It is a normal day and I feel happy and relaxed. My mind is blank because I’m making a brew. I’m on autopilot. I’m not thinking about anything in particular, I’m not anxious, I’m not on edge. Just stirring. Suddenly the tranquillity of ordinary life is shattered and my shoulders arch up and back. My head seems to retreat into my neck like a turtle. My eyes are wide with fear. Pulse racing, hands sweating, breathing hard. My eyes dart about, my eyebrows furrow. My body has reacted to something and has begun this remarkable and grotesque process that fills me with both adrenaline and fear. This routine happens so quickly that my mind hasn’t caught up with it yet. I’m filled with terror and I’m searching for the source.
It was just the bathroom door slamming in the breeze. But I was ready. I was ready to hit the floor and take cover, or fight or run or…whatever. I was ready for anything. I’ve never felt more ready. And now my mind has caught up and I realise it was just the door and I feel lot of other things as the fear subsides. I feel silly. I feel ashamed. I feel sad. I feel sorry for myself. I feel angry at myself. I sometimes feel angry at the Army too.
In 2008 I deployed to Afghanistan and served in Helmand Province in a front-line role for 6 months. At some point during this time, I’m told (in simple terms) that my head broke, and I stopped processing things normally. Instead of processing the frightening situations I found myself in, whilst I slept, I just stayed in the moment. This meant I was kept in a heightened state of readiness. I was mentally alert, always. It’s called hypervigilance. I was ready to fight if we were attacked by small arms fire (rifles) and ready to flee/ hit the deck if it was indirect fire (rockets). This was very handy, as we regularly came under attack from both. But when I got home, this behaviour, these reactions, were no longer necessary and were wholly inappropriate. But I couldn’t switch them off. Something was broken.
Furthermore, a traumatic casualty incident I was involved in ended up being somehow lumped into the ‘present’ along with my reactions to loud noises. So I could neither switch off from the noises, nor come to terms with what happened to the casualty. Both should have stayed behind in Afghanistan but both came home with me like malign trespassers in my mind.
I’ve read that many veterans don’t show signs of PTSD for years. It’s why the British Armed Forces are bracing themselves for all the aftercare they’ll need to provide the veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan in the years to come. I don’t fit with those statistics. I knew I wasn’t myself when I was still on tour. Traumatic Incident Management (TrIM) training was in its infancy and there weren’t as many practitioners on my first tour as there would be in subsequent tours. So after I walked back into the Patrol Base after dealing with the fatality of a 9 month old baby, and was asked if I was OK by one of the soldiers, I nodded and it was left there. I don’t blame them. And I don’t blame the 4 SNCOs I shared sleeping quarters with for not acting. I imagine they found my night-time tears and nightmares difficult. They probably didn’t know how to handle a crying female officer.
During my last few days of tour I knew I wasn’t right. I’d become very anxious about leaving Afghanistan, and returning home seemed impossible. These feelings made me feel terribly guilty, as I had a loving family waiting for me at home, but I was desperate to stay put. How could I explain that the thought of coming home made me, on occasion, physically sick? I had never in my life vomited because of fear before, but as my end of tour date approached, this is exactly what I found myself doing in a ditch in Camp Bastion.
When I got home, like many soldiers, I found adjusting to normal life quite hard. I felt overwhelmed in supermarkets at the sheer choices on offer, all demanding my attention; the colours and varieties of packets; too many decisions to make. I felt uneasy in crowds or in open countryside. This isn’t that unusual for soldiers returning home, and usually dissipates over a matter of weeks or months and things return to normal. However my unease didn’t, and my readjustment issues manifested themselves in more complex ways.
Serving in Nawa, Helmand Province, Afghanistan 2009
I felt uncharacteristically angry but at no-one or nothing in particular. I was withdrawn. And I was very, very tired all the time. I would retreat into my bed in my attic room in the Officers’ Mess straight after work, and not get up again for 13 or 14 hours. I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t want to eat. I was drinking in my room on my own. And I would cry. I would sob and cry until I fell asleep. I felt as if a thick black blanket had descended on me, and that I deserved it. I was plagued by guilt and a sense of foreboding. I had terrible nightmares. I felt responsible for everything. And I was very, very afraid. At the time I suspected my mind was ill because I could hardly believe how dark and unfamiliar my own thoughts were. But I didn’t have a word for it, and this made the experience even more frightening and isolating. My mind was no longer my own. I would later learn that I was suffering from depression.
The combination of depression and PTSD, which would also be diagnosed, made my day-to-day life feel like an unbearable ordeal. This was made significantly worse by the fact Gibraltar Barracks, where I was based, is home to cohorts of Royal Engineers practicing detonating explosives. The sound of explosions from just beyond the camp’s perimeter would boom through camp and before I knew it I’d be physically on the floor, in broad daylight. Walking from the Officers’ Mess to work became so difficult that I’d be struggling to breathe as soon as I left the building. I’d walk rigidly across the bridge in silent and terrified tears, preparing myself for the sounds that might or might not come. My palms were literally cut and bleeding from the fists I would involuntarily make when I heard the sound of an explosion on the training area. First my body would react to the sound, then I’d feel terrified, then I’d be flooded with disturbing memories and images from tour, then I’d feel horribly embarrassed at my reaction, I’d feel sad and angry and bitter and alone. This would all take place within a second or so. All throughout the day.
These explosions were interspersed by the sound of rifle fire and machine guns, from other exercising troops, which gave some variety to the day, and meant, like in Afghanistan, I was never really at ease. The deep sense of shame and embarrassment when I reacted publicly to noises was probably the worst part of it. I was no longer wearing my desert uniform, so back in green kit, nobody could tell that I’d recently returned from tour. I wished they’d known. As the weeks wore on I became more withdrawn, and had cut myself off from my family and friends back home who were by now very concerned about me. One night I locked myself in my car in the Mess carpark and just screamed. I was filled with terror and guilt and sadness and I couldn’t imagine being happy again, nor could I understand where the real me had gone. I was furious with this imposter in my mind. I screamed in my car for an hour.
Then one morning I woke up and simply couldn’t get ready for work. I vomited, and then I cried, and then I called my boss, explaining I would try and get some help. Strangely, I remember arranging to meet the chaplain, of all people. I say that, because I didn’t believe in God and had no business being in a chapel, but there I was, a very sad and very distressed young woman telling a stranger in dog collar that I needed help. He listened and gave me the number of the Welfare Officer, who in turn referred me to a Community Nurse, then a Mental Health team where I saw a GP, counsellors and a psychologist. At one point I was sent to Chilwell to see Army nurses and back to Aldershot to see civilian counsellors. I went through a lot of assessments. I felt like I was I good hands.
That was 7 years ago. My recovery since then has been fairly up and down. The first year was very hard. I was obsessed with the death of the baby and riddled with guilt. Could I have done more? Why didn’t I find out his name? How awful that I couldn’t hold him properly in body armour. Would he have died anyway? How were his parents coping? How had I failed at this most basic task as a woman? Would I ever be fit to be a mother? And I wasn’t coping with noises at all, and found my anxiety very hard to control. My nightmares were variations on the theme of not quite saving children’s lives, and lots and lots of war. I had returned to University to finish my degree but wasn’t managing very well and soon had to seek help from student welfare services. I saw a counsellor weekly for the rest of my final year, and she helped to treat my PTSD through a then-ground-breaking and innovative technique called EMDR. This seemed to have worked.
Once feeling like my old self again I went on to serve on two subsequent tours of Afghanistan. My family were of course concerned that this would worsen my condition, which, whilst much-improved, still lurked at the corners. I experienced occasional setbacks such as going to pieces in a bar when a man standing next to me dropped a glass, or making a scene in a restaurant when someone popped a cork, or crying at the Christmas dinner table over the use of party poppers. Yet I did deploy again. In fact, being back in Afghanistan made me feel normal. My reactions were perfectly normal because they were in their proper context. Was I incredibly jumpy? Yes. Did I have cause to be? Yes. My reactions are extraordinarily quick, just as they should be. I was just as scared of IDF (such as rockets) as before, but so was the next person.
Then in September 2015 I sat in the Med Centre at RAF Henlow and went through my discharge medical, as I was leaving full time service to begin a degree in theology. I was asked a series of mandatory questions about my mental health, such as about my sleep patterns, whether certain situations made me uncomfortable, flashbacks, anxiety. I remember answering most of them confidently and positively. “No doctor I don’t experience that anymore. No that’s not a problem. Rarely. No, not anymore…” and so on. I had answered honestly. I felt fine. But then PTSD is strange like that. It has its ups and downs.
Just a few months later I was walking from my house to my parish vicarage to take part in a Home Group (I’d since become a Christian in the intervening years, another story), and my world sort of fell apart. It was 5th November. I had begun to feel very anxious about an hour earlier, when the first of the fireworks had started, and should never, ever have left the house. By the time I set off the celebrations had begun in earnest. The sky lit up around me and I impulsively ducked and swore. Having assessed that it was only a short walk, and that staying in alone and listening to the fireworks wouldn’t be helpful, I put my head down and crossed the road. Immediately things went wrong. With every step I took, I began to lose control. I could feel myself slipping away with each bang. What sounded like small arms fire, crackled behind me and to my front and to my left. Then a huge boom to my right. I was surrounded. I was pinned down. I knew I couldn’t hold on to the reality of the situation. I was crying and gasping and filled with terror. Though I could see the familiar park and houses that I’d grown up with, I couldn’t quite hang on to them. I was very much back in Helmand.
The sound of bullets cracking and whizzing was all around me now. I heard the boom of a baseplate of a 107mm rocket and heard it scream into the sky with a horrifying whistle. The sound got higher and higher as the rocket made its decent. I couldn’t escape. I was now on the floor. With an almighty bang it exploded over the park. Another followed it. The sound of the 107s was interjected with gunfire, very close-range gunfire. It was coming from over the wall to my front-left. Wind whipped trees, and the streetlights and explosions distorted the shadows on the floor. More intense gunfire, this time from back towards my house. The sound was all around me. I couldn’t breathe. I had shrunk to my knees and I was crying and sobbing. I could see a passer-by cross the street. What did I look like? I got up and shuffled further along the wall, literally clinging to the bricks. I had to get to the vicarage. Another explosion right over my head. I was back on the floor with my hands over my ears sobbing and begging, out loud, for it to stop. I remember crying over and over again that I was sorry, and, in case anyone was there to hear me, I kept saying “I’m a soldier”.
I was a complete mess.
I was deeply ashamed of the state I was in, and felt very sorry for myself. I resembled a terrified dog. My moaning and whimpering was just like that of an animal. I was absolutely filled with a kind of terror that I had never experienced before in my life. In fact my terror was so great that night, that it far surpassed any fearful situation I’d ever been in for real. What my mind conjured up was much worse. I’d been betrayed by my own mind and for that, I was devastated.
By the time I got to the vicarage, a journey that should take about 3 minutes at a brisk walking pace, but had taken almost 25, I was shaking and unable to breathe or make sense. I fell into the arms of my local vicar and he held me as I cried and he didn’t ask me any questions. I tried to explain about Afghanistan and the fireworks and PTSD. By a wonderful coincidence his daughter’s boyfriend was visiting, and he was an ex-soldier, recently returned from Afghanistan. I’d never met this man before, and indeed wasn’t terribly familiar with the vicar (having not been worshipping there long) but knowing that the man in the kitchen was both a Christian and a veteran made me feel so much better. I went in and managed to say a few words. Chris the veteran and Katie, the vicar’s daughter, were very understanding, and asked if I should get some proper help. I thought I probably should.
And so within a matter of weeks I was fully ensconced in the NHS system. No longer serving full time, I’m not entitled to any help from the British Army. Now that I’m serving in the Army part-time as a Reservist, I can only seek help from the NHS. Some consolation is that, as a veteran, I at least go to the top of NHS waiting lists for mental health problems. I was passed from department to department, retelling my story and had to attend a psychiatric hospital for assessment. That experience made me very sad indeed. I never imagined I’d visit such a place. I cried a lot on the drive there, feeling increasingly anxious, and then whilst still sitting in the carpark trying to compose myself, a man walked past. He was dressed in black. He was a priest. He looked at me and smiled and I smiled back at him, feeling such a sense of relief. Then a text came through from a close friend with the words of Psalm 139. I still felt awful, but I knew God was with me in all the awfulness.
My relationship with the NHS counsellor I was eventually referred to wasn’t great. She was neither qualified in EMDR nor experienced with the Army, two specifics I’d requested. I found the process of having to translate every acronym and explain each situation in detail, very laborious and unhelpful. Much of our time together focussed more on my depression which had resurfaced, rather than PTSD, as the therapy for PTSD can be so draining and difficult that she and I both felt I wasn’t strong enough to begin until I was coping better with my depression.
By January 2016 I was like a zombie and in in the full throes of dark, empty, suffocating melancholy, and I was finding the day to day very tough. I was crying a lot, I was having nightmares again, I was teetering on the edge of melt-down most days and could go to pieces at the slightest increase in stress. One evening, after a very difficult day, I walked into my kitchen and my husband asked me what was for tea. It was one decision too many and I became hysterical. Sobbing and screaming and furious and sad and lost, I begged him not to make me make that extra decision. I wasn’t well at all. Going to hospital each week was necessary if I was going to get a handle on my situation.
I also had my faith. The counsellor would ask me how my week had been and which coping strategies I was employing. “Prayer” I’d say. If she was at a loss with my stories of Afghanistan she was certainly out at sea when I mentioned God. I knew my answers were disappointing to her as a clinical professional. She wanted to hear that I’d been using the grounding techniques she’d taught me or I was going to my ‘safe place’. Telling her that I had a friend praying for me every Thursday morning whilst I walked to the hospital was not an answer she seemed comfortable with, and we never explored to what extent my faith helped me any further. But faith was my help. I recently heard someone say he was OK with the argument that God is a crutch. “What” he asked, “do we use a crutch for? Support of course. Something to lean on.” Do I lean on God in times of need? Yes. I certainly found that having God in my life when I was at my worst made my situation so much more bearable.
This is the second time I’ve suffered a bad bout of depression and PTSD, but the first since becoming a Christian. The first time, when I returned from Afghanistan in 2009, I had no belief in God and no knowledge of His love, no solace found in the peace of worship and no Christian community praying for me. Now I have all those things and I need them. Bringing a few people, including my local clergy and friends at theological college into my confidence has been a huge support as I know they have been praying for my situation.
But apart from the above mentioned Christian friends, only a few other close friends know about my condition, plus some members of my family. Hiding my illness from others has been important for me, but I’ve struggled to articulate why, because I’m not satisfied with my own argument. I think it’s partly because I’ve put a huge amount of energy into the façade of coping. I don’t want to be known for this. I don’t want people feeling awkward around me. I don’t want pity. What it boils down to is that I don’t want this kind of attention. There are other things I’d rather be known for; positive things.
Whilst I know that a stigma surrounding mental illness still exists because people don’t talk about it, I didn’t want to be the one doing the talking, which is frankly rather selfish. So when a friend asked me to write this blog for AFCU I knew I couldn’t reasonably just say no, and so I gave it much thought. It was my husband who finally prompted me, sending me a poem about the only person who could help a soldier with PTSD was a fellow soldier suffering from PTSD. Furthermore it’s hard to ignore the Combat Stress campaigns on social media in recent months, raising awareness of suicides among service leavers. On balance, I felt it would be better for me to share my story in the hope of helping others, which outweighs my own discomfort about my PTSD being made public.
So this is my story. But please take note; PTSD is something I suffer from, sometimes very badly, other times not so badly. It has had a big impact on periods of my life but it is not so all consuming that I’ve let it become my identity. It is like any other injury. When it flares up I seek treatment. I am not defined by Afghanistan or the Army or by PTSD. I’m defined by Christ. My faith has helped me so much, particularly knowing that others are praying for me. Meanwhile, scripture has calmed my anxieties and refocussed my mind. And above all, knowing that I’m loved in all my brokenness and that Jesus is in my suffering and bearing it with me, continues to be my ‘safe place’.
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“So do not fear, for I am with you; do not be dismayed, for I am your God.” Isaiah 41:10