The gym gave me my life back
David Parker, 53, is a veteran from Lincoln who suffers from PTSD. He truly believes that exercise saved his life.
David was a soldier for 14 years until he turned 30. Following a tour of Northern Ireland, he was posted to Bosnia and then Iraq during the First Gulf War, where he was a medic removing casualties. David saw terrible things: the targeting of innocent non-combatants in the Balkan civil war; colleagues killed and injured in the Gulf. And the things he saw took their toll.
He left the army in 1994 and returned to Lincoln with his family and joined the prison service. Although he couldn’t see it, he wasn’t the same man. War had changed him. No longer the kind and easy teenager – he was now angry and depressed. He was always on edge, his temper was on the shortest fuse. He snapped at people – at his wife and his children Ben and Katie.
Slowly he began to accept that something was wrong – but he didn’t know what it was. One day, after his second marriage had failed, some inmates were burning an old mop head. Hit by the acrid smell of the smoke, something in him snapped. He was back in Bosnia, war raging around him – gunfire, the screams of the wounded and dying. He looked down and, hallucinating, saw a dead baby in his arms. He knew he needed help.
His doctor diagnosed PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), a condition characterised by intense flashbacks and nightmares – an anguished reliving of the trauma. In David’s case it also brought anxiety and depression. It can also lead to emotional numbness, making close relationships difficult.
A friend recommended Help for Heroes. The first thing they did was to get him active. There is strong evidence that exercise eases the symptoms of PTSD and helps sufferers cope.
He joined his local gym – Active Nation’s Birchwood Leisure Centre in Lincoln. Regular sessions brought real benefits. Pounding the treadmill or hammering the rowing machine got his blood singing and made him feel alive again. Exercise also brings proven therapeutic benefits to people suffering with depression and anxiety. And with none of the side-effects of medication. David truly believes that had he not joined Birchwood Leisure Centre on that Friday morning, he wouldn’t be alive today.
David joined The Band Of Brothers – a charity that works with injured servicemen and women with mental health problems. Meeting others suffering from post-conflict PTSD was a huge boost – he wasn’t alone. The charity also helped him travel to Colorado to compete in the Warrior Games – a major US army competition for wounded, injured and ill service personnel and veterans.
Competing for his country against veterans from Canada, Australia and the US reignited his former pride – he felt like he belonged again. Life was worthwhile.
Living with PTSD is not easy. David knows that good times will be followed by bad. He still gets low, still needs to retreat. But he also knows that the bad times will pass – and that being active, taking to the gym, heading out with his beloved Herbie are powerful allies. All he can do is take one day at a time. He has reason to hope.