Resolving the trauma of war
Many ex-servicemen are struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, unaware that they are just a phone call away from treatment that could change their lives. Sheena Grant reports
FORMER soldier Matt Locke is friendly and quietly-spoken. It’s hard to imagine that just a few months ago he was regularly flying into uncontrolled rages if someone so much as looked at him in a way he didn’t like.
That aggression – along with crippling insomnia, depression and suicidal thoughts – threatened his job and most important relationships. For a while he felt as if his life was spiralling out of control.
Matt, 31, was in the Army for seven years, completing two tours of Kosovo between 1999 and 2002 as part of an international peacekeeping force and one of Iraq, a year after the American-led invasion of 2003. It was a grim time. Twenty-two British servicemen were killed in Iraq during 2004, insurgents took over the city of Falluja, there were kidnappings and beheadings of civilian workers and US soldiers were caught abusing prisoners at Abu Ghraib.
But Matt, part of an infantry regiment on frontline duties, was coping. He thought he was OK. It wasn’t until he left the Army in 2007 that he realised he wasn’t. After doing a few civilian jobs around his native Sussex he moved to Suffolk and got a job with a civil engineering company.
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“I’d had problems, ever since I left the Army, with my sleep,” he says. “And my aggression was terrible. I was finding it hard to adjust to not being in the Army. My supervisor at that job was ex-forces and he took me to one side and told me I might have a problem that needed sorting out.”
Matt went to his GP and was given medication for depression, along with the occasional meeting with a psychiatrist.
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In the meantime he was made redundant when the firm he was working for closed down. After doing a few different jobs, and trying to set up his own gardening business, he got a job at Ridgeons, in Halesworth.
“Some of the people who worked there were ex-forces too,” he says. “I was still finding it hard to adjust to life outside the Army, still having sleep issues and aggression. The aggression didn’t happen all the time. It was like a switch that would be flicked. If I thought someone was looking at me funny, for instance, I would storm in there and go into full Army mode. Everyone had to tread on eggshells around me.”
By 2011, problems in his personal life were adding to the pressure he felt and, before long, Matt was on sick-leave from work.
“Life was pretty horrible. It got to the point where I was self-harming – hitting things around me. It affected everyone who came into contact with me – family, friends and work colleagues. It made me think about suicide as well. I got so low that I felt the end would have been a relief.
“The medication I was on was not really helping and I was waiting to hear from a local mental health worker but it was all taking too long,” he says. “Then someone in the human resources department at Ridgeons found out about something called PTSD Resolution and within the space of half a day I was put in touch with someone who could help me.”
That someone was Cliff Emmerson, who has himself served in the armed forces and now runs a counselling practice in Ipswich, based on something called the Human Givens approach, which aims to help clients identify unmet emotional needs and empower them to use their own built-in resources to change the situation.
Cliff and his wife Angela, who together run Ipswich Human Givens, are area co-ordinators for the charity PTSD Resolution, which provides free counselling to UK armed forces veterans affected by mental health problems caused by military service.
Matt, who lives in Beccles, is far from alone in the problems he experienced. Trauma caused by military service can lead to flashbacks, nightmares, anger and depression, as well as violence, alcohol and substance abuse, job loss, family breakdown and even suicide. More than 300 Falklands veterans have committed suicide – a greater number than were killed in the 1982 war itself – 20,000 ex-servicemen are in jail or on probation and one in four homeless people is an armed services veteran.
Resolution says its services plug a gap in mental health provision for veterans. Research suggests most ex-servicemen who approach family doctors for help, as Matt initially did, receive just medication, but not help to deal with the trauma. One study of vulnerable veterans found that only 4% of those seeking treatment had been offered therapeutic help.
However, with PTSD Resolution free, immediate treatment is available to all ex-sevice personnel through a nationwide network of accredited therapists.
At first, Matt found it hard to believe he had post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.
“To me, that was something more associated with people who had served in the first and second world wars,” he says. “Not people like me. But then people would say to me, ‘you’ve experienced conflict and some things no-one ever wants to see’, and that made me think ‘Maybe I have got PTSD’, even though it did not start until I left the Army.
“It was hard coming out of the forces. When you’re in the infantry you don’t have emotions. They train you up to be a machine. You can go to funerals, see others crying and not releasing what you want to release. I don’t regret going into the forces. I just wish there was more help when you come out. I had support from family and friends, but not the Army. You leave and you are on your own.” At their first meeting, in April, Cliff gave Matt some breathing exercises to help him sleep, took some notes and explained to him some basics about why he was feeling as he was.
“As he left he asked me how I was feeling and I said, ‘To be honest, I feel a bit different,’ which was true, even after that first session. I felt as if this could be the thing that helps me. My sleep didn’t improve immediately but the more I did the exercises he had given me the better I felt.”
At first he had counselling sessions weekly and by the third he was ready to return to work part-time. As he improved, the sessions dropped off to once a month and last month he had his final scheduled meeting with Cliff.
“During the counselling there was no raking up the past. Cliff would put me, mentally, on a beach – my beach – and I would go for a walk. Eventually, he would say, such and such has happened and you have been aggressive. Then we would rewind and play it in a different way. It works.
“From where I was six months ago I have come a long way. I am able to control myself more and the way Cliff has made me see things has changed my life. I am happier and friendlier. People can approach me more. I’m more like my old self. I am better at controlling any anger I may have and in time I hope that will go all together.”
Matt has also been able to reduce the dosage of anti-depressants he takes but admits to feeling “let down” by the lack of real help he got from the NHS. “There are going to be more and more young lads coming out of the armed forces with this, and getting the right help shouldn’t be a matter of chance, as it was for me,” he says. “I feel really grateful to Ridgeons, who found out about this for me. They have been incredibly supportive.” Matt is now back full-time at the company, where he is a yard operative and relief driver, and is even completing management courses they have put through. He and his partner, Emma Smith, also plan to marry next year.
“I think if I had not found this treatment I would probably still be waiting around the NHS. I would probably have lost my job and I expect my relationship with Emma would have broken down. I wasn’t easy to live with.”
Emma, who has a three-old-daughter from a previous relationship, agrees. The couple have been together 10 months and Emma admits that she sometimes struggled to understand what Matt was going through.
“He had a short fuse,” she says, “but he never did anything to us. It was more ‘things’ that he took his anger out on. There were some enormous holes in the doors. You were terrified of saying anything that could upset him.”
Since starting the counselling Matt has also improved his diet and taken up more exercise.
“I’ve lost two stone in weight,” he says. “I’ve gone from not doing anything to getting up in the morning and going for a run before work. I’ve learned the importance of eating healthily and drinking enough water – it’s all to do with chemicals in the brain. Everyone around me can notice I’m more focussed and am bursting with energy. My whole outlook to life is completely different.
“I’m more effective at work as well and I hope to work my way up with all the courses they’re putting me through. The sky’s the limit.”
Cliff says Matt’s experience of PTSD is typical of many veterans, whose trauma doesn’t come to the surface until they have left the forces.
“They find it easier to cope in the forces because they have the support of others who understand them and will give them space if they’re a bit withdrawn,” he says. “It’s completely different in civilian life. We have been co-ordinators locally for six to eight months and in that time we have worked with seven or eight families. All have been successful with de-traumatising the trauma they have suffered – often in only three to five sessions.”
Cliff uses a range of techniques in therapy, including guided imagery and rewind, where things are viewed going backwards. “The brain can then reprogramme things as memories and not traumas,” he says.
“On average it takes 13 years for people to come forward to seek treatment for PTSD related to military service, unless they have some sort of crisis. People who are newly traumatised don’t recognise it and take time to figure it out.”
Cliff believes there are many more people locally who could benefit from PTSD Resolution therapy.
“Here in Suffolk we have many people from Anglian regiments and other units – there’s a high proportion of ex-servicemen and doubtless some of them could need this kind of help.”
For more information about PTSD Resolution treatment locally contact Angela or Cliff Emmerson on 01473 727197 or 07793679489, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.ipswich-humangivens.co.uk/. Alternatively, contact PTSD Resolution on 0845 0217873, visit www.ptsdresolution.org or email email@example.com