Health

Alcoholism gave me two heart attacks and liver disease -  but since finding recovery I’m fitter than ever

Phil Credland left the armed forces in 2013 having served in Iraq, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo. After struggling with PTSD and alcoholism, he finally found recovery.

A silhouetted man runs on cobblestones alongside a river in winter

. Image: Ben Bortfeldt/Flickr

I was leading a team in search of a bomb that was reported to be on a base in Northern Ireland. In the forces, you’re trained to work in a systematic, methodical way, but almost two days in and we still hadn’t found the IED. There was no denying it was extremely dangerous, but I was ashamed to admit I was scared. I just put on a brave face for my team.

As none of the usual methods had worked, I had to improvise and come up with a new approach. I got everyone in single file and walked to areas of the camp that might be vulnerable.

Eventually we found the bomb and, thankfully, nobody was hurt.

But years later, after leaving the forces, I kept asking myself – what if? And it wasn’t just about the Northern Ireland operation – many of the situations I’d been in came back to haunt me. I began questioning all the decisions I made during my career, struggling with some of the actions I’d taken and their consequences.

This was stuff I seemed able to cope with when I was in the forces but, as I became more attuned to civilian life, I began to really struggle.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, these were the first symptoms of PTSD from military trauma. I also found I couldn’t sit with my back to the door, sometimes I couldn’t go outside, and I couldn’t be anywhere near fireworks or balloons. They all triggered horrific memories.

So I started drinking to block everything out. I don’t know how much I was drinking at that point, but I know it got progressively worse. I tried to get help for my PTSD but, because of my drinking, I couldn’t access it. I needed to be sober to qualify for the support.

By 2017 I was drinking so much I had a heart attack. Even so I carried on, barely having anything to eat or drink other than vodka for months. Fast forward to 2020, I’d lost my job due to lockdown and suffered another heart attack. Still, I carried on, because I had no other control measure in my life – no other way to manage the PTSD.

At one point, later that year, I thought I was going to pass away. I literally had my family come down to say goodbye but for some reason my body hung on. I got an infection in my kidney which saw me rushed to hospital. Because I obviously couldn’t drink in hospital I was chemically de-toxed which got rid of all the physical withdrawal effects. I realised this was my chance to get well and finally get some help.

After leaving hospital I was assessed by TILS – the NHS Transition, Intervention and Liaison Service for veterans. I was diagnosed with PTSD and introduced to mental health charity, St Andrew’s Healthcare, for support.

By the time St Andrew’s phoned me I still hadn’t had a drink – but I had been in bed 24/7 and wasn’t able to eat anything.

So they assessed me and then started doing what they call stabilisation sessions with me, which was to get me ready for the trauma therapy. For example, they’d make sure I had a way of calming myself down if I was about to undergo a particularly traumatic therapy session.

There was a waiting time for treatment but I somehow managed to stay off the drink. I was also still unemployed, and me and my partner were living hand to mouth, but we made a pact that I needed to get better before attempting to go back to work. If I couldn’t get better, everything else would just fall apart again.

I was really sceptical about treatment. The idea of talking therapy and meditation just felt like hocus pocus to me. But I knew St Andrew’s had done a lot of work with veterans and decided to at least give it a go.

After my first session, it was like a light coming in through the window.

I didn’t know what to expect but, that evening, I realised I could think about some of the things we’d talked about without any ill effects. I could see that there was a strong chance I might get better.

This ray of light really spurred me on. I kept up the treatment, I did everything they suggested, and the St Andrew’s team were really encouraging – no matter how negative I became at points.

My partner helped me to walk, gradually building my strength back up by going out each day, and eventually I was having my therapy sessions while walking. At one point I was walking for around eight hours a day – although my partner was a bit concerned that I’d swapped one addiction for another by that point! Now, I mix things up. I walk, cycle, go to the gym. And I have my therapy, practice meditation and EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing therapy). I’ve also got a therapy dog, a spaniel, who I walk each day.

My body took some heavy blows, and I haven’t escaped unscathed. I have cirrhosis and am kept alive by a cocktail of medications. And obviously my heart’s been through the wringer. But I train hard and I feel fitter and stronger than ever. And in terms of my mental health, the PTSD hasn’t vanished, but I have the skills and mindset to manage it myself now – without the need for booze – and I have the support from St Andrew’s when I need it too.

We’re coming up to Remembrance Day which is very difficult for me. I lost some very good friends and it’s tough so I will pay my respects and look after myself and my family. But overall I’ve gone from suicidal and not wanting to live, to really looking forward to tomorrow. This time last year you probably couldn’t have got a single coherent sentence out of me, but today I’m working in a steady job, training and managing my mental wellbeing. I feel I owe so much to St Andrew’s and part of that is what kept me going – because I didn’t want to let them down. I made it my job to get better.

I’m glad there are more measures in place in the army now to manage PTSD. Things like decompression therapy, for example. In my day we just got off the plane, hugged our kids and gritted our teeth. But even back then, even when I got as low as I did, I was able to climb back out of it with the right help. And if I can, anyone can.

Phil Credland left the armed forces in 2013 having served in Iraq, Northern Ireland, Bosnia and Kosovo. After struggling with PTSD and alcoholism, he finally found recovery and today works as a commercial manager in construction.

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