When Help for Heroes opened its newest Recovery Centre in Plymouth sixteen months ago, Gary Hunt was one of the first through the doors. A closed book, he had recognised he needed support, but had no idea how to move forward.
Now, Gary is actively involved in the Recovery Centre, taking part in activities, engaging with others and always smiling.
Gary, who lives in Plymouth, served with the Army Infantry from 1988 to 1992 in Northern Ireland. He has complex psychological issues, some of which are attributed to service, but his problems started long before his stint in the forces. As a child he suffered serious abuse. The military regime and the horrors he witnessed during tours brought his childhood memories to the surface.
“At that time if you did anything wrong you were punished for it,” said Gary. I didn’t fit in for quite a while. I had voices in my head, nightmares and panic attacks. We experienced what felt like the worst of the worst to me. Anything that went bang or got shot at was usually us.”
Over twenty years of heartache followed, with Gary suffering severe depression, anxiety, constant mood swings and other psychological health issues.
“I was practically an alcoholic. I was in trouble with the law. I wasn’t a very nice person. I didn’t know if I was coming or going,” said Gary. “I tried to kill myself what must have been 20 times.”
It is only in the last couple of years that Gary has sought the help he has needed to look to the future. After moving between psychiatrists, he found a doctor who he feels comfortable with.
“I was told that you have to help yourself for us to help you. It made sense. That’s around the time I joined Help for Heroes in Plymouth after being referred by my doctor. Going to the Recovery Centre, being able to talk to the lads and get involved in activities gets you away from day to day life and what’s going on in your head.”
Gary was part of the Help for Heroes Gig Rowing team who competed in the World Pilot Gig Championships in the Isles of Scilly earlier this year. More recently he has discovered a passion for scuba diving and has just completed a PADI Open Water Diver course as part of the Plymouth Recovery Centre’s sports recovery programme in conjunction with Plymouth Diving Centre.
“Through the activities at the Recovery Centre I’ve realised I’m a water baby. Any activity on or in the water I adore.”
“My dad was a scuba diver. I saw all of his photos and he would show me his diving kit so I was quite intrigued. We’ve had our differences but that’s always something I’ll remember. When I saw that I could do a try dive in the Recovery Centre pool I signed up and kept going back until the full course started.
“The first time I dived in the pool I couldn’t stop smiling. I felt at peace; probably how a baby would feel in the womb. I was so happy. When I heard there was an Open Water course starting I couldn’t wait.
“During the course the instructors from Plymouth Diving Centre were so thorough and friendly. It made you feel safe. They talked to you like adults.
“The first time we dived in the sea I was a little nervous, it’s a different environment being in the ocean but I calmed myself right down and was happy again, looking at everything around me a lapping up all the skills I was being assessed on.
“Being underwater makes you feel at peace. It’s a whole different experience to being on land. You see things that the majority of people will probably never see in their lives. The feeling of weightlessness and the new world around you seem to make the mental health issues disappear.
“After diving I’d go home and my fiancée would say ‘you’re smiling, you’re beaming’. It’s amazing.”
Gary will marry fiancée Wendy on her birthday in Plymouth at the end of August this year.
“She’s my best friend and my rock,” said Gary. “She’s been through the mill with me but she’s always been there.”
Gary hopes to take his love of scuba diving forward by doing a higher level course as his next step.
“I can’t wait to do the Advanced Open Water course and maybe at some point in the future I might be able to get as far as a PADI Instructor. I’d love that.
“One of the other guys on the course said I was like a fish, born for the water. Now I’m being called fish face. I was so confident underwater that I was supporting another guy and he said he felt like he trusted me. It felt great. I just need to keep diving.
“If I didn’t have the support that Help for Heroes has given me I’d probably be dead; that’s the truth. When I left the Army it was a case of thanks and goodbye. I’d keep everything locked away. At one point I nearly ended up in a psychiatric hospital. The medication helps, the talks help, but I’m my own worst enemy. I can’t shut it out. It’s having something to relate to, somebody who’s been through it all, and something to focus on at that gets me through. The Plymouth Recovery Centre has given me that.”