Complex PTSD: my own experience of treatment

In 2008, I joined the Royal Marines with the intention to fulfil a 22-year career. Unfortunately, after 11 years of service I was medically discharged after being diagnosed with complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

During my career in the armed forces I conducted four tours of Afghanistan and several sensitive overseas operations, which subjected me to life-threatening incidents. This, along with a number of other contributory factors, resulted in the illness I now have to manage on a daily basis. You can read the full article of my experience in Trends in Urology and Men’s Health

My diagnosis had a huge impact on all aspects of my life.  Not only has it stopped me doing a job I loved, I became hyper-vigilant, paranoid and distrustful of others. Sleeping was difficult, with flashbacks becoming a nightly occurrence. I could no longer work for prolonged periods and became tired and ‘burnt out easily’. As a coping mechanism I started to over-train in the gym, causing myself further mechanical injuries.

I found the treatment for complex PTSD intense: for years I had tried to suppress my memories and associated feelings, but treatment brought them to the fore once more. While I understood I needed to go backwards in order to move forwards, my symptoms intensified and during my treatment period I often wondered if it was worth the pain. It often felt like I was at a cross roads: do I invest in myself for the future? Or do I refuse treatment, never to see the potential benefits?

There was no quick fix and no magic wand. Treatment did help, to a certain extent, as it provided me with a different perspective on my experiences; however, due to the limited effectiveness of treatment on my subjective experience I decided to stop eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing despite advice from professionals. Instead, I focussed on the benefits of the outdoors as well as receiving coaching and supervision from ‘Rock to Recovery’, a military charity who provide sessions to help manage stress. 

Many of my colleagues who have had the same treatment have all had different outcomes, some of who are still struggling to come off their medication. Treatment doesn’t work for everyone and I would say it partially worked for me. Equally, having been on the receiving end of modern medicine aimed at treating the symptoms of PTSD with drugs used in conjunction with classic psychiatry, I observed many of my colleagues turned into ‘space cadets’, with limited function and heavy hangovers to shrug off each morning.

After having suffered for so long, I know these problems will be a permanent fixture in my future. However, I have found ways to manage my condition by working in the outdoors. I now teach bushcraft and have a successful company (Hidden Valley Bushcraft) where I spend the majority of my time teaching others in a woodland environment. This has proven to be a life-changing experience for me. I am now at the mercy of the seasons and must respect them in order to get the best results out of managing the wood. Spending the night or several nights in a woodland environment throughout the seasons also brings its own personal challenges.

In my opinion, humans have not evolved past our eyes being designed to take in fire or daylight as our main sources of light. Nor have our brains evolved to be hyper stimulated by artificial blue light produced by phone and television screens, working long past our daylight hours. This, in turn, effects our melatonin levels, usually regulated by the body, causing further sleep issues. Without sleep or the ability to switch off, the brain cannot process the visual data, sounds and experiences of each day. Although not an ideal situation in anyone, it is only exacerbated when the end user has dipped into their limbic system during a fight or flight traumatic experience.

Sharing my experiences and telling stories around the campfire has also been an extremely effective form of therapy, as it is less confrontational than sitting in a small room facing a stranger with a pack of tissues on standby. Concentrating on other tasks means I also often forget my reservations about expressing my feelings. Likewise, engaging in some kind of manual task while talking through my experiences works equally well.

As each working day of the week ends, I would encourage people to go for a five-minute walk around the local area, collecting small twigs or any other dead wood and piling it up by the back door. At the end of the week, have yourself a small fire wherever suitable and use it to represent the stress of the week. By watching it burn you visibly see your stress dissolve, leaving you stress free, lighter for the week end ahead.

Readers can access useful advice on the management of complex PTSD from the UK Psychological Trauma Society website (www.ukpts.co.uk/guidance.html), or the Royal College of Psychiatrists website (www.rcpsych.ac.uk/mental-health/problems-disorders/post-traumatic-stress-disorder).

Click here to also access a personal poem about my experience of complex PTSD. 

What are your thoughts? What are your professional experiences about the treatment options for post-traumatic stress disorder? 

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