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Talking about PTSD: One crew member's story

Nigel Crang, Torbay RNLI crew member, shares his experience of accessing RNLI welfare and wellbeing support services following years of battling alone with symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) – and urges those in a similar situation not to bottle things up.

Nigel Crang standing next to RNLI lifeboat 'RNLB Alec and Christina Dykes'

Photo: RNLI

This article contains references to suicide and traumatic and violent incidents that some may find upsetting. You can find out about the support available to you on the wellbeing page.

I’m Nigel Crang and I joined the lifeboat crew 35 years ago in 1988.

I was born and bred in Brixham. When we were kids, we used to hang around the lifeboat station with one of the old coxswains, bouncing up and down the slipways on milk crates in summer.

The lifeboat station has always been a big part of my life. Before I was on the crew, I was involved with activities like sailing, kayaking, and long-distance swimming. I joined the crew because I wanted to put something back into the local lifeboat station that had helped us over the years.

With my years of experience, I've always been seen as a bit of a figurehead of the inshore lifeboat and have been on the all-weather lifeboat crew as well. A lot of people would come to me for advice with the boat and training.

In a 35-year period, I’ve attended all kinds of different shouts – anything from yachts in trouble, to cargo boats, cruise liners, cliff jobs, and tidal cut-offs. You name it, we've done it. We're one of the busiest stations on the south coast.

It was probably in the last 5 to 8 years that I started experiencing problems.

Sleepless nights

Shouts I’d attended from around 18–19 years ago were coming back and affecting me. I've been on a number of traumatic shouts where we've gone out to people attempting to take their own lives, or recovered people from the water, but there were two or three in particular that kept on coming back to bite me: a 14-year-old diver that we recovered from the water 2 weeks after he went missing. A boat that we found on the rocks over by Broad Sands, but couldn't find the person. Then, 3 weeks later, myself and another crew member went out and recovered his body from the rocks. But the main shout causing me problems was in 2005 – a shout for an oil tanker.

We had a call out to a suspected heart attack. I remember the shout like it was yesterday; I remember launching the boat, going alongside the oil tanker, and the whole process of getting to the captain's cabin, expecting to walk in and deal with a heart attack case. When we got to the captain's cabin, we found out that the captain had had a heart attack, but it had been caused by stab wounds inflicted by a crew member on the tanker. The room was like a scene out of a horror film.

We left the paramedic in with the captain to do anything he could. In the hours that followed we were called back to the boat to see if we could find the perpetrator who had possibly gone over the side. After about a 2-hour search, it was called off and we returned to the station. I didn't think anything of it. It was a shout. Obviously, what we saw was upsetting, but we just came back to the boathouse, had a cup of tea, and went home.

That was in 2005. And probably by about 2016–2017, things started materialising that would affect me at night. I would wake up and relive the scene on the boat. I'd always wake up around 2 o'clock in the morning and stay awake for an hour, 2 hours. It affected my family because I wasn't sleeping very well. It was also affecting my business at the time because I couldn't work in a room on my own.

My partner advised me to go and see a crew member who's part of TRiM (Trauma Risk Management) on our lifeboat crew. I thought that as I was on the lifeboat crew, and I do a bit of rugby, people would think I was soft if I did that. But I went and had a 2-hour meeting, and our TRiM person gave me some advice. And then stupidly – this was the biggest mistake I made – I walked out of his room, got the paperwork, and chucked it in a bin.

Reaching out

So 18 months later I was still experiencing sleepless nights and not able to work on my own, when one of the lifeboat crew held a meeting about TRiM. I got up and spoke about what we'd seen aboard the boat that night. Everybody just looked at me, gobsmacked. I'd never really spoken about it before.

I felt I couldn't go back to the crew member I'd originally spoken to because he was a friend of mine and a local lifeboat guy. I drafted an email and sent it to the RNLI, basically telling them what I felt and what had been going on. I sent that late at night and, probably before midday the following day, I had an email back from the Occupational Health Team asking if they could ring me.

The RNLI couldn't have done any more for me if they tried. They were obviously deeply concerned by what I was still dealing with on the lifeboat. But within a couple of days phones were ringing and I was offered the chance to see a psychologist.

The biggest problem I found at first was that going on a computer and looking at someone on a screen wasn't for me. I struggled to sit there and would get really anxious about my appointments. The RNLI jumped back on board and sorted it for me to go and see somebody face to face. That was the best thing I could have done. As well as talking about the three shouts that woke me up at night, I was coming out with shouts that I’d totally forgotten about from over a 25–30-year period.

Eventually, I felt able to put a message together to our crew and even posted on my personal Facebook page, letting people know why I was how I was. After I put it in our lifeboat WhatsApp chat, a lot of people said: ‘Well, we knew.’ Lots of the lads, especially the older crew, knew that I was having issues with something, but they couldn't put their finger on it.

About 6 hours after posting that message, I had probably 50-60 comments and massive support from a lot of people. I don't want any sympathy – being on the crew is something that I love doing. But after speaking to my psychologist, I felt it was something I had to get out because it had been bottled up for too long.

Ripple effect

Within the first month of me putting it out there, we had a couple of guys from our own station come forward who’d had issues, had been thinking the same way and had never done anything about it. From what I understand they've now spoken to the TRiM people. I do think it's a good idea to speak to TRiM – it can be difficult talking to someone you know, which is why TRiM best practice is for practitioners outside of your own station to carry out assessments.

I'm lucky. Every time I had a meeting with the RNLI, they would ask the question: ‘Are you alright today?’ From day one they made you feel that actually, you'd done the right thing and they were there to help. And they're still helping now.

We're not completely out of the woods today, but it's probably 80% better than it was. Laura, my wife, appreciates what’s happened, and what's caused it over a 35-year period. Since seeing a psychologist, I feel more comfortable speaking about the things that happened – things that woke me up. I don't have so many jumps in the night, or if I do, they're quite mild.

In general, it's going the right way for me at the moment, because I got the right help. It’s a massive difference to remember where I was and where I am now.

There are probably hundreds of people out there, within crews or in other parts of the organisation, who are bottling things up like I did for over 8 years. It can be very hard to take those first steps, but it's very worthwhile speaking to somebody.

As lifeboat crew members, we often feel that we’re here to save lives, not to worry about our own feelings. But I think you do need to get out and speak to somebody. The amount of times you go on a shout and you're expecting one thing, and you end up with six other things to deal with. It doesn't matter what shout you go to, it's never exactly what you thought it was going to be.

If you’ve been affected by anything in this article, you are not alone.

Request TRiM support by emailing [email protected] or by calling the RNLI Operations Room on 0800 011 3129 (UK) or 1800 200 376 (Ireland).

Find out more about wellbeing support on the Volunteer Zone.

Download and print a poster sharing Nigel’s story (PDF 24MB).