By James Williams
I first became aware of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, or PTSD, when it entered mainstream consciousness after the Iraq War. Previously described as ‘shell shock’, it was now more fully understood as PTSD. Soldiers who served in conflict zones who had been through traumatic encounters often relived and experienced the symptoms of the event months, even years, later. Close to 30% of the Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans treated at hospitals and clinics have been diagnosed with PTSD. For veterans who experienced combat, the numbers are even higher, moving up to 49%.
So it was something of a surprise to me when I was diagnosed with PTSD earlier this year. At first, I felt embarrassed that I hadn’t served Queen and Country in a war zone, but the more I read about it, the more I realised that it wasn’t just soldiers who suffered. I could see myself in the symptoms.
PTSD is a psychiatric disorder that can occur after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event. These can include a terrorist incident, natural disaster, serious accident, physical or sexual assault in adult or childhood, and last but not least, military combat. For most people who experience trauma the recovery occurs shortly after, but some have such a severe stress reaction over time that this can eventually lead to PTSD.
All the physical symptoms associated with increased adrenaline, such as chest pains, sweating, swimming eyes, headaches, increased heart rate and panic attacks, are forever close to the surface. Any reminder of the incident or events leads to the body going into this fight or flight response. Instead of recovering slowly, those with PTSD simply don’t get better.
For me, it was some bizarre malicious communications in the form of ‘hate mail’ that pushed me over the edge. I was already seriously ill and had recently returned from the A & E department of my local hospital, diagnosed with severe stress and exhaustion. The doctors thought I was having a heart attack, but as it turned out it was my body’s way of telling me to stop (thanks, body).
For months I had ignored the subtle signs (stress, lack of sleep, irritability, etc.), but the severe chest pains and flashing blue lights finally made me listen. The doctors ordered rest but, to be honest, I could do nothing more than that anyway. I had a total and utter burnout and spent most of the next year in bed, sleeping. I was repeatedly signed off work for months at a time.
But that wasn’t all.
That’s when these bizarre letters started arriving through the door. Anonymous ‘poison pen’ letters that were anything but pleasant. Disturbingly, it soon became clear that they were from someone who knew me and obviously meant to freak me out. On a good day, I’m sure I could have shirked it off, but given my weak physical and emotional state, I couldn’t. Every time another strange letter arrived, my health deteriorated even further, often for weeks. At the time, I had no idea who this crazy person was or what they were capable of. Worst of all, they knew where I lived.
I went into survival mode and stayed there. I stopped leaving the house on my own. I stopped all communication with the outside world. I even deleted Facebook and changed my phone number. I couldn’t open the mail. When I eventually left the house, I was in a constant state of alert – I knew all the exits and escape routes in a Jason Bourne style. I was on a massive dose of anti-anxiety and antidepressant drugs, and the side effects weren’t pleasant. It was bleak.
Eventually, enough was enough, and after some advice from the police, the perpetrator was caught and dealt with appropriately. This gave me some comfort, and I did feel some relief knowing both who it was and that it wouldn’t happen again. Unbelievably, it turned out to be someone I worked closely with on a daily basis. God only knows what must have been going on in his life.
Apparently, a normal response following an experience like this would be to recover slowly and for things to get better over time. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. I received some counselling and psychotherapy through work, but to be honest, any good that it did do was overshadowed by the stress it caused just by leaving the house. I suffered flashbacks and nightmares, and the physical pains didn’t go away. In the words of Bono, it felt like I was stuck in a moment, and there was no way out. If anything my symptoms got worse, and I was eventually diagnosed with PTSD almost 18 months later.
I was embarrassed that I had reacted this way. I blamed myself. I felt weak and stupid and that somehow I just needed to ‘get over it’. The truth is that I had no control over my response. If I could have snapped out of it, I would have. I later found out that it is fairly typical of sufferers to blame themselves.
During this difficult time, I met some other people who had experienced similar symptoms. It is amazing how many people suffer from mental illness but because of the stigma associated with it, they keep it very close to their chest. Some of them suggested I look into a revolutionary eye therapy called EMDR. I didn’t know what it was and like most men, I ignored their advice. It sounded a bit weird.
Eventually, after the fourth person mentioned it, I decided to search the internet. I discovered that Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) was a psychotherapy developed by Francine Shapiro in the 1980s to treat patients with PTSD. According to Shapiro, when a traumatic or distressing experience occurs, it can overwhelm the brain’s normal coping mechanisms. EMDR helps to process the memories associated with the trauma.
By this stage I would have tried anything, so a few weeks later I found myself sitting opposite a psychologist, having no idea what to expect. The psychologist explained the process and warned me that I would feel very tired for days afterwards, but the long-term effects could be very beneficial. We would ‘process away’ the memories so that they weren’t immediately accessible, so that I wasn’t always thinking about and experiencing the trauma.
I’m not going to lie; I found it incredibly uncomfortable to begin with. The main process involves recalling the events scene by scene while receiving bi-lateral stimulation. That sounds more pleasant than it is. Bilateral stimulation involves stimulating both sides of the brain. This could be following a finger from right to left or listening to sounds in headphones (again right and left), following a dot on a screen from left to right, or tapping each knee alternately. Psychologists use differing techniques, but they all involve bi-lateral stimulation while recalling the memories.
We processed the first scene several times to begin with for about an hour. Every time I recalled the events, I had to follow the psychologist’s finger left right, right left… you get the idea. Each time, I had to score the levels of the stress out of ten until it got lower and lower.
After my first session I got home, went to bed and didn’t get up for two days. I was completely exhausted. For the first time in a long time, I had to think about things that I had forced to the back of my mind and it was horrendous.
Apparently, the brain continues to process the memory for a long period afterwards, so my sessions were scheduled every few weeks. Each session, we took a different scene and worked through it. Each time I was exhausted.
Bizarre things also started to happen. During one of the sessions, my blocked sinuses cracked and cleared (I didn’t even realise they were blocked). At another, a pain I had experienced in my neck for months was released. Apparently, the body stores tension in all sorts of ways, and this was being released as the memories were processed. Amazing.
Eventually, things started to improve. The memories that we had ‘processed away’ no longer featured in my daily thought patterns. I started to be able to go to places that I wouldn’t visit previously. My sleep patterns recovered and I found my energy levels improved. I began to selectively open mail and emails. I even rejoined Facebook.
Six months later and I found myself at the last ‘wash up’ session. We had worked through everything that elicited the adrenaline response and a few more things that came up in the process. My anxiety scores (HAM-A… Google it) had gone from 33 down to 3. For the first time in two years, I found myself able to do whatever I wanted to do and go wherever I wanted to go without a panic attack. It’s as if the memories had gone from full-blown 4K HD to very blurry black and white.
I remember asking a good friend who had gone through a similar difficult psychological experience over a decade ago how long it took them to get over it. She laughed and said, “Do you think I’m over it?”
It’s true that things will never go back to being ‘normal’ after PTSD. Trauma changes you as a person, and I don’t think you can ever go back. I still think about my experience regularly, but it no longer consumes me. The challenge now is to move forward one day at a time.