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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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