Michelle, Founder and CEO of Mentis Training and Consultancy, shares her experience of leaving the Royal Air Force and finding purpose after leaving service.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity.
"I'm Michelle Partington and I was a medical support officer/qualified paramedic. I toured as a medic in the Falkland Islands and Bahrain, which were actually not bad tours. Then, from the rank of sergeant, I did my first tour of Afghanistan."
What did your service mean to you?
"I didn't know myself when I first joined up, I'd come from a very difficult childhood where various things had happened, so I had no confidence, and I didn't know who I was. I didn't trust anybody. That's where I found myself — in the RAF (Royal Air Force). I found myself as a person, I grew in confidence, certainly through that first tour of Afghan. I had friends for the first time in my life, real true friends. And I was doing a job I loved.
"I found out you Michelle was, and it made me [who I am]. I know you see those adverts where it says, 'I was born in wherever, but I was made in...'. I definitely was made in the RAF."
Did you feel a sense of loss when you came out?
"Yes, massive loss, nearly every day. I would say for the first 12 months to two years, I was in a dark place and didn't even know where I was. I had no emotion whatsoever, I was numb. But then once I was back on my feet a little bit again, I realized that I was no longer with them. While I was off sick or anywhere, I never heard from them. After the 23 years I'd given to them, my first emotion was anger. And with my PTSD, I was angry anyway, which was not very good.
"Then I would look on Facebook. Social media can be a good thing, but it can be a bad thing. I would see all my military friends still doing stuff in uniforms and it was like grieving in a way. I'd just lost 23 years of my life, and I suddenly lost who I was again. I didn't know who I was, I didn't know what my purpose was, and I had no focus whatsoever. It's like, a bad divorce, I think. It' what I can account it too.”
What do you wish you had done differently?
"I think the first thing I should have done, even before I left the military, was to put my hand up when I was struggling. I truly believe that if I had done that, I would maybe still be serving now, I wouldn't have put myself in that position but I think pride, shame and the guilt of not being able to cope stop me from doing that.
"The second thing is not to be ashamed of feeling those feelings because they are normal and they are a reaction to an abnormal situation. At some point, you've got to face them, but then move on from them.
"It's not easy to work through all those emotions. I'm not going to lie and say once that you do, it's fine because it takes some people longer than others. But don't give up on the treatment because that's something I walked away from and I don't think I would have been as bad if I had have continued with it. Just put your hand up, stick with the help and get your focus on moving forward, not living in the past."
What are you doing now?
“I set up Mentis Training and Consultancy after I did a couple of talks and workshops on my experiences, all for free. and here was a thirst for it. Other people wanted to join and I had a waiting list. Then I suddenly thought, 'well maybe I could make a business of it.' That was in September 2017. I've not got five instructors working with me, three of which are veterans, which is fantastic.
"I truly believe I am using what happened to me to support other people and it gives me a new purpose and a new focus. I've got to now leave [it behind me] — that was a page in my book, a chapter in my book. I now have to turn that page. I believe I've done that and I now look at the positives of what happened in the military.
"There were far more positives and negatives. I had a great time in RAF during those 23 years. I look at the positives and that's the best thing to do. With any loss and even with grief, it hurts because you loved so much. For me, I did love it, so it is going to hurt a little bit. Try to think of everything that went well. I always do, and that makes me smile rather than cry."