A WIGAN woman who was the first female RAF paramedic to work on the frontline in Afghanistan has spoken of her battle to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder.
Michelle Sanderson spent more than 20 years working as a medic in the RAF but her career was cut short when she was struck down by the debilitating condition.
It’s just frustrating that I can’t do as much as I used to be able to and I can’t go to places without thinking that there will be a trigger that will set off a panic attackMichelle Sanderson
It was during a tour of Afghanistan in 2012 than Michelle, who lives in Hindley, realised that her mind was not as it should be and working on the front line meant she had pretty much nobody to confide in, mainly through fear of affecting others too. And on her return to these shores, matters came to a head and she decided to leave the job she loved in the RAF.
She also split from her fiance, a decision she attributes to her PTSD.
“I started feeling it before but you just ignore it,” said Michelle, of Long Lane, Hindley Green.
“You kind of get the vibe a bit more that something isn’t right and it was my last tour in 2012 where I really knew there was something wrong.
“My mood was changing, I was getting angry and tearful for no reason, having nightmares, hot sweats and panic attacks and I couldn’t go out.
“To be honest you can’t talk to anyone out there about it because you’re all in the same boat and you don’t want to be the weak link.
“You just have to be quite careful about what you say. You can’t really say ‘look I can’t cope with this’, you have to muck in really.”
Michelle’s responsibilities ranged from treating wounded soldiers to training and recruiting paramedics.
Her final three years were a series of tours in Afghanistan where she worked on the frontline with the regiment as well as with the Medical Emergency Response Team (MERT), picking up injured soldiers from battle situations.
“You’re basically picking up casualties caught up in explosions, with gun shot wounds and so on,” she explained.
“Being under fire so many times has just changed so much. Seeing weapons now makes me sick so there’s no way I could stay in a military environment.”
Like many who suffer from mental health conditions, Michelle says she lacked support and had been left to suffer in silence.
As she returned home her condition got worse and simple things such as going out to the shops became impossible.
Before developing the condition, Michelle was very happy in her job and had a fiance and a bright future to look forward to.
Despite losing both of those as a result of PTSD, she has no regrets.
“It was a great career and I’ll never regret joining and I wish I could have stayed in but there were just too many triggers to cope with,” she said.
“I had to fire my weapon in anger and it’s not something I wanted to do.
“I’ve had very little support.
“The main support was from my GP there who was superb but he was banging his head against a brick wall as well.
“I’ve had nothing from my chain of command at all which is quite disappointing after 23 years of service.”
Michelle now spends her time caring for her grandparents with her mum not far away.
As she tries to rebuild her life, she is also speaking to as many people as she can about her illness to raise awareness but also help others suffering too.
One thing she has found particularly tough is the opportunity to work again, be it through triggers that affect her condition or a stigma attached to mental health.
“I’m improving a little bit,” she said.
“I’m going out a bit more but my social life is non-existent at the moment because I’ve not been able to go out to busy places.
“It’s just frustrating that I can’t do as much as I used to be able to and I can’t go to places without thinking that there will be a trigger that will set off a panic attack.
“I can’t work on the ambulances anymore which is what I want to do because of the sirens.
“I just can’t do that anymore so I’m looking at starting my own business where there won’t be a lot of stress, hopefully a bit of decorating.
“How many companies are going to take you on if they know you have a mental illness? It’s quite a stigma for them sadly.
“It’s something that needs to be addressed which is why I’m speaking out about it.”