Written by Lucy Nichol

Health

It REALLY couldn’t happen to a nicer… commando

In this series, Lucy Nichol proves you never know who mental ill health will come after next by celebrating the diverse qualities and eccentricities of her lovable friends and acquaintances. This week, she gets on board with a former marine.

Illustration by Joanna Neary.

Illustration by Joanna Neary.

My best friend at school was in the army cadets. She was the only girl I knew who could stand up to a group of angry fifth years baying for blood, completely on her tod. It was usually over the long-running classroom graffiti row about who was snogging some spotty lothario, or a defensive response to fifth years encroaching on third year territory.

I loved having a mate who I thought was rock hard (and who I could hide behind at the first sign of trouble). Her tales of what they got up to at cadets made me certain that it wasn’t a playground for someone like me, someone who suffered panic attacks and would often become speechless in the company of strangers.

She was a good fit though. Intelligent, confident and tough. Prerequisites for the army. And having watched my fair share of Hollywood movies, (Platoon was on a loop at Dave’s house after school) I was convinced that anyone joining up had to be on a par with Arnie’s Terminator. Utterly invincible and superhuman.

I’ve since learned that ‘rock hard’ and mental illness have absolutely no bearing on one another. So it wasn’t my anxiety that made me unsuitable for joining the cadets. It was more to do with the fact that I would rather sit in my pyjamas eating pizza and watching Roseanne than tackling an assault course in the dark.

For all I know, my school friend could have suffered with some form of mental illness too. Why would I have known? I kept my anxiety quiet for years after all.

Army cadets, boxers, marines, they might be great at their job, but that doesn’t mean they’re immune to mental illness. And this fact was reinforced when I read about a former marine recently…

As I relaxed by the peaceful Sorrento coast on holiday last year, I was completely engrossed in a memoir by Chris Thrall. Eating Smoke – One Man’s Descent into Drug Psychosis in Hong Kong’s Triad Heartland is Chris’s account of what happened after he left the Royal Marines to seek his fortune in Asia.

“There was definitely a lot of drink and drugs in the army. We were all healthy, fit young men, but I think many of us were budding alcoholics even then.”

“I signed up to the marines as a bet,” Chris explains. “There wasn’t really any thinking involved. A mate bet me to do it; I checked out the physical attributes required – like running a mile in seven minutes – and just signed up.”

Chris had a particularly difficult childhood. An outgoing, tough and confident kid, he now looks back at his younger years and acknowledges that, deep down, there was always an element of self-doubt. But he bluffed his way through it, exhibiting a completely different side to what was really going on.

He was 17, homeless and living in his car when he joined the Royal Marines. And, while he had regularly dabbled with drink and drugs (mainly thanks to the appeal of the thriving 1990s dance scene) he certainly didn’t feel as though he had any problems with addiction.

Chris as a marine“There was definitely a lot of drink and drugs in the army. We were all healthy, fit young men, but I think many of us were budding alcoholics even then. Some people were sent away to what we called ‘basket weaving’ courses when alcohol addiction started to get the better of them, but we didn’t consider that they had a mental health problem at the time.”

Having come from a broken home, the appeal of getting high – whether that be through jumping a car with his BMX, crossing a fast flowing river or snorting a line of coke – was simply too attractive. “When you take a chemical and it makes you feel like the person you’ve always wanted to be, of course you’re going to do it again.”

After leaving the forces, Chris headed to Hong Kong to launch a business and seek his fortune. He’d previously enjoyed alcohol, ecstasy, marijuana, cocaine and speed, but he had never come across crystal meth until a colleague in Hong Kong offered him a smoke in the office toilets.

“As soon as I smoked it I knew it was the drug for me. It didn’t feel like a big step trying it and it made me feel wonderful. I sat back down at my desk in the office feeling amazing, buzzing.”

His initial experience of crystal meth made him want to take it again, and again, and again. But the reward, the amazing feeling he first encountered, quickly diminished.

“It’s like the experiment with the rat in the cage”, Chris explains. “The rat learns that if it pushes a button, it gets a reward. So it keeps pushing the button, day after day. Eventually, the scientist removes the reward, but the rat’s learned behaviour of pushing the button continues.

“It’s the same with addiction, except it’s not a scientist taking the reward away, but the drug. All of a sudden you descend into chaos, you become mentally and physically ill, you lose all your money, your relationships suffer. But your brain keeps telling you to push that button because that’s what it has learned to do.”

Chris Thrall today

Chris’ addiction spiralled into all of the above as well as a seven-month long psychotic trip. His imagination and paranoid delusions became blurred with reality and he was living in a dangerous environment working for a large criminal gang.

Sitting on the sofa in your own home in a state of psychosis sounds unsettling enough, but being that confused and vulnerable in a truly dangerous situation doesn’t bear thinking about.

Luckily, and with the help of some close friends and family, Chris managed to get back home and write his book. But first, he had to acknowledge that he did, indeed, have an addiction, a mental illness.

“People seemed uncomfortable at the idea of me sharing such a personal story. Perhaps they were putting themselves in my shoes and wondering what other people might think if they did the same.”

And Chris admits that, even once you have acknowledged the problem, it isn’t an easy, or a quick solution. It’s a lifelong learning process of adjustment and you have to keep at it. While groups like Alcoholics/Narcotics Anonymous help many people, Chris found that cognitive behavioural therapy was the key to his personal recovery.

“There’s a cycle to addiction, and in order to beat it, you’ve got to understand it,” he says.

“You begin in denial, thinking, I can’t be an addict, because I go to work every day. But then you see the bloody mess that your arms have become from the needle marks and something starts telling you that things are not right. You start to question it and rationalise it. This is the contemplative phase.

“Next, you start to do something about it. And all the time you have to remind yourself why you want to change your behaviour. Understanding the cycle of addiction can help you break it. And eventually, you stop pushing the button and you start to become stronger.

Eating Smoke book cover“Your life improves so much – you might go on your first holiday, have a baby, buy a house. You remind yourself that these things would not be possible if you continued to push that button.”

Chris is now a professional author, substance misuse specialist, charity fundraiser and a loving father and partner. Since releasing Eating Smoke he has only experienced minimal stigma.

“I sensed a bit of unease from a couple of people after my book came out,” he says. “They seemed uncomfortable at the idea of me sharing such a personal story. Perhaps they were putting themselves in my shoes and wondering what other people might think if they did the same.

“My view is that people who feel like that probably lack confidence in themselves. I don’t care what other people think. I have two loyalties in life – my beautiful family and my small circle of close and good friends. That’s what really matters to me.”

If you want to find out more about Chris’ experience, read his book. I thoroughly recommend it, but it’s not for the faint-hearted. So if you fancy a psychotic trip into Hong Kong’s triad heartland to liven up a nice lazy holiday like I did, check it out. You can also find out more about Chris by visiting his website.

And for anyone who wants to learn more about the cycle of addiction, this is the best animation I have come across. Well worth a gander.

Get to know more of Lucy’s friends and acquaintances here.

@lucy_nichol78

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Written by Lucy Nichol

Neurotic hen-keeper, feline friend and mental health blogger. Prone to catastrophisation and over excitement at the garden centre. Caution: do not give Diet Coke after dark.