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“In the army, there was a culture of having to be 'tough'”

Kim writes about how the army culture exacerbated her anxiety - and why research and opening up has helped her overcome it.

I had my first panic attack in the sky.

I was on holiday with my family and went parasailing with my sister, not realising that this would be a catalyst for years of anxiety. I had never felt terror like it. We were so high up and I felt completely and utterly out of control.

At the time, I had a lot going on in my life.

I’d spent 9 years in the British Army and was now working in Private Security, spending my time between Iraq and the UK. A couple of months after the holiday I noticed myself changing.

I couldn’t relax and was struggling with the fast-paced lifestyle, particularly in a hostile environment like Iraq. When I was made redundant six months later, I returned home and stayed with my mum. It was then that I started seeing there was a real problem – although at the time I didn’t realise it was anxiety.

I remember walking down the road one day and becoming convinced that an approaching car was going to crash into me. My thoughts ran away, and I started thinking of the worst-case scenarios for everything. I also found I was petrified of heights and flying, which had never been a problem before.

I found another job in Iraq, but was hesitant to go because of what was going on in my mind.

Despite this, I ended up moving back – but felt myself completely drowning. My irrational thoughts, coupled with the environment I was in and my newly developed fear of flying, meant I was living in a fantasy world of true terror that I believed was reality. I decided I had to leave that world behind.

I came back to the UK and was lucky enough to get offered a role with the same company in London. But things became worse. I was now in an environment I wasn’t used to and didn’t feel I belonged in. I was having panic attacks over the commute to work, using lifts for meetings… even taking the stairs I was convinced was a doomed affair. I had lost my identity and it had all become too much.

I began drinking and taking a lot of sick days.

My boss will never know the true gratitude I felt the day she pulled me to one side, after months of me not acknowledging something was going on.

She suggested I visit a psychiatrist – and when he diagnosed me with generalised anxiety disorder and panic disorder, I felt some relief. But another part of me felt weak. I’ve seen a lot in my career and built up a lot of mental strength. How could this be happening to me?

Although I was initially resistant, I underwent CBT. It was incredible – I felt much more in control of my thoughts and it helped to stop the panic attacks. I’m a true believer that you get out what you put in, and I spent a lot of time putting the tools and techniques from CBT into practice.

In the army there was a culture of having to be “tough”.

You’re built a bit like a machine, to survive the extreme. Although you’re given all the tools needed to ensure you're in control, when you leave you can lose your way. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is to talk about what you’re going through. It’s difficult to adapt to life outside the army, but there are things that can help.  

I’ve also learned that mental illness does not discriminate. Traumatic events – like my experience parasailing – can come in many forms, happen to anyone and be the catalyst for severe anxiety and depression. But now I’m a heck of a lot stronger, knowing I can go out and face the day even when my mental health isn’t great.

We all need to make a conscious effort to talk more about what’s going on in our minds. I hope that more awareness and education about mental health is introduced to the army and included in the school curriculum, building on the amazing work of the charities that are doing this already.

MQ is one of these – but it really stands out to me because of the research element.

The world’s evolving so quickly and we’re expected to deal with lots of things that didn’t even exist 50 years ago. I want to know how technology and social media are affecting people’s mental health – but also what treatments and therapies could be developed in the next 50 years. Medicine has already evolved so much over time, and research brings with it so much potential.

I’d love to find out how coping techniques like meditation and mindfulness really fit into having a mental illness. Is there any evidence that tools like this could help just as much as medication?

Moving forward, I won't let my diagnosis define me.

I've spent the last year investing in myself to understand my condition. I revamped my social media to ensure everything I was taking in was of a positive nature and worked for me and my mental health.

I'm on a mission to prove that facing your fears really does make you stronger; climbing over the O2 twice this year was part of that! I'm extremely lucky to have such supportive family and friends and my fiancé is an incredible pillar of strength when I'm facing these obstacles head on. 

I’ve recently been asked to share my story through speaking at a couple of events. The more people that are willing to speak out about their own journeys with mental illness, the better. Over the last few years my confidence has been shot to pieces, but I'm fighting hard to regain it as I truly believe we can do anything we set our minds to.

Last updated: 31 July 2019

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