My toughest battle - by ex-soldier Andy

Andrew Murphy had a promising Army career to look forward to. Then came Bosnia. He tells Steven Russell about the hell of post traumatic stress disorder - a silent illness - and his fight to live a normal life

Steven Russell

Andrew Murphy had a promising Army career to look forward to. Then came Bosnia. He tells Steven Russell about the hell of post traumatic stress disorder - a silent illness - and his fight to live a normal life

I'VE asked some insensitive questions during 27 years in journalism - in my defence, the nature of the job means you can't duck them - but this must be one of the crassest. Former soldier Andrew Murphy has been battling post traumatic stress disorder since narrowly escaping death in Bosnia - the pain and torment driving him to the edge of suicide. I have to ask exactly how close he came. “Very,” he says. “At times I would have nightmares where I would have the rope round my neck and I would jump; and as the rope snapped I would sit up in my bed, screaming 'No!' On one occasion I begged my GP to lock me up, as I was driving erratically, very, very fast, at corners, and then breaking at the last minute. I went for a period of time when I would walk right on the very edge of a pavement, hoping that a bus or a lorry would take me under. So . . . yeah . . .

“They're just some of many. I've been on the edge of canals, sat there for hours, debating whether to end it. To be in that frame of mind, where you feel you have no other option, is an incredibly difficult place to be.” His voice is low and measured, and he doesn't break eye contact, even though raking over bad memories must hurt. For someone fighting regular battles with anxiety, exposing your soul to a nosy stranger is not exactly soothing.


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Later, he explains why he never went through with it. “I had a nightmare once, after several close calls, where I dreamt I had succeeded and I was watching my own funeral from above. The image of seeing my wife and children totally inconsolable at my graveside, crying and asking 'Why?' and wanting me back, has stayed with me to this day. Now, however low I get, I always recall these images to bring me back to reality and keep me safe.”

Andy's story - explaining how he came to develop post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the devastating effect it's had on his life and the joy of finally finding some hope among the wreckage - is told in a book he's had published.

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Writing For Queen and Country, Then What? was one of the hardest things he's ever done. Thinking about the moment when an artillery shell landed close by, for instance, triggered an anxiety attack. He had to take a break because the shaking was too great and his rapid heartbeat made him feel sick.

The book was written originally for wife Linda, to explain more of what he's been through. (She's been “the most understanding and caring person anyone could ever hope to have on their side. She has supported me, cared for me, and given me the strength to carry on with life . . .”)

Then Andy decided that because of the self-funded website he's run for seven years and the people he's helped - www.ptsd.org.uk is full of resources and information for service personnel, their families and friends - a book would be a useful addition, even though he realised he'd have to be open and candid, so readers would recognise common factors and think “That's just like me.” Left untreated, the risk is that PTSD can start a spiral of family breakdown, isolation, homelessness and even imprisonment.

He doesn't know if his sons, “two honest, good friends”, have read the copies around the house but is sure the biography would tell them things about dad they don't know. “There's a lot more in the book than we've had detailed conversations about, but I don't think there's anything that's going to be too out-of-the-way for them.”

Iain, coming up for 21, and Anthony, 16, “have seen me very ill, and I expect it's affected them emotionally as well, but we tend not to have in-depth, detailed discussions. They know that I was in Bosnia; they know what happened to me in Bosnia; they know I suffer from PTSD; they know I've been very ill, and they're very supportive”.

The 43-year-old hopes the book will help change attitudes. He says the condition still goes largely unrecognised within society and that too many sufferers have trouble getting the attention they require so desperately.

“They need help, support, compassion and the right to the basic medical and social care available to millions but denied to them . . . PTSD isolates us from society, our friends, and can even make us hate ourselves beyond what any normal person can possibly comprehend.”

He explains: “If I can help just one person from going through the hell I have had to endure, and save one person from a needless suicide, then all the pain I have gone through in creating my website and writing this book will have been worthwhile.”

Raised on Merseyside, Andy had a spell in the Royal Navy. He soon decided it wasn't for him. “Why? I was only 17 and perhaps not ready for the exposure to alcohol, which was readily available, and the 'heavy treatment' that was dished out if you did something wrong. I guess that I was basically too immature for service life then.”

Trouble was, he missed the camaraderie and being part of a larger “family”, so less than six months later he signed on to become a chef in the Army Catering Corps. He matured quickly during basic training, and before he said farewell to the Aldershot barracks he was engaged to Linda!

She was a trainee with the Women's Royal Army Corps. They married in December, 1986. Because the nearest posting Linda could get was the other side of Southampton, she decided to shelve her career so they could be together. The couple's first quarters were a ropy house in Gosport.

The following year was hard for his wife, Andy says, as he was away for more than six of the first eight months.

Time moved on. Iain was born; there was promotion to lance corporal; he was posted to Germany, “which was fantastic”, with the Queen's Dragoon Guards. Promotion to corporal; the arrival of Anthony . . .

Then Bosnia proved a tour too far.

On paper part of a UN peacekeeping force, the army was in reality caught up in a war.

Stationed on a Bosnian airfield at Tuzla, near the Serbian border, they found themselves shelled at about noon each day for a fortnight. The way Andy tells it, the British forces didn't help their own side, either, with rations and catering equipment inadequate.

At Tuzla the chefs had to be inventive with tinned or dehydrated fare, often trading with the Bosnian army to get enough food to feed everyone. At one point they ran out of water. At Vitez, meanwhile, Andy was galled to see how the other half lived: well-equipped kitchens, fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and meat. He felt let down by some of his superiors and admits trying to find solace - and relief from the stress - in alcohol.

Then came the two events that have haunted him for 16 years.

He was being given a lift in a Land Rover when an artillery shell landed about 50 feet away. “I felt the force of the explosion and the rush of the power of its might on my arm that had been resting on the open window, and on my face. It was terrifying.”

He and his colleague ran for the shelter, where they stayed for half-an-hour. “I cannot remember anything of those 30 minutes. Nothing. My life just passed before me. . .”

He'd have been hit, he discovered, if he hadn't got the lift. Andy imagined himself being killed and a telegram being sent to his wife in Germany. “I could see her collapse in hysterical tears, screaming, crying, telling them 'No, they have made a mistake.' I saw my family at my graveside during my funeral. All these images were going around my head. I could not concentrate properly.”

Life continued as normal for a while, though Andy was plagued by recurring nightmares. “I replayed the whole incident, as I have done thousands of times since, second by second, as though I were actually there again: the smells, the sounds, the heat of the blast, the rocking of the Land Rover.”

Then, one night, a mortar landed just before 4am, followed by another. Andy's building shook. He and his colleagues, on the third floor - virtually the attic - rushed for the cellar.

Later, after five days in Germany with his family, he returned to Vitez to a huge fire-fight above the garrison between two warring local factions.

“All I could think about was my wife and kids and how there was no way I was going to die in a foreign country in a war that was not ours and which we had no control over and could not even defend ourselves properly.”

The following day he went to his squadron HQ and gave 12 months' notice. The worst thing, he says, was that no-one asked why he was quitting and sacrificing his great career prospects.

Bosnia had changed him completely and he can see now that he was already suffering from PTSD at that stage. Andy began drinking with a vengeance and alienating friends.

The family left Germany in the spring of 1994. Lin had been raised in Pakenham, near Bury St Edmunds, and the Murphys managed to get public housing at Barningham - a pretty terrible house, he says - a little further out. (They're now in Bury St Edmunds itself.)

Andy got a job as catering manager for a firm running canteens at Ipswich docks - and it later won a contract in Cambridge - but PTSD was “weaving its web of fear and anxiety”. He tried to overcome it by working longer and harder, and pretending all was well, but the mood swings got worse.

“Life became a terrible spiralling existence of depression and self-loathing . . . I started to hate myself because I was upsetting the very people I loved the most in the world . . . I would fly off the handle at absolutely nothing, or just sit in my chair, staring into space in a world of my own. My wife would not know what to say or do.”

One day he had a complete breakdown, curling up in a ball in a corner of the Cambridge kitchen and crying.

“A downward spiral started of two-yearly breakdowns, with me blaming the pressure of (a) job as the reason for the breakdown and then changing the job as a 'solution',” Andy explains.

In the evenings he'd sit on his bed, crying - or, unseeing, in front of the TV. He suffered nightmares, including those vivid ones where it felt as if he were hanging himself,

“Late one night my wife came home from her evening shift and found me crying uncontrollably on our bed. We talked for the first time about how desperate I felt and she managed to get me some help, some real help.”

A lady from the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association knew what Andy didn't: that, like many other ex-military folk, he was suffering from PTSD. She arranged for him to get a war pension, said an organisation called Combat Stress could help, and kept in touch. Andy credits her for saving his life.

Meanwhile, Lin arranged for him to see his GP and Andy was referred to the community mental health team. Money was found for him to have 10 sessions with a specialist who confirmed PTSD - a label that lifted a huge weight off his shoulders, “because I was not mad, just ill”.

Ten sessions just scratched the surface, however. In the months after discharge his mental state deteriorated and he couldn't function properly at work, becoming paranoid and beset by panic attacks. It led to another mental breakdown and being put on long-term incapacity benefit - and turning into “a complete recluse”. In 2000 he lost his job because of illness.

Andy says he did see psychiatrists on the NHS, but they changed frequently and it was hard building relationships with them. Early in 2001, one suggested Combat Stress ought to become the main provider of care.

Andy credits the charity for giving him the support and skills to rediscover who he was and the belief he could rebuild a life that “until their intervention I truly thought would inevitably end in suicide”.

He stayed at a Combat Stress residential treatment centre in Shropshire for one-to-one meetings, group sessions on PTSD, classes in anger and stress management, art therapy, relaxation classes and so on. Anxiety, sleep problems and low self-esteem were also tackled. You realised you weren't alone, says Andy, and that was a major step.

After a few visits he began to relax and learned to trust people, as well as starting to understand the illness and how it affected him. Since then, it's been a long haul. He feels one never truly recovers - “just learn to live with it and manage an acceptable quality of life that can bring you happiness and contentment interwoven with pain, anguish and suffering of regular flashbacks and reminders of just why you are who you are”.

Andy tells eaman: “It does peak and trough. I've found the last three or four months very difficult, probably knowing it (the book) was going to be published and the final editing. It's bringing everything back, straight into my face.”

A long pause. “I work at it. I work very hard at trying to keep myself strong, for my family. It's hard; it's hard all the time. I'm not going to lie. Every day has its different challenges. I suffer very badly from anxiety. Some things most people will take in their stride, I will find extremely hard.

“I do take meds; finally, after many years, I've managed to work with a psychiatrist and we've got the right balance, so I can now have a good quality of life as well as controlling all my problems.”

One difficulty was a tendency to over-analyse things and see only the negative. Happily, work with a psychologist has developed strategies to combat unhelpful ways of thinking and reduce anxiety. “That was a huge, huge step forward for me.”

There's further positive news, with Andy retraining in IT and working in the NHS since 2002. Some very good line managers have helped him, understood, and given the support he needed. “Without that, I would be back to the same cycles as previously. They've allowed me time to go to Combat Stress; they've allowed me time to see a psychiatrist and a psychologist.”

Running his website has also helped Andy deal with issues from the past.

Judging by the inquiries he's had, and what he knows about PTSD, he's 100% sure there are many more sufferers out there than any official statistics would suggest. Over the years, he argues, there's been an unwillingness by successive governments and the Ministry of Defence to recognise the existence of the disorder - not helped by the forces' traditional macho climate and its reluctance to acknowledge vulnerability.

He says that when personnel have left the military, duty of care has passed to the NHS, which in too many cases didn't have the experience to treat sufferers of PTSD.

Andy can only see the incidence rising, bearing in mind UK military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he says it sometimes takes a long time for symptoms to emerge following the end of active service: five years perhaps, or even 10.

Generals might tell us PTSD is being addressed within regiments, but he's not convinced any changes are working well enough, judging by the stories of those who contact him.

On the plus side, in 2003 he was invited to join a group drawing up NHS guidelines on the care of sufferers. He says treatment then was geographically patchy - something of a postcode lottery - “and this still is the case today even after the launch of the guidelines. However, I believe the guidelines are a starting point from where everyone can start to build a better mental health system”.

What would he change if handed a magic wand?

“I think better education for medical people within the NHS to identify and to treat. I think better access to treatment. And a cultural change within the armed forces: a better understanding within the MoD that PTSD is a consequence of war.

“The fact you're killing people, or seeing your friends die, or you are coming under direct attack . . . you can do all the training in the world, but you still can't prepare to really understand what it is to come under attack from somebody else. I'd like the MoD to understand it is going to happen, and then have processes in place to help people who are suffering.”

His book contains a powerful plea along those lines:

“Please, if you are one of those special people who have the power to change things for the better and are reading this, help now before another precious life is lost needlessly.”

A normal reaction to an abnormal situation

For Queen and Country, Then What? is �12. It's available from www.amazon.co.uk

Forty per cent of any money Andy Murphy makes from sales will go to Combat Stress, the charity that helped him rebuild his life

His website is www.ptsd.org.uk

Andy finds it helpful to remember, and to explain to people, that post traumatic stress disorder is “a natural emotional reaction to a deeply shocking and disturbing experience. It is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation”

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