Nick is a Royal Marine Veteran who has generously and courageously shared his story of Complex PTSD, his departure from the Armed Forces and life beyond his diagnosis. Nick and his wife Louise have developed the Woodland Warrior Programme, combining their own love of the outdoors, and a first-hand understanding of the realities of living with trauma to offer a residential programme for armed forces, veterans and blue light services.
In 2008, I joined the Royal Marines with the intent to fulfill a 22-year career. Unfortunately, after 11 years service I was medically discharged after being diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). During my career in the armed forces I conducted four tours of Afghanistan and several sensitive overseas operations, which subjected me to life-threatening incidents. This, along with a number of other contributory factors, resulted in the illness I now manage on a daily basis.
During my first tour of Afghanistan in 2008, I was a point man in Whisky Company 45 Commando. My daily routine consisted of patrols and sentry routine, which could involve closing with the enemy, bayonets fixed in dense maize fields, clearing compounds and mounted patrols. As the point man I was often the first person into the compounds, or to cross open fields and to lead the way, finding improvised explosive devices (IEDs) as I went. These patrols were up to 18 hours at a time, sometimes lasting for days in 52 degrees heat.
On this tour I severely injured my knee when diving for cover to avoid oncoming fire. I was transferred to Camp Bastion but was not given an adequate de-compression period, having to return straight to my unit for an operation. As soon as I was able to bear weight, I was the pall bearer at seven of the 13 repatriation funerals I attended within a six month period, which added to my anxiety and survivor’s guilt.
Despite showing clear symptoms of PTSD, I conducted three more tours of Afghanistan, serving in an extremely remote outpost near the Pakistan border, working long hours for up to seven months at a time, without sufficient rest and recuperation. It was not until an incident on my final tour of Afghanistan in 2014, which saw one of my close colleagues being killed in action and another severely wounded with life changing injuries, that a psychiatric nurse was deployed to talk to us and I was subsequently diagnosed with complex PTSD, with the trigger being traced back to October 2008.
My diagnosis had a huge impact on all aspects of my life. Not only has it stopped me doing a job I loved, Ibecame hyper-vigilant, paranoid and distrustful of others. Sleeping was difficult, with flashbacks becoming a nightly occurrence. I could no longer work for prolonged periods and became tired and ‘burnt out easily’. As a coping mechanism I started to over-train in the gym, causing myself further mechanical injuries.
I was fortunate to have been transferred into the recovery centre at Hasler Company, where I spent the next four years undergoing a variety of treatments including cognitive behavioural therapy and eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing (EMDR). I found treatment intense: for years I had tried to suppress my memories and associated feelings, but treatment brought them to the fore once more. While I understood I needed to go backwards in order to move forwards, my symptoms intensified and during my treatment period I often wondered if it was worth the pain.
It often felt like I was at a cross roads: do I invest in myself for the future? Or, do I refuse treatment, never to see the potential benefits? There was no quick fix. Treatment did help, to an extent, as it provided me with a different perspective on my experiences; however, due to its limited effectiveness I decided to stop EMDR. Instead, I focussed on the benefits of the outdoors as well as receiving coaching and supervision from a military charity.
Many of my colleagues who have had the same treatment have all had different outcomes, some of whoare still struggling to come off their medication. Treatment doesn’t work for everyone and I would say it partially worked for me. Having been on the receiving end of modern medicine aimed at treating the symptoms of PTSD with drugs used in conjunction with classic psychiatry, I observed many colleagues turned into ‘space cadets’, with limited function and heavy hangovers to shrug off each morning.
After having suffered for so long, I know these problems will be a permeant feature in my future. However, I have found ways to manage my condition by working in the outdoors. Sharing my experiences and telling stories around the campfire has been an extremely effective form of therapy, as it is less confrontational than sitting in a small room facing a stranger with a pack of tissues on standby. Concentrating on other tasks means I also often forget my reservations about expressing my feelings. Likewise, engaging in some kind of manual task while talking through my experiences works equally well.