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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.

A soldier on patrol in 2010. Photo: Getty

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.]