A Northern Ireland Veteran who has a visual impairment following two strokes made his first bus journey since becoming ill to the Help for Heroes Recovery Centre in Colchester and says it was socialising with fellow injured Band of Brothers at the Centre that inspired him to make the journey.
Previously Gary Bull, 46 from Ipswich, had relied on his wife Jo to drop him off for his regular respite break at Chavasse VC House. But this time he was determined to overcome his anxiety which had crippled him since losing his sight:
“Getting on a bus to Colchester was a huge issue for me, because of my anxiety. But after speaking with my fellow Band of Brothers who also have psychological issues, well, they inspired me. I saw their strength and so I decided I would get on a bus and it was a success!”
Gary could talk for hours about his regular visits to the Colchester Centre with his Guide Dog Isla. It has become a place of sanctuary, where both he and Isla can rest every few months, recharge their batteries and prepare for the everyday challenges they face together. They’re a team and wherever Gary goes, so too does Isla.
It has been a long, hard battle to get to where they are today: a place of acceptance. When Gary refers to the long list of medical issues he lives with it is easy to understand why the breaks at the Centre are so important, not just to Gary and Isla but to Gary’s family; wife Jo and their two teenage boys.
Like many people who join the Armed Forces, Gary signed on the dotted line out of a necessity to get away from family life. He saw the Army as a place where he could escape, so he joined the REME as an Avionics Technician and worked his way up to Staff Sergeant. Serving in Iraq, Afghanistan, Bosnia, Norther Ireland and Belize, Gary and his team ensured the Apaches were fit to fly. It was a crucial role but Gary is quick to commend the young lads and lasses on the ground, saying “I was always so grateful of them, as they paved the way for the rest of us.”
In 2009 Gary’s life changed forever. He went out for a run, something he did on a daily basis, and twisted his neck. In actual fact he had dissected his right vertebral artery which led to his first stroke. While in hospital Gary had a second, more violent stroke in the night and so began Gary’s battle to rebuild his life.
Since the strokes Gary now has a visual impairment, called homonymous hemianopia, which means half his field of vision has gone in both eyes and has poor vision in low and bright light. This has led to increased bouts of anxiety and stress. In addition, he now has a stutter and his cognitive skills have slowed down considerably. He became more forgetful and it was common for Gary to get lost so it was easier for Gary to not leave his home, making him isolated and lonely. Gary also experiences disinhibition and emotional lability. Disinhibition means that he cannot filter inappropriate or offensive thoughts, which has led to some embarrassing moments, and of course increases the anxiety levels even further. Gary’s emotional lability means that he cannot control his emotions and would get extremely angry very quickly or would burst into tears simply because he said goodbye to someone. All in all, Gary had a complete personality change and Jo agrees: “Gary is no longer the man I married. I lost my husband and gained a teenager.”
Isla and the Recovery Centre
Gary was determined his disabilities, both physical and mental, would not beat him: “I didn’t hope I would get better, I knew. It was never a question of if, it was when. And seeing other guys learning to walk at Headley Court (the MoD Rehabilitation Centre) gave me the inspiration to push myself”.
Gary was introduced to Isla through Guide Dogs and she has exceeded his expectations. She memorises routes so Gary doesn’t get lost anymore, and she makes safe, quick decisions. His confidence has soared since having her and he can now leave the home and make his visits to the Help for Heroes Recovery Centre. The breaks Gary has at Colchester are also good for Isla.
Gary says; “I can’t rest unless she does and vice versa. She is always watching and looking out for me. When we stay at Colchester, it is so welcoming and we both feel relaxed that we can both have a break.”
Gary’s growing confidence is not the only benefit to have come out of the respite breaks. One of his goals is to run again so the Centre’s Health and Physical Wellbeing Advisor has analysed Gary’s gait and is supporting him through physical exercises. “My balance is definitely better since my gym visits. I was playing football in the garden with my son and we both noticed an improvement. Hearing my son say I’m getting better was just great.”
But it is acceptance that Gary stresses is key to his recovery. He now accepts his conditions, is no longer embarrassed whether it be his disinhibition or incontinence, and has come to terms with living with the psychological and physical impairments.
“Help for Heroes has given me a place to come where I can rest and reflect on where I am and how far I’ve come in a peaceful setting. I have learnt to accept the person I am and luckily I have Isla to share all this with.”
If you are a veteran and are experiencing excessive worry, low mood, stress or anxiety then Help for Heroes' Hidden Wounds Psychological Wellbeing Service can help you or your loved one. To find out more about this free and confidential support please call 0808 2020144 or email firstname.lastname@example.org