keep them afloat. Examining how they survived in civvy street wasn’t a confession, but it was close enough.
I joined the Soldiers Arts Academy, met other veterans, banter broke out and we dealt with our similar issues collectively. I wrote and performed at the Shakespeare’s Globe on Remembrance Sunday, ‘Soldiers salute to Shakespeare’. The angst moved over and made way for creativity. Life became a kaleidoscope of rainbow coloured experiences to be enjoyed and savoured.
So now I’m writing, acting and healing with NWLive, a group of Veterans developing a play on life after PTSD, performed at Kentish Town medical centre.
And I will always offer my heartfelt thanks to the NHS mental health services at the St Pancras Veterans Clinic.