“I joined the Army straight from school in 1991 at 16. This was something I’d wanted to do growing up. I served with the Black Watch all over the world, including Hong Kong, the Middle East, Northern Ireland, Hawaii, Canada, New Zealand, and Africa.
“I struggled to adjust to civilian life on leaving the military and put a lot of things I was experiencing down to growing up in the military. The issues I had were slow burning; I saw myself as “normal”, I’m not sure that many people agreed with that, however. In truth I struggled to settle in a job, and I didn’t sleep very much, amongst other things. To me that was just everyday life, but I was simply avoiding confronting my issues.
“One of my biggest problems was dealing with emotions - my own and other people’s. As a soldier I was a very laid back and level person; I never got overly excited or particularly angry and didn’t really know how to grieve, so processing emotion when life slowed down was not my forte. My way of dealing with it was to self-harm – that was my release. I felt like emotions were trapped in my body and needed a way out, then mask the scars with tattoos.
“I think my issues built up after I struggled to emotionally deal with an incident in Northern Ireland, refusing to take the time and support offered because ‘I was fine’. Looking back, I think I knew I needed help for a long time but coming from a macho background like the Army I was reluctant to admit it, even to myself.
“I didn’t seek help until about 16 years after I left the Army, when I was just worn out. I had friends who’d been helped by Combat Stress and they gave me the Helpline number, but even then I was still thinking ‘I’m not that bad’. A while later I realised I couldn’t go on like that anymore. I did need help; I was physically and mentally shattered. Not to mention the number of relationships that were being and had been damaged by my emotional disconnect in particular.
“After calling the Combat Stress Helpline, I spent a year and a half having online treatment because of the COVID-19 pandemic, including a period of art therapy. Initially I was very sceptical of art therapy – I’ve never been an artistic person, so I scoffed at the idea. However, after three sessions I was hooked! I loved it as I had a way to explore and express emotions that didn’t require first aid afterwards. My work is never going to win any prizes, but it serves a purpose and I enjoy it.
“There’s a big difference to my life now. Before treatment I projected the image of being a confident, practical person but in all honesty I was shattered and emotionally frustrated, avoiding situations I couldn’t deal with. I’m more open and accepting of issues like my mental health now, and I know my own limitations. By having treatment I’ve opened up my life again.
“If you’re thinking of calling the Helpline, do it! I mulled it over for a long time, put off by the macho military mindset. Go with an open mind and be honest with yourself – these guys are trying to - and will help - if you’re prepared to leave your ego at the door.”