A war veteran who spent two decades battling with mental health problems due to his experiences during tours of duty has called on fellow service personnel to seek help after professionals gave him the strength to turn his life around.
Nigel Lihou’s work for the intelligence services while serving in Northern Ireland in the 1980s and 1990s meant he suffered with “hyper vigilance” - a psychological problem that affected his everyday life and put enormous strain on his family life.
Even 20 years after leaving, Mr Lihou’s condition was so severe he would throw himself on the floor at the slightest noise, memorise every car number plate he saw, and prepare for “a catastrophe” when walking towards strangers in the street.
But the 59-year-old butcher, from Pewsey in Wiltshire, said his life has been transformed since reaching out to military charity Help for Heroes who have put him on their new Hidden Wounds programme.
Mr Lihou said: “My life is a whole lot better now. If I realised I had a problem years ago when I left the army, I wouldn’t have had that problem for all these years.”
The former Lance Corporal can still recall in graphic detail how a bomb contained within a bread van exploded at a checkpoint on Buncrana Road in Londonderry on October 24 1990, killing five people.
He said his symptoms were so bad that his young children were told they could never approach their father if he was sleeping, while his wife also kept her distance through fear he would instinctively lash out in his sleep.
He said: “I would go in the house at night time, if it’s starting to get dark the curtains are drawn, I have to draw the curtains, because otherwise people can look in can’t they, they can see in but you can’t see out cause you got the light inside, and this emanates back from protecting myself.
“If you were to jump on me whilst I was sleeping I would attack you, literally I would just fight you off, so the kids have always been taught never touch daddy, don’t jump on him whilst he’s sleeping, these are the type of things they have to be aware off, same with the wife.
“I went to an old steam rally with my wife and they fired a cannon, well I physically took cover on the floor, dived down by the tombola tables.
“I can still recall number plates now from Northern Ireland - dates, faces, addresses. I would see three people coming down the street and I would automatically start thinking about the worst case scenario - which one of them would I have to take out if it came to it? In the end I would only calm down when they were a few feet past me.”
The situation came to a head when parish councillor Mr Lihou got involved in a heated argument with a white van man - and saw his temper reach worrying new heights.
He said: “This thing inside me went, if he had taken one pace towards me, I would have attacked him.
“Anyway I stepped backwards, got back into my car, reversed back, drove round to my house and got out, and I thought ‘that can’t be right, that is not me’. But you think it is just the sort of thing every soldier does from time to time.”
Mr Lihou, a father of three and grandfather of six, was only informed of the Hidden Wounds programme when his daughter’s boyfriend - another war veteran - encouraged him to seek help at the Help for Heroes Recovery Centre, Tedworth House, in Tidworth, Hampshire.
He said he initially “felt like a fraud”, because the cherished resources were better spent on those who had lost limbs.
Just before Christmas last year, Mr Lihou eventually struck up the confidence to get in touch with Help For Heroes.
He said: “You don’t sit in a class, you don’t have to stand up and identify yourself as being, and this is what I thought, I’m gonna have to sit in a class, stand up and say ‘Hi, my name is Nige, and I’m a nutter’. The way it helped me with just one visit, was unbelievable.”
Mr Lihou said he had no idea the service extended to war veterans pre-Afghanistan, and that it had improved his quality of life considerably.
He said: “I didn’t realise that it would actually cover anyone that has served.
“I would encourage anyone, who is having problems, to pick up that phone and dial Help for Heroes, that is the way to go.”
Dr Vanessa Lewis, head of psychological well being at Help for Heroes, said: “Many people think of wounded or injured servicemen as recovering from IED blasts or fire-fights, but the reality is that many more may need support with everyday mental health problems.
“We want all injured or sick veterans and their families to know they can get help with managing their emotions, sleeplessness and other common psychological well-being issues as soon as they need it.”
To find out more about Hidden Wounds, go to www.helpforheroes.org.uk/hidden-wounds, phone 01980 844300 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.