When Paul ‘Twitch’ Twitchell was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after serving in the Royal Air Force, it wasn’t just his mental health that was affected.
This Mental Health Awareness Week (May 13-19), Veterans supported by Help for Heroes are speaking out about how physical injuries affected their mental health and body image.
“During my 22-year career as a Weapon Technician in the RAF I spent the majority of that time carrying out Bomb Disposal duties.”
“The role was extremely physically demanding and full of Operationally traumatic events so Fitness levels were constantly maintained to a very high standard. I took my good physique and strength for granted with a 'work hard, play hard' attitude.”
Symptoms of PTSD started to show Paul returned from 3 tours of Iraq – “When the symptoms of PTSD became too great, I gained a posting into an Instructional role at a different unit. At this point, I didn't know I had PTSD and just thought I was going mad. I self-medicated with alcohol and began a downward spiral of depression and increasingly frightening symptoms until I attempted suicide.”
Paul says that his body also took a beating alongside his mental health. “Without the constant requirement to maintain fitness, I gained weight and lost muscular definition quickly. Following the start of my journey through diagnosis, medication and therapy I ignored my physical health and couldn't bear to look at my body naked any longer.”
“My clothes were replaced with frumpy, baggy, unfashionable rags as I'd lost my self-esteem completely.”
It was when Paul was introduced to Help for Heroes and the Invictus Games ‘family’ that he said something ‘magical happened’ – “Training was hard and I was surrounded by good looking, body beautiful people and, like an idiot, I chose the sport of swimming. Ironically, wearing a small pair of swimming jammers for hours on end in front of strangers began to help how I felt but then flying to Sydney to stand on the starting blocks in front of 6000 spectators and the world's media… I began to fall apart with anxiety.”
“But my Psychological Wellbeing Practitioner at Help for Heroes recognised my fears, used grounding techniques, a friendly smile and that magical 'hand on the shoulder' which was great, but the changing moment was when he asked me what I could control.”
"I instantly accepted and realised that no one was there to see my wobbly bits or my love handles, everyone was there to see Wounded Service Personnel and Veterans using sport to aid recovery and show the world that we can be proud of ourselves once more."
Paul now works as a Motivational Speaker where he talks about his journey from being a victim of PTSD to being a conqueror of a mental health illness. "Every time I deliver my speech 'From Basra to Sydney' I am met with instant feedback from many audience members who can relate to my story and are motivated to seek help".
"As a Sitting Volleyball Coach, I have the luxury of providing a safe and fun environment to help people find their smile again. The most noticeable thing about Sitting Volleyball is that people of all ages, abilities, gender and body style play on an equal level with zero disadvantages, an attribute unique to sport".