The problem with mental illness is that a lot of people don’t see it in the same way as they do a physical illness. People can see a broken leg; people can’t necessarily pinpoint the signs of amental illness. I know this all too well because I was one of those people: I didn’t believe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) really existed until I was actually diagnosed with it.
I joined the military at 16 and went from the Royal Marines, passing through the gruelling SAS selection process, to serving in the Special Boat Service (SBS). I had a successful career spanning two decades and I absolutely loved my job. I served in some of the most hostile territories on Earth, negotiated hostage releases and worked on humanitarian efforts, as well as doing intense counter-insurgency operations in countries all around the world.
After all these years in the field, I noticed that my thoughts had begun to fixate on unwelcome memories of combat, and I felt exhausted. Eventually, I recognised the signs of combat stress, which led to me being diagnosed with PTSD. I was medically discharged from the career I’d worked so hard for, and the transition from soldier to civilian with the added element of a mental illness was almost too much to bear.
PTSD comes in all different shapes and sizes – nobody ever has the same experience with any mental illness. My personal PTSD, as a result of combat stress, manifested itself in a few different ways. When I was still serving, there was a particular moment in the field when I felt like I wanted to give up – all I could think about was how much I wanted to go home. When you’re in the Special Forces, thinking like that just isn’t an option. Upon leaving the SBS it shifted again, and became more of a depression than anything. I found adjusting to civilian life incredibly difficult, especially as I still had vivid memories of particularly harrowing moments in combat. There was also the added guilt of not feeling good enough in myself – I felt like I should’ve stayed in the SBS for a few more years, but instead, this illness I didn’t quite understand had forced me to leave. It was incredibly tough to come to terms with.
The term “PTSD” is relatively new, but the condition has always had a presence in military operations and has previously been known as soldier’s heart or, simply, battle fatigue. But PTSD doesn’t just affect people in the military – even though there has been a huge increase in diagnosis for veterans such as me since Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s different for everyone, and that means that the treatment for PTSD should be tailored to the individual in question. When I was discharged from the SBS, I was pointed in the direction of several different treatments. It took a long time for me to figure out which of those worked for me.
When it comes to treatment you instantly know what’s not working for you. I tried Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), otherwise known as “the talking therapy”, where my therapist asked me to pinpoint the exact moment that triggered my PTSD. When you’ve been in the situations I’ve been in, serving in some of the most intense, high-pressured missions there are, it’s impossible to focus on one exact moment. In a life of split-second decisions based entirely on survival, how can you specify a single moment? The same went for EMDR treatment (eye movement, desensitisation and reprocessing). Instead of helping me to reprocess, it left me feeling constantly frustrated with the lack of progress I was making.
In the end, the thing that’s worked for me has been having another focus. Whether that’s co-running my business, Break Point, or filming for SAS: Who Dares Wins – you have to have something to focus on professionally as well as enjoying the smaller things in life. I have a friend who taught himself to play guitar as a release, and now runs an organisation called Rock 2 Recovery, where he signposts veterans and servicemen for medical attention and helps to save lives. It’s equally as important for me to take time to reflect on the memories I have, and to make sure that I can manage and accept them, rather than letting them overcome the progress I have made.
We need to keep talking about PTSD. Don’t just expect the symptoms to be evident in people who have served in the armed forces and emergency services. Any traumatising incident can lead to people suffering from this condition – no matter how unlikely that can seem from an outsider’s point of view. Because of this, we need to make sure that our workplaces, theNHSand the people around us can understand this condition, in order to provide as much support as possible.
I never thought I’d be diagnosed with PTSD. Through my years in the Special Forces I thought of myself as a strong man, both mentally and physically. But, there was also a time when I thought I wouldn’t come through it either. But here I am. I still believe myself to be a strong man, and for me, I feel that dealing with PTSD has made me even stronger. It will always be there, but I’ve found the tools to deal with it, and I urge others to prioritise their mental wellbeing too. Whatever that may mean to each individual who encounters it, there is help out there – the first step is reaching out and asking for it.