Paul: Recovery and personal redemption from PTSD
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or traumatic events. The symptoms of PTSD can have a significant impact on your day-to-day life and can be a potentially debilitating condition.
SANE champion, Paul has PTSD. When he was diagnosed he was in denial but, after accepting his mental health was forever changed, he asked for help. Here, he talks about living with the condition and how he wants to give hope to others who may also be struggling.
Living in the day
I’m Paul and I have PTSD after an incident as a police officer – although my previous career as a soldier probably laid the groundwork for my insidious, often present companion to appear.
Like many people experiencing mental health problems I’m not one for the New Year. I don’t do busy places (have you tried partying with PTSD?), and tend to live in the day I’m in rather than spending time looking back at what has been, or envisaging a future that more often than not tends to take its own course despite our best attempts to control it. That said I did find myself reflecting on the start of this new decade as it heralds some important anniversaries:
In June I’ll be 60 (I know, no way, I hear you – in my head I’m still a 26 year old army physical training instructor). On the eve of my 50th birthday I drove myself into my local A&E convinced I was having a heart attack; pale, clammy, lurching heartbeat, tight chest – the full English breakfast of symptoms. Turns out I was experiencing the first of what were going to be many panic attacks.
Several months prior to this auspicious birthday event I’d disarmed a lady wielding a samurai sword as she attacked members of the public in a police station I was in. Thankfully I got everyone out unharmed and managed to pepper spray her as she brought the sword down towards me so we’re all good. Thinking nothing more about it – trust me, bobbies all around the world are doing far more hardcore things than this – I got on with the career I loved barely noticing the fragmented sleep I’d started to experience, or my increasingly short fuse as I got irritated with minor things I’d usually laugh off.
So, I turned 50 in A&E (rubbish party with no cake, streamers or presents other than the fact my heart was in awesome shape) and was told in no uncertain terms to see my GP that same morning. I duly popped in with the blasé expectation of a few days of rest and returning to my career with barely a ripple.
I never went back to work.
People like me don’t get a mental illness
My meltdown, when it came, was a torrent of different emotions; anger, fear, regrets and anger – did I mention anger? At times I was incandescent with an internal rage at having become so ‘weak’. After all ‘people like me’ don’t get a mental illness – this alpha male soldier, physical training instructor and police officer who’d fought, climbed, windsurfed, done endless brutal physically challenging courses and had awesome adventures. Nah, this was a bit of stress and would be gone quicker than mist on a summer morning.
Denial serves a purpose. It helps inure our psyche from potentially overwhelming emotional conflict. It acts as a buffer to give us time to assimilate the consequences of what are often life-changing events, and it lets us manage that change as we gradually choose to acknowledge our lives may have changed forever. I chose the other denial, the darker, far more destructive one where you pretend the unicorn of happiness is sat on your left shoulder and the bright blue bird of joy is hovering above the other.
The result of my own personal macho hubris and unwillingness to accept I had PTSD and seek help meant I built up a critical mass of self-denial that sooner or later was going to result in uncontrollable, yet entirely predictable consequences.
Some 18 months in from becoming unwell and even I had to accept my mental health was forever changed and I wouldn’t be returning to my job. Acutely unwell, worn out by lack of sleep and my constant flight or fight responses to the most mundane of occurrences, riddled with grief at the loss of my self-identity and sense of purpose, I made the decision to take my own life.
Asking for help
This isn’t the time and space to go down that particular rabbit hole, but my first and subsequent attempts were fairly serious. Paradoxically they also served to start me on another path – the path to recovery. I sought help, became more accepting of my illness, stopped wasting time and emotional energy looking back at what I had been and let go of what I might have become.
I rediscovered my photography and the power it has to let you express yourself without words, and I became a lot kinder and more thankful for what I had. Today I’m a professional wildlife photographer with a book on wellbeing and photography just out and, despite my ever-present friend PTSD in the shadows, I’ve created a manageable life as much on my terms as it can be.
Ten years to the day I became unwell and forever changed I’ll be 60. A decade older for sure, but certainly wiser and more grounded in this moment than perhaps I have ever been, and I have hope. Hope I have a meaningful life ahead of me and hope I can be of help to other people who are stood at the edge and looking down wondering if it’s all worth it.
Trust me on this, it is. There’s always hope. Always another day when things will be that little bit better. The hardest yet most empowering words I’ve learnt in a decade of serious mental illness?
Asking for help with whatever you’re struggling with isn’t a weakness. It’s a strength.