I was a Lieutenant Colonel (New Zealand Defence Force) and Deputy Director of Intelligence for Combined Force Command – Afghanistan in 2004. I was first diagnosed with PTSD in 2006 after a tour to Afghanistan. I tried to cope with it myself and with little help, as there was not much around. This all fell apart in Feb/Mar 2012 with 2 suicide attempts.
When I returned from overseas I was still on a high and running on red alert, adrenalin and everything was a life and death decision and had to be made quickly. Therefore, decisions were made on the run at times with only the information on hand and in hindsight it would have been better to have waited and made more informed decisions about my life and future. I made the decision to leave the Army early after my return and this was based on what I thought was best for me and not for the Army. As I had just come back from a very high profile position and been at the cutting edge of operational and strategic intelligence I wanted to move straight away into a similar role back home. However, the army had different plans and that was to move me out of my specialist role to one that I saw as wasting my experience and talents. So I decided to change jobs and find something else as I felt undervalued which became the start of my downhill slide. I didn’t have the opportunity to discuss my feelings with anyone and was probably not willing to as I saw this as a weakness and had to get out on the top of my game. This attitude I found quite common among military personnel as we are unwilling to put our hands up to say we are having problems as we are then perceived ‘not up to it ‘ and that it may have a detrimental effect on our career. This was/is more prevalent amongst senior personnel, especially officers.
I was angry at the Army and at the world as I felt that I had been hard done by and undervalued. I was also unable to see into the future as I had been operating in the ‘here and now’ for so long, at such a high intensity rate and making decisions that were valued and acted upon. Some of these decisions have disastrous outcomes when you can’t have all the information at hand and you can’t control the situation on the ground. The loss of life started to play heavily on me and I started to relive those decisions and outcomes to see if I or anyone else could have done things differently – ‘what did I miss’? Looking back I really punished myself for those very rare events that went wrong and didn’t pat myself on the back for all the good things I had achieved. Even when I was made a Member of New Zealand Order of Merit MNZM, in the 2005 Queens New Years Honours list, it was like a bit of a hollow victory as I still felt that I had let people down and some individuals had lost their lives. This conflict within me was between my own sense of competence as an Officer and my sense of denigration of myself regarding the harm of others. Intensive flashbacks became strong and were associated with traumatic events particularly the ones in which the death of others occurred. These became highly disruptive in my life and remain as disruptive nightmares today. I know that in war people get killed and sometimes there is what we call collateral damage but this still seems to challenge me both ethically and morally. I have come to accept that I was not in complete control of a situation and that you may not have all of the information to make decisions, however, you need to rely on others that they are doing their best.
Also on my return from Afghanistan I found myself really irritable and quickly lost my temper about stupid things especially around my family. I wanted to regain the household decision making straight away and found myself arguing with my wife about everything especially our finances. I had served overseas, I had earned the money and I was going to make the decisions on the finances. My relationship with my kids was volatile especially my eldest son, who could do no right, when all he was doing was just being a teenager. I still regret this today but now we are starting to rebuild this bond. He has been so supportive of my recovery and even though he is a young man he still tells me he loves his dad and is very proud of me.
My youngest son was removed from my emotions and anger, but his love for his dad never faltered and hasn’t to this day. He too is also very supportive of me and my recovery. Both my sons are now young men with bright futures and their heads in the right space.
My daughter has been the one that has been through this hell with me and fortunately has been able to come out the other end a most wonderful and beautiful young lady, this is in no small miracle as it was my wife that ensured that she was grounded all the time and was protected from me and my actions and moods.
My wife, where do I start. “MY ROCK”. I have put her through hell over these last years since Afghanistan – and yet she has stuck by me. When I returned from Afghanistan I did everything the Army told me not to do as I was still in the controlling mood and wanted to take over the running of the household and everything. Even though I didn’t really know what I was doing. This caused a terrible amount of friction at home and led to many arguments and me getting angry at everything and her getting upset and not knowing what to do. My wife went into protection mode for herself and the kids and kept things running as normal as possible. I started to feel that I was a boarder in my own home and became resentful with what I felt was a total loss of control. (I know now that this was not the case – she was protecting the family from a very unpredictable me)
It was at this early stage that I started to really take refuge away from home and I moved to a new job that I thought then was an advancement and real challenge, a new beginning. This captured my energy full on at first and then soon become boring and mundane and I found it hard to remain interested and engaged. Some parts of the job I liked and those were the interaction with people when I was in control such as using my knowledge or presenting at conferences etc. The day to day stuff became mundane. As I got bored and my concentration waned I then turned to going and having a drink to fill my day; take my mind off work and home; dreams about big ventures I might do in the future etc. The typical avoidance strategy. I soon become wrapped up in this fake world. I soon found myself looking for a new challenge in life with work and moved to a new and what I thought was a more exciting world of consulting with a major worldwide consulting firm. The prospects of travel, money and moving around the world etc were the draw card and not the hard work that was to go with it. This led to me travelling a lot and I liked the idea of not being at home as it meant that I could avoid all the things that go with having a family life such as day to day responsibilities (these I never really had anyway) dealing with kids and my relationship with my wife. During this period I was living the life of a single man with no cares in the world and not facing any responsibilities that go with day to day living. The cycle of avoidance started all over again only this time worse than before. I knew I was really underperforming at work and was being noticed. This led to me quitting before I was pushed and blemishing my record.
My wife took me back in after I had fallen again into that black hole and we started again (god knows why she did but I will always be forever grateful). I started a new job which again was high profile and involved innovation and major business process restructuring. I started this with gusto and drive and was going to change the organisation. I soon found out that I could come up with all the bright ideas and ways to improve business but was reliant on others to approve and make the change happen. The bureaucracy and red tape frustrated me to the point of losing my temper at work with individuals and senior management and I perceived that they couldn’t see the wood for the trees! I knew what needed to be done but these “idiots” who called themselves the Executive couldn’t. Once again I turned to my long time friend and savior “avoidance” and the tool I used for this again was drinking and minimising my time at home and involvement with my family. I once again became the distant husband, father, son, brother and son in law. This contract came to an end and not soon enough.
Fortunately I had met a senior colleague from the Defence Force and he asked me if I was willing to return to the service, this time with the Air Force to do some major strategic work. This seemed like a godsend as it was in a very familiar environment in which I felt comfortable. I thought that I would be able to make changes and decisions that would make a change and people would value my contribution. This proved to be very true at first, however, as I moved onto other restructuring work and organisational change within the wider Defence Force things started to go downhill again and the frustration surfaced once more. And once more I sought comfort in my avoidance strategy. This was to keep me preoccupied and work and family again become secondary to my new and what I thought to be exciting life. This was so untrue; in reality as my family, friends and acquaintances could see the lie I was living and no matter how much people told me I needed to ‘straighten myself out’ or ‘harden up’ I just spiralled out of control.
Eventually this all came out in the open due to my stupidness and may have possibly been an early cry for help, but the ‘demon’ had me and wouldn’t let go, I saw that there was no way out and no matter what people told me I became unmanageable. I soon attempted to take my life and ended up in hospital under care, but discharged myself as I thought I had reached rock bottom and could solve this! How untrue this became as very quickly I spiralled down into the depths of depression and avoidance and all those things associated with PTSD and once again tried to take my life, this time very nearly succeeding, albeit my wife coming home early and the quick work of paramedics and hospital staff. This time I was kept in hospital for a week and made to dry out and rid my body of all the drugs I had taken. A week I will never forget!
I remember my wife and my daughter coming to visit me in hospital once I had gained some sort of consciousness and the look in their eyes was my turning point in getting my life back on track. This was the first glimpse of that light at the end of a very dark tunnel – this light has never dimmed since and is now my sun that makes every day a move forward on my journey to a happier fulfilling life.
Since my road to hell has taken a U- turn for the better I have engaged on a journey to wellness that is supported by things I do myself, strength I draw on from family and friends, support from professional people and the belief in myself. Life is too short and precious and there is so much of life yet to experience. One thing I have had to get used to is that some people don’t know how to approach you, some may even avoid you, this I put down to those who may be ignorant of the illness. I like it to an individual’s attitude towards someone who has lost a relative or close friend; they avoid you because they don’t know what to say.
I saw a Psychiatrist who helped me to unravel the dark side of my thoughts and experiences, some of which I had not thought of since my tour as they were locked away in my subconscious. This was the first step to recovery – identify the issues, thoughts and emotions that led to my illness. While it may not be for me long term, other services that provided initial assistance were Alcohol and Drug (A&D) counselling and Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). Once this was done I committed myself to stop drinking and smoking and to getting physically fit. This has continued to this day and I can’t underestimate that a major key to getting well is ensuring you are in a great physical space. I am the fittest I have been for over a decade and get out of bed looking for that exercise fix because I know that I will get that endorphin rush that will set me up for the rest of the day. I feel ready to tackle whatever life is going to throw at me that day. Don’t get me wrong some days are still really hard, however, without being physically well I couldn’t cope. I see a Psychologist often whom is an expert in the field of PTSD and we have developed a plan that works through all the issues. More importantly I am developing the identification of triggers that set off certain behaviours and come up with alternative reactions. This is hard work and there is no easy solution. I am also on medication for depression and meds to help me sleep and minimise the nightmares. This is ok with me as I know that this will not be forever but is part of the overall plan in my journey to wellness.
These actions I have mentioned are ones that I am in control of, however, I can’t underestimate the importance of support and understanding from family, friends and acquaintances. All these people are a very important part of my plan to wellness and are never to be underestimated or dismissed as the success of this journey is the sum of all the things I have mentioned!
Where to now? I am committed to getting better and regaining all the good things I had in my life before. I am also a realist and know that this journey is not easy (it does get easier as time progresses) and have my worries and doubts as anybody does in life. My biggest hurdle is getting back to work and providing for my family. Life since Afghanistan became a frantic rush as events were always assessed as being on ‘life and death’ terms. This rush has been a problem since my return from Afghanistan and remains a focus of my treatment. Therefore my focus now is to not risk prematurely rushing into a job before I am emotionally well stabilised and my symptoms well controlled. Stopping and ‘smelling the roses’ before I move on is an ongoing work in progress. Evaluation of ‘how urgent is it’ with regard to all decisions, big or small, is a major focus for me. I am now well on the road to recovery.
I also worried about actually writing my story and how it is perceived, will someone still want to employ me since I have had this illness etc. But on the other hand this illness is like no other one. It just is not so obvious as cancer, a broken leg, a sore back or any other number of illnesses. You can get better and beat this, however, not all the symptoms may go away; you will just have a solid way of coping with them. Going through this illness, you will actually grow as a person and be a better and more productive individual. I believe that by experiencing PTSD it has and will make me a stronger person, a more effective leader and able to tackle whatever life’s challenges are thrown at me – all I have to do is find an employer that will have the faith and willingness to see the potential! This is my belief and is why I have chosen to write “Bill’s Story”.
|If by telling ‘Bill’s Story’ and establishing this resource helps at least one person from losing their life or keeps a family together then it has been worth it!
Confucius tells us not just that we should let ourselves pick things up or let them down, but that we also should do everything we can to give help to those who need it. This is what we mean by ‘If you give a rose, the scent will remain on your hands’: giving can bring more happiness than receiving.
I will continue to write my story and I am intending to write a book of my experiences through this journey to wellness.