“Everyone’s experience of leaving the service is individual and unique,” says Denise Knowles, a counsellor at Relate, the UK’s largest provider of relationship support. “It’s all about managing expectations, for the person leaving the services, but also for their family.” Transitioning from the military into civilian life can come with challenges and new experiences, and it may not be what you’re expecting. It’s important to manage your expectations – and your family’s – and know that things take time.
“When you’re in the services, you may be living with a degree of uncertainty, but you’re part of an extended family, whether you’re living on or off base, there are services and support to help you cope,” says Denise. “You know where you’re going and what you’re part of.” When you leave the services, you have to create your own support networks and adapt to your new life.
Being part of the Armed Forces can be a big part of your sense of self and your identity: the importance of the work, close friends, the status and importance you feel being part of a team. When you leave, there can be a real sense of loss. “A big feeling of belonging and of your identity can get caught up with being in the services,” says Denise. “Your relationship with yourself might change. You might have to redefine who you think you are if you feel a loss of identity.”
Who you are as you leave the Armed Forces may not be the person you thought you were. Without the support you had in the services, you may feel isolated and alone. For people who have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or have acquired a disability, leaving the military can trigger all sorts of feelings. “To be honest, when I left the military in 2003, I didn’t have time to think about it as I was focussing on my recovery,” says Darren, who served in the military from 1991 to 2003 and injured his back in Iraq.
Darren didn’t know what PTSD was when he left the military. Left to fend for himself, he experienced extreme mood swings, anger and aggression, and didn’t understand the emotions he was feeling. While he had been in a honeymoon period with his partner and now wife, leaving the military injured left him in a state of anger when he should have been enjoying his new and growing family.
A lot of the frustration he felt centred around his pride: while he needs a mobility scooter for certain activities, he refused to use it and in turn, was missing out on days with my family. “I couldn’t go into a supermarket,” he recalls. Crowds, in particular, trigger panic attacks and he still finds them hard to handle.
Now Darren has four young children and spends lots of time with them. But it wasn’t always easy. “My kids had to grow up with daddy being poorly, and they saw me deteriorate and didn’t understand why I was shouting and screaming. It has been hard on the kids. I do feel guilty,” he says.
Darren’s family grew up with learning about PTSD, and his youngest walks on his left side to help him if he has a problem and warn him if there are crowds. Now that he has gone on Combat Stress training courses to manage his PTSD, he spends lots of time with his kids and his relationship with them has changed and grown stronger. “We do simple things together, like going to the beach or the park. I try to do as much as I possibly can with them.” His strong relationship with his four kids has helped Darren cope.
“You might have seen some things that were quite grim,” says Denise. “You might not feel able to share, or feel that other people might not be able to understand you. If you worked in military intelligence, you might not be able to talk about your work at all.” Luckily for Darren, his wife also served and understood what it was like to be in the military and its unique pressures.
“My wife is ex-RAF and we have the same sort of mentality,” says Darren. However, soon after Darren left, his wife followed. “She was still serving when I left the military, and she had to come out to look after me.” Dealing with a partner who has undiagnosed PTSD was hard, and Darren admits that she took the brunt of his pain and anger.
It was only until she issued an ultimatum that Darren realised the extent of the damage his PTSD had done to his family. She pushed him to get help. “We had problems, and things got worse and she said there had to be a change or she would leave. It was tough to hear, but necessary. I didn’t agree with her assessment, I blamed everyone but myself,” he says.
“I still have unanswered questions,” says Darren. “Why things happened the way things happened, or why things didn’t happen. I don’t think I’ll ever know the answers. But I’m looking forward to watching my kids grow up. When I was dealing with my PTSD without support, I didn’t think I would be around to see that and I’m grateful that I am.”
Whether you experience anxiety after leaving the military, or think you may be dealing with bigger issues like PTSD, Denise emphasises it’s important to reach out for support and talk to someone. Your family, friends and support group are there to help.
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