In it, she presents a heartfelt perspective from someone who suffers from military-related PTSD, and counters the MP’s take on it.
Not only a compelling read, to me it also symbolises the power of ‘getting the story out there’. I don’t think Gemma would disagree that it is a story tinged with anger and a sense of betrayal and loss (if you do disagree Gemma, or wish to elaborate, please do comment below).
In writing it, I hope it somehow brings Gemma some form of ‘posttraumatic growth’, either through the act of narrating her experience as a form of self-therapy, or that by giving voice to her vulnerability, she encourages both other sufferers to do the same. More importantly, perhaps it will provoke some form of more effective assistance from the society she served, and that seems to be Gemma’s primary motive.
I do not think I need comment on Gemma’s story further. She does that far more lucidly and with greater emotion than I ever could. I admire her ‘vulnerability with purpose’, her frankness, her incisiveness and her strength. Rather than submit and let others dictate her own story to her, she has the courage to do so on her own terms, and as someone who is living with and through the experience of PTSD. Good for you Gemma, and all the best with your continued ‘journey’.
Here is Gemma’s open letter to Johnny Mercer MP in full, as originally posted on LinkedIn:
My name is Gemma. I am a British Army veteran and I live with mental illness. It doesn’t define me. It doesn’t control me. It is now just a part of the ebb and flow of who I am. I speak out in the hope that I can help make a difference but it weighs heavy today. Today, I am once again battling with consuming shame.
I joined the Army in 1996 and served with pride. I left in 2002, feeling angry, betrayed and dangerously ill. Diagnosed with severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), my life quickly spiralled downwards. I sought relief in self-destruction and the issue became more complex. Back then, charities like ‘Help for Heroes’ did not exist; ‘Combat Stress’ did not offer clinical treatment and the NHS was ill equipped to assist. Five years on, I ended up in a private psychiatric hospital. Memories ‘inside’ are uncomfortable to share but I finally received the treatment that I so desperately needed. Heavily medicated, life took on a welcome haze.
But let’s get to the point. I am writing in response to your recent media, questioning the incidence of PTSD amongst military veterans. More specifically, ‘soldiers being swept up in a culture of victim-hood and wrongly self-diagnosing PTSD.’ You refer to the 2010 study by the MoD, concluding that PTSD affects a minority (4%), whilst depression, anxiety and alcohol abuse have a much higher occurrence. (As an aside, I would be interested to explore if this data is inclusive of veterans later diagnosed as civilians, post-service.)
I agree with the premise of your campaign – we must improve mental health care for military veterans and avoid PTSD becoming an umbrella term. I agree that we should strive to better educate potential employers, to avoid all veterans being cast as broken or ‘mad, bad and dangerous to know.’ We each have a responsibility to emphasise the valuable skills that veterans bring to society. I agree that Post Traumatic Growth (PTG) is an important and positive part of the story for the lucky ones. And I agree that the ‘Military Charity Arena’ is currently unsustainable and inefficient. However, I strongly disagree with the chosen framing of your recent remarks. I strongly disagree with the directional emphasis.
First, PTSD is a psychiatric disorder and cannot be self-diagnosed. Clinical evidence is required to access funding for treatment. Second, black and white discussion of diagnosis is unhelpful and ignores the reality of complex presentation. For example, PTSD commonly presents with intense depression and anxiety and substance abuse. Third, PTG and PTSD are not directly opposed to each other and are not mutually exclusive. But my main concern with your commentary is one that is harder to quantify.
It has been 20 years, but I now understand that recovery involves more than removing clinical symptoms. There is no button to reset. For years, I wanted to remove the PTSD and go back to the person I was before. To once again belong to the Army Team that I had worked so hard to be a part of. I would have done anything to hide the increasing struggle. But my failure to live up to military ideals became a deep and embedded source of shame.
Cast out, it is the anger that has driven my growth. It is the anger that has motivated recovery and the potential for change. PTSD was a breaking point. Some symptoms have shifted but there has been no return to normal. I have been forced to think differently about the world and about my place in the world. Forced to create a new narrative to make sense of the experience and find new meaning. I am a realist – the narrative is not an exhaustive history of events. It is a reflection of choices that I have selected to make a positive sense of who I am today. I have learned to tell myself that new story – rather than the pessimistic version of what happened – and that has been key to my growth. Confidence in my clinical diagnosis was the start of that journey – a signature block or preliminary chapter to help me regain a sense of my place in the world. It has empowered a vulnerable yet stronger perspective of who I am today. It helped me rebuild order as my world turned upside down. Your words have trampled on that order and rekindled that historic sense of shame.
PTSD was never a ‘badge’ and I have never associated myself with any brave or ‘heroic’ endeavour. For years I have hidden, repelled by the shame. Your inference of ‘victim-hood’ is insulting. It revives negative beliefs and paralysing shame. Do you honestly consider that the root of this issue is the ‘victim-hood of self-diagnosing veterans?’ Or might Members of Parliament look in the mirror and ask why so many charities are even present in this space today. Let’s consider how LIBOR Funding been used and who is accountable for standards of charitable governance. Let’s consider the capacity of the NHS and educational awareness of primary care practitioners. I will stop there.
Over the last weeks I have fought to remain silent, to detach and avoid the inevitable reprise. But I have learned that anger is preferable to fear. Sharing my story, however vulnerable, has been a fundamental part of recovery. Your words question the validity of that story and my biggest fear is that I am not alone. I urge you to re-consider your emphasis, to avoid sending those like myself back underground. We have come some distance in shifting the stigma but your words threaten the foundation of progress. However cumbersome, it is thanks to military charities that lives have been saved and veteran mental health sits visible on the agenda. Successive governments remain delinquent in upholding their duty of care.