RAFairman's Blog

An RAF Airman's Blog

Archive for the category “Life”

Larkin was right…

In the house of the depressives, the happy child is king. Or queen. Or something. It’s a crap misquote, but it’s sadly true. When the grown-ups are both under the cosh of depression and pain and hurt, the ruler of the house is the child who is the happy one. Oblivious to the pain going on inside the adult’s minds, unaware of the fact that what is going on around it ISN’T normal – hell if that’s all you’ve ever known…the madness and the crying and the arguing and the shouts and the over-reaction IS normal.

I feel sorry for my youngest daughter. Imagine growing up in a house where both your parents have depression. What message are we sending to her? What lessons are we teaching her, just ass her brain is soaking up all the messages we are giving out, consciously and subconsciously? When she is learning what and how to be herself and how to develop how she reacts and interacts with people the people who she is learning off are just the ones who shouldn’t be listening too.

And I see her reaction to things we say. I see that she is learning our bad ways. And then I blame her for sending me mental. Oh it’s the wrong way round. I am the one setting her up badly. I am the one to blame for her over-reactions and incorrect responses to things; because of the illness and the general fucked-up-ness of my brain (and god help her, my wife’s too), then my beautiful, clever, smart, fabulous, impressionable, blank slate of a daughter is being fucked-up too.

Philip Larkin was right. They fuck you up, your parents…they fill you with all their faults and add some extra just for you. God knows what the madnesses going round our brains are doing to her. But I feel for her. I feel for the way that she is learning all our mad, crazy, inappropriate responses to things and thinking that they are the right ways to deal with things, to deal with people and to deal with life.

It’s not fair what depression does to you. It’s not fair. It takes away your sense of self, your innate you-ness, and turns you into a uber-you, an alt-you, a you that you don’t even recognise, but you think is the real you when it’s not. And there is nothing you can do about it, until it’s too late…and then…and then you see all your mentalness appearing in the behaviour of one who know’s no difference…And it hurts all the more.

Not only is this fucking illness affecting you…it’s effecting the one person you want to keep it all from. Depression is not fair on the sufferer, but it’s even more unfair on the people who have to live with the sufferer. And it’s worse when that person is someone who doesn’t know, doesn’t understand, that it’s just an illness that is making you tackle the world in the wrong way. And it’s even worse when that person – a child – is thinking that your way is the right way, and is learning your madness as part of it’s sanity.

I’m sorry Lily. I am so sorry, but remember, it’s not your fault. It’s not even my fault. It’s years of misdirection, bad reaction, screwed-up bloody chemical imbalance that has left me this way, and I am sorry that you are growing up thinking that it’s right and normal. It isn’t. It isn’t. When I say I can’t cope with you; when your reaction to my directions and demands are not the ones I want – it’s not your fault. It’s my own. Who have you learnt them off? Me. And I know this. And the thing that makes it worse for me is that it’s not really you I can’t cope with.

It’s me.

A million miles away…

Two years ago, not far from today’s date, this photograph was taken.

Image

I posted it this morning over on Twitter, with the caption ‘This feels like it was a million years ago and a million miles away…’ And it does. At times I look at pictures like this one and don’t even think that it is me. It is a million miles away from where I am right now; both in terms of physical location, and state of mind…

For me it sums up my tour in Afghanistan. In the picture I am hot, sweaty; covered from head to foot in protective gear; helmet, glasses, body armour, blast pants, gloves, boots… carrying my rifle, ammunition, equipment, food, water. I had just completed a patrol from one Check Point to another and we had just come out of a field of corn. Hence my less than happy expression – tired, tired beyond belief. Wondering what the hell I am doing there, why is someone snapping my picture, why had I chosen to come out ‘here’ and do this?

The cornfields out there are a little bit of hell on earth. Sown randomly by hand, they are not the lines and lines of straight seeded stalks we see in the UK. They grow in clumps, they grow in deep mud, they grow densely and tall. They are humid, trapping the hot air, and killing any chance of a breeze. The mud sucks in your feet and saps your energy with each attempt to pull it out of the deep mire that rises above the top of your boots. It seeps into your socks and wets your feet with foul smelling filth and stains your trousers and slowly, through capillary action rises up your legs, like kitchen towel sucking up a spill of water.

Your breath is ragged, you fight your way through tree like stalks of corn that swing in your face from the man in front. You put your head down, spot where your feet are placed, avoiding the roots that tangle you and trip you on each step. You push your rifle out and use it as a virtual snow-plough to furrow a way through the eight foot high plants. You smash it down and out of your way and out of the way of the man behind – if you can – venting your hatred of the bloody stuff, of the bloody country and of the bloody people that put it there and those that made you walk through it.

You have to go through it because, despite the pain and the heat and the discomfort, it’s the safest way to on foot. The random path you take through it can’t be guessed by the enemy and they can’t place IED’s there. There would be no point. You are as safe as you can be in there – from the IEDs – as it is possible to be in that country, but you wonder again and again, with every slog of each step of each leg…is it worth it? Is it worth this pain.

And you then start to wonder is any of it worth it? Is my presence here, in this place that has seen so much war and death and pain, going to make any difference? Am I – or the rest of the people with me – going to make this place better? What have we got that makes us different from the rest? How can I, one man, make a difference to all this? The enemy are fighting for their homeland, for their god, for their families. They don’t want us there. They would happily kill us in any way they could. They follow no rules, they have no code of honour. They don’t differentiate between combatant and non-combatant. They fight their dirty little war in their own way; one moment with a gun, the next with a bomb, the next they drop their weapons and hide amongst the local population and pretend to be farmers… How do you fight that? How do you make a difference to that?

What is the point? They will be there when we are gone. We have the watches, but they have the time. We have dates set for pull outs, for ending the war without actually winning – just transferring the fight to someone else. We might talk of progress and transition and change, but will we have made any difference to this place? Other than prolonging the fight and fuelling the fighters and the hatred.

But then…you finish your patrol and you stand or sit with your comrades and friends. You laugh about what you have just done and what you have just been through. You realise that of all the places there are in the world, none of them are like this. You are doing something that so few people have ever done, or ever will do that you are perversely privileged. And you are doing it with the best bunch of people in the whole world.

You are sharing something that will stay with you forever. They are seeing you at your rawest, where you can’t hide the real you that is deep inside, suppressed by the day to day walls that we build around ourselves. When you are in this place, you don’t have the energy to maintain yourself and the wall, so the wall falls away. They see you, and you see yourself for what you really are…and yet…they say nothing. You say nothing about others. You laugh, you joke, you banter, but you never say the real things…what you have seen people do, how you see people react.

And eventually you leave it. You go home and you try to file it away, order it. Process it. And you think about how you were and what you considered when you were in that place. And you think about the people who died and were injured and you still wonder…what was it all for? Did I make a difference? Did I make the world better?

I helped to build a school.. I helped to build wells and sluice gates and bridges and repair mosques and houses. We provided security – of sorts – but if we were not there would we our security have been required? Were we a self-fulfilling prophecy? Did our presence bring the enemy there to fight us? Did the people want or need us there? Would they not have built schools and wells and bridges eventually anyway?

We will never know. We were there. I was there. I was tired and doubtful and stressed and scared and in the worst place in the world, but I was also alive and sure and happy and safe and in the best place in the world. For all the questions I have in my mind, for all the heartache and doubt that I have for the the future I know, I know, that I loved being there. I would be back there now, just to feel that excitement and adventure and the life coursing through my veins every time I stepped foot outside the Check Point gates. Each time my doubted my very existence each time I struggled with the heat and the conditions and the locals and the terrain, I was at least alive. I was more than existing. I was trying to make a difference, and I am sure that in some way, some how, I did.

It might not have been to the lives of the Afghan people, but it certainly made a difference to me.  I am a very different person to the man who went out there in March 2011.  I am not sure if I am a better man, but I am certainly a different one. 

Some good days, some bad days…

Days matter. Monday everyone is down and miserable the weekend has finished and the long week ahead – the drudgery of work stretches out before us, Friday the world is happy and the promise of the weekend is there tempting us on into it.

Some days we are glad to be alive; some days we dread.  But when you have depression, you face day after day of gloom and misery. And then you move on.  You get your meds sorted and maybe you get therapy or treatment of some sort and you start the long road to recovery.  

This is where I am at the moment.  It’s been a while since I have written about my depression, but today I feel the need to.  I have suffered from it for over a year now.  Been on the tablets for certainly a year and have had CBT (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy) and Talking Therapy and all sorts…and I certainly feel that I am on the road to recovery.

I am getting back to being more one with myself. More relaxed with myself – on myself.  I am learning to let go a bit more, be a bit less uptight and be a bit more easy going.  It doesn’t matter if the washing up isn’t done, or the ironing isn’t done.  That sort of stuff doesn’t matter.

And I am having more good days; more easy days. More happy days.  Which must be a real bugger to read – here I am, semi-retired BY CHOICE at the ripe age of 43, working part-time, living in a rural idyl, with beautiful scenery around me, my loving family, a fabulous new home which we are starting to refurbish…I have it all. I can walk the dog down to the pub and have a pint and chat to the old men of the village and take life relatively easy.

But I still have down days.  And the real bastard is that when I do have them they are deeper and mistier than ever before.  On a graph of mood over time, it is generally rising as time goes on – but when I fall, I fall a long way.  

Things have moved on a long way though.  They had too.  You see, and this is something that is hard to admit, but hell, others have admitted to far worse (yes, I doff my metaphorical cap to YOU Mr Fry), about three months ago, I was having…thoughts…yes…those thoughts.  

Life was getting to me, it was all too much.  The pressure was produced inside me – that everything must be perfect and that I must control everything – but this was just bollocks.  I could have everything perfect; the house needs a lot of work, and my daughter and my dog make a lot of washing and mess and I had to do a lot because my wife was going through a particularly tough time with her pain, and I was… I was suffering a headache.  I was tired.  Run ragged.  Felt like I could sleep for a week and then sleep for more.  And I opened the packet of Paracetemol to get out a couple of tablets…and I just looked at the packet and wondered…what would happen if I took all of these? Would it be enough to kill me?  Would it be enough to make me ill? Would it be enough just to let me sleep…?

And straight away I knew that it was not the thing to do.  I have kids.  I have a wife. I have a family that loves me and wouldn’t want me gone.  Whilst the insurance money would get MrsF the extension that she wants out the back of the house, she’d have no-one to share it with.  It’d be a stupid thing to do…and I know stupid.

So I put the packet of tablets away and phoned the doctor and asked for an appointment as clearly I needed more help than I was getting.  And the last three or so months I have been getting it.  I even gave CBT a go – and I hate CBT with a real passion.  I know some people like it and it really works for some people and it gives them a real success and progress, but for me, well I just find it patronising and painful and simplistic.

You see, and this might sound like I am blowing my own trumpet here, but when you think back to the old fella Maslow and his hierarchy of needs – I like to think of myself fairly well up that triangle.  Pushing into the ‘self-actualisation’ area at the top.  And if you are up here it’s a fucker of a place to be if you get depression, because you know…you know…exactly what you are doing and the stupidity of it all, the futility of the depression.  That it is just a passing phase and you will be over it and one day you will be well and that it’s just a chemical imbalance and you are not the bad, stupid, thick, useless idiot that your brain makes you think you are.  You know that your brain is mussed up and that it’s not working right, and you know that all the things you say you don’t mean, but you still think them and still say them any way.

And it’s a real fucker because it means that you can see straight through the CBT stuff. I know that I need to manage my time better, to make time for me because I can’t look after other people if I don’t look after me, but still…that was the way I was.

So I sat there one day.  Outside the office of the CBT guy, who was lovely and well meaning, but I decided that when I have been talking about how I felt, and thinking about how bad I was – it made me feel that way even more.  Sort of a ‘if I think I am depressed, then I am depressed’ sort of thing.  And then the eureka moment hit me.  If this was true about when I spoke about feeling bad that I felt bad, maybe if when I thought myself bad then I felt bad…break the chain.

Yeah, just stop thinking it.  Move on. Don’t think bad things.  If bad things start then move on, jump-shift.  Reframe. Refocus. Don’t think bad thoughts.  

And it is working for me.  Most days. As I said.  Some days the cloud hits me and I find it difficult to deal with some things and find myself getting lost in that fog again.  I find myself lost in the mist, knowing there is a way out; knowing that there is sun out there but unable to find my way to it. But I now just accept it.  Write the day off, cope with it as best I can, get an early night (it seems to have some link to me being really tired) and look forward to the next day being a new day.

And it will be.  The sun will come up, life will go on and I will face the new day with a new mood.  And the down days come, but they are coming much much much less often.  The up days outnumber the down days 5-6/1.  Which are good odds that you’d lump on in the National. But in this case when the odds get longer they are more favourable to me…OK, so today I had a down day, but let’s start again tomorrow and work at getting the good days numbers up.  Because I have set a goal to get off these tablets now.  A year is long enough, I need to move on, I need to kick this depression for good.  I need to move on and actually enjoy the idyl that I know I have here.  I deserve to enjoy it.  I’m not going anywhere and it isn’t either, so I might as well get stuck into enjoying it!

Tomorrow will be a good day. Hell, it’s Friday!

 

Talking to the enemy doesn’t betray the dead. It honours them….

On the day that the Afghan government said it had taken over responsibility for combat operations across the whole of the country and after 12 years of invasion, war, occupation and counter-insurgency the Americans announced that they are to start diplomatic talks with the Taliban.  

This is good news.  Soldiers may fight wars, but it is politicians who not only start them, the politicians getting around a table and talking also finish them.  In a dirty and nasty war which has cost over 35,000 people’s lives, the only real way to come out with a solution to the annual cycle of fighting is to discuss it.  Talk about it.  Consider the other side and compromise.

This is not a sign of weakness.  It is a sign of strength.  It is only through talking that the problems that run so deep in that country can be solved.  It is a sign that it is time to move on from drastic and inflammatory rhetoric where you are either ‘for us or against us’.  It’s time to move away from ‘victory’.  It’s time to start the process of dialogue and conversation – which will ultimately lead to that compromise that will bring  peace.

A quick look around the internet, across social media and in the worst place of all – the comments sections of news articles on this subject show that there is a lot of opposition to the talks.  Some talk about betrayal. About  wasted time, wasted lives.  That by entering into talks with the Taliban we are turning our backs on those that have given their lives in this war.

So far, 444 British Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines have been killed in the Afghanistan War.  On basic estimates at least 6,500 western soldiers have been injured there.  Some 2,220 Americans have been killed, with another 600 other nations troops dead, bringing it to a total of some 3200 NATO and Coalition troops.  The Afghan security forces have lost over 14,500 with at least 19,000 Afghan civilians killed.  A terrible, terrible loss of life.  On all sides. 

But by talking it does not betray any one of them.  Talking  and compromise to bring about peace does quite the opposite.  We are not turning out backs on the 444 – they did not die for nothing – they died for two things.

Firstly, without their sacrifice, we would not be in the place we are now.  The fact that the Taliban are willing to talk shows that they have fought bravely and showed the enemy that they fought for a reason and that reason is the second thing that they dies for.

They fought and died because they were doing something that they loved.  Most of them didn’t think  they were bringing peace and security to a far off land.  They didn’t consider what they were doing out there as defending Britain from terrorists or making this country safer.  

They did it because they were doing a job that almost pretty much to a man (and woman) they loved.  They were doing it because they were part of the Army, the Navy, the RAF or the Marines and they were there because they enjoyed being part of that wider service family.  They were there for their mates, for adventure, for a multitude of reasons – but they gave their lives doing something that they wanted to do and that they enjoyed doing.

It was fun.  I enjoyed being in Afghanistan.  Yes, like many, I griped about the conditions, the food, the heat, the patrolling, the filth, the people, the organisation, the lack of mail, the lack of communication, missing my family – just about anything it is possible to gripe about, but when I look back on my time out there I am glad I went  and I miss it.

I miss the camaraderie.  I miss the gripes.  I miss the people going through the same things as me.  I miss the jokes, the laughs, the evening chats outside the tent.  I miss the excitement of going out on a patrol.  I miss the possibility of getting into a ‘scrap’, the adventure, of putting my self and my training to the test.

And I know that the only reason that people have gone back there again and again is that they like that stuff too.  Living out there was simpler, easier.  And although the possibility of being  injured or dying did scare me (and others), you just accepted it.  It was part of the job.  It came with the territory of what you had signed up to do.  And it was a risk that you weigh up against all the benefits that the military life has.

I have left the military now; been a civilian since December.  And whilst I miss a lot about the life I left behind, the thing I miss the most is the people.  You join up to be with like-minded people.  To have experiences with people who think the same way as you, who want to do similar things as you, who want to test themselves as you do.  I found that there were a lot of bloody good soldiers in the British Army.  There were people who did brave and heroic things, and the reason that they did them wasn’t because of Queen and Country. 

They didn’t put themselves in harms way for the Queen or those those back home.  They did it for each other.  And they will keep on  doing it for each other.  For as long as there are wars and conflicts and reasons to have a military, there will be young men and women who are happy to take part in those wars – not for lofty aims and ambitions.  Not for freedom.  Not to protect the country, but for other people.  For the people they are fighting alongside.  And in Afghanistan, they did the same.  They fought and are still fighting for their mates and mukkas.  Often, sadly, they pay the ultimate price and die for them too.  

The by-product of their death, though, is bringing  the politicians to the table to talk.  Soldiers may fight wars, but politicians talking end them.  The greatest memorial to those who have died in that country, 5000 odd miles away from their homes and families, isn’t more fighting – it’s talking.  

If the enemy wants to talk to us, and in this case they do, we don’t betray the dead by talking, we honour them.

Detached…

I have been out of the military for just under three months, although I have lived away from the military life for about 6 months.  And as I have said several time I have not really missed military life.  The people, now there’s another thing… but the life itself…not really.

I am enjoying my part time work, and enjoying my life in the countryside and even more enjoying village life, with all that I need – the small shop and post office and the pub, and my daughter, Lily, has her school just a few hundred yards down the road.

But I don’t miss the military life.  Don’t miss living behind the wire, don’t miss the community of other people who work in the same place as you, living in the same place as you, doing the same things as you.

Well, I thought I didn’t miss it.

But the other day as part of one of my jobs, I drove past RAF Cosford, where I once lived and worked as part of my posting as an instructor.

And that afternoon I felt a sudden pang of pain.  The fence at the edge of the camp was no different from when I was on the other side of it, but it suddenly seemed a million miles high. And thick.  As I sat at the traffic lights waiting for the green light, the perimeter changed, in my imagination, from a chain link fence to a thick high wall. Impassible and impenetrable. 

Automatically, I checked my wallet was in my pocket, as I would have if I was going to to get my ID out as I passed through the gate. But it was pointless. My ID was not there. As I am no longer in the RAF, I have no ID.  None, other than a drivers licence and a couple of bank cards. And my library card. 

And I felt empty. I felt alone.  As the lights changed I pulled around the corner and sat looking through the fence at the Med Centre, the Dentists.  The all ranks club.  The building I used to work in.  Just 50 yards away.  50 yards might as well have been 50 million miles. It was unobtainable, separate, distinct. I saw trainees marching about.  An instructor parked his car outside the Med Centre and stared through the fence at me. Looked at me and must have wondered why was I staring through at him.  Maybe he took a mental note of my description and my car details, thinking of security. A different culture; a different life. I was no longer part of that.  I had no right to go on that camp anymore. 

And my detachment from the RAF became complete.  I am an ex-airman.  I am a civilian.  I am no longer special like those people in there.  

And I missed it.  Missed the ability to just go in there, to go to the gym, to just walk around as part of something bigger than just me. I felt alone. Because you see the RAF, the military, the armed forces are about being part of something bigger than just yourself. About being part of something with a history, tradition and meaning that is more than just one person and more indeed is more than the sum of all of it’s parts. It’s about belonging.  Your very identity is given from what you are and what you do.

And I was part of that, but now I am alone. What I stand for once was pride and uniform and honour and comradeship and serving others and putting my own needs behind those of the wider community and the country.  But now I am just me.  I might still personally embody those values but the visible symbol of that is now gone.  When people looked at me once, they saw a serviceman, but now they just see a person. They might be kind and say veteran, but I am no longer a serviceman. I have handed that on to the next generation. I am just an individual.  I can do what I want, go where I want, when I want, think what I want, say what I want, but that is no compensation for the fact I am no longer part of all that

But then.

I got home. And I realised something. It hit me like a bolt from the blue.  It hit me like a four year old running through the dining room to bash into me and hug my leg when I arrived in the house. 

I still am part of something bigger than just me.  I might miss being part of the RAF, but I still am part of this family.  And I am always going to be part of it.  It will always be there. 

As wil the RAF. I might have physically left the RAF.  I might no longer have the card that allows me access to a free gym and to free medical prescriptions and to not to have to worry about what clothes I was going to wear to work – but I will always be part of the RAF, like I will always be part of my family.  I will always have my brothers and sisters – my colleagues. I will always have those who served before me – my parents.  And I will always have my children – those who will follow me into the service and make their sacrifices and maybe give their lives.  

Life goes on. And even though I am not in the RAF, it will always be part of me, and the material things that showed I was part of it are just that, material things that tarnish, fade, rust and decay.  But my memories will be with me, all around me, inside me, like my family is.

And will always be.

Play Fair…

In Afghanistan, we rely upon friendly Afghan local civilians to help us do our work out there.  When I was working out there, helping in the reconstruction work, it would have been impossible for me to engage, liaise and progress any of the projects there without the help of Afghan interpreters.  I lived with these people, mostly from Kabul or off to the West of the country, for just over six months.  I shared food with them, jokes with them, my life with them.  In one fraught incident, I probably owe my physical well-being to one of them.   They went pretty much everywhere with me, and without them I, and the other troops out in Helmand, would be just wasting their time.

And the British Government is turning it’s back on them. After the pull out of Iraq, the British gave – en masse – asylum to the interpreters that had helped us in that conflict, but the ‘terps in Afghanistan are going to have to apply for the same asylum on a ‘case-by-case’ basis.  The glorious British government says that the previous scheme was “was expensive, complex to administer and took little account of any individual need for protection”.

Well I say shame.

Shame on you, British Government.  Shame on you.  

Turn you back on these men who have risked their lives just as much as any Squaddie from Leeds.  They wear our uniform.  They follow our rules and laws in theatre.  The take the same risks as our troops. They are injured and die and risk injury and death in just the same way and a British soldier.

But once we are gone, they are going to be left to fend for themselves.  

People like Kareen, Abu, Abdul, Abdullah, Mohammed*.  People I lived and worked with.  They accepted our pay – like I did out there – and put their lives on the line – and not just for their own country but for US as well. To allow us out there to do our jobs.  To do the job the government sent us to do.  

Haroon*, from Kabul, was shot through the arm whilst out on patrol.  On the same patrol, in the same engagement, one of our own troops was killed.  I bumped into Haroon whilst on my way home, outside the shop in Camp Bastion.  He showed me his scar and told me he was soon to be heading back to the CP and would soon be back out on patrol.  Yes, he was paid for what he did (and paid well too) but to be shot and nearly die through loss of blood , and yet still want to return to do his job shows more than just wanting to take the money – it showed that he had put his trust in us to make his country a better place, and wanted to help us to make it so.

And unlike me, when the British pull out and return home, they will return home to…

Well, what will they return to? A stable and safe country where the insurgents are defeated and where no-one will remember the ‘sins’ of the past? I don’t think so. They will return to their homes where they will face fear, intimidation and the prospect of death for helping us to do our work.

That, is wrong. Plain and simple it is wrong.  Particularly when the precedent has been set differently for other people. The ‘terps of Iraq. The Gurkhas…remember them?  Allowed to settle in the UK after serving with the British Army.  How are the ‘terps of Afghanistan any different? Why are they not to be treated the same?

I can’t begin to understand the idea behind why the British have made this rule, and it makes it harder to understand when other NATO governments are doing just the opposite and are looking after their ‘terps.

It hurts me, and makes me ashamed that the government, once again, hasn’t the integrity to stand up for, and help people who have risked their all for us.

Mr Cameron, give ALL the ‘terps who have lived, worked and put their life on the line for us, the right to come and live in safety in this country.  

Play fair.

 

*Of course to protect the ‘terps who are still working out there, the names listed above have been changed.

An Empty Pot…

We all have good days.  We all have bad days.  But on the whole most days are average and go by unnoticed. We awake, rise, plod through our routines, eat, watch TV, maybe chat to friends, go to bed, sleep.  We get little highs, and little lows, but days, by and large, life and it’s grind goes by without any significant events.

No one upsets you, you upset no one. You bring a little light into the lives of people you touch by smiles, hellos and goodbyes.  You hold a door for someone.  Someone maybe catches the lift doors so you can jump in.  The world, whilst not being an eternal endless beach party, is not a dark and lonely place.

But.

For some people it is not like that.  To some people, those average days are the good days.  To some, those days when someone smiles at them, and they can smile back and mean it, are the days of endless summer.  And, to them, the bad days that others have are the average days, and worse their bad days are horrible.  Those days gnaw at their bones, close them in, lock them inside a bubble of hell that closes in, squashing their personality, changing them, making them into something smaller than themselves and turning them into something that they don’t want to be.

Lately I have been having a couple of good days.  Good for me.  Average for you…the sort of day where you get your jobs done, and you sit and relax and just not think about the day – just another day. But these last couple of days were the days of wine and roses for me.  Days when I thought was getting better.  But then I get a day like today. And I realise that I am not.  Back to square one.

Today is a day when I feel like everyone and everything is closing in on me. That there is too much to do, that I can’t even think of how to tackle it all.  I have paperwork to fill in, jobs to do, work to get on with, but I can’t face it.  I can’t face other people, because all I do is upset them.  I don’t want anyone around me as I will just be horrible and snappy at them and then that will make me feel worse about me. 

It’s taken me long enough to bring myself to write this, and I am doing it because after I have written I feel a lot better.  This writing, you see, is cathartic for me.  Unburdening myself. Like the feeling I got in Afghan when taking off the body armour at the end of a patrol. Of a weight lifting.  Which is why I have to do it.

I’ve been horrible this morning.  No patience.  Everyone has been in my way.  Too much is on my mind, too much is going round – and none of it will sort itself out.  The cloud of depression doesn’t allow any clarity of thought. It masks the solutions that everyone else can see. The worst thing about it is the realisation, just a minute later of what you have done. You know that you have irrationally snapped.  The facade has fallen and you have exploded and made whatever situation you were in a million times worse – worse for others involved, but the impact upon yourself…the realisation, the hate, the anger.  The feeling that you can’t go on like this any more, but that there is nothing you can do about it.

The feeling that you are ‘Slip Sliding Away’ as Paul Simon put it.  It’s funny how when you are  depressed that you can see somethings so clearly – but find it impossible to see other things. My depression has allowed me to see when things are about depression.  I see art and hear music and know that the artist was feeling the same way as me.  That the deep melancholy they suffered is the same as mine.  I see that so much. It is often the only time I will smile at a thought of my own. 

A knowing sniff and hunch of the shoulders. And a thought that is comforting for a second – I am not alone.  Someone else felt this way.  But then that resonance is broken and I am stuck in that internal world again.  I am trapped; voiceless, expressionless.  Like I want to scream and shout, but the words…the words don’t come.  Not even a guttural sound.  Nothing is inside you.  And it certainly isn’t able to come out.

An empty pot makes the most noise they say…

Just out of reach…

Depression is a bugger.

It’s a fact. An absolute shite. 

It takes away your you-ness and leave behind a doppleganger who looks like you, sounds like you…but certainly isn’t you.  You are locked inside a glass cabinet, soundproofed, but watching what the alt-you is doing and saying and how it is screwing up your life, unable to get it to hear you banging on the window trying to stop it.

It fucks you over, takes away your tact, your skill at dealing with people, your patience, everything that you have worked for years trying to develop in yourself.  It leaves you stuck. Helpless. It has a go at ruining your work, your home, your relationships.  It takes away your sense of self. It takes away your ability to think.  It takes away every part of you that you like and leaves behind an empty husk of a body, with a shell-shocked and tired mind.

And there is nothing you can do about it.  You feel hopeless against it.  You feel like you are the worst person in the world. You are worthless and that there is no reason why any one would want to be with you.  You push people away.  You push people away.

I have felt all this.  This has been me, my life…well what could be called a life for the past 18 or so months.  And like I have said before I have no idea why.  That doesn’t matter anyway.  It’s hard enough trying to deal with the whole shit-ness of it all, I don’t think I have the capacity to think of the why quite yet.

But I am feeling a little bit better.  I have most importantly had my meds changed.  I was on Citalopram, but the side effects…they got to much for me.  The initial side effects I could cope with, indeed I got over the nausea and the headaches and the tiredness quite quickly, but after time, the OTHER side effects. The ones that ended up depressing me more than the actual depression got to much for me.  These are the side effects that can best be listed as…private…but if you google them…fairly common.

I had these for a few months.  In fact I had them when I went to see the RAF Psychiatrist for the last time in November.  I told him of the effects and how they made me feel and his reply was damning. ‘Well, those are the breaks really. Either you take the meds and feel better, or you stop taking them and feel worse…’

I hated that man. I had no rapport with him.  It seemed he wanted to give me the meds and then all would be good.  I think I was seeing him, just to make sure that I wasn’t thinking of harming myself (which I never have, by the way). 

I left his office with one word under my breath, and then, sucked it in for a month or so more and then went to see my new Civvi doc when I needed more tablets.  He was more understanding, and has shifted me from Citalopram to Cymbalta which we can only hope affects me less in the same way as the old meds! 

But oh! The side effects of switching.  The tiredness. Loss of appetite. The tiredness. I mention that twice simply because it is the worst I have ever come across. The wave of sleep just hits me and I just have to go to sleep…normally just after eating…it is a massive hammer blow that knocks me out.

Which is not good.  Because, dear reader, here is the second of my admissions.  You see I am also a full time carer.  My wife, as you may know has not been well, but she has actually been Medically Discharged from the Army due to an injury sustained a few years ago whilst on exercise.  She compressed a couple of vertebrae in her neck carrying a heavy load, and these were fused in a German hospital. 

The human body being the human body though tries to repair itself and sometimes can ‘overdo’ the repair and this has resulted in a bone over-growth into the central canal through her neck vertebrae which has impinged on the nerves that feed her right hand. With lots of neck and arm pain, and no feeling in her fingers she takes lots of drug – heavy duty painkillers that would result in a drugs test not only flagging a fail, but also playing the trumpets and setting of a siren to call the cops immediately.

She cannot do a lot of the things that an normal 39…sorry babe…37 year old do.  She can’t walk far due to the neck pain, she can’t drive, she can’t lie in bed comfortably…she takes many and various drugs that knock her sideways.  Somedays she doesn’t move for the pain and the drugs knocking her out.  

This means I do everything.  Thankfully, we have the two armed forces pensions coming in which gives us a modest (if we don’t want too much) income, and we’ll have a small mortgage on this place once we buy it, a mortgage that is much less than renting it. So it means that I don’t have to go out and work full time, which means I can be here all the more to look after her and my daughter.

But this impinges on my depression.  I feel angry (again) at the illness and at the drugs and at the whole bloody world, and I can’t seem to find a coping strategy to overcome it.  And I want to overcome it, because if I do, I really think that the whole bloody depression thing would be licked then.  it might not be a reason for the depression, but in solving it, it might be enough to give me a breathing space and to get my head back in order and to start to really enjoy life again.

I do enjoy my life, but it is not a full life.  That fog; the fog of my depression; is always around me…And dealing with my wife’s illness and injury is one of the reasons I call it a fog.  I can see there is a way of dealing with it, but I just can’t bloody find the buggering thing. It’s just out of reach andI won’t be able to cure myself until I can grasp it.

The Fog of…Life…

I’ve hinted at this in a couple of blogs in the past, but I need to just say this…because, well I don’t know, I just need to Say it I guess.

For the past year, in fact longer really, I have suffered with depression. Not sad. Not a bit down. Not upset. But proper, clinical depression, diagnosed and treated by doctors, mental health workers and medicines.

It kind of all started when I came back from Afghanistan. Where I didn’t particularly see anything that upsetting, or got traumatised or anything, but rather got to see myself for who and what I was. (More on that later…) But I came back and I was angry. Angry and everything, everybody, the whole world. The crapness of it, the materialism of it, the emptiness of it. The fact that people moan about the quality of the coffee they buy in a cafe (and yes I do that too), when there is so much MORE going on in the world. I was angry at myself for not being in control of my anger, angry at my wife for, well, being my wife (‘how could she possibly want to be married to me, a grumpy, miserable, moaning fool?’). Angry at my three year old daughter for being three, angry at my eldest son and daughter for having a life built up without me in it.

Anger turned to general grumpiness and a feeling of being low ALL THE TIME and there being no respite from it. I felt out of control at work, where, to be honest not a lot was going on and I had a lot of time to spare. I was very negative and very closed off. I would be judgemental, closed off and…miserable. Just miserable.

And as I said, I would take it all out on my family. Waves of anger would explode out of me. Followed quickly by anger at myself for exploding and being unable to control myself. And after that followed a wave of self loathing and miserableness and yes, sitting at the top of the stairs sobbing into my hands covering my face. This became a regular habit of mine…hands in front of my face, almost trying to hide from the shame I felt at myself. That and rubbing my hand across my forehead…and this became my poker ‘tell’.

I, my wife and my even my three year old daughter would know when I was getting stressed because I would do just that. My right hand would rub over my forehead; fingers and thumb moving together almost like the mouth of a vice closing. And it felt like a vice was closing on me…Stress, pressure which could be brought on by anything.

It was, to be honest a fucking nightmare. A waking nightmare which never seemed to end. Sleep was a slight relief, when I could get it. I was tired, dog tired, permanently tired, tired beyond all understanding of tiredness, and I would get to sleep fairly quickly, but oh! the early mornings. Awake at 5-5:30 everyday. Every day.

Life for me, and everyone who knew me, who interacted with me, who crossed my path, was horrible. I was horrible. And after a particularly bad weekend where I picked on everyone, I decided that enough was enough. I had to go to get help.

And I went to see a lovely RAF doctor who was just the nicest person. I talked, she listened, she spoke a little and listened more. I must have been in there for 40 minutes (sorry to whoever was behind me in the appointments) but I came out feeling better. Better because I had told someone.

I left there and went back to work where I said to my boss, I went to the docs this morning and it turns out I am mental. And he was wonderful. ‘Well, there’s nothing going on today, go home, spend some time just trying to think and sort your head out a little,’ he said. And I did.

And I then wasted a lot of time trying to think. Think about why I was depressed. Why it was happening to me. Why I felt the way I did. And it was a waste of time. There was no one reason. With the help of that doctor, a CPN and eventually some Citalopram, I’ve come to realise that it was just a combination of everything that had made me feel so irrational for so long. I’d come to feel that I wasn’t good enough, and my actions were those of someone who wasn’t a good husband and good father, and so my thoughts reinforced my feelings of not being good enough. My experience of being in Afghanistan made me see that I was nothing special. I was just another guy out there, who was, to be frank out of his depth for a lot of the time.

I felt almost embarrassed by my blogging out there, that they made me seem to be some sort of hero, that I was better than others, when I just wasn’t. They were stronger than me, fitter, braver, more heroic…normal people, but just better than me. And my embarrassment was demonstrated by that habit of putting my hands in front of my face…of trying to hide. If I can’t see the world, then the world can’t see me…or so my failed logic would go.

All through my depression, it’s never felt the same way as others when I read about their experiences. I do feel down and sad, but when they describe it as a veil of darkness over them, of it being a cave they are forced in, that is much different to me. I feel like it is a fog. A fog enveloping me, closing around me. I know the normal world is out there, somewhere, just out of reach and out of sight, but I can’t see it. I can’t find it. A thick pea soup of depression is hiding me from it and it from me. I know that the way I feel is temporary and that I can fight it and I can, and will eventually blow the fog away, but it’s so bloody hard to do so. Even after nearly 9 months of taking the medication, it’s still, sometimes just as hard as it was.

Too much has been going on recently for me to stop taking the Citalopram yet, and that’s a bugger, because the major side-effects of the tablets (google them!) are a fucker. I’ve taken voluntary redundancy, moved house, got a disabled wife to care for, a three year old who is lovely, but who is hard work, no real job, a mortgage to get and pay for…money issues going on…lots and lots to try to deal with, lots that could plunge me downward again so I can’t deal with life without them just yet.

I am one in three. Because one in three of us will have a mental health issue at sometime in our lifetime. But I still feel alone and often unable to cope, and that I want to hide from the world by just walking my dog in the Shropshire countryside. I want to get better, and be ‘normal’ again, if I could ever figure out what normal is, but it still feels so very far off.

The fog is still about me, some days it’s thicker than others, some days it’s almost a sunny day, but it’s always a bit misty. But in all my thinking about my depression, I’ve come to a conclusion. It’s pointless trying to ask ‘Why?’ There are lots of reasons, but the main one is that there is a chemical imbalance in my brain. Brain chemicals that I don’t understand are not going to the right places and it has the result of making me feel angry, out of control, worthless, useless, inferior…depressed.

But it’s pointless and a simple waste of my time to ask why. I just have to get on with making myself…allowing myself…to feel better, that eventually I will come out of this…that it is actually even more pointless to feel angry, inferior and depressed. But simply stopping feeling that way is not so easy, but I know that with the help, love and support of my family, I will do it. I might have been angry at them outwardly…but in reality I was really angry at myself. And that’s not fair on them, and worse, its not fair on me.

Scared of the Dark…

Can you try something for me? Just do this and then read on…Count to twenty. Easy. Quick isn’t it?

Now do the same thing again, but with your eyes closed.

Felt longer didn’t it. Time seems to slow down when your are in the dark. I’m sure you counted as quickly, and I am sure it took about the same time for you to count up to 20, but in the dark…it just felt longer.

Longer. But it was only about 15-20 seconds. But just imagine a lifetime of it. Imagine everyday being dark and black. Seeing nothing; being blind.  Not only would you miss the beauty that is all around us in this fabulous world, but the time you are spending in it feels longer. More time to see…nothing.

I remember being in Afghan, and we would discuss possible and potential injuries. Particularly after someone had been in an IED explosion or in a shooting incident. It’s natural to talk about it. And one day the topic of conversation after an Afghan Soldier had been airlifted out to go to the hospital at Bastion, fell to the macabre. If you were injured…what sort of injury could you cope with and what couldn’t you cope with. Lots of people, buoyed by the news of the new prosthetic limbs said they could probably cope with losing a leg, less people thought that they could manage without an arm…but the one that surprised me…and it was the one that I said I really couldn’t cope with would be losing sight.

It was a real fear of a lot of the lads. And a real fear of mine. Still is. You see, if I were to be brutally honest I would say that the biggest fear I have in the world is dark enclosed places. Some people it’s spiders, some heights, some people it’s even clowns. But me the dark. And team that with an enclosed place and I am absolutely quaking.

I once had to face this fear. When I was a trainee in the RAF, we went away to an outward bound, adventure training place in Mid-Wales, where you get to do all sorts of great activities. Climbing, hill-walking, canoeing…and caving. In an old slate mine which is entered by a long narrow tunnel often filled quite deeply with water.

The aim of the exercise is to practice your group’s communication and team-working skills. And the instructors take you down the tunnel and then before you enter the cave system, they take your head-torches off you. They then split you into two groups and give one group the torches and the other group the batteries. You are then led about the cave system and left on your own. You then need to join together into the two small groups and then find the other group and get the batteries/torch so you can see in the dark.

Dark.

It’s not just dark; it’s absolutely pitched black. Blacker than night. Blacker than…well, bloody dark anyway. It could be the brightest summer’s day outside, but absolutely no light will penetrate into the mine. To say you can’t see your hand in front of your face would be an understatement. Blacker even than a Catholic Priest’s socks.

And you stumble around inside shouting out for the rest of your team. You wave your hands in front of you in an attempt to avoid hitting the walls. You duck your head to protect it from the roof of the caves. You take tiny, tiny steps, feeling your way along, almost shuffling, hardly moving. Your breath is faster, you are on the edge of panic. You desperately reach out for something…anything that is vaguely human. Looking for the reassurance of the touch of another living being, and when you find one, by shouting and directing yourself to the sounds of his or her voice, you grasp them tightly, and you never, ever want to let go. You don’t want to be left. Alone. In the dark.

And eventually you find the other people and your get the task done and you turn the head-torches on. And then you can see in the dark. Relief. Relaxation. Calm. Your blood pressure and your stress levels drop instantly. And then you look about and see that even though you thought that the roof was very low and you would bang your head, the cave is actually massive. Like a cathedral. Huge high walls, easily 60-70 feet up. And where you expected the walls and floor to be jagged and cluttered, and you constantly thought you were going to trip and fall, they are smooth and flat and safe.

You were in no real danger. You wouldn’t have hurt yourself. You were only really afraid of the unknown. Of what you couldn’t see.

We rely on our sight. We take it for granted. We use it to give us frames of reference and safety in the real world without thinking about it. We even use the language of sight without realising it…’Watch out’…’I see what you mean’…’I don’t like the look of that’…and we go about our lives not really thinking, or maybe not wanting to think about not being able to see.

And when you are faced with the possibility of losing your sight, like we were in the arbitrary world of the IED in Afghan, or when other soldiers, sailors and airmen have been faced with that in the past, the fear becomes greater. I remember one lad who was often the lead man in a patrol. Often he would volunteer to go first and prove the route, look for the ground-sign and analyse the floor in front of him searching for clues that the enemy could have planted an IED on the path. This didn’t scare him, but what did scare him was the thought that if he saw what might be an IED he would have to determine if it was or not by getting down on the floor, and getting up close to the potential device and see if it was a bomb or if it was just some rubbish or just a stone. Because he was scared about his eyes. Losing his sight.

Like me, it was the one thing he would not have been able to cope with losing. And thankfully neither of us did. We both came home fine, without our worst fears coming to life.

But sadly that is not always the case. Throughout history, wars have damaged people’s eyes, and men and women returning from conflict have faced a future of stumbling about in the darkness. But thankfully like in the cave, there are people there for them. People who they are able to reach out to and hold and gain help and comfort. Someone who they can hold onto and who will not leave them alone.

Since the end of the First World War, St Dunstan’s which has recently changed it’s name to Blind Veterans UK, has offered help and advice and support to any ex-servicemen and women who have lost their sight. In fact it doesn’t matter when someone served or how they lost their sight; a REME engineer blinded by a sniper in Iraq, a National Serviceman in the Canal Zone of the 1950’s with a glaucoma or an ex-sailor who served in the Falklands, blinded by a car accident, as long as they have served they won’t be alone, Blind Veterans UK will be there to support them.

And like in the cave I found myself in, it is really reassuring to know that there is always going to be someone there to help. That there will be no one alone in the dark.

If you would like to read more about Blind Veterans UK or help them in their work by donating to their campaign, then please have a look at their website at http://www.blindveterans.org.uk and read about the amazing work they do to support Blind Veterans.

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