The scars you don't see: what it's like to live with PTSD

I didn’t break down instantly. It was at least a month before I had the first dream where I woke up, safe in my bed, but sheeted in sweat, scared to go back to sleep.

I was standing about 40 ft away from the man when the mortar bomb hit him.

They don’t travel that fast, and I’d swear to this day I could see it coming, a little dart zipping down, hitting right at his feet. At least, that’s what happens in the dreams. The bomb was small – probably a 60mm round with no more than 2lbs of explosive in it.

I know that because I’m not dead. 

That small bomb was still enough to make that man just instantaneously cease to exist as anything recognisably human. The effect was not unlike a jar of strawberry jam being struck with a sledgehammer.

I was knocked to the ground. I scrambled into the slit trench nearby and hid, terrified. As the shelling died down, I felt I had something sticky on my face. I reached up and slowly peeled a rasher of bloody human skin off my cheek. This is hard to write. I’m shaking and breathing quickly from the memory. Thinking about it is like picking at a scab.

I didn’t break down instantly. It was at least a month before I had the first dream where I woke up, safe in my bed, but sheeted in sweat, scared to go back to sleep. After a few months, I was a mess. I was incredibly irritable, and would fly off the handle at the slightest thing. I stopped enjoying reading or watching films, spent whole days doing nothing. Just eating and sleeping. Staying alive.

I loved the oblivion of sleep when I didn’t dream. I didn’t want to talk about it. I knew something was very wrong, but I kept putting off doing something about it. I didn’t want to admit to myself I’d gone mad. I was incredibly embarrassed about the fact I’d often wake up my housemates, screaming. I’m pretty loud.

It was the embarrassment that made me realise I’d become very strange. I reluctantly went to the doctor, and started getting treated. It’s a long process, and I’m much better now, but I’m basically never going to be cured, never going to get a piece of paper saying “Congratulations, you are sane again”. You learn to live with it.

I can’t bear to be touched unexpectedly. This goes from being mildly unpleasant when it’s a pat on the back through clothes, all the way to chills, sweats and burning tension if someone with wet hands touches my bare skin. It makes nightclubs an all but no-go area. Wherever I work, there’s always one touchy-feely person. It’s telly, there’s always a woman who likes to hug you if you don’t get a commission or a man who likes jolly backslaps when things go well. Fairly swiftly I have to have the conversation where I say “Please don’t touch me, I have PTSD.” Cue the odd looks from then on.

When I sleep with someone for the first time, I have to have the conversation where I warn them that if I go to sleep, I might start screaming – literally screaming - about mortars, stumbling out of bed and taking cover behind something in the room. I used to wait until I knew someone quite well before I’d lay that on them, but I had one experience where I didn’t tell the girl, I had one of those dreams, and she was absolutely terrified of me.

The noise of diesel engines turning over upsets me immensely - I took cover from rockets under a tank once. The DUNK-DUNK-DUNK of a diesel just brings bad things back. Buses are a no-go. Oh, and fireworks. I hate fireworks now. If I can see them, it’s OK, but it’s unexpected bangs that really upset me. The week of bonfire night and the week around to New Year I usually spend indoors, with good headphones in.

Those are my most common triggers, but almost anything can set you off. Indeed, after reading this brilliant article about PTSD, I was an emotional mess, and had to take a day off work. Which is pretty ironic as it’s an article that says trigger warnings are bullshit. You live in a world where suddenly you can be pushed into re-experiencing something awful at a moment’s notice.

When I have flashbacks, it’s never a Hollywood hallucination of the sounds of the day, or the sights. I relive what happened emotionally and physically, in moments. The terror, the horror, the emptiness, the dry throat, the tense muscles, all dumped on you in five seconds. A day ruined because some goon lets off a firework.

That said, it’s the dreams that are the most pervasive legacy. A doctor told me to think of them as dreams, not nightmares. I can avoid and mitigate triggers; not the same with dreams. I now probably have them about once every couple of months, but it always ruins the following day. I thrash around in my sleep, live out those moments, over and over. I’ve hurt myself; clawed a couple of nails off on my wall thinking I was buried once.

Of course, I’m much better now than I was. I go to support groups, and often I’m the one leading the discussion. People like that I make jokes in the awkward moments where we break and have tea and biscuits, in between sharing horrors. 

PTSD is much more common than you think – the incident I experienced happened when I was on a journalistic assignment, covering a war. And although veterans - represented by brilliant charities like Combat Stress and Help for Heroes - are the most visible face of it, they represent a small minority of sufferers. There's no shortage of medical care, but support groups are few and far between.

The mix of people in support groups is odd. I’m not sure my experience is representative, but as I say, mine have been split largely between male combat veterans and female rape survivors. While only around 3% of the population are thought to have PTSD, as many as 50% of rape survivors develop it. Rape is by far and away the most common reason for a woman to be there. Everyone bonds over tea; we all share experiences of how we’ve learned to cope, and stories of times when we didn’t.

So that's what it's like. Personally, I always come back to a bitter, sarcastic part of a Sassoon poem, called “Does it matter”, which sums up in 30 words what I've done in a thousand.

Do they matter? — those dreams from the pit?

You can drink and forget and be glad,

And people won't say that you're mad;

And no one will worry a bit.

 

[This piece is part of the New Statesman's Mental Health Week - find more articles on this subject here.]

A soldier on patrol in 2010. Photo: Getty

Willard Foxton is a card-carrying Tory, and in his spare time a freelance television producer, who makes current affairs films for the BBC and Channel 4. Find him on Twitter as @WillardFoxton.

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Who "speaks for England" - and for that matter, what is "England"?

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones.

The Hollywood producer Sam Gold­wyn once demanded, “Let’s have some new clichés.” The Daily Mail, however, is always happiest with the old ones. It trotted out Leo Amery’s House of Commons call from September 1939, “Speak for England”, for the headline on a deranged leader that filled a picture-free front page on David Cameron’s “deal” to keep Britain in the EU.

Demands that somebody or other speak for England have followed thick and fast ever since Amery addressed his call to Labour’s Arthur Greenwood when Neville Chamberlain was still dithering over war with Hitler. Tory MPs shouted, “Speak for England!” when Michael Foot, the then Labour leader, rose in the Commons in 1982 after Argentina’s invasion of the Falklands. The Mail columnist Andrew Alexander called on Clare Short to “speak for England” over the Iraq War in 2003. “Can [Ed] Miliband speak for England?” Anthony Barnett asked in this very magazine in 2013. (Judging by the 2015 election result, one would say not.) “I speak for England,” claimed John Redwood last year. “Labour must speak for England,” countered Frank Field soon afterwards.

The Mail’s invocation of Amery was misconceived for two reasons. First, Amery wanted us to wage war in Europe in support of Hitler’s victims in Poland and elsewhere and in alliance with France, not to isolate ourselves from the continent. Second, “speak for England” in recent years has been used in support of “English votes for English laws”, following proposals for further devolution to Scotland. As the Mail was among the most adamant in demanding that Scots keep their noses out of English affairs, it’s a bit rich of it now to state “of course, by ‘England’. . . we mean the whole of the United Kingdom”.

 

EU immemorial

The Mail is also wrong in arguing that “we are at a crossroads in our island history”. The suggestion that the choice is between “submitting to a statist, unelected bureaucracy in Brussels” and reclaiming our ancient island liberties is pure nonsense. In the long run, withdrawing from the EU will make little difference. Levels of immigration will be determined, as they always have been, mainly by employers’ demands for labour and the difficulties of policing the borders of a country that has become a leading international transport hub. The terms on which we continue to trade with EU members will be determined largely by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels after discussions with unelected bureaucrats in London.

The British are bored by the EU and the interminable Westminster arguments. If voters support Brexit, it will probably be because they then expect to hear no more on the subject. They will be sadly mistaken. The withdrawal negotiations will take years, with the Farages and Duncan Smiths still foaming at the mouth, Cameron still claiming phoney victories and Angela Merkel, François Hollande and the dreaded Jean-Claude Juncker playing a bigger part in our lives than ever.

 

An empty cabinet

Meanwhile, one wonders what has become of Jeremy Corbyn or, indeed, the rest of the shadow cabinet. The Mail’s “speak for England” leader excoriated him for not mentioning “the Number One subject of the hour” at PM’s Questions but instead asking about a shortage of therapeutic radiographers in the NHS. In fact, the NHS’s problems – almost wholly caused by Tory “reforms” and spending cuts – would concern more people than does our future in the EU. But radiographers are hardly headline news, and Corbyn and his team seem unable to get anything into the nation’s “any other business”, never mind to the top of its agenda.

Public services deteriorate by the day, George Osborne’s fiscal plans look increasingly awry, and attempts to wring tax receipts out of big corporations appear hopelessly inadequate. Yet since Christmas I have hardly seen a shadow minister featured in the papers or spotted one on TV, except to say something about Trident, another subject that most voters don’t care about.

 

Incurable prose

According to the Guardian’s admirable but (let’s be honest) rather tedious series celeb­rating the NHS, a US health-care firm has advised investors that “privatisation of the UK marketplace . . . should create organic and de novo opportunities”. I have no idea what this means, though it sounds ominous. But I am quite certain I don’t want my local hospital or GP practice run by people who write prose like that.

 

Fashionable Foxes

My home-town football team, Leicester City, are normally so unfashionable that they’re not even fashionable in Leicester, where the smart set mostly watch the rugby union team Leicester Tigers. Even when they installed themselves near the top of the Premier League before Christmas, newspapers scarcely noticed them.

Now, with the Foxes five points clear at the top and 7-4 favourites for their first title, that mistake is corrected and the sports pages are running out of superlatives, a comparison with Barcelona being the most improbable. Even I, not a football enthusiast, have watched a few matches. If more football were played as Leicester play it – moving at speed towards their opponents’ goal rather than aimlessly weaving pretty patterns in midfield – I would watch the game more.

Nevertheless, I recall 1963, when Leicester headed the old First Division with five games to play. They picked up only one more point and finished fourth, nine points adrift of the league winners, Everton.

 

Gum unstuck

No, I don’t chew toothpaste to stop me smoking, as the last week’s column strangely suggested. I chew Nicorette gum, a reference written at some stage but somehow lost (probably by me) before it reached print.

Editor: The chief sub apologises for this mistake, which was hers

Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle