Tuesday 6 December 2016

'My heart started pounding, sweat started coming and I just found myself lying in the corner' - former football star describes PTSD after brutal prison attack

Cathal McMahon

Published 10/05/2016 | 19:29

PJ Ward. Picture: @PJWard14
PJ Ward. Picture: @PJWard14

An inter-county footballer who suffered debilitating anxiety after he was beaten in a savage jail attack has told how he turned his life around through body-building.

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PJ Ward had just gotten married, was working as a prison officer in Mountjoy and playing county football for Offaly when he was set upon by up to 15 inmates five years ago.

His injuries meant he couldn’t work and he could never play gaelic football again.

Speaking to Ray Darcy on RTÉ Radio One today Mr Ward explained how his life spiralled out of control after the attack.

“It came to a stage where I would be waiting, expecting someone to come to the door, anyone could have come to the door and I would be expecting them to have a go at me.”

He continued: “I joined the prison service in 2008 and we got married on the 25th of September in 2010 and little did we know that six or seven months later the event was going to happen and change the course of the next five years for us.”

Describing the horror attack Mr Ward explained that a revamp was taking place at the prison on the day and a couple of the inmates were unhappy with the changes.

“Between 13 to 15 prisoners and just the two of us,” he explained. “On the day we were very short staffed so that was an element of it too.

Photo courtesy of RTÉ
Photo courtesy of RTÉ

“Both of us we ended up on the ground and that’s all we could do. It was probably the longest five or six minutes of my life. It came to a stage where it was either get up off the ground here or it’s going to get a lot worse.

“I was able to get up off the ground and hit the alarm.”

Mr Ward explained that the attackers tore the rotator cuff muscles in his shoulder and damaged his chest.

The physical injuries meant the sports star - who played inter-county football for Westmeath, Offaly and New York - could no longer play the sport he loved.. But his toughest struggle was with his mental health issues.

“When it comes to mental health that was the key battle and a massive battle and something I struggle with on a daily basis.”

He was put on sick leave from work and a number of weeks later he started to suffer panic attacks.

Recalling his first attack Mr Ward said: “It was a Thursday and I was in my kitchen at home and for some reason I just turned to move real quickly and it was like the whole room just closed in on me.

“My heart started pounding, sweat started coming and I just found myself lying in the corner with my back against the wall not knowing what was happening to me.”

He said he felt like he was going to die.

The attacks started out infrequently but it soon developed up to him having four to five a day.

He said he began to sleep with a baseball bat beside his bed.

The footballer explained that he also began to have serious nightmares and one night his wife put her arm around him to see if he was okay.

“With that I thought that I was being attacked and I grabbed her by the neck and pinned her to the head board. And with that I woke up.”

He was diagnosed with depression, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and was on sleeping tablets. He weighed 19 stone.

The former footballer tried to deal with his illness through walking, running and cycling but they didn’t work.

However he did find salvation in body-building. With the help of friends he put together a detailed training plan.

“The whole process wasn’t about trophies or getting placed it was just about making it to Kilkenny and standing on stage as the best possible version of myself.”

He said it wasn’t about giving two fingers to the prisoners who attacked him behind bars.

“I needed to rebuild myself. Apart from me I needed to rebuild my family. What my wife has gone through the last five years is equally as tough as what I went through in different ways.”

Samaritans can be contacted on Freecall 116 123, by texting 087-2609090 or by emailing jo@samaritans.org

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