THE BLOG

Back From Despair

18/03/2016 15:54 GMT | Updated 15/03/2017 09:12 GMT

I was a female soldier in active service for 14 years, but battling depression was the fight of my life.

It has been a little over two years now since my career and the only life I'd known for almost 15 years was taken from beneath my feet.

I started my career in the British Army at the tender age of 17. What began as a normal day shopping with a friend in Bolton town centre ended with the opportunity to completely change my life. I was offered the chance to travel and play rugby whilst earning a living doing the things I loved, and being young and spontaneous, I jumped at the chance.

Was I scared? YES! Fearful of the unknown? Yes. Excited? Definitely.

My first experience of Army life was arriving at Tidworth to discover I was moving straight to Northern Ireland. I was told to wait in the gymnasium whilst the vehicles were being loaded. I can remember standing there not knowing a soul, surrounded by strange men. It was not long before I stepped in to the back of a vehicle with 30 men and the doors where closed behind me. Hours later the doors opened and we were in Northern Ireland. No-one spoke to me during the whole journey, although I felt scrutinised. The feeling of fear really hit me then, as well as missing home and my parents. Had I done the right thing?

I was to spend the next three years serving with 1WFR regiment (now 2 Mercian) and I can truly say that this was the best time of my career. The army became the family I needed while I was missing my own, and I soon began to feel at home wherever I was on duty. I exercised in Belize and rested in Cancun, and I was even supported by my regiment in my dream to play rugby for the British Army. I trained daily with the lads to ensure my fitness was at its best. During my time with 1 WFR, I was selected for the British Army Team and my own corps. I could not have been happier.

During my military life I was privileged to serve with a number of units, deployed to Bosnia, Germany, Northern Ireland and Afghanistan. Through the army I learned strength, both physical and mental, discipline, self belief and the training to instruct, lead and manage accounts. I also met my amazing husband Gareth and had my three beautiful children. More than anything, I felt I had found the place where I truly belonged.

But in 2014 my world came crashing down.

I was medically discharged with compartment syndrome and adjustment disorder, and the day I had to hand my ID card to the Captain and become a Mrs instead of a Sergeant affected me more than I could ever have imagined possible. Those who know what it is to suffer in silence will fully understand, it's a dark hole where nothing matters. Your will to live, your sense of who you are, your self esteem... are all gone.

I had complete mental breakdown and ended up attempting to end my own life. Despite my husband and my beautiful children, I had convinced myself the world was better off without me.

My husband found me and gave me two choices: either give up and leave or be the wife and mother my young family needed me to be. It wasn't easy coming back from the darkest time of my life, but I knew at some level that I couldn't give up for my family's sake. I had been in active service for 14 years and yet somehow, this was the hardest fight of my life.

I realised I had to somehow reconnect with my strengths. I was not going to let my physical and mental disability affect my family anymore. I knew I needed to somehow find my own identity away from the Ministry of Defence. Yet I still wanted to give back somehow... they had given me so much. I avoided bitterness and blame, knowing it would only keep me stuck. It was the system that had failed me, not my colleagues.

I originally founded Direct Transitioning Help Foundation alongside my dearest friend and copywriter Anastasja from the civilian world, to hopefully prevent this happening to others. I started without even a shoestring but just a belief that this was my purpose for my next chapter, and somehow that faith and confidence has kept me going.

Adjustment disorder is a term used a lot for the devastating darkness so many ex-servicemen and women fall into after transitioning to civilian life with very little practical or mental preparation for how difficult life without structure or rank can be after excelling in your career for years. Some of us go from making life or death decisions, operating some of the most sophisticated technology or machinery in the world and leading troops through some of the toughest situations you can imagine, to finding ourselves unemployed, using alcohol or substances to cope with day to day reality or homeless on the streets through having never had to deal with our own finances or think practically about our future. Sometimes we struggle to fit in with civilians because we know our training has made us think differently - we see things very much in terms of being part of a team at all times and being prepared to die for our colleagues and our country, so our sense of ourselves as individuals outside the forces family takes time to develop. This makes us cling to our own community when we really need to be getting out there and making friends, which can make us spiral more deeply into depression because we are living in the past instead of building a future.

I am lucky that I had my husband and kids to keep me going, along with the confidence to go out to meet other people in the civilian world to talk about my work and gather some support. Others aren't so lucky, and these are the people I really worry about.

In 2015 we piloted our first workshops at the 2 Lancs regiment, starting with me talking about my story and giving soldiers some facts and information about what they need to be thinking about long before they actually leave - in terms of housing, legal issues, employment, education and financial management, with various experts coming in on a voluntary basis to speak to small groups at a table.

Our workshops are already having a positive impact on so many, and I can't wait to see what we can achieve as things develop and grow.

Through speaking out and telling my story I wasn't only helping those who I have served with, but ladies who also suffer with mental health problems and confidence issues. This led me to launch Dreamz Networking on social media with monthly meetings in Blackpool and fortnightly workshops. The saying about how there's power in numbers is so true, these groups and our little community is my way of staying well and motivated. Knowing I can truly make a difference and be someone my children and hubby can be proud of keeps me going no matter what.

Life is a rollercoaster full of surprises, some good some not to good. But it's those good surprises that can make the bad ones not seem so bad anymore. By sharing my story and helping to empower others, I hope to help contribute to a world in which we will no longer be ashamed to talk about mental health, and one in which we can help each other by connecting. Please get in touch at http://www.gemgardner.com, and thank you for reading my story.