Before I was diagnosed with acute Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I was en-joying a successful career as an officer in the Royal Marines. I was a proud husband and father, we owned our own house by the beach and I was optimistic and excited about the future. It really did feel like I had everything.
But then almost 10 years after my first deployment to Afghanistan, life suddenly became difficult. With hindsight, these difficulties had begun just days into my first tour to Helmand. I was struggling to sleep, was getting very tired, I couldn’t focus or concentrate, and I was withdrawing from those around me – which is very unlike me.
But within a few months it had become far more acute. Sleep was impossible, I was exhausted, confused and often overwhelmed. I became aggressive, and I couldn’t tolerate being around anyone – particularly my own children. And by now I was realising that something wasn’t quite right.
In my desperation, I made an appointment with my Doctor, where I described my symptoms. He listened carefully and then told me that I was suffering from an acute response to some prior traumatic experience. I had Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I had it very badly.
At first, I couldn’t believe this. Throughout my career I had looked at others around me and used them as my barometer. But in the days after my diagnosis, I slowly realised how flawed this approach was. Firstly, I had no idea whether those around me were actually suffering or not (and, as it would turn out, many of them were), and secondly, in considering our experiences at war I was comparing the hyper-abnormal with the hyper-abnormal. In so doing I had unhinged myself from, and lost all reference to, normal life.
And that is how my battle with PTSD began – years after my operational deployments, miles from any danger, and in the comfort of normal life, where everything should have been great. But it wasn’t; it was out of control, everything was overwhelming, and I was battling for my life.
There are treatments that help, and which can calm some of the more chaotic memories and symptoms, but the neurological and physiological damage is spectacular, and one can’t just miraculously un-have years of trauma.
So, those that make the most successful ‘recoveries’ are those that treat PTSD as a very serious life changing injury, which demands that life changes. And the surest route to ever-greater misery is where life doesn’t change, where someone clings on desperately, and doubles down on a way of life that is slowly killing them.
And this is what makes mental health injuries so difficult to recover from, because, first, we have to accept that much of what we thought was true about us and our world was in fact the dangerous creation of a hideous disorder. And second, to overcome this, we have to embark upon a journey to rediscover who we are, and how to live, all over again.
And it takes a monumental leap of faith to do this, to relearn what it is to feel safe, loved, and happy again, to rediscover fun and laughter, and to immerse oneself in the full breadth of emotions and feelings again. And such a recovery, of course, needs time – lots of time.
For some, suffering with PTSD, they find their recovery aided by sailing or surfing, being out on the water; others find it cycling, travelling quietly through the hills. Others find their place wherever there is a spectacular view and great company, where they can take in their environment and just be.
For me though, it was the mountains that I wanted to escape to. This is where I have always felt most comfortable. Yet since getting unwell, I had lacked both the confidence and the opportunity to do this safely; the obvious risk being that I might simply never return.
My recovery has been painfully slow and very difficult, but, since the opportunity to climb the highest mountain in North America with 65 Degrees North, my recovery has been given a new and exciting energy and purpose. I have rediscovered my enthusiasm for life, and my confidence and self-esteem has returned in abundance. This has helped me to gently push the boundaries of my symptoms and carve out that new life for me and my family.
And the more I challenge myself, the more I learn and discover, and the better I become. I feel that I have a life and a future again, and my optimism grows each day.
For me, climbing Everest was about proving that with determination and support, it is entirely possible to overcome even the worst psychological injuries of war. So although I still struggle, I am not a victim. I will never let my PTSD justify its bizarre and destructive behaviours, and I will always keep fighting, wherever I am, whatever I am doing, because that’s who I am: Joe Winch, proud husband, father, Denali and Everest team member, and Royal Marines commando.
Joe is still serving in the Royal Marines and is under the care of the Department of Community Mental Health in Portsmouth. With the support of his wife and children, Joe has developed a thorough understanding of his symptoms and diagnosis.Most recently, under the supervision of his Consultant Psychiatrist, Joe has begun a Graduated Return to Work with The Royal Marines Charity in Portsmouth.
Joe has also been working to transform perceptions of mental health and PTSD through his mountaineering. Showing that with determination and imagination it is entirely possible to overcome even the worst psychological injuries, and that life can once again be exciting and fulfilling.