Former Soldier With PTSD Encourages People To Open Up After He ‘Imploded’ Due To Disorder
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can affect anyone and everyone, but soldiers can be particularly vulnerable to developing the mental health condition.
It’s undeniable that serving in the army isn’t your average nine-to-five office job, and can lead to people witnessing things you’d hope to never see. When this does happened, it can have devastating effects on a person’s mental health.
One major study of 60,000 Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans found that 13.5% of soldiers who were and were not deployed went on to develop PTSD. Meanwhile, other studies have shown that this figure could be as high as 20-30%.
According to a 2016 report, as many as 500,000 US troops who served in these wars have since been diagnosed with the mental illness.
Andy Cottom, psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council for Psychotherapy (UKCP), explained to UNILAD how common it is for those in the army to develop PTSD.
Combat is an extraordinary experience that challenges the core of a person’s understanding about humanity. It introduces thoughts that many of us never have to confront but it’s an experience that forces a soldier to rethink our concepts of the meaning of our own existence, ideas about sacrifice or survival and even our taboos about taking life.
In the American Civil War, PTSD was known as ‘Nostalgia’, literally the ‘pain of the homecoming’ (the same symptoms, a different label). It is common for soldiers returning home to become traumatised by the realisation that their experiences in the warzone have changed them forever and that they can no longer return to the home that they left.
One person who fought in the Iraq war was Darren Hardy, who joined the army in 2003. After serving for 15 years, he was medically discharged for physical and emotional injury. While in the army, Darren – pictured below, second from right – developed PTSD, in addition to damaging his shoulder.
Prior to his injuries, Darren told UNILAD that he enjoyed his time in the service. He said, ‘I grew up in Northern Ireland so I joined the military at the back end of the troubles we were facing. […] I witnessed some shootings when I was younger, so the military just felt like the right career path for me.’
‘I loved it and I miss it quite a lot. It was everything I expected it to be and we got caught in the midst of things [in Iraq] but these things never really affected me or my career until towards the end,’ Darren added.
However, his mental health took a turn for the worse following an incident in Canada in 2015 in which he witnessed a girl fall into a fire. The smell of burning flesh went on to trigger Darren’s PTSD following a previous experience earlier on in his career.
Explaining how his diagnosis came around, he told UNILAD:
Initially I had no idea what was going on, I just became a bit of a d*ck really. I was an army officer and I was the moral compass of the unit. […] I became quite an angry person. I didn’t think anything was wrong until someone asked me what was wrong, and it made me realise that other people could see something was up. Normally I’m an outgoing person, but I was very internal and I was withdrawn. I liked to say I kind of imploded rather than exploded.
I went to see the doctors a couple of times, and I never really got diagnosed until an incident in Canada in 2015 when a girl fell into a fire. I was in charge of the unit, and while that incident didn’t affect me, it was the smell of the burning flesh that triggered me because of a past experience I’d had in Iraq in 2006 when one of the British army’s helicopters was shot down. I was cleaning up the body parts afterwards. That turned out to be the trigger point for me.
Eventually, Darren was signed off from the army on medical grounds and was diagnosed with PTSD during a medical board meeting, during which his experiences in Canada and Iraq were found to be the likely cause of his diagnosis.
Andy Cottom explained how different experiences can go on to affect people differently. He said, ‘Two people can go through exactly the same experience and one will be traumatised, the other not. The experience that causes the individual to be traumatised is often just the final straw. PTSD is a diagnosis given as a medical label to those who show a similar, uniform, set of symptoms of having been traumatised.’
After leaving the army, Darren said he went through a particularly hard time during 2018 and ‘just wanted to end it’, but fortunately managed to ‘turn it around overnight’ and has been doing better ever since.
While his mental health has improved, the father-of-two said he can still smell the burning flesh when he talks about his PTSD.
Speaking about the support he received after being signed off, Darren said, ‘The military were alright. I was treated for six months after I left for a mental injury. That was 2017, and the transition to the military, where people understand you, to the civilian sector was horrendous. I went and spoke to a young girl in the NHS who was probably brand new out of training, and I was offloading about dead bodies and bombs and such. She was a bit overwhelmed by it. That’s when I reached out to Help for Heroes. They took me in and looked after me really.’
Darren got in touch with Help for Heroes‘ Hidden Wounds team who he says were ‘phenomenal’, and that he ‘landed lucky’ with the psychologist who has been helping him. It was his psychologist who encouraged him to write a book on his experiences, something he’s found beneficial as he’s been able to write his experiences down.
Continuing to sing Help for Heroes’ praises, Darren told UNILAD:
You become part of a brotherhood that you miss from being in the army – it’s called the Band of Brothers. When people leave the military, you miss who you were with and just get together and chat. With the Band of Brothers, we go out for dinner together and then we bring all the families. My wife has just been on a Band of Sisters weekend where they get taught about PTSD and things. They all chat together about their husbands.
In addition to the support he received from the military and Help For Heroes, he said that ringing a friend who was in the army with him is one of his ‘biggest therapies’.
Andy Cottom echoed Darren’s sentiments and encouraged those with PTSD to speak about it. He told UNILAD, ‘My advice is to talk about it – not only with those you fought alongside, but also try to help your loved ones understand what it feels like. And, of course, if it feels that there really is no one, then there are professional counsellors and psychotherapists who specialise in trauma, even those who specialise in the trauma of war.’
‘Communication can help someone suffering with the symptoms of PTSD tell their own individual story and create some narrative and order out of the chaos of what has happened to them,’ he added.
Another coping mechanism Darren uses is by setting himself huge physical challenges in a bid to raise money for worthy causes. Just weeks ago, the 35-year-old ran five marathons in 50 hours while carrying his kit bag on his back, raising thousands of pounds in the process. He’s currently trying to raise £1 million for a young girl who needs life-saving surgery, and (at the time of writing) has already raised more than £26,500.
Talking about how these challenges and keeping active helps him cope, Darren said, ‘I’ve been prescribed drugs by the doctors, and even gone through physical surgeries and stuff. But I just try to do the ‘mind over matter’ thing – it’s all in your head, and that’s what’s going to tell me if I’m in pain or not. Also, we aren’t all the same. Me feeling the exact same way as someone else will require different treatment. I always like to say if you’re training someone for a physical goal, their training programmes and diets are going to look different to another person’s. Unfortunately, doctors give out medications far too easily and I don’t like that. I didn’t like the side effects.’
‘The doctor said to me that if they could prescribe fitness that they would, because of the hormones it releases naturally in the body. Even if I’m really tired one day from training, I’ll just go for a walk, and that helps me,’ he added.
If you’ve been affected by any of the issues in this story, you can speak in confidence about where to get help from Mind free on 0300 123 3393, 9am–6pm Monday to Friday.
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