Veteran Andy Kent is speaking out about depression, drugs and alcohol to raise awareness this Mental Health Awareness Week about life after the forces.
Andy, who was born in Cornwall and now lives in Perranporth, was an aircraft engineer in the RAF from 1984-91 and now volunteers with Right Turn, an Addaction project supporting veterans with substance misuse issues.
The 50-year-old said: “I found the institution of the forces environment perfect for me, however when I left I was looking for how to replace that camaraderie and sense of belonging.
“There was a massive drinking culture (work hard, play hard) in the forces and really strong friendships, we travelled the world together and always helped each other out.
“You think the behaviour in the forces is ok but it’s not something you can replicate in civvy street.
“I tried to when I left the RAF and ended up with a group of friends who were heavily into the rave scene. We were drinking, taking pills and then everyone is your friend.”
Andy spent a large part of his life taking drugs and for much of that was a covert, functioning user, becoming MD of a hydraulics company, with a nice car and a house in the country. But the drug use masked mental health issues and eventually for many other reasons his marriage broke down and Andy ended up living in a caravan.
Andy said “My main drug and addiction was amphetamine, surviving day to day. I was punishing myself. Then one Christmas I organised a party and nobody came. I sat in my caravan and realised the people I spent time with all had their own families to go home to and at the end of the day I was alone and all I had was that caravan. I isolated myself from my family so felt they didn’t care. I was completely on my own. When your face is in the mud, only you can do something about it, so I picked up the phone and called Addaction.
“There began a long journey, I didn’t want to be the way I had become. When you’re addicted you first think Addaction is going to cure you with a pill, like going to the doctor. I would’ve stood on one leg naked in the middle of the town square singing the national anthem if they had told me to if it meant I could change.”
Instead, Andy received support for his substance misuse and was helped to access mental health services where he saw a psychologist for initially three months, which ended up at seven months of weekly therapy.
“I was also diagnosed with depression. I didn’t know I had it, but once it was diagnosed I was taught how to deal with it. Most of it has eased now, but I can still feel it bearing down on me sometimes. I used to not be able to get out of bed. It was like there was a lead blanket on me. Up until a few years ago I had panic attacks everyday and every night at 3 o’clock. Each time I was struggling for the next breath, thinking I was going to die.
“But knowing it’s there, recognising it, is the first step in addressing it. And knowing it’s not my fault, that it’s an illness. Changing my life has changed my depression.
“I moved away from the festival crowd, regained old friends, got a flat and started a new job to start clearing my debts. There’s nothing better than an old friend who hasn’t spoken to you in a long time slapping you on the back with pride at your recovery.”
Last year, Andy finished his diploma in psychology, remarried and started volunteering at Addaction and with the charity’s Right Turn project. Right Turn offers veteran specific support within Addaction and trains staff on how to be more aware with veterans. Andy now runs support groups across the county including a new veterans’ group in Falmouth and has recently started working as an engagement worker at Addaction Chy, our residential rehabilitation centre in Truro, Cornwall.
Andy, who has been abstinent for five years, said: “While I was using I completely rejected anything to do with the forces. My time serving my country was a period I’m so proud of and back then I felt ashamed at where I had ended up. But that’s what happens with many veterans. Life after the forces can be tough, particularly if you’ve experienced trauma while in the forces, and all they teach you is how to drink.
“Right Turn has helped me give myself permission to be proud once more.
“Right Turn provides a service for veterans that’s separate from the civilian side of things and that’s important because we have lived different lives and relate to things differently. We work together to help each other with life after the forces, with the support of Addaction.”