Today is Time to Talk Day – dedicated to getting the nation talking openly about mental health problems and putting an end to the misconceptions that can prevent people seeking help. In the hope that his story will help others, war veteran Neil Davies has chosen to share his experience of coming to terms with the mental illness that gripped him for so many years:
I was brought up in a rural area of Wales dominated by steel and coal.
The local village school was a small building on a windswept hill run by an alcoholic head teacher who was also a serial child abuser. No one listened to my complaints about his abusive activities, although years later he was eventually removed.
Consequently, I left school an educational failure at the age of 14 for a life as a non-skilled worker.
But like many young people to this day, the military offered an opportunity, a second chance to make something of yourself. On my 17th birthday I joined the Parachute Regiment and by the time of my 19th birthday I was fighting in a combat zone.
Military training prepares young men to obey orders and endure harsh conditions in combat zones, what it doesn’t equip them for is dealing with the memories of those traumas especially after leaving the Army.
Many of our recent conflicts have been unresolved or even seen as failures by the soldiers themselves, in this context it is even more difficult for military experiences to be talked about and traumas to be dealt with. Leaving the military is almost like falling overboard an ocean-going ship. I felt lost and all-at-sea, with no one to talk to about my experiences. Consequently I locked those memories away, where they festered over the years.
Traumas can affect people in many different ways and for soldiers it is seen as a weakness to even talk about memories of conflict. I spent many years suffering from recollections which I refused to let out. Any hint of an intimate personal relationship was difficult for me – I felt threatened – worried that I would reveal my dark memories.
Memories left undealt with become black holes of anxiety – they can cause more problems than the painful confrontation needed to open up mental wounds.
Continuing anxiety about traumatic memories affect us – many of my old comrades dealt with their traumas by drink, drugs, suicide and drifting; long-term plans were not for us. A common symptom was to re-create the emotion and adrenaline by adopting extreme sports or picking fights as if by conquering these dangers you were redefining yourself.
For years I suffered from flashbacks, insomnia and anger. Even my children remarked that I was a kettle on the verge of boiling over.
A few years ago I asked my Doctor in Camden for drugs to help me sleep and she started talking to me about my personal life and quickly diagnosed possible Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and arranged an appointment at the Military Veterans PTSD clinic in St Pancras Hospital.
Going to the PTSD Veterans clinics felt like the hardest thing I have ever done, I was petrified – worried that they would discover I was a nutter, that I would break down – that the dark areas would unlock my self-control. I was shaking as I walked in and half way through the consultation I had to excuse myself and hide in the toilets for ten minutes composing myself.
But, you know, it was one of the best things I have done for myself. The counselling and just the chance to talk openly about the various traumas I suffered during military service unlocked painful buried memories. Once I got past my macho view of myself, and started the self-healing process -reconnecting with who I was, who I am now and how I relate to others, it became easier than I thought. It allowed me to get a grip of the traumas rather than letting them grip me.
I now see it in military terms and talk to other ex-soldiers explaining that it is their personal mission; the objective is to take on the problem rather than running from it. As a great pugilist once said: “You can run but you can’t hide.”
Rather than ignore their memories I would encourage anyone who has locked away painful memories to tackle their problems – just like they would a military mission.
- NHS England is asking armed forces veterans to share their experience of mental health services and help improve future care across the country. We want veterans to share their experiences and views of existing mental health services by filling in this questionnaire. (The deadline for responding is 5pm on 31 March 2016.) We are also hoping to understand the reasons why some people have not sought or received support and treatment.