By Harriet Whitehead
A former soldier who suffered from PTSD and attempted to take his own life five times after seeing his friend killed in action has credited art with saving his life.
Jay Wheeler had given up on living after serving 15 years as a corporal with the Queen’s Royal Hussars – even hoarding rubbish in his flat as he struggled to cope.
After being hospitalised following a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress (PTSD) and borderline personality disorder the 46-year-old discovered art and now travels the world spraying the word ‘love’ on the streets.
Jay, who also credits his beloved three-year-old English bulldog Fudge with helping him get back on his feet over the last two years, is also calling for more support for soldiers who struggle with mental illness after leaving the army.
Jay, from Liverpool, Merseyside, said: “I hit rock bottom. I thought there was something really wrong with me.
“Between 2012 and 2015 I attempted suicide five times.
“I was living on my couch and I’d started to hoard bags of rubbish in my flat. I wasn’t washing or brushing my teeth and these black bags full of rubbish would pile up around me.
“I was in a dark place and didn’t think I deserved to live.
“I even threw my television over the balcony. Everything got launched out.
“I stopped eating for a couple of months. I’d just have sips of water. I was hospitalised and put on fluids. I didn’t care what happened to me. I wanted to just fade away.
“The couch became my home and I became used to living like that. The only reason it ended was because I was burgled and the police saw the state of the house.”
Jay was medically discharged from the army in September 2013 having done two tours of Kosovo, two in Iraq and one in Afghanistan in 2011 – when his friend Zak Cusack was killed at the age of 21 during a small fire exchange.
Jay said: “Afghanistan was the first tour where I actually experienced our own soldiers getting blown up. I’d never seen that before.
“The other tours had been more about peacekeeping but in Afghanistan, it was seven months of just trying to survive the day.
“After Afghanistan I started questioning everything.
“I lived with Zak in the same tent in the Green Zone. We were together every day. I just couldn’t cope after he died. I’d never experienced anything like that before.
“I was sent on leave and I just tried to block the experience out. Within four months of being on leave I became very depressed, angry and intolerant. I’d go into town and look at people hoping they’d react.”
It was while in hospital that Jay discovered art therapy which he credits with saving his life.
Jay said: “I’d never done any painting or artwork before. At first I was reluctant but then I thought I was going to be there for a while so I might as well.
“I’d write the word ‘love’ because that’s what I try to adhere to.
“After I was discharged I bought a white canvas and sprayed ‘love’ on it. Then I’d just walk to the hospital for my daily appointments carrying this canvas through the streets. I did it every day for six weeks.
“I wanted people to notice it and interpret it in their own way.”
Jay then started to spray the word on the streets of Liverpool – building up a following on his social media page LoveArtGlobal and picking up awards including the Army Templar Award for soldiers who use art as therapy and the Merseyside Recovery Award 2015 in recognition of his artwork and outdoor installations.
He now travels across the UK and Europe to spray the word – last year creating a memorial to the victims of the 2017 Barcelona terror attack.
Despite it getting him into trouble with the authorities, Jay has vowed to continue.
Jay said: “I told them I’ve no intention of stopping because it felt right for me to be doing this. There’s so much hate in the world, I want to show there’s love.
“It’s my therapy. I go out and go spraying. I think if I hadn’t found art I would be dead.
“It’s also down to my English bulldog Fudge – she brings a bit of stability and a reason to get up in the morning.
Jay had a lot of support from armed forces charity SSAFA who provided a caseworker who helped turn his life around – and he now fundraises and volunteers for them speaking in schools about his experience.
Jay said: “For a long time I was angry with the fact that people who’ve served their country end up with little support – living with mental illness, on the streets or in prison. There should be intervention before that happens.
“It’s thanks to SSAFA that I’m in a better place. They’re heroes.”