Craig – Army
Craig had served in the Army for 20 years. When he first came to Gardening Leave, Craig was drinking to excess, withdrawn to the point of being reclusive and often sitting in the house for days with the curtains closed. He had reached such a low that he was avoiding everything and was completely cut off from his family.
When Craig first came, he had never actually gardened before. The Horticultural Therapist was patient, positive, and supportive and showed Craig what satisfaction could be gained by sowing seeds, tending to them, seeing them grow and reaping the rewards. He could enjoy eating the end result or simply by getting pleasure from looking at something beautiful that he had grown.
Craig decided that he was capable of taking what he had learned at Gardening Leave and using that knowledge at home. He was living in an old cottage on a farm, which had a massive garden which was mostly grass. Through his hard work and determination, Craig has completely transformed his garden and it is now beautifully laid out. His garden consists of: two potato and vegetable beds, a rhubarb patch, raised beds, two large poly-tunnels (built and covered by himself), a decked area, a pond filled with plants, three living willow features and various fruit trees. Craig is almost self-sufficient in vegetables and he pickles his own produce and even makes chutneys and jams. He also grows Victoria Poppies and saves the seeds, sending them back to Gardening Leave to help raise money for the charity.
Two years ago, the farmer from whom Craig rents his cottage approached him with a proposition. He was so impressed by what Craig was managing to grow in his own garden that he wanted him to work alongside his son on the farm, growing produce to be sold in the farm shop. In return, Craig’s rent would be paid from the work done. He now works two days a week helping to look after three large poly-tunnels and an acre of land. Craig is responsible for deciding what to grow and still gets ideas and seeds from Gardening Leave which he trials out.
What a massive achievement for a man who truly believed that he would never work again. Craig says that his life has been dramatically changed through coming to Gardening Leave and he has found a sense of purpose again. He also finds peace in the garden, a place where, although he works hard, he can also relax. He interacts better, is beginning to trust more and doesn’t automatically feel that people will let him down.
“The inspiration I get from coming to Gardening Leave gives me a purpose and a place to escape when things get bad”.
Mark – Royal Marines
Mark had served in the Royal Marines. He is a veteran of Gulf 1 and various other deployments and lives in temporary accommodation. When he first came to Gardening Leave he was a very angry man who did not engage well with civilians and he felt that nobody understood him. Mark is an outdoor man and gets very frustrated being ‘cooped up’ in a city. He frequently self-medicated with alcohol to the point of being aggressive and unreasonable to those around him; he had not been able to move his life forwards.
At Gardening Leave, Mark soon found that he is amongst other like-minded people with military experience and he began to feel ‘understood’ which made him start to relax. He enjoys all the many and varied horticultural tasks which the Horticultural Therapist offers for him to get involved in and he has set himself a routine of coming to Gardening Leave regularly. He is now engaging with our volunteers who show him patience, understanding and a friendly ear and he does not jump to conclusions as he did, and is more measured in his thinking about how he is engaging with those around him. Mark is planning to travel to the Midlands to see his father – his first visit for 14 years. He says that Gardening Leave has given him self-confidence, self-respect and ‘a kick up the backside’ to get on with his life.
Sam – Royal Armoured Corps
Sam is a 37-year-old veteran who served with the Royal Armoured Corps. Fresh out of training, he was deployed in the Falklands, then served subsequent tours in Iraq, and twice in Afghanistan. He was involved in reconnaissance, trained to detect, recce, survey and report on enemy use of mines and chemical or nuclear weapons. As a result of experiencing such prolonged periods of high stress, Sam has suffered significant PTSD. He is extremely hypervigilant, is unable to remain in crowded or noisy locations (which restricts his ability to travel and to socialise), has very disrupted sleep patterns, and experiences low mood and suicidal ideation. Despite this, Sam remains a decent, sensitive, intelligent and responsible person, who tries to do the best he can with very limited resources.
Because he is unable to travel by public transport, he attends three times weekly by walking 50 minutes there (and back). During the past year, he has shown himself to be a committed, reliable and helpful member of the gardening team, despite the turmoil in his private life; he has thrown himself into a wide range of gardening and construction tasks and, no matter what his mood state, always tries to be kind, respectful and co-operative with all the other members of the team.
Not only has Sam enthused other veterans into trying out to Gardening Leave, but he says himself that coming here has been his sanity, a sanctuary and a lifeline for him. This man, who since leaving the Army has lived an extremely isolated, fearful and lonely life, has become increasingly smiley and chatty here in the garden and we have seen him develop in confidence and ability during his time here.
Recent positive changes include his willingness, despite his shyness and reticence, to be interviewed and filmed for a documentary on the difficulties of veterans making the transition to ‘Civvy Street’, a subject he feels strongly about. He also takes home produce we have grown in the garden, which supplements his otherwise limited diet with fresh healthy fruit and vegetables. Recently, he asked us if he could choose some plants to take home with him to nurture on his window sill; he said he’d been thinking of asking us for a couple of months, but only recently felt ready and able to do so. In this way, Sam is now taking a little bit of Gardening Leave home with him.
Ben – Paratrooper
Ben, a paratrooper for more than 8 years, was referred to Gardening Leave to help him deal with his anger and alcohol problems. He came to us at the beginning of November 2013 and was going through a very chaotic period in his life. He became homeless, after breaking up with his wife. He came to us twice weekly (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) and at first, seemed very depressed and angry. Over the period of time he spent with us, Ben became visibly more able to vent his stress in less violent ways. He found outlets through talking about his problems with others that he trusted – particularly staff and volunteers.
He said that being in the garden was very “therapeutic” for him and that it helped him to relax when he was stressed. He said that as soon as you got through the black gates of the Royal Hospital Chelsea it was like being in a different world – away from the hustle and bustle of London. Ben found it frustrating working alongside people who did things differently or at a different pace – learning to become more tolerant of the people around him in the garden helped him to reduce his anger levels.
When asked what he enjoyed the most about being with us, he said that it was meeting people. He said that meeting the staff, volunteers and other veterans calmed him down and that he could relate to other veterans’ experiences. Ben said that he felt good to be around people on the same wavelength as him. He has now recovered enough to move out of London to the north of England where he receives a lot of support from different agencies, he has friends, and felt he could take on the challenge of living independently. A brave move. He tells us that he is trying his hand at keeping chickens, bee-keeping and gardening.
Tom – British Army – in his own words
“This is a short story of success. But how does one measure success? Is it wealth? Power? Belongings? I don’t really know myself. I am in my fifties, I suffer from PTSD, and have received fantastic help from both Combat Stress, who gave me the tools to move forward, and Gardening Leave, who saved my life.
I do not say that lightly about Gardening Leave saving my life. There have been many days and nights, over the last few years, that I felt that life was not worth living anymore. But every time that I went back, my spirit soared, especially the beautiful gardens. I want to thank the Horticultural Therapists that have helped me so much and the fantastic volunteers.
An awful lot of credit must go to the band of brothers, that are the other veterans. The support we give each other in our darkest moments, is phenomenal, whether it be at the gardens, on the phone or through social media, it does not matter, we all suffer from that insidious illness that is PTSD. I think Gardening Leave has given us all a sense of purpose in our lives that has been missing for many years.
The very first time that I attended Gardening Leave, I was an in-patient in a Combat Stress treatment centre. We went in a mini-bus, as a few veterans were using the gardens for some therapy by working with plants, no matter our physical or mental difficulties. There were lots of small jobs that we were shown how to do, either it was seeding, pricking out, and re-planting, various flowers, herbs, and vegetables.
Over the last few years, I went from being a very insular man, who had enclosed himself, in a one-bedroom flat, who had alienated his family and friends, and who had been married and divorced twice and was quite anti-social. Going to both Combat Stress and Gardening Leave changed all that. Gradually, I learnt to live with my illness and the associated problems that go with it, to the extent that I have now applied and won a place on a residential Horticulture Course.
I know that I have not said why I have PTSD on this short tale, I just feel that it is sufficient to know that I do suffer from it. But the mere fact, that I took steps to try and change and improve my life, was a hard and difficult choice, and considering that I applied for the course back in January of this year, I have stood firm in my belief that I can do this.
So, all I can do is let the readers decide what is a success. But to all the staff, volunteers, carers, and veterans that I have met over the last few years, thanks to each and every one of you for the fantastic support that you gave me.”
[Note: Names have been changed.]