When the stress of a new posting compounded a lack of post operational tour leave, Capt Justin Taylor found his mental health faltering. In this candid piece, the officer relives his darkest days and explains how he found light at the end of the tunnel…
IT IS three o’clock in the morning and I have just sent the most difficult email of my Army career. Sitting in the dark in my quarter in a far flung location feeling as low as I ever have in 26 years of service.
Tears streaming down my face, I look up to see my wife looking confused. In our 20 years together she has never seen me like this. She is worried and wants to know what’s going on. I show her the email I have just sent to the Senior Medical Officer (SMO) titled “Please help me”.
I think there is something wrong with me. I seem to have developed a range of symptoms since arriving here after relocating in short order following my return from Afghanistan, I wrote.
I have an overwhelming sense of impending doom.
I am constantly anxious.
I am constantly on the verge of emotion.
I have developed a whole body twitch/spasm most prevalent when in bed.
I am drinking more alcohol than I should.
I keep having a racing heart and shortness of breath, almost anxiety attacks.
I have physical pain in my back and chest.
I am not sleeping well.
I am having a somewhat disproportionate reaction to every day occurrences.
Routine work tasks that I have completed many times before now fill me with dread.
I am having difficulty retaining thoughts and constantly lose the thread of a thought process.
I am increasingly anxious about going outside.
I am feeling increasingly frightened, I just don’t know what of or why I am frightened of it.
As she looks back at me, the tears well from her eyes. She hugs me for a long time. We will talk about it eventually, but for now knowing that I have her support and understanding is the most important thing in the world to me. Without it I could have very easily got lost never to recover.
Three months earlier I was on a beach in Cyprus with my mates. We had just completed an eight-month operational tour of Afghanistan. It was fast and furious and marked the crossing of the 760 days I’ve spent in theatre over the last nine years.
I can’t say I was disappointed at being stranded on a beach as the RAF were doing their best to get us home. I knew what was waiting for me. I don’t mean my supportive and understanding wife who had spent many days, nights, birthdays, Christmases and anniversaries on her own, but moreso the quick turnaround from finishing an operational tour and relocating to another continent. A posting that should have been the reward for services rendered.
In the 20 days from landing at Brize Norton to embarking on our next adventure, we had countless things to do. Clear from last unit, clean and hand back quarter, sell car, sort out utilities, pack and send freight and storage, visit friends and family and visit new boss for pre-deployment chat. At no point was there time for Post Operational Tour Leave (POTL).
A lack of leave
I have learnt that, occasionally, the needs of the Service have greater priority than those of the individual. With this in mind, I made the trip for an interview with my future second Reporting Officer.
I wanted to understand whether my relocation was required so soon after returning from such a high tempo of operations.
Five hours later, I slogged back with my head patted and my chin elevated. I was to take over the role as planned, allowing my predecessor some well-earned leave and giving me some time off after taking over.
I was slightly disappointed and a little wounded that my concerns regarding POTL and time to reset after operations had not been considered.
As a strapping six footer and a man of moral fibre, I could not have envisaged how it would bring about the darkest time in my life.
The four weeks leave I did get was spent nipping in to keep the work flow manageable. Coupled with relocating, delays of our freight and not sleeping for the first month, my wife and I finally settled in to an appropriate SFA two days after I officially started work. I was more stressed than when I finished the operational tour seven weeks earlier! It was not the start that we had expected.
On the morning of 21 October, I sat facing the SMO. My body wracked with physical spasms, I felt like I was in a dark tunnel from which there was no chance of escape.
I did not know whether I had something physically wrong that was affecting my mental state or whether I was losing the plot.
The SMO identified the symptoms of stress, anxiety and clinical depression which did little to lift my mood. I felt embarrassed; I thought I had let everybody down and couldn’t see a way out.
The SMO started me on a course of anti-anxiety beta blockers and anti-depressants. He also scheduled an emergency appointment with the Department for Community Mental Health (DCMH) at RAF Marham.
I felt lost, totally withdrawn and my previously unfaltering confidence had abandoned me when I needed it most.
My medical flight was arranged by the MOD, but because I wanted my wife to accompany me and she was not entitled to travel at public expense, we had to use one of our Get You Home (Overseas) flights. Similarly the MOD had arranged for a hire car, but my wife was not allowed to travel in this vehicle so I cancelled it and paid for one myself.It seemed the medical services were bending over backwards to resolve the issue while other aspects of the system were trying to counter their work.
Because we were stationed overseas, my accommodation entitlement was to live in a mess. I was less than enamoured at being alone in a strange mess for ten weeks whilst undergoing treatment, so we enlisted the help of the J1 Cell at RAF Wyton. They offered up the welfare house for the duration of our stay. My wife came with me for my first appointment at DCMH.
I was nervous. I seemed to be getting worse, possibly because I had lost the crutch of working to blank out the negative feelings. I was asked to fill out a proforma that addressed how I was feeling. This acted as a gauge over the next ten weeks and I saw steady signs of improvement.
The initial assessment is supposed to last 30 minutes – I emerged after two hours feeling like I had unloaded the world from my shoulders.
A registered mental health nurse explained that what I was experiencing was almost textbook clinical depression and acute anxiety brought on by operating above my upper stress tolerance level for a prolonged period.
My “fight or flight” response had been switched on and would not switch off. I felt better knowing that I was not the first person in the world to have experienced this and that medical science might be in a position to help.
Over the ensuing weeks I visited DCMH on a number of occasions. It became apparent that I was not fit to return to duty at my current far-flung duty station so we requested SFA at RAF Wyton.
The day we moved in and our furniture was delivered from storage, I finally felt settled enough to relax. I could concentrate on getting better.
As the weeks passed, positive signs began to emerge. The physical symptoms began to subside and had disappeared after about six weeks.
The journey was long and tortuous but with the support of my family, friends, colleagues and people I had never met, I was on the way to recovery.
The process from going to see the SMO to a final assessment at DCMH took 12 weeks. During that time I was placed off work and on medication. My best mate pointed out that ten weeks sick leave was almost the same as nine weeks POTL.
Unfortunately, it had taken my almost catastrophic mental collapse to trigger what should have been the norm. I spent the next two months on a return-to-work programme.
As I write this, I am much better than I was, but still have some way to go. Time away from work and the support of the DCMH team worked a miracle. The most difficult part was asking for help.
I thank everyone who was instrumental in my recovery. My wife who stood by me every step of the way, my boss, my desk officer, the J1 Cell at RAF Wyton, my RAO, my staff, our best friends and the team at the DCMH who had the patience, skills and desire to fix what had become broken.
A sense of humour, a sense of perspective, some honest talk and a lot of love put me well on the road to a successful recovery.
DOES the situation that Captain Taylor describes sound familiar to you? Or have you noticed a change in your spouse or partner’s behaviour or recognised some of these signs mentioned?
If you are still serving and can identify with any of the symptoms described, it’s important to speak to your medical officer. They can assess your mental health and either commence or, if required, refer you for treatment as early as possible.
If you are the spouse or partner of a serving person and are finding it difficult to encourage them to seek medical help, don’t be afraid to talk to your partner’s chain of command, whether this is their medical officer, Unit Welfare Officer or the Army Welfare Service. If you are concerned for your or your spouse’s or family’s safety, you should call the emergency services on 999. Other organisations that can provide you with advice and support are:
The Big White Wall, bigwhitewall.com
An online service offering safe, free, anonymous, early intervention psychological support for veterans, serving personnel and their families with 24-hour access to professional counsellors.
Combat Stress, 0800 138 1619
Operates a 24-hour helpline for veterans and serving personnel and their families who require advice.
Hidden Wounds Help FOR Heroes, 0808 2020 144
A new service designed to help equip you and your loved ones with the tools to manage and overcome the everyday challenges of living with anxiety, depression and stress. It is open to veterans and their families and for families of serving personnel.
Mental Health First Aid, 020 7250 8062
Working in collaboration with Mental Health First Aid England, Combat Stress and The Royal British Legion to deliver mental health first aid training to veterans and the families of veterans and serving personnel throughout the UK.
Time to Change, www.time-to-change.org.uk
An initiative signed by the MOD, which has pledged to end mental health stigma and discrimination.
If you are concerned about your spouse or partner and want more information or advice, please contact AFF’s Health Specialist, Karen Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org