Posted on December 11, 2017
My army career came to an abrupt end the day I went on parade in my boots, beret and pyjamas. I was a Welbexian enlisted to Rowallan Company at Sandhurst and the intense physical and mental training combined with a severe lack of sleep had finally taken its toll.
Up to this point I’d been doing well, thanks to my Welbeck experience followed by time spent in Germany and a stint as an acting second lieutenant at Newcastle. I’d been back-termed because of a knee injury and entered Sandhurst behind my Welbeck entry who were approaching the end of their SMC (Standard Military Course).
My mother and elder brother came to collect what was left of me and I’d spent the previous eight hours ‘climbing walls’ in the guard room. Grabbing maps from the walls I planned my next move and the provost sergeant struggled to contain me as I repeatedly pressed buttons on their security equipment. Not realising I had signed my discharge papers, my shattered mind believed this was still part of the training. I’d been given a mission to complete and as we travelled home I knew the number plates of passing vehicles belonged to my fellow cadets and officers who were monitoring my progress.
Within hours of arriving home on a North Devon farm, mum had no option but to call for an ambulance. I was out of control and desperately tried to evade the ever-increasing numbers of staff who chased me throughout the hospital. Scared witless and cornered like a trapped animal, I was finally compromised and with two nurses holding down each limb, I was injected with a tranquilising drug and right there, my lifetime of medication started.
A diagnosis of paranoid schizophrenia soon followed. I was nineteen and to all intents and purposes, my life was f*****d.
The outlook was bleaker than bleak. ‘James will never work, never hold down a meaningful relationship, never live independently and of course, will always need medication’.
I spent the next thirty years proving them wrong.
Now I fully appreciate I was a training casualty. I never served in a theatre of war and I never experienced the true horror of losing comrades or limbs. My battle wasn’t to take place in some foreign land but much closer to home, in the space between my ears. It’s a battle that took me to the darkest depths and one that nearly cost me my life on several, desperate occasions.
It’s a battle for which no medals are handed out and a battle where the enemy uses every devious trick in the book to try and bring you to your knees. And yet despite multiple admissions to hospital (often under section), despite the impact of living with a label as scary as schizophrenia and despite the debilitating physical side-effects of powerful medication, I’m still here to tell my story.
After a long and varied working life that has included being a hospital porter (a humbling position to take following the grandeur of Sandhurst), a printer, a salesman and surprisingly a retained fireman (they saw past the diagnosis), I now apply my hard-won experience to my work in mental health. In 2005 I started my consultancy Positive Notions and have spoken at many national (and a few international) conferences, trained hundreds of mental health workers as well as sharing my story with local and national media.
I’m fortunate to live in a beautiful part of the world with my wonderful wife Lesley, our precious dog Ella and am so thankful that many of my friends stood by me when all seemed lost. Strange as it might seem, I don’t regret my loss of an army career. My life took an unexpected turn and one that tested my resolve in ways I could never have imagined but to have had the privilege of saving lives as a fireman and now to be able to make a small difference to those going through their own troubled times, has ultimately made me a far better person.
If I’ve learnt anything from the experiences above, it’s been that we are tougher than we often give ourselves credit for and when things go wrong, don’t let pride stand in the way of asking for help.
I hope one day I may complete the circle and return to Sandhurst, to revisit the place my army career ended and the rest of my life began.
With special thanks to Tim Jones, ExForcesNet founder, who witnessed first-hand my meltdown at Sandhurst and who remains a loyal and trusted friend.