One of the most frightening things about mental illness is, when you’re suffering, you either fool yourself about it or you’re not capable of seeing it unfold.
From the age of three, Al Reid had set his heart on following in his father’s footsteps with a career in the Armed Forces.
Commissioned as an Officer with the Royal Artillery, Al was relishing the chance to serve his country: “I was full of honour, enthusiasm and determination. The military offers adventure and so many things that a young man wants to do. It didn’t let me down.”
Al’s Army career took him all over the globe, including three tours of Afghanistan. During his second deployment, he served on the front line and supported an infantry company of nearly 200 people. Although it was, as he put it, “the arena that you join the military to test yourself in”, the constant threat from the enemy meant casualties were inevitable.
Later during that same tour, Al’s life changed forever. Out on a foot patrol, one of his men was shot and killed.
“He was evacuated on a stretcher and I carried him for no more than 20 yards, but I knew he was dead. It was a terrifying realisation, and one which imposed the gravity of what we were doing and the risks that were involved.”
Al made it through the remaining months of the tour, but upon returning home found himself dwelling on the events that took place. He didn’t want to admit it, but his mental health was deteriorating fast.
In keeping with his military mindset, Al was convinced these feelings would pass: “I honestly believed that it was affecting me in a way it would affect any human being. It was a harrowing and tragic incident, but one I could deal with and move on.”
Despite this assertion, Al’s friends and family could see a difference in his behaviour. The warning signs were there, but Al’s condition meant he couldn’t face the problem. Instead, he remained in denial.
“One of the most frightening things about mental illness is, when you’re suffering, you either fool yourself about it or you’re not capable of seeing it unfold. I didn’t want to admit that I had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or that I was in some way showing what I believed to be incompetence.”
Al’s feelings manifested themselves in a complete inability to sleep and concentrate. His PTSD was so crippling that even reading became impossible. He found himself in a vicious cycle, in despair about his inability to do the job he loved but unable to acknowledge there was anything wrong with him.
It took a completely unrelated trip to the doctor in 2015 to finally set Al on his road to recovery: “The doctor put a hand on my shoulder and asked me how I was. It was the first time I was ready to honestly answer that question. I broke down in tears. Admitting to yourself you need help, particularly for members of the Armed Forces, doesn’t come naturally.”
Al then visited Help for Heroes’ Tedworth House Recovery Centre. Walking through the doors was a critical moment in his life he’ll never forget: “I was struck by the welcoming and all-embracing support.
“My first visit was as part of the Rolling Recovery Programme, which is a week-long set of activities. It was a varied, challenging week. The variety on offer is not by accident. It works by challenging your norms in a safe environment. Whether you’re moulding clay or going on a bike ride, it makes you realise what you can still do and provides you with one of the first stepping stones on a long journey of recovery.”
Further visits to the Recovery Centre helped Al come to terms with his mental health challenges and learn how he could move forward in life: “I took a course in workplace coaching. It was life-changing. It was as much an education in knowing myself and being at ease with that as it was about how to listen to and help other people. That was an incredibly powerful thing.
“Before Help for Heroes I was living one day to the next because that’s all I could do. The Charity helped me prove to myself I could be prepared for what lay ahead.”