Former soldier Steve Craddock turned to cycling to combat post-traumatic stress – now he’s Help for Heroes’ top fundraiser.
It’s hard to find the words to talk about post-traumatic stress disorder. People can look at a double amputee and imagine what life might be like for them, but it’s the hidden wounds that are often the hardest. You can’t see what we’re going through, which is why PTSD sometimes frightens people.
I was diagnosed 11 years ago, seven years after leaving the Army. I’ll be honest, at the age of 17, I hadn’t exactly signed up for Queen and country, more for the sport and the chance to see the world. I’d grown up in Newcastle and my first job was in the shipyard. I couldn’t stand it, so I walked out, joined the Royal Engineers and did six tours of Northern Ireland in the Seventies and Eighties before leaving to run a security company.
"I now know that PTSD will always be with me. But on my bike, I feel like everything is good in the world"
Army life was pretty exciting. Running around getting paid to shoot guns – it was fantastic. We were first deployed to Londonderry in 1976 as infantry soldiers, when I was 18. That was a good tour. We didn’t lose anybody and did a lot of searching and patrolling the streets. At the time the official IRA and the Provisional IRA were fighting against each other, so they left us pretty much alone. The day we left, however, one of the guys taking over from us was killed.
Things changed as I became more experienced. I spent two years as a member of the permanent squadron in Northern Ireland, building peace lines and fortified areas in Belfast and watchtowers on the border. There wasn’t much time to be frightened but I saw some horrendous things. We soldiers had a big box in the backs of our heads and anything we didn’t like went in there. As a squaddie, you always bottle it up, try not to show any weak side of yourself. We couldn’t be worrying because even if a mate had been killed, we still had to get back on the streets the next day, trying to protect ourselves and our friends.
Everything was pretty well locked away in my mind until 11 years ago, when my brother died in tragic circumstances. It seemed to be the key that flicked the box open and everything came flooding out, in high definition. I wasn’t just getting memories, this was real. I was part of the scene back in Ireland, smelling the blood, hearing all the sounds and sensing the tastes. Somehow it was clearer than it was when it had actually happened and it brought on these huge waves of terrible emotion and fear. I wanted to sleep, but with that came nightmares. So I tried to stay awake, but I was always frightened that I’d get a flashback.
I didn’t know how to handle it. I didn’t have much of an idea what PTSD was and I didn’t want to tell anyone in case they thought I was going mad. So I kept a stiff upper lip and tried to stay as smiling “Geordie” Craddock, even when my world was collapsing. The biggest problem with that, of course, was how it affected my family and those around me. It was probably far worse for them. I made my wife’s life hell. I was a nasty, vindictive git and if that woman hadn’t stood by me and told me again and again that I wasn’t going to get rid of her, I don’t know what I’d have done.
In the end, I finally went for help. The doctor referred me to a specialist who diagnosed PTSD and offered me the usual counselling. At least I knew I wasn’t going mad – I had a condition. But by this point I’d reached 17st (107kg) and was in a right physical mess, and that was affecting my mental health too. I made a decision. I was the only one who could decide I was going to get better, so that’s what I’d do.
"I kept a stiff upper lip and stayed smiling – even as my world collapsed"
I took up cycling with the military charityHelp for Heroes, joining rides and raising money for projects. I was terrible at first, but I got the bug when I realized how cathartic it was. Getting fit and strong again and setting myself targets to beat was crucial. Cycling became my coping strategy, my mental crutch and my medication. It also helped me to lose 4½st (28kg).
I ride five or six times a week these days, covering up to 60 miles (100km) a day near my home in Kent. Every time I feel a bad patch coming on, my wife will tell me to go outside and get on my bike. Once I’ve got some miles behind me, punched a tree or done whatever I needed to do, I come back feeling better.
The charity work has been a big help, too. I’m now Help For Heroes’ highest individual fundraiser – I’ve raised over £376,000. I didn’t actually know this until I met the Duke of Cambridge at the opening for one of the charity’s recovery centres and he told me so. I’ve done fundraising rides in France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and I run my own cycling sportive for Help for Heroes every year, Cycle for Heroes.
In March, I did a 350km ride through Thailand and Burma alongside the model and Help for Heroes patron Jodie Kidd. We stopped at various Second World War sites and tried to understand more about what our boys went through there. There aren’t any figures, of course, but who knows how many committed suicide, saw their marriages break up or lost the plot in the years after the war. At that time, you just sucked it up. Thank goodness things are changing, no matter how slowly. Now we just need the government to get behind our soldiers and make sure they get help in the earliest stages of any mental health problems.
Next week, I’m leading a team of six veterans at Revolve24, a 24-hour relay race at the painfully hard Brands Hatch circuit in Kent. I’ll be with guys who are barking mad with mental health disorders – no doubt there’ll be many tears shed. But there is nothing wrong with that. The more of us who talk about PTSD, the more it becomes normalised and the more people – whether ex-Army or not – will get help for it instead of staying at home and wallowing in depression or waiting for a tablet to come along that will fix them. It’s never going to exist.
I now know that PTSD will always be with me. But on my bike, I feel like everything is good in the world. When you’re flying through the countryside, sucking in fresh air, going down a hill at 20mph, you feel so alive. The thought of ever having to give it up terrifies me. If I have my way, I’ll still be doing it when I’m 80.