‘Flashback 20 years after leaving the Army left me seconds away from ending my life’

Photo Neil Cross'James Collier, 43, who had undiagnosed PTSD for over 20 years, realised he needed help and approached Combat Stress who helped him focus on photography. 'With the help of HELP THE HEROES they gave him the funds to buy a camera
Photo Neil Cross'James Collier, 43, who had undiagnosed PTSD for over 20 years, realised he needed help and approached Combat Stress who helped him focus on photography. 'With the help of HELP THE HEROES they gave him the funds to buy a camera
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With no warning whatsoever, James Collier was suddenly struck by a vivid flashback to his army days and transported back to a field in Bosnia where a traumatic incident occurred.

With no warning whatsoever, James Collier was suddenly struck by a vivid flashback to his army days and transported back to a field in Bosnia where a traumatic incident occurred.

Photo Neil Cross'James Collier, 43, who had undiagnosed PTSD for over 20 years, realised he needed help and approached Combat Stress who helped him focus on photography. 'With the help of HELP THE HEROES they gave him the funds to buy a camera

Photo Neil Cross'James Collier, 43, who had undiagnosed PTSD for over 20 years, realised he needed help and approached Combat Stress who helped him focus on photography. 'With the help of HELP THE HEROES they gave him the funds to buy a camera

James, 43, recalls: “It was a very traumatic incident which I’d buried completely into the recesses of my mind until I suddenly had this really vivid flashback.

“The only way I can describe it is that I was actually stood in the middle of this field in Bosnia.

“I was only there for 10 seconds, but that 10 seconds completely changed my life.

“I was fine for more than 20 years after leaving the Army. But this massive flashback made me fearful. It then started happening on a regular basis and plagues me to this day.”

Photo Neil Cross'James Collier, 43, who had undiagnosed PTSD for over 20 years, realised he needed help and approached Combat Stress who helped him focus on photography. 'With the help of HELP THE HEROES they gave him the funds to buy a camera

Photo Neil Cross'James Collier, 43, who had undiagnosed PTSD for over 20 years, realised he needed help and approached Combat Stress who helped him focus on photography. 'With the help of HELP THE HEROES they gave him the funds to buy a camera

James, who lives in Buckshaw Village near Chorley, joined the Army when he was 16 following the family tradition of his father and brother.

James says: “I loved the Army and enjoyed the camaraderie and brotherhood.

“You knew that even if you had your squabbles, when it came to the crunch, they would have your back and stand by you.”

James served 12 years and did two tours of Northern Ireland and a tour of Bosnia.

Photo Neil Cross'James Collier, 43, who had undiagnosed PTSD for over 20 years, realised he needed help and approached Combat Stress who helped him focus on photography. 'With the help of HELP THE HEROES they gave him the funds to buy a camera

Photo Neil Cross'James Collier, 43, who had undiagnosed PTSD for over 20 years, realised he needed help and approached Combat Stress who helped him focus on photography. 'With the help of HELP THE HEROES they gave him the funds to buy a camera

However, in 2003 at the age of 28, James was medically discharged after developing severe knee problems.

James went to live in Preston and admits he bounced from job to job and found it difficult to adapt to civilian life.

He explains: “When you’re in Army life, you get regimented and set in your ways and expect things to be done a certain way and within a time frame.

“When you come up against civilians who don’t share your way of working, it rubs you up the wrong way.

James Collier - when he was in the Army

James Collier - when he was in the Army

“The challenges I experienced were adapting, changing my ways and re-learning the person I’d been for the last 12 years.

“I was happy in the Army and would have stayed if I could.

“After returning to civilian life, every day was a challenge and every day was a regret I wasn’t still in the Forces and wishing I could go back.”

James says for many years, he had no issues with what he’d seen and done during his time in the Army.

He says: “I had come to terms with some of the things I’d done because it was part and parcel of the job.

“But then around three or four years ago, I began suffering from massive flashbacks.”

James Collier - when he was in the Army

James Collier - when he was in the Army

James suffered the huge flashback of Bosnia during the day while working for a bus company.

He recalls: “I felt incredibly scared. It literally felt like I was back in Bosnia and it came with no indication or warning.

“From that moment on, it started happening regularly.

“I began suffering with regular flashbacks, nightmares and night and day terrors. My nightmares became living nightmares and all went back to my time in the Forces.

“Because I didn’t understand what was happening to me or understand it, I became very depressed, angry, bitter and fearful.

“I became fearful of crowds and fearful of supermarkets. To this day, I can’t go into a supermarket when it’s busy. If I go anywhere where there are crowds, it sets my anxiety off in a big way.

“I became hypervigilant and constantly assessed my situation looking for potential risks.

“I was constantly looking for the nearest exits and formulated a plan so if something happened, I would have an exit plan. I would then come up with a plan B and a plan C.”

James remembers going to a shopping centre in Manchester once and having a huge panic attack resulting in him needing to evacuate himself from the situation.

James says: “People were looking at me as if I was a freak. They were wondering why I was running out in such a panic.

“People staring at you also sets off your panic mode. It is a case of fight or flight and I chose flight.”

James became very low as he struggled to comprehend what was happening to him. The dad-of-one confesses things became so bad, he was plagued with suicidal thoughts.

A few years ago, the urge to take his own life was so overwhelming that James acted on it and was seconds away from ending his life.

James recalls: “I took myself off to some local woods to end my life.

“I kept telling myself I was an idiot and had bigger things to live for and tried to talk myself out of doing it.

“But in the end, the hopelessness was too strong. I felt dead in myself and as though there was no other option.

“I wanted to end my life as I’d had enough of feeling like that.”

James says the only saving grace was that at the very last moment, images of the loved ones he would be leaving behind flashed before his eyes and he managed to stop himself in time.

James says: “I just sat down on the floor and cried. I couldn’t believe I had been so reckless with my own life when there were people who needed me.

“I had experienced a lot of suicidal thoughts but this was the first time I’d acted on it.

“It is not something I am proud of or speak about.”

Reaching rock bottom and almost taking his own life gave James the push to seek help. He had been to the doctors previously and been given anti-depressants but had stopped taking them.

This time, James began researching on the Internet and found stories about people with PTSD and realised they resonated with his own feelings.

The details for veteran mental health charity Combat Stress came up so James gave them a call and they put him in touch with a psychologist.

James says: “Combat Stress did an initial interview and diagnosed me with PTSD and accepted me on their six week programme.

“The first couple of weeks were difficult as you are in unknown territory.

“They played us a video called: ‘You’re not in the Army now’ and everything in that video was so true.

“It explained how you are trained in the Army but not ‘untrained’ when you come out.

“So when you return to civilian life, you still think like a soldier and that is the crux of a lot of problems.

“Everything started to make sense.”

James had group sessions on combatting PTSD and how to turn negatives into positives and took part in different activities.

It was during his Combat Stress programme that James discovered his talent for photography. Combat Stress got some funding from Help For Heroes for a camera for James - and since then he has never looked back.

James explains: “Photography has given me a focus. Rather than focusing on myself, when I get my low days, I just pick up my camera and go out.

“It can be for hours or it can just be for 10 minutes. Taking that one photograph lifts me and takes away the doom and gloom.

“I’ve found I am experiencing less of the darker times mainly because of the photography.”

James says he was fortunate as he found the help he needed on the Internet. But he says other veterans are not so lucky and some go through with taking their own life.

James, who has been with his partner for four years and is now working as a healthcare assistant at Chorley and South Ribble Hospital, says: “There are veterans who are on the streets or those who are older or don’t have the knowledge to go on the Internet or those who are too far gone and feel there is no option but to end their life.

“I do think there should be a change in the way deaths are recorded because at the moment, it does not say they were a veteran.

“There is help out there for veterans - but it doesn’t come to you. You have to search for it and admit there is something wrong.

“People who have been in the Army are reluctant to admit they are struggling.

“I think there should be resettlement centres direct from the Army to prepare people for civilian life focusing on the psychological impact.

“Your personality changes and living with that is very difficult. One day, you can wake up and be a completely different person.

“The hardest thing is telling the people you love what you’re going through.

“I was always a happy person but now I am an angry one.

“I was fortunate that I reached out and got the help I needed and it changed my life.

“My biggest goal now is to become the person I was.”

POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is the most common mental health issue that veterans’ mental health charity Combat Stress treats.

PTSD is one of a few mental health conditions where you have to have gone through a specific type of traumatic event to get it.

Often this is where you thought your life or someone else’s life was in danger or at risk of serious injury or attack.

Combat Stress knows that invisible injuries can be just as hard to cope with as physical ones. Their services help veterans cope with the present, tackle the past and take on the future.

Dr Walter Busuttil, consultant psychiatrist and medical director for Combat Stress, says: “We know at Combat Stress, we have seen a very big rise in people coming forward for help after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“It would be interesting to see in the latest study of PTSD which is due to be published soon by the King’s Centre For Military Health Research if the rates of PTSD have gone up and if they are related to how long people were in combat.

“People who come to us have very high rates of PTSD, alcohol problems past and present and depression.

“The ones who are most ill are those who have been in combat. People like medics and those who fly the helicopters are more prone to the severe end of PTSD and other conditions.”

Dr Busuttil says it can take up to 14 years until a veteran seeks help for PTSD - and reveals Combat Stress is still treating veterans from the Second World War.

He explains: “There is still an issue with stigma within the military but they are trying to overcome it, so it is better.

“For those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, the time it takes for people to seek help has come down.

“For their era, it has come down to an average of between two and four years before they seek help.

“The reason for this is possibly because of better education and less stigma which is a very positive thing.

“However, if you look at Falklands veterans and those who served in the Gulf War, there is still a significant time of 12, 13 or 14 years before they seek help from us.

“It does take a long time for people with PTSD to seek help. Among the civilian population, it takes an average of 10 years to get help.

“But among our population, around 80 per cent of people have tried to get help from either the MoD or the NHS before coming to Combat Stress.

“For whatever reason, this help has not materialised.”

• If you are a veteran worried about your mental health, call the Combat Stress 24 hour helpline for veterans and serving military personnel and their families on: 0800 138 1619

James Collier - when he was in the Army

James Collier - when he was in the Army

James Collier - some of the photographs he has taken

James Collier - some of the photographs he has taken

James Collier - some of the photographs he has taken

James Collier - some of the photographs he has taken

James Collier - some of the photographs he has taken

James Collier - some of the photographs he has taken