he hardest battle: my fight to defeat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
In 2008, Mark Evans witness the horrors of war in Afghanistan, which left him suffering from PTSD. Here he describes his long road to recovery
As the wiry IRA man leant over to hold a spatula of lavender oil to my nose, he joked how only a few years ago he’d have been offering me a far more “permanent” solution to my insomnia.
It was 2010, I was 32 and a serving officer in the Coldstream Guards. Two weeks before, I had been working at my desk in Aldershot, but now I was in The Priory, taking aromatherapy classes with Michael, another ‘soldier’ who was finding life hard.
My life had taken a strange turn, but on reflection it was obvious what had happened.
Mark Evans in Afghanistan
In 2008 I had been in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, fighting the Taliban. I had seen my share of horror and violence and on my return I had developed PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). I was broken and needed mending. I needed therapy.
PTSD and war walk hand in hand. Stress is a natural product of danger. We survive by becoming hyper-vigilant, hyper-aware, ready for action. But once danger passes stress subsides – it might take time but it does. Unless you have PTSD, that is, when it builds up and up until it bursts.
PTSD can be treated, however, as I can testify. For me, that process started with talking, or “opening up”. I vividly remember confessing all to an army doctor. The appointment wasn’t voluntary and as I broke down, overwhelmed by relief and fear, I also felt ashamed that I needed help. I was a soldier, strong and brave, with no idea that my reluctance to seek help was one of the common problems facing military personnel returning from war.
Psychotherapy (talking therapy) came first. If a problem shared is a problem halved, then sharing with a trained professional should be even more effective. But it relies on establishing a one-to-one relationship and that doesn’t always happen. The first therapist I saw was an army psychiatric nurse who I couldn’t open up to at all. I saw him as part of the problem, not the solution.
Next was Christina who had no idea about the military and we found some success because I felt she wouldn’t judge me. Finally, I needed Andy, who had seen war himself, to find resolution, four years after I’d started talking.
CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) was also applied. The use of more than one technique is commonplace, which says as much about there not being an elixir as it does about the complexity of the condition. CBT teaches plans and techniques to alter harmful ingrained behaviour – you see the cookie jar but you choose to put your hand back in your pocket.
It has some very good results but requires a base level of willingness to change. As much as I wanted to get better, I had become attached to my PTSD and Afghan memories. They defined me and had perversely become my norm. I was experiencing a phenomenon often associated with battered person syndrome. I was finding comfort and stability in my damaging mental state.
“Alternative”, non- scientific approaches, when used, tend to be in conjunction with “traditional” western methods. Aromatherapy isn’t a cure on its own, but does help support change – lavender oil, for instance, did help me sleep. It also helps explain the important phenomena known as triggers – the sights, sounds and smells that are part of normal life but which remind us of our past and can send us back in time in an instant.
Mark Evans today
Loud bangs reminded me of mortars or gunfire and the smell of bitumen reminded me of being blown up by a landmine. Walking past building sites or roadworks, I relived that traumatic experience so vividly it would become a traumatic experience in itself.
EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) finally solved that problem for me. A form of hypnosis, it helps reroute your memories. Instead of thinking bad thoughts you think good ones in their place. It sounds incredible, and is, but it took me almost two years to agree to try it because I was afraid of being “brainwashed”. I tried it once and immediately wanted more. I still had PTSD, but one of the layers had been removed.
Drama therapy was another. It works by “doing not thinking” and encourages you to experience emotions in a safe environment, then let them go. With PTSD you hold onto your emotions (anger, guilt, fear) and get caught up in them 24/7. Living like that day after day is terrifying and unbearably painful and why so many sufferers reach for alcohol, drugs, even suicide – anything to escape. Therapy of any kind is often too hard to come to.
Yoga and mediation now form part of my daily routine. I enjoy yoga as a physical exercise, but it is meditation that has really been life-changing. It’s not all sitting crossed legged. Staring at a wall and concentrating on a simple task can keep the mind calm by stopping it going off on tangents, such as thinking about people dying in Afghanistan.
These days I work for Operation Nightingale, an MoD backed project that take soldiers with PTSD on archaeological excavations. Digging in the dirt with a trowel can be mediative and an incredibly successful aid to recovery.
And lets not forget medication. I do yoga, but I also take pills daily. Not as a crutch or a cop-out, but as an important part of the mix that has got me to where I am today.
So PTSD can be fixed, but each case is different and requires individual treatment. What works for one might not for another and what works one day might not a week later. Not every therapy is readily available – there might not be a local practitioner or it might be too expensive.
Of course, you have to spot PTSD in the first place. It took 18 months and acts of self-harm before people finally noticed I was ill. I remember feeling ‘different’, but I couldn’t do anything about it by myself. PTSD, like many other mental health illnesses, is insular and introspective and for the sufferers it quickly becomes their “normal”. You need help to get out. But all too often no one knows what to do, until it is too late.