My mind was made up by the age of 8, I was going to to be a soldier. So when I left school at 16, I headed straight to Folkestone to train with the junior leaders and I absolutely loved it. I was getting a wage, living away from home, becoming super fit and meeting new lads from all over the country. I never once felt homesick, I was in my element. I finished my training and joined the Royal Regiment of Fusiliers, a frontline infantry regiment.
When I turned 18, I was posted to Northern Ireland.
Until then army life had felt like a game we were all playing, but now it hit home that you were in a dangerous place and your life was at risk. It was a big change to go from training camps to walking around the streets holding a rifle whilst bricks and bottles were thrown at you. It made you grow up quick. You looked up to the more experienced lads and thankfully they looked after us, especially with me being one of the little ones. You knew they would lay down their life for you and you soon realised you would do the same for them.
I know it is different now, but back then no-one talked to you about the scenes you might witness or the psychological impact that could have. We were shown a few gory videos and some pretty graphic images but very little else. It didn’t bother me anyway, I was a British army soldier, I felt bulletproof.
That all changed when I was involved in an incident in which a female police officer died. We were first on the scene after an armoured police car had been hit by a mortar bomb. It was utter devastation as we tried to seal off the streets but it was kicking out time in the pubs and we were attacked by the locals. The car was on fire and we just couldn’t get the officers out because it was armoured and the doors were secure. Eventually the fire brigade arrived and managed to cut the doors off but sadly the female officer died later in hospital. A quick debrief was held and then we were back out on the streets. I was 19 at the time and I just couldn’t process it. I didn’t talk about that incident for a long time but I can still see the images in my head now. The only time we ever mentioned it was on the anniversary of her death each year. I felt I should have done a better job. She was a police officer and should have gone back home to her family that night.
I felt I should have done a better job. She was a police officer and should have gone back home to her family that night.
I served for another 10 years after Northern Ireland but I know my military career suffered after that incident. I didn’t realise at the time, but my days as a fighting soldier were probably over as I moved into military communications in Germany for most of my last few years. We had some good times as I got married and my wife joined me out there. It was a big drinking culture in Germany and if you have some underlying mental health issues, alcohol can cause massive consequences. I remember not feeling great a lot of the time but I didn’t understand why. From a young boy I had always been a Jack the lad, a real joker who was up for anything. For the first time though, I was starting to isolate myself, often slipping away from functions whilst everyone else got drunk. At 27 it felt like the right time to leave the military.
Over the next few years, we settled into family and civilian life back in the North East but I was still living in a mental fog. I started drinking as a bit of a release but it soon became excessive. Mostly binge drinking and I was often the one crying in the corner with his pint or slumped unconscious at the bar.
It was at that time that I got back into my running.
It was mainly to keep in trim as I was putting on weight through all the drinking. The impact of running shocked me – as soon as I started a little run I felt so much better. I couldn’t understand how doing something physical was making me feel so different, it didn’t cross my mind that I might have underlying mental health issues. It became an addiction as I was running every single day; on roads or up in the hills, always on my own and sometimes for as long as four hours.
But by now the drinking and the running was causing resentment in my marriage as family life started to unravel. We had twin boys who were born premature so I was trying to fit in long runs, hospital visits, work and supporting my wife. It felt like a car crash waiting to happen as my mental health deteriorated. It got to the stage where I would come home and get upset by any noises. The sound of a child’s toy dropping on laminate floor sounded like an explosion going off. It transported me back to those experiences in Northern Ireland. I started believing I was being followed everywhere and was convinced something bad was going to happen to me. I couldn’t sit in a room with my back to a door, I had to scan all the exits and be ready for anything to happen.
Probably the most painful part of this whole experience was losing emotional connection with my children. These kids looking up at their Dad but I just couldn’t feel any love towards them. If one of them put their arm round me, it felt ice cold. My brain was going at 100mph so I wouldn’t play with them or even read them a bedtime story. I was in a flight or fight situation. People tried to talk to me but I had this negative force field around me. I would say nasty things to people, not to insult them, just to get them to back off and leave me alone. Even family members and the people I loved.
Over the course of the next four months both my parents sadly passed away. That took me over the edge as I could no longer see see the point of being alive. I’d lost all emotional connection with my kids, my marriage was over, I’d driven away all my friends and now I’d lost my mum and dad. I started drinking heavily and suicidal thoughts came regularly. On three separate incidents I came close to taking my own life, but each time there was a little glint inside me that said “this shouldn’t be happening”. On the third attempt, I burst into tears and I finally thought “This stops now, this stops right now.”
In the morning I typed all my symptoms into Google.
It immediately pointed me to post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – I’d never heard of it. I found a military charity website featuring a video blog of a veteran explaining his experiences. I couldn’t believe there was someone out there who had experienced all the same symptoms as me. It was a magical moment. I rang the charity the next morning and this lovely woman listened on the phone as I broke down in tears. She told me it would be fine and together we will sort this. Within six days I was seeing a therapist.
I stayed with that therapist for 14 months. He got the sadness, the anger and all the triggers out of me. I would come out of those sessions physically and mentally exhausted. For the first time I had told another human being everything that was inside me. I didn’t drink a drop of alcohol all the way through therapy.
I didn’t want accolades for my running achievements. I wanted to feel like I did when I was a happy, active kid
With the therapy going well, my running started to improve. I was competing again which was a huge boost to my self-esteem. I was still experiencing negative thoughts but I was equipped with tools and techniques to cope and now I craved new running targets to aim for. First it was completing another marathon, then it was breaking the 3 hour marathon barrier. I also combined shorter distances and won a track series for my age category. My life was changing and it was all a huge confidence boost. I didn’t want accolades or people to praise me, I just wanted it for me. I wanted to feel like I did when I was a happy, active kid.
In 2017 a fellow veteran suggested I apply for a place in the Invictus Games.
He explained that there was an open category for athletes like me who had suffered from mental health issues. I never once thought I’d get a place, I just hoped it would be an interesting process, I’d meet a few veterans and perhaps get some free coaching. I was petrified at that first training day in Loughborough but grew in confidence and progressed to the trials at Bath University where I met Prince Harry for the first time.
I was gobsmacked when an email arrived saying I had been selected to represent my country in the 1500m at the 2017 Invictus Games in Toronto. I struggle to put into words how incredible the experience was – it really was life changing. Everywhere you went people wanted to talk to you, I felt like a rock star. I had spent 10 years avoiding attention due to mental illness and my embarrassment of it, now I was telling my story to the media, to the BBC and to all the people that surrounded us wherever we went. This year I was asked to be an Invictus ambassador and in 2020 I hope to be part of the coaching team. As Prince Harry told us “You will always be part of the Invictus family, only you can decide when you want to leave”. Well I don’t ever want to leave that family, it has changed my life and so many others.
My life is so different now.
I am always aware of my emotions and mental health and I recognise when something isn’t quite right. Negative thoughts will pop in and out and there will be bad days, but I turn to the tools I have learned. 99% of the time physical activity will drag me out of it, if not I just have to ride it out. There is always a little voice inside me saying “come on Ian you know you can beat this”.
I understand why people struggle to turn to exercise when they have mental health issues. But even as much as lacing your trainers can trigger a little rush for most people. Perhaps just a little walk and then maybe a tiny little run. You might feel “Oh this is painful, it’s not for me” but when you stop you will be a little intrigued. You only need a tiny bit of that rush. It’s a drug, an addictive drug but a positive one.
With every episode you learn something. You take stock and have a rational thought about what happened. If you can’t work it out yourself, you talk to someone who helps you work it out. By talking, we learn and then we can pass that on to others. That is what humans are supposed to do.
Watching that person’s story on the veteran’s website changed my life. Now I tell my story in the hope that it helps someone else.