Invisible Wounds

Capt. Wayne Johnston

“Stigma gets your soul, it scorches it.”

Nov 3, 2009 - Capt. Wayne Johnston stands in front of the hearse that will soon carry the body of Sapper Steven Marshall home at CFB Trenton before the repatriation ceremony.

After 41 years in the Canadian military, Capt. Wayne Johnston is moving on.

At the end of April, Johnston will be medically released from the Canadian Forces. He was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in 2010.

For him, the pain of dealing with his diagnosis – and the stigma that comes with it – is worse than any physical pain he’s ever suffered. He describes himself as a man with a chronic illness, an invisible wound that will likely never heal.

But still, he considers himself lucky. At 56, he has a loving wife and a mortgage nearly paid off. Johnston essentially has a safety net, something younger soldiers being medically released from the military may not have. So he’s speaking up.

“If I was a 30-year-old captain, I’d be scared,” he says. “I’d be looking at my three kids going, ‘How am I going to feed these babies?’ I’d be looking at my wife going, ‘How much longer is she going to be putting up with this?’”

Johnston says there are two key things that soldiers suffering from PTSD need: hope and financial wellbeing.

“We’re getting tired of hearing every time [a soldier] commits suicide, ‘You’re not alone,’” he says. “Jesus Christ, I know that.”

“Part of the mental health aspect is rebuilding your life, with your spouse, with your children, friends and rebuilding your skill sets. That doesn’t happen overnight. You need a social safety net.”

Support for medically-released soldiers

Soldier suicides have rocked the country and the military even as Canada winds down its Afghan presence. Why anyone – soldier or otherwise – takes this route is complex. But Johnston says he understands; at times, Johnston describes himself as “just existing.”  He has seriously contemplated suicide twice. “Something drew me back,” he says.

“We wonder frankly why young men and women are committing suicide. Perhaps to end the pain, perhaps to help their families. I know that sounds strange.”

Johnston believes financial strain may have an impact.

“Most of these soldiers feel helpless and hopeless,” he says. And if they stick up their hand and ask for help, they risk being released from the Forces.

So they start doing the financial calculations, he says, asking, “What am I worth?”

Under the old system, on their release from the military veterans were given a monthly pension. And with that security, he says, you had hope. You could plan for your future and take the time needed to rebuild your life.

Now, soldiers leaving the military are given a lump sum payment. Many of these young men and women are suddenly unemployed, with a mortgage, car payments, and a mental illness that may never dissipate entirely.

The New Veterans Charter, Johnston believes, has had far-reaching effects since its introduction in 2006. But “it doesn’t give security and dignity to the sufferer,” he says.

He suggests that giving soldiers greater hope for the future and financial security in the form of ongoing payments could help mitigate suicides in the military.

Bringing home the fallen

Nov 3, 2009 - Johnston attends the repatriation ceremony of Sapper Steven Marshall in Trenton.

Beginning in 2008, Johnston served as the national repatriation officer, helping the families of Forces members killed or severely wounded in action. “It was the best thing I’ve ever done as a human being, let alone as a soldier.”

But it took a heavy toll. Johnston says there isn’t a day that goes by that he doesn’t think of the fallen.

“It was great for my soul but it broke my heart,” he says.

“I’m a guy with a broken heart. And I don’t know if it will ever repair.”

Johnston describes every Remembrance Day as a “train wreck.” Each time he sees the names and photos of the 158 Canadian soldiers killed in Afghanistan, a cycle of sleeplessness and emotion begins anew.

“It makes for a difficult few weeks,” he says. “Sleep becomes impossible and then without sleep…physically, it destroys you.”

A living hell

At times, it feels like he’s having a panic attack, Johnston says. “You’re literally sucking in air just to calm yourself down.”

Sleep can be his best friend or his worst enemy. “There are some days I live the life of Dracula,” he says. He can sleep for 12 hours a day and still be tired. Other nights, he is wide awake and can only get some rest during the day.

Other physical ailments include irritable bowel syndrome, memory loss, stuttering, constant headaches that increase in severity with stress, grinding the teeth, chewing fingernails.

“I used to have a razor-sharp mind. I forget stuff like you wouldn’t believe now,” says Johnston. “I stutter now…I’ll be on the phone with my wife and I’ll stutter, I never used to stutter. Because I’m searching for the next word – almost like I forgot.”

Another effect, which he says many soldiers don’t like to talk about, is how PTSD impacts the libido.

“You have zero desire,” Johnston says. “You’re not the stallion you used to be. … That’s hard on relationships.”

Johnston credits his wife for helping him through.

“It cannot be easy for her. I’m sure she’d like the husband she married and I guess she’s never going to get him back, but I’m doing my best to be a reasonable facsimile.”

‘It gets your soul, it scorches it’

More than the headaches, the sleepless nights and panic, Johnston says the most painful part of his diagnosis is the stigma.

He has lost friends over it, the charity he started, his passion, his self esteem.

“It gets your soul, it scorches it,” he says.

“I’ve had open heart surgery, my gall bladder blew up – I know physical pain.”

But that pain, he says, was managed, and it was finite – the pain caused by stigma stays forever.

There are pills and mental health professionals that can help manage PTSD, but at the end of the day, people still need to stick their hand up and say “I need help.”

The only way that will happen, he says, is to end the stigma surrounding mental health.

Captain Wayne Johnston pictured in Bosnia.

“The latest talking point is ‘self stigma’ – as in, ‘Don’t let stigma stop you from getting help.’ I really take offence to that,” says Johnston. “That’s like saying to the rape victim, ‘you shouldn’t have worn heels.'”

He recognizes, though, that asking for help can have career implications.

“You’re 25, your skill sets are you know how to fix bayonets…and destroy the enemy – so those are your skill sets. Where else am I going to employ those skill sets? Maybe I’d better sit on my hands and not say a word.”

He suspects if he were a younger man, he would likely do the same thing.

By: Heather Loney, Global News

If you or someone you know is in crisis and needs help, resources are available. In case of an emergency, please call 911. 911 can send immediate help. For a list of available mental health programs and services around Canada, please refer to the list here.

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