Oh my gosh I cannot believe it’s only 6 days before we fly out to Toronto to compete in the Invictus Games. I am just sat in Costa Coffee after watching a preview of the BBC documentary about Invictus. It always gets me when I watch myself talking about my experience. It doesn’t matter how many times I talk about it, I always get emotional because I know how far I have come since 2012. So how did I get here?
For those of you who have followed my blogs since the start you will know what I’ve been going through. PTSD had been a rope around my neck, tightening up the more I tried to trudge my way out. Sometimes it was like I was trying to move forward but the further I reached the tighter the rope became. I saw no way out of the nightmare for such a long time yet on the outside I may have appeared ‘ok’.
I never saw it creeping up on me yet I guess if I looked back all the signs were there. Diagnosed with PTSD in Oct 2015 was a kick in the teeth. I tried to fight it, going in and out of work trying to ‘man up’. Trying to force that stiff upper lip us brits are supposed to have. I saw my dream career, the job I wanted since the age of 13, slipping out of my hands. I tried to keep that grip tight but I was watching it slip away. I fell deeper into darkness, briefly seeing the light until another trigger shot me back down. I was finally sent off on indefinite sick leave until a medical board deemed me unfit further service.
Unable to continue my treatment at my previous RAF Station I was moved to an army base in Yorkshire. I was expected to undertake a 5hr round trip to start my treatment from the beginning again. On medication and struggling to leave my front door without having a panic attack, I just couldn’t safely make the journey. I retreated to the safety of my home, which bizarrely turned into my prison. I accessed support from the NHS but again, going out was proving difficult. I just couldn’t face going out and when I did, I had to wear headphones to drown out all the different noises. If it was too busy I would turn back and go back to my prison.
Apart from going to walk my dog or to see my grandparents, or my mother, I never went anywhere. I couldn’t bear the loneliness and the nightmare I found myself living in. I had hit the bottom of the pit and at one point I just accepted that was where I was at and I curled up right there. Thoughts creeped into my mind that not only scared me but excited me. They excited me because I could see a way of escaping this living nightmare. However, it also scared me because I had never thought I would be in a situation where I’m planning to take my life. I always felt tremendous sympathy for others who had been in a place where they saw no other way out of the darkness. What I also thought about was how it affected family and friends and that was to be my only reason for not going through with my plan.
So, how did I get from there to competing in the Invictus Games, representing my country yet again? One day I dragged myself up to pick my mail up from the doormat. I threw it onto the side in the kitchen, on top of the other mail that was collecting there. I flicked the kettle on and looked at the brown envelope. It had a stamp on the back which told me it was from RAF Cranwell. I picked it up and opened it and saw it was a letter from SSAFA, informing me that they planned to delete me from their list for support because they hadn’t heard from me. Initially I was fuming and cursed them because I hadn’t heard a thing from then. Then I picked it up again and looked for contact details. I couldn’t face phoning them so I emailed. I was virtually pleading in my email to not cross me off their books. I started to write the reason why and I just couldn’t stop. I pressed send and that was that, I never thought anything more about it.
A few days passed before my phone rang. I very rarely picked it up but I did that day and I’m so pleased I did. This was to be the start of my recovery. A lovely lady by the name of Eva Graves got in touch and visited a few days later. She helped me to find the help I needed again with the NHS and got me to a point where I was cooking for myself again and starting to see the light.
I began to set up Behind The Mask Foundation with the aspiration of helping others in my situation. Two charities helped me with this; RAFA provided office equipment for the Foundation and the RAF Benevolent Fund paid for a study course for me. I still couldn’t leave my house to go to busy places but felt more comfortable in and around my local area. My Foundation was due to launch and I decided to write to Nick & Eva Speakman to ask them if they would attend my launch night. Unexpectedly I received an email back offering to help me. I felt so blessed and really wanted to be rid of the noose around my neck. We met up and through their treatment I was finally able to be free of the fear, free to leave my front door without those hideous headphones and free from panic attacks. I felt in control again and started to build my life back up again.
Now appears another problem; I could not settle into a job. I was realising for the first time since being medically discharged that I was no longer in my dream job. I lost much more than my mind that day; I lost my job security, amazing work colleagues, my fiance, my home, some friends and my identity. I didn’t know who I was anymore, or where I belonged. All I had known for years was the RAF, I lived and breathed it and I never saw myself anywhere but there. I felt lost and walked in and out of a number of jobs, becoming increasingly frustrated and angry. Thankfully I was able to focus on helping my mum look after my nan & grandad and this kept me occupied. In Nov 15 my Uncle passed away which totally rocked my nan and grandad as well as my mum; it was unexpected and sudden. My nan had been poorly on and off with terminal cancer and heart disease, and sadly had to move into a nursing home. I think this took its toll on my grandad who remained in their bungalow, visiting my nan daily. Now, most of you who have followed my blogs know that my grandad was my absolute world. So you can imagine how I felt when he sadly passed away in Jun 16. I was totally devastated and the only godsend was that I had to focus on looking after my mum and my nan who had now lost 2 loved ones in the space of 8 months. I threw myself into helping them, trying another couple of jobs but nothing I could keep. My heart just wasn’t in it, I just felt emotionally numb and I could feel myself sinking again. I wasn’t eating properly and had nothing about me. I had lost the spark in my eyes and I could feel that rope tapping at my shoulder again. I think my mum knew because she kept checking in on me. I guess she had learnt to recognise the signs from last time….
I had received an email through the Help for Heroes Band of Brothers sight, about applying to take part in the Invictus Games but I deleted it. Another one arrived and I deleted that one to. When the third one came through I thought, why the heck not. I had never been good at any sport and always came last. During my military career I had to work really hard to get through PT but I never gave in. So much so I won a prize for showing true grit and determination. I never thought anything else about Invictus but I received an email telling me I was eligible and they included training dates for the next camp.
In Feb 17 I turned up at Newport for rowing camp like a rabbit in headlights. I felt completely out of my depth and started to regret my application. Since being diagnosed with PTSD I had struggled with the idea of seeing any amputees because I felt guilty. I have spoken about this in another blog so won’t go into it again. I was apprehensive about seeing people with their injuries; I wasnt sure how I would react. However, soon the banter started to flow and I started to join in. I began to uncoil a bit and then the actual training started. Oh my word I was so unfit!!! This wasn’t the first camp for the rowing team but it was mine. I hadn’t kept myself fit and I also hadn’t been looking after myself nutritionally. I could certainly tell that and started again to feel out of my depth. I had decided in my head that I wasn’t going to continue. I was embarressed at how unfit I had become. Next to me was a girl who I remember had a massive smile on her face and was really friendly. I remember her singing one of Dolly Partons songs and evetyone giggling. We started chatting and it transpired her name was also Michelle AND she was also from Wigan. In fact her dad lived on the same street as me!!!! We got on instantly and have been good friends throughout this amazing experience. We travel together and twin up in hotels on every camp. Michelle encouraged me to carry on and I decided then that I had to do something to turn my life around. Surrounded by so many inspirational people, coping and adapting with their injuries motivated me to give it a real chance.
I followed the training programme sent to us by our fabulous coach Hannah. I was pretty poor at it but I stuck with the programme. Training for Invictus helped give me focus, it made me cook because I needed to eat well and healthily in order to be able to produce results in my training. In March however my nan took a turn for the worst and sadly passed away. I felt so sorry for my mum because in the space of 16 months she had lost her brother, mum and dad. I was heartbroken for me as well as my mum. Grief is a weird thing because I focused solely on training and spending time with mum. The trials came up and I went to Bath to compete for a place on the team, absolutely not expecting to qualify. But qualify I did and I have pushed to train hard. I wanted to be better than I had been on the previous camps and I pushed for PBs, thankfully reaching them for the majority.
I know I’m not in medal contention this year because there are many in the UK team alone who will beat me. However, I intend to hit a PB in both my sports and embrace the whole experience. I feel truly blessed to be part of a truly inspiring team, as well as serving my country again; albeit in a different capacity. Being able to inspire others, competing in a sport for the first time in my life, being with other like minded individuals and meeting my Michelle from Wigan, all became my gold medal.
I hope my story gives you hope that there is a way through things. I am still trying to keep my head above water, finding my place in the world, but I will keep going at it. I have focus and I have the fire back in my belly.
Whatever life throws at you, take hope from me and my teammates that YOU CAN get through with the support. There are some fabulous charities out there providing support. I will pass on to you what was to be the last words my grandad said to me: “Try not to worry, everything happens for a reason”.
I have to believe that because I qualified for the Games, I met Michelle, and now in the planning stages of setting up a business with support from CTP and The Poppy Factory. Hopefully the next thing for me would be to meet a lovely new partner who can take me on (open to offers) 😃
I will continue to tell my story far and wide because it matters. I will always be so thankful to those who helped me through. Now my heart is set on paying it forward. This happened to me for a reason…..