Michelle was the first female to work on the frontline with the RAF regiment. She was left traumatised by her experience of battle in Afghanistan and credits SSAFA with giving her a second chance.
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For 23 years Michelle Partington had a model career in the RAF. She overcame a diffcult upbringing to sign up as a teenager and progressed to flight lieutenant while qualifying as a medic and then a paramedic. So how did she end up alone in a flat, planning suicide?
Michelle, 44, is the victim of an often heard but little understood condition known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For six months after being medically discharged, Michelle struggled to make sense of civilian life, was plagued by nightmares, and any trip outdoors caused crippling panic attacks. Yet, despite devising a detailed suicide plan, Michelle is still with us, and is thriving in a new job, having established a mental-health charity.
She credits all of this as being down to the intervention of SSAFA, the Armed Forces charity. “I loved my career,” she says. “It was all I wanted from the age of 13, and once I was in the Air Force it was all I focused on. I had a great life.” Michelle had postings across the UK, and served in the Falklands and Bahrain before doing three tours in Afghanistan. In the first she was the first female medic to be attached to the RAF Regiment – a great honour. The “awesome” experience made her realise her potential, Michelle says.
She returned to the UK for more training and returned to Afghanistan as a qualified paramedic, but these were harder times. She was on the front line treating injuries. “A lot of people wouldn’t have survived without us because we gave life-saving treatment on the battlefield. But some of the injuries made me wonder what sort of life they were going to have.”
In three months Michelle saw more trauma patients than she had in 20 years, and experienced a new feeling – a dread of the next shift starting: “It was so intense. It’s like the feeling of an adrenalin rush all the time. You’re always on call and as soon as you hear the click of a radio, your heart stops.” Michelle returned to the UK, but her
experience had changed her. She was haunted by memories of Afghanistan and the anxiety did not wear off.
Nightmares robbed her of sleep: they filled her mind with vivid images that wouldn’t go away. Yet she assumed it was “normal” and eight months later she was back in Afghanistan: it was this experience that shattered her self-belief. For the first time she had to fire her weapon and that, coupled with the extreme injuries she was seeing – some to children – brought new levels of shock. “When I joined up, medics were non-combative but that changed during my time,” she says. “Now I was constantly under fire and having to fire back. The injuries changed to the extent that we couldn’t save a lot of them, and every time you went out you didn’t know if you were coming back. I had diffculty dealing with wounds like blast injuries, but you just have to do it.” Michelle was performing under pressure every day, but in reality she was storing everything up for when the firing stopped. Back home she was sobbing one minute and furious the next. The nightmares intensified such that she would wet the bed. Holding a rifle made her physically sick and she became unable to work.
The sights and sounds of the barracks were triggers for panic attacks, and in less than a year her relationship with her fiancé had ended and she was medically discharged. She returned to her home near Manchester but lacked support and became more isolated. The Air Force offered therapy, but a long round trip to receive it proved unbearable for someone robbed of sleep and suffering flashbacks and panic attacks. “I knew it wasn’t safe,” she adds. “I just locked myself away and planned to kill myself. Only the thought of what it might do to my grandad stopped me.”
Salvation came in a letter from SSAFA informing Michelle that her sessions had been cancelled through non-attendance. She had not even been aware they had been set up, but seized the chance for help. She quickly established a bond with Eva Graves, a SSAFA social work team manager. Having someone to talk to in her own home was a relief. Eva took on simple tasks to relieve the pressure and in weeks Michelle ventured outside and started therapy. “I didn’t even think about my loss of independence because I was living in a PTSD bubble. I was numb – shut off from everything: I struggled to get up in the morning. I am really grateful to SSAFA and to Eva.
They gave me back the independent person I am.” Michelle is still recovering and works for North West Ambulance Service. “I miss many things about the RAF but I’m not bitter. I want to live what life I have got – I don’t want to waste this second chance,” she says.
Michelle is taking part in the 2017 Invictus games in Toronto.