So many of our greatest successes start from a dark place
Watching a TV program about 1995, I realized that year held some of the darkest moments of my life. I was not long out of the army, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and full of the doubt that accompanies a soldier heading into civilian life.
Look After The Basics.
In my early years, I was a happy and gentle child. It was a time largely punctuated by the family holidays which we spent at a caravan site on the southwest coast of Scotland. Among the rocks of the rugged coastline, I found a love of nature and the outdoors and nurtured an ever-increasing sense of adventure.
I left school in 1983 and, after a brief spell of casual work as a laborer, I soon found myself unemployed. Life quickly descended into chaos: I would spend a few days drinking heavily when the unemployment cheque came in, and after the money from that was spent, I would then have to survive with no money and little food until the next cheque came in. I became depressed, stopped looking after myself, and lost all sense of self-esteem.
Looking in the mirror, I was barely able to recognize the carefree adventurer of my childhood. The turning point came for me when I refused to accept the person that I saw in my reflection: bleary-eyed, hungover, and scruffy. I was better than that and I knew it.
In the early 80s, Margaret Thatcher’s government was looking after the police and the army. I joined the army in 1984 at the age of 17. Respect for and looking after ourselves and each other was drummed into us during basic military training. We learned the value of sleep, proper and regular eating, hygiene, and cleanliness.
Where before I held little value in myself or regard for the people around me, just the fact that we were constantly part of a team in Basic Training made me see a value in myself in so much as I was contributing to the team.
The constant physical demands of the training helped us all to realize the value of getting sleep when we could and making sure we were well fed. I hadn’t really cared much about looking after myself before I joined the army but within just a few short months I emerged into an army career as a confident, physically fit, and well-presented young man.
Look For The Light In The Darkness.
I returned to civilian life after 10 years of military service and an 18-month tour of duty in Northern Ireland, at the time in deep political turmoil.
By going there, I had hoped I might be able to have some influence, however small, on helping people find a more tolerant and peaceful way of life. Though physically unharmed I had been destroyed spiritually and mentally by the evil and the violence I had experienced around me and the ways in which I had reacted to it. Of course, the suffering and death, physical injuries, and the adverse mental effects of the conflict such as PTSD were not confined just to the soldiers. Catholic or Protestant, military or civilian, we all suffered the consequences of that conflict.
For 4 years afterward, I was hyper-alert, full of anxiety, and depressed. I drunk heavily often to try and forget. Such a far cry from the carefree child who loved the world around me and completely trusted the people in it.
The turning point at that time was when I decided I was not to let my problems detract from me being the best dad I could be to my three young daughters. The light of that love shone out of the darkness and enabled me to temporarily bury my problems. When they needed it in their young lives, I was able to be the fun guy with all the answers.
Remember Those Who Love You.
As our children grew up, my wife and I started to grow apart. Our marriage had worked because we both wanted to raise a family and we focused on the children. Without them to focus on, we were different people with different dreams.
I soon found myself alone in a new flat coming to terms with the guilt of breaking up our marriage. I felt like my whole life plan had been a failure. Again, I turned to drink and sunk deep into depression. My self-value plummeted.
My daughters understood and accepted why their parents had separated and kept themselves close to both of us. No matter how much I hated myself, the realization that they loved me saved me and helped me to turn my life around once more.
It’s Never Too Late To Get Help.
Twenty-five years after I left the army, I was asked to attend a business meeting in Belfast. This brought on a huge anxiety attack as my memories from the conflict in Northern Ireland came flooding back.
By the time I eventually took time off work and went to see my GP, I was physically and mentally exhausted and deeply depressed. I remember feeling at the time that I wasn’t sure whether I was more afraid of going to sleep at night or waking up in the morning. When I went to bed, I lay awake most of the time worrying about problems I needed to solve at work. I was constantly on edge and often felt physically sick. I was diagnosed with anxiety and depression and put on a prescription of sertraline. Due to the nature of the medication, it increased my sense of anxiety for a few weeks until it settled into my system. Once settled, it certainly took the edge off my anxiety and my sleep improved.
Initially, I was referred to a Psychologist on the NHS for Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) to control my anxiety. After my initial session, however, my psychologist recommended counseling to try and address the root of the problems which were causing my anxiety. Counseling wasn’t easy. Doors in my mind were opened that I’d kept locked for decades. I had to deal with the emotions and guilt that I’d spent my life repressing.
In the end, however, the process helped me to understand and accept emotions and forgive myself for things I had thought and done. I emerged from the process more at peace with myself than I had been for decades.
These are the lessons that I have learned in my journey:
Get counseling as soon as you think you need it. Serving in the military even in peacetime involves a life where danger is commonplace. During armed combat, even if not directly coming under fire, we experience things that affect us deeply yet which no one outside of combat could ever understand. The combination of these factors often leads to complex mental health issues which we simply can’t unravel by ourselves.
You are amazing, somebody cares, and somebody loves you. If you can’t find your own strength to get back up, that’s OK. The strength is there in the hearts of the people who love you and it’s more than enough to get you back on your feet.
Be gentle with yourself and don’t get too caught up in how you came to be down in the first place. The rigors of life knock everyone down at some point. What’s important is picking yourself back up again. So many of our greatest successes start from a dark place.