Sophie Brigden – PTSD and Me

In this #YesSheCan x The WOW Network blog, we speak to Sophie Brigden about her experience in the army and being diagnosed with PTSD.

Tell me about your experiences in the army:

I was 27 when I joined, after being a school teacher, and prior to that, I had been travelling the world. I wanted to expand my world and wasn’t ready to settle into a career of teaching, so I thought the Army would be a great new challenge to stretch and push me outside my comfort zone. When I joined, out of 145,000 people, only about 4% were female, but I didn’t really think about it and it certainly didn’t phase me.

I was commissioned as an Education and Training Services officer after a year of leadership training at Sandhurst and embarked on a career moving roles every two years to ensure the boxes were checked for promotion. My first 2 years were spent delivering leadership and management training for soldiers and young officers in the safe ‘cocoon’ of an Army Education Centre before I got my next posting, a 6 month tour in Afghanistan, which would change my world.

I was assigned the role of education officer to support an infantry battalion on tour, a new role the battalion had requested. My first real encounter with the battalion wasn’t until I met them at Brize Norton to fly out, and I remember nervously looking around to find another woman but I realised I was the only one there. Only on arrival in Afghanistan did I start to experience a range of overtly biased behaviours towards me from the battalion, signalling that I was not valued or welcome. Alone, feeling pretty vulnerable in a war zone without any sense of belonging was not ideal. I remember observing the psychological pack mentality of the soldiers, their unspoken group strength and camaraderie, which suggested they had each other’s backs and left me feeling even more isolated.

It was an intensely macho culture out there, and despite the fact that the war encompassed a diverse Afghan population with a range of needs, this was not reflected in the Army representation. As time went on, their behaviour towards me got worse, and I experienced psychological bullying, sexual assault, and harassment. After being sexually assaulted by one of the top Afghan National Army officers I was training, I finally had enough and complained to the leadership. Far from being supported, I was told to return to train the officer, but this time, take a pistol back in with me. I felt powerless and humiliated, but this was only one of the many different incidences I had to deal with, on my own, out there.

How did you cope?

Initially, I just shoved all the hurt down and got on with things. In the end though I realised it was more important to have my own back and spoke out. Interestingly, the leadership did change some of their behaviour but it was too little, too late. Word got out about what had happened and I was ostracised by the battalion, spending most of the last part of my tour working with the Americans. At the end of my tour I was sent back separately on my own, with no two weeks of decompression where they assess your current psychological and physical state. And when those deployed were awarded their medals when they all got back, my medal was sent to me in the post.

I returned to the UK and was sent straight on to a new role, but I was showing the first signs of mental health issues. My behaviour spiralled, I was crying when not at work, drinking more and my moods were erratic. I had little trust in people, withdrew from life, and the feelings of fear and shame grew as my world got smaller. Clueless as to how to help myself, I initially saw a coach but I required at the time much greater support than could be offered, and so time went on and I continued to mentally spiral down. 

Despite this, at that time I was actually promoted, able to put on a mask in front of others, but inside I was breaking down. I also entered into a really unhealthy personal relationship. I had no self-love and blaming myself for what had happened, which made me vulnerable to abuse. In a system and culture that viewed emotion as weak and inferior, I knew in my current situation that I had to let go of my career and “get out” of the Army.

What did you do next?

I turned down my promotion, but because I hadn’t been expecting it, I had no plan for getting out. In 2011, the only support on leaving the Army was a 2 week Career Transition Workshop to help you write your CV and whilst the Army has got better at helping people transition out, this was not my experience. I found a job via a newspaper and again managed to pretend everything was all ok and continue to stuff down so much pain. This really took a toll on my mind and body and I was having many panic and anxiety attacks. With such little faith in and fear of others, I decided to set up my own business where at least I could at that point control who I worked with and alongside and start again.

I know you have been diagnosed with PTSD, can you tell me how

you got your diagnosis and how you treated it? 

I visited counsellors and physiotherapists, but the support offered was not right for me at that point. Personally, talking about trauma didn’t help me and it just led to being more chronically stressed and emotionally dysregulated. I had no idea I had PTSD or even what that was, so I didn’t understand why everything I was trying wasn’t working. I experienced the trauma both physically and mentally, my hair fell out, I experienced daily flashbacks, I slept badly, and I was so very, very scared. I avoided and withdrew further, keeping away from most people who didn’t understand and struggled with my relationship with me.

A pivotal moment for me was finding and reading a book by Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps The Score. He talked about treating veterans with PSTD, what PTSD is, and tools and techniques that I could use to help me calm my mind and body, such as practising yoga and meditation, alongside a range of interventions to help me calm my autonomic nervous system. This then allowed me to unpack and talk about what happened and start to make some semblance of it. 

Six years after leaving the Army, I was diagnosed with PTSD and I finally felt I was on my way to recovery. In all this time I didn’t take anti-depressants as I knew, for me, they were not going to sort out the root of my issues. In understanding what trauma, specifically PTSD was, I was able to choose the right interventions to help me heal. I even completed an MSc in Psychology – something I just couldn’t have done when struggling.

As I continued with my daily practices, my hair began to grow back, the fear that had kept me awake faded, and I began to sleep better. I experienced what they call Post Traumatic Growth, finding a new sense of purpose, which I had lost since leaving the Army, improved relationships including the one with myself and taking pleasure in the little things in life.

I had been lucky to recover but I was well educated and had access to my mortgage to help pay for the help I needed. Many other veterans are not so lucky. In fact, I saw this when I visited a couple of veteran charities and encountered men who had served in Northern Ireland. They had Parkinson’s like shakes and thousand yard stares and couldn’t sit down for very long. One man was willing to speak to me about how he had held his dying friend, injured by a roadside bomb, and it was clear the traumatic memory was still haunting him. I asked him about his recovery and he spoke about the multitude of drugs he was taking with no plan to wean him off of them. I recall hearing this and vowing to myself that I would not go down this route and would find another way out.

You now speak out about your PTSD. How does that impact you and others?

Some people don’t like me speaking out. It’s hard to hear, but I am doing it because I don’t want anyone to suffer like I did. Education around mental health and being open and honest is so important if we are to reduce the stigma around the subject. I also think that talking about the fact that you can recover and grow positively from trauma is really important to talk about too. For me, it has led to me really finding my voice, being able to speak up and stand up even when others disagree or attack you and knowing I will be ok.

If we don’t speak out, then we will continue to perpetuate emotionally unhealthy cultures, allowing bias and poor behaviour to continue and we will hide, push down and suffer in silence because we are frightened of what others will think. The Army still values masculine type behaviour, so vulnerability and emotions aren’t talked about, let alone celebrated. You only have to see those veterans suffering to see how not valuing emotions hurts everyone, regardless of gender, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Things are getting better, but much more needs to be done and it is taking a very long time for the cultural norms to shift.

This blog was originally posted on The WOW Network.
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