Nick Thomas served in the Princess of Wales Royal Regiment, having joined up as a boy in 1991. Just six years later, after tours of Northern Ireland and Bosnia, he was medically discharged due to an arm injury he sustained in service. An early exit from his military career led Nick to drink.
“After leaving the Army I was on my own,” said Nick. “My battalion were my friends and family, they were all in Northern Ireland. I had a girlfriend at the time, who is now my wife, and we had a young child. But I didn’t know how to be a dad or a partner, so I turned to drink. It was what I did best.
“I was able to hide behind the drink. It gave me the confidence I thought I needed or wanted and that led to alcoholism. It was a comfort to hide away from reality and from the guilt, shame and remorse of my past, of leaving the job I loved. I was getting arrested, ending up in the police cells most weeks. A judge threatened to send me to prison if I didn’t take action. At that point I sought help from doctors and started on a prescription but I drank through it. I thought I knew better. In the end I got outside help and got on top of it. There was still something wrong with me but I didn’t know what.”
While Nick immersed himself in a new career, travelling during the week and being a weekend dad, Kerry was at home raising their young son. For years that was how their life played out, replicating the Army life Nick felt he had lost with him frequently away from home. But things eventually got too much for Nick and work was not enough. He began fundraising for Help for Heroes, who had supported friends of his, and taking on other things in a bid to occupy his time.
“It came to a point where it got too much for me,” explained Nick. “I was fundraising for Help for Heroes, taking on other things to keep me occupied. I broke down in my car, physically crying not knowing where I was or where I was going, and very shortly after I tried to take my life for the first time.
"I woke up in hospital with tubes coming out of me not knowing where I was. They tried to section me and I didn’t want that. It scared the living daylights out of me so I ran. I took my family, my wife, my son and my young daughter. We upped sticks and moved to Cornwall.”
Kerry continued: “We moved to Saltash two years ago and that’s when it started to go downhill. Nick didn’t like his job, he didn’t like the house we lived in, he just didn’t like having so much time and being around so many open spaces because it reminded him of being in Northern Ireland so he just found it really difficult. Then last year it all spilled over and the beginning of last year he sat on the Tamar Bridge contemplating suicide. He decided from there that he needed more help than what he would admit to.”
Nick approached Help for Heroes in August 2016 and within a few days a key worker visited the family at home and invited them to the charity’s Recovery Centre within Devonport Naval Base. While Nick began receiving support from the psychological wellbeing team, Kerry was holding the fort trying to shield daughter Erin, aged six, from his outbursts.
“To start off with we tried not to let on that things were going wrong,” said Kerry. “I always made excuses as to why daddy was angry or why we had no door on the living room or why we had no plates because he’d just throw them. We were arguing a lot and I was crying. I kept trying to make excuses but it just got too much in the end. She knows a little bit, she doesn’t know he’s got PTSD but she knows he’s a little bit poorly. But we realise now that she understands more than we give her credit for even though she’s only six.”
Trying to be the family’s rock took its toll on Kerry. But it took the Help for Heroes team pointing out that she could ask for help too, for things to start to improve for her.
Kerry explained: “I was mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted, up until the point where I started chatting to Maxine and Andrea from Help for Heroes that I was able to get my head around how PTSD works and why Nick could kick off. So getting help for myself, not just him, has helped me a great deal.
“I don’t think I had any emotions. I just let him carry on screaming and shouting and going mad. I knew eventually he’d calm down and we could talk. So I just let him have his blow up. But now I can help him. When he has an outburst I try to talk to him, calm him down, just sit with him and tell him I’m not an enemy which is what he thinks everyone is. If our son Cameron is home, he’s 21, Erin will go upstairs with him until I calm daddy down then she’ll come down.
“When we shout at each other Erin gets sad because she thinks daddy doesn’t love mummy anymore which isn’t the case, she just doesn’t grasp it.”
Nick continued: “I became very aggressive. I treated my wife poorly. No wife or family should be treated the way I treated them. My wife was always on tenderfoot, she didn’t know what way I was going to come in through the door. Whether I’d be the loving husband who had a great day or whether I’d be the husband who was going to tear the kitchen apart and physically and verbally abuse her. My daughter was petrified of me, she wouldn’t want to come near me and was very tearful. That’s not me but that’s what happened and it tore me apart.”
In the last year since linking up with Help for Heroes, Nick’s employers have been made aware of his mental health issues and have been supportive, while Kerry has started a new job at Erin’s school where they are aware of the Thomas’ situation at home and understanding of the impact this can have on both mum and daughter. Kerry and Nick can now see a positive future for their family.
“I can see the next year going upwards,” said Kerry. “It got to the point where I didn’t want to talk to anyone. I’d just go to work, come home, wouldn’t go out. Myself and Nick wouldn’t go out anywhere, we’d sit in opposite rooms so I didn’t trigger an episode with something I said, which is quite sad. But now we do things every single weekend which is really nice.
“If someone’s in a similar situation, get help. Don’t be afraid, don’t think you’re being stupid because I thought I was being stupid asking for help. The help’s there, go and get it.
“Help for Heroes is like another family. I’ve met so many new people, I don’t have to explain my story because people in the Recovery Centre are going through the same thing. I can rant and rave and they know exactly where I’m coming from, and they rant and rave to me and I think ‘you’re living my life for me’. It’s really nice.”
Nick added: “As a family it’s been amazing to see the change in such a short period of time. Help for Heroes look after myself but most important to me they’ve looked after my family. My wife gets involved in things through the Band of Sisters, from a simple Facebook page where she can speak to others or going in the Recovery Centre. We’ve been on days out as a family doing activities in an environment where I feel safe, where I can be with my daughter, take part and be a real dad. I can learn to treat them right and that’s amazing.
“When we first moved to Cornwall my daughter wouldn’t even cuddle me but now she gives me a cuddle and a kiss every night before she goes to bed, and that’s special. That’s what normal folk do. I just wanted to go back to how it used to be and today I’ve got that opportunity. I’ve come from the dark side but now I can see there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. I don’t know how far that tunnel is but I can see how other Veterans and Service Personnel have changed so I can see that opportunity is out there for me.
“I’d encourage others to put their hands up, give up that fight and ask for help. That was the hardest thing, to break my pride and to admit to myself there was a problem there, but it’s been the best thing I’ve done for my whole family. It’s enabled me to move forward, so just see where the journey takes you.”