A Royal Marine whose post-traumatic stress disorder caused him to ‘lose his mind’ and rendered him unable to look after his own children claims climbing the world’s highest mountains has helped him to ‘recognise himself again’.
Joe Winch, 40, from Exeter, likens his mental health condition to a ‘poison’ in his body, while his wife Amy, 40, views it as a ‘third party’.
The father-of-three, who joined the marines in 2002 when he was 23, puts his PTSD down to the ‘incredible amount of death and loss’ he experienced during his 10-year career in the military – especially his two tours of Afghanistan, which saw him lose 40 to 50 close friends and colleagues.
While the impact of the chronic trauma he’d experienced was very subtle to begin with, it became unbearably acute after he failed a routine hearing test two years ago.
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Joe Winch, 40, from Exeter, likens his mental health condition to a ‘poison’ in his body, while his wife Amy, 40, views it as a ‘third party’
The father-of-three, who joined the marines in 2002 when he was 23, puts his PTSD down to the ‘incredible amount of death and loss’ he experienced during his 10-year career in the military. Pictured on one of his tours of Afghanistan
Having struggled with his focus and concentration at work and feeling constantly exhausted due to sleepless nights, Joe suddenly began to experience what felt like ‘electric shocks’ in his body as a result of noise.
Living in a house with three young children, this quickly became unbearable and Joe made an appointment to see his doctor, who diagnosed him with PTSD.
He was signed off on sick leave and began a course of therapy and medication, with Amy becoming his full-time carer.
Describing his recovery as ‘learning to live all over again’, Joe told how a call from former Royal Marines Commando Richie Morgan from 65 Degrees North – a not-for-profit organisation that seeks to help rehabilitate wounded, injured or sick current or ex-servicemen and women through adventure – was the unexpected lifeline he needed.
Joe told how he was rendered unable to look after his children – Bethany, seven, Alfie, six, and Lexi, two (pictured) as a result of his PTSD
Joe joined the group on an expedition to the Alps, and has since climbed Denali, the tallest mountain in North America. He’s currently with a team at the Base Camp of Mount Everest, due to make their ascent to the summit today.
Speaking about his inspirational journey, he told FEMAIL: ‘The mountains have really been incredible to my recovery.
‘I’d gone from being this capable lieutenant colonel in the Royal Marines to barely being able to look after myself, let alone walk my children to school. I didn’t really exist anymore as far as I could see it.
‘Almost immediately as I stepped onto the mountain, I started to relax and feel at ease, which was the first time I’d felt like that in a decade.
‘I realised just how lucky I was with my family and how much I’ve got to be grateful for in life, which improved my attitude towards my diagnosis and my recovery.’
Joe joined the group on an expedition to the Alps, and has since climbed Denali, the tallest mountain in North America (pictured)
Joe said he believes the clock began ticking on his PTSD when, two weeks into his first tour of Afghanistan in October 2006, his good friend Gaz was killed just a couple of hundred metres from him.
‘I didn’t wake up the next morning suddenly having flashbacks and nightmares,’ he said.
‘Over that four or five year period of tours, I must have lost 40 or 50 good friends and colleagues, and it happened very gradually.
‘I didn’t become a wreck – in fact I appeared to be excelling. I got promoted, met Amy, we got married, bought a house and had our first child, so on the face of it, it looked like I was doing really, really well.
‘I think for me, that’s the problem with the idea of resilience. You can talk about resilience and appear to be resilient, but unless you’re consciously dealing with the stresses and traumas of life, it doesn’t just disappear.
Joe, pictured left in 2014 as OC Bravo Company 40 Commando Royal Marines and right in his Royal Navy uniform, told how he lost 40 to 50 close friends and colleagues over a five year period
‘It builds up like a poison in your body, and inevitably when you reach your limit, it all comes crumbling down – which happened to me almost 10 years to the day after my friend Gaz was killed.’
Joe told how, around two years ago, he began to find work and home life increasingly difficult.
‘It started with me struggling to sleep and hold focus and concentration at work,’ he said.
‘Amy and I normalised the problem as I had lots of reasons why I might feel like this – I’m in a high tempo career, we had a new baby and I was on course for another promotion.
‘But very quickly, sleep became almost impossible and my focus went completely; I would get very confused and frustrated, because all of these things that I’d always taken for granted – looking after my children, helping Amy around the house, doing things at work – suddenly became these Herculean tasks that would flummox me.
‘Over the course of a few more months, that led to anger, and then pretty quickly I became very dysfunctional.
Proud dad Joe, pictured with daughter Bethany after graduating from Portsmouth University in 2014 with an MSc in Leadership and Management with Distinction
‘I became suddenly aware of just how offensive noise was to me. I could feel it throughout my body and if it was slightly louder it would send what felt like electric shocks throughout my body.’
Amy told how she began to notice her husband’s hypersensitivity to noise, recalling a time he dived onto the ground after hearing a bang in a supermarket car park.
She also observed how Joe was less involved with their third child Lexi, now two, than he’d been with their other two – Bethany, seven, and Alfie, six.
She told FEMAIL: ‘I think the noise was causing him pain but he didn’t realise it, he just couldn’t be in the room with a screaming baby.
Joe pictured in 2014, when his unit received the Freedom of Weston-Super-Mare. It was also the year of the 350th anniversary of the Royal Marines
‘I was exhausted with doing everything with the baby and the other two, and it got increasingly worse. The impact of PTSD on the family is massive; it’s tiny little things that you don’t even realise. I can’t load the dishwasher with him in the room, I can’t do hoovering or any of those normal things. I can’t leave Joe with the children.’
Joe admitted his PTSD diagnosis in May 2017 hit him ‘like a bombshell’.
‘I had assumed that I’d got through the war and come through it unscathed – I still had all my limbs,’ he explained.
When Joe, pictured on his Everest adventure, was contacted by 65 Degrees North about joining them on a trek, Amy admitted she was apprehensive at first due to him having to go to a ‘noisy’ airport
‘Then all of a sudden you get told you didn’t get through it unscathed and in fact you’re very seriously unwell. In that moment, all those assumptions I’d made about myself start to unravel.
‘I started to lose all reference to who I was, where I was, what I’d done and where I was going, so it was extremely disorientating.
What is post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)?
Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events.
People with PTSD often suffer nightmares and flashbacks to the traumatic event(s) and can experience insomnia and an inability to concentrate.
Symptoms are often severe enough to have a serious impact on the person’s day-to-day life, and can emerge straight after the traumatic event or years later.
PTSD is thought to affect about one in every three people who have had a traumatic experience, and was first documented in the First World War in soldiers with shell shock.
People who are worried they have PTSD should visit their GP, who may recommend a course of psychotherapy or anti-depressants.
Combat Stress operate a 24-hour helpline for veterans, which can be reached on 0800 138 1619.
‘I had the sudden realisation that I’d experienced all that death and loss and hadn’t really thought too much about the extreme amount of trauma I’d gone through, and the spectacular damage it had done to my brain and my body.
‘The life I’d led to that point suddenly crumbled to pieces and I started to properly lose my mind.’
Amy told how she and the children began to view Joe’s PTSD as a ‘third party’ as a coping mechanism – an attitude that Joe claims has ‘greatly helped’ his recovery.
‘Joe’s always been such a quiet, calm, placid sort of guy, very easy-going, but when he was tired and irritable he would fly off the handle very easily,’ Amy explained.
‘He would just snap if things got on top of him. If the house was getting noisy and he was tired, he would get angry, which would make very difficult experiences at home, trying to deal with upset children and an angry man.
‘Now, because Joe has worked so hard to do everything in his power to make things right, it makes it very easy for us to see that it’s not him.’
When Joe was contacted by 65 Degrees North about joining them on a trek, Amy admitted she was apprehensive at first.
‘Joe had always really like the idea of the mountains – being outdoors and in an open space really helps with mental health conditions,’ Amy explained.
‘It took a considerable amount of thought, because airports are busy, noisy places – but they were flying from Bristol, which is a small local airport that we’d been to before, and not flying too far away if anything went terribly wrong.
‘He went on that and had a great time. Afterwards they got back in touch again and he was selected for the team to climb Denali.
‘The whole experience for us as a family was amazing. The change in him… You can’t expect a Royal Marine to go off on sick leave and sit at home and get better. They need to be doing adventurous activities with likeminded people. He’d gone from struggling to get out of bed to being part of a team.’
Amy said she’s seen a massive difference in Joe, pictured on his way to Everest’s Camp One from Base Camp, since he became involved with 65 Degrees North
Joe said he believes PTSD is every bit as life-changing as any other catastrophic physical life-changing injury – and the recovery goes on forever.
‘I’m constantly on the edge of being overwhelmed at home because of my symptoms,’ he said.
‘I love being with my children and my family, but it’s ever so difficult; it’s exhausting and really tough.’
He added: ‘PTSD is often associated with suicide or someone’s life caving in completely, which is true a lot of the time, but it’s not always the case.
‘I want to give a really positive story – that’s not to say for a moment that my life is easy, it’s still a tremendous struggle and I still struggle with my symptoms every day. But that struggle is so worth it because life is amazing, and I’ve got such a better relationship with my children and my wife now than I had even before the PTSD.’
Joe, pictured on his trek to Mount Everest (which can be seen in the background), said the mountains have had an incredible impact on his recovery
Despite the inevitable strain Joe’s condition has put on their relationship, he admitted the past couple of years have brought him and Amy closer.
‘I’ve come to lean incredibly heavily on her and she’s been absolutely amazing with me, as I’ve become somebody that neither of us recognised,’ he admitted.
‘Her support has been relentless. I can’t believe her patience; as I’ve been crazy and dysfunctional and aggressive, she always manages to see through it and recognise what’s me and what’s the PTSD.’
Secretary of State for Defence Penny Mordaunt called Joe an ‘inspiration’ for attempting to reach the summit of Mt Everest
Amy added: ‘I think he’s an amazing man. For everything we’ve been through, it’s definitely not affected our relationship. I think so much more of him now – I’m so proud of him.’
Speaking about Joe’s epic adventure, Secretary of State for Defence Penny Mordaunt said: ‘Lt Col. Joe Winch shows us that with determination and the right support we can prevail over the very worst.
‘He will be an inspiration to all and I wish him the best as he attempts to reach the summit of Mount Everest.’
To donate to 65 Degrees North, visit their JustGiving page.
Mental Health Awareness Week
Mental Health Awareness Week takes place from 13-19 May 2019.
Earlier this week The Duke of Cambridge and stars of television and music recorded a radio message to mark the start – highlighting the value of listening to a friend in need.
The minute-long message featuring Prince William, Katy Perry, Stephen Fry, Jameela Jamil and Alesha Dixon was broadcast at 10.59am simultaneously across hundreds of UK radio stations on Monday.
The radio message came days after the launch of the Heads Together legacy project, Shout, a free 24/7 crisis text service being delivered by Mental Health Innovations.
Led by Radiocentre, the industry body for commercial radio, and working with Heads Together, the mental health campaign spearheaded by the Duke of Cambridge’s Royal Foundation, the broadcast highlighted an important message as the week-long awareness initiative for mental health began.