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CUTTING A PATH THROUGH PTSD

The term, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has usually been reserved for survivors of war, plane crashes or other devastating events most of us are unlikely to experience. According to www.ptsduk.org this distressing condition is a memory processing error caused by a traumatic event. It now extends to anything that we, personally, experience as trauma even if others process the facts and feelings differently. It maybe something that happens to you directly or as a witness to an event. It can even happen to highly trained first responders.

I’d like to tell you about my experience of PTSD which goes back to 1996. My then husband insisted that I, and my young daughters, went to Iran to visit his family. His father was sick and frail, his mother deeply depressed as she missed her only son who would be needed to take on the role of head of the family in due course. My husband had been in the UK for twenty years as a student, an engineer and then as the owner of his own software business. 

He’d been unsettled for many years following the Iranian Revolution in 1979 but had made a reasonable life for himself, juggling visits home with adjusting to a Western lifestyle.
We arrived at his parents’ home in the middle of an oppressively hot summer. I’d forgotten how restrictive women’s lives were under the religious regime but being an adaptable sort I got on with it, drew on my coping skills and adopting a positive attitude. Three weeks wasn’t that long, I told myself. 
As the days passed, I sensed an undercurrent of secretiveness running through the immediate family. They’d stop talking when I appeared (I spoke the language fairly well) or they’d leave me behind when they went off for the day with the children.

If I wanted to get through this trying period it meant keeping the peace so I bottled up all the fear and frustration. Being a foreigner in Iran wasn’t safe and I’d heard horrendous stories of unexplained imprisonments for violating the dress code or what the revolutionary guard considered to be inappropriate behaviour.
One lunchtime the family were seated at the table, picking at food and casting furtive glances at each other.

‘We’re not going home,’ said my husband. ‘This is home now.’

Panic gushed through my gut into my throat with such force I thought I was going to choke. My stomach churned like a concrete mixer. I felt my legs trembling under the table. My daughters’ stricken faces turned to me, silently begging me to do something.
‘We have to,’ I said, trying to remain calm. ‘At least to sell our house and say goodbye to people.’ I’ve always been in control in a crisis. It’s like the body shuts down and the brain operates independently of emotion.

My husband smashed his fist onto the table. ‘I will go back alone and you will stay here.’ You can imagine the terror we felt.

It was a long battle to persuade him to return to the UK. As soon as the plane landed, I called my solicitor. Divorce proceedings with a prohibitive steps order to stop him from taking the children out of the country buzzed into action. The immediate feeling was relief and for a number of years after I focused on that feeling. The divorce was dangerous as he threatened us on a daily basis. Police protection was put in place for a while until my husband was forced to leave the country. I never felt safe but I carried on running my business and my life, putting all feelings into the deep freeze.

One winter’s night, I was catapulted out of bed by my heart banging against my ribcage. Terrible visions of being held in Iran, in a cellar of the house, flooded my mind. I tried to squeeze them out by shutting my eyes tightly but it was as if all those terrors I’d harboured about effectively being held hostage had broken out of my unconscious and like demons were on a rampage of torment.

The doctor diagnosed depression and anxiety and offered medication but it didn’t help with the flashbacks and recurrent nightmares. I had several kinds of therapy to help process the events to disconnect past from present and although they dampened down the worst of the symptoms, it didn’t stop that loop of film that kicked in when my resistance was low.
The slightest noise would have me leaping out of bed to double check windows and doors. Hypervigilance is a common symptom of all kinds of PTSD. I sealed up the letterbox convinced he or one of his family had sneaked into the country to burn down my house. Security was tightened as much as possible but even the police inferred my fears were irrational given the circumstances of his departure and the fact there’d been no contact.

It was a chance conversation with a psychiatric nursing friend of my father’s which pointed me to a therapist specialising in delayed trauma. I was told that only twenty percent of people seek help for PTSD because their condition hadn’t been properly diagnosed. The clusters of symptoms could describe any manner of mental health conditions but as we worked with the flashbacks and intrusive thoughts using Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) treatment for several months, the symptoms receded and I began to regain control of my mind.
As an author I found journaling to be particularly helpful, especially writing short pieces in the third person. It created distance and objectivity, depersonalising some of the horror.

My current work in process is a memoir – From Revolution to Recovery. A Pathway to Peace and Healing. I don’t believe that time heals everything and from my long trek through the forest of hidden mines that is PTSD, I’ve learned you never know what’s going to blow up next. Real healing for me is about letting go of control. Knowing that I will cope with whatever happens.
Following the wisdom of the Stoic philosophers has brought me huge relief. Their Art of Acquiescence is about letting fate decide or going with the flow. I have found that as in grief, PTSD is linked to loss and after the shock, denial, anger, bargaining and depression, acceptance is the final stage of healing.

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Writing a memoir?

 

Many years ago it was suggested that I wrote a memoir about being married to my Iranian husband and my experiences of the racism we suffered in Birmingham and the effect the Iranian Revolution had on our lives. It did in fact break us up and break him down. An interested agent produced a ghost/co-writer who is a best- selling novelist who came up with a “hook” which he said would get the book on the New York Times best seller list.

As I travelled back from London, the ink barely dry on the contract , my head buzzed with what it all might mean; fame, wealth, a film deal like Betty Mahmoody’s “Not Without My Daughter.”  I could have written that book myself as we were in Iran at the same time and shared similar experiences.

As the adrenaline rush subsided, stark reality slapped me in the face. I had two young daughters of mixed heritage and they were vulnerable. I knew that if my ex-husband and his family were to find out about the book, and this was in pre-internet days, we would be at great risk. His network of cousins was like a spider’s web across Europe. By the following morning, I’d decided against it.

Memoir is a slice of your life and there is a bit of that in everyone, trying to punch its way out. With blogging, self-publishing and social media to get it out there, the memoir has never been so easy to write and distribute. As we get older and bits get chipped off by life’s demolition ball, we reach a point when sharing our experiences, often for altruistic motives, becomes a driving force in our lives.

The big problem with memoir as I see it is that nobody really wants to read it unless it inspires them in some way such as a story of survival.

 It’s hard enough getting a novel published and out in paperback in the book shops. With so many books being published every day, unless you are well-known for something else – invention, performance, discovery or a celebrity, the chances of your story being of interest will be miniscule. Memoirs of traumatic childhoods were in vogue a few years ago or of young women being abducted and taken out to some Arab village to be married off but there is only so much the reading public can stomach of the misery genre.

 Memoir, like autobiography, is a positive thing to do if it’s to provide a record of your life and family for those coming after you. The memoir can be cathartic and aid transformation. It’s a way of finding some closure even if no answers.

If you are looking to publish and be damned, then there are a few considerations before you set off on what can be a very painful journey.

ü  Memoir is a slice of life not the whole of it. The first task is to choose which slice.

ü  Memoir is not fiction. It is about truth. You can’t make up things and wrap it round some facts. This cheats your readers and you will lose credibility.

ü  How will the people mentioned in your memoir feel? Are you going to ask them in advance or risk their wrath if they don’t like or agree with how they are portrayed.

ü  Libel can be a big issue in memoir writing. Avoid character defamation. These are real people not figments of your imagination.

ü  Don’t use a memoir to exact revenge.

ü  Whilst I’ve said it can be cathartic, it shouldn’t be used as therapy. This will lead to a stream of consciousness rather than a carefully constructed story.

ü  Step back from the first draft and wait. Let it shuffle into its clothes in its own time. Go back and re-read with a red pen in your hand. As with any book, be ruthless with its pruning.

ü  A memoir is not about painting yourself as some conquering hero nor should it be all positive or negative.

Jackie Buxton, Author of Tea and Chemo presents a prime example of how writing a memoir can help others.  A breast cancer survivor, she has racked up over  80 five star reviews and has inspired not only women in a similar position but people fighting all kinds of cancer and the hospital staff treating them. I asked Jackie for a few words but as she has written so eloquently about why she wrote Tea and Chemo I am going to give you the link  below so you can read her own words.

I’ve been asked if The Cruelty of Lambs is part memoir. In the strict sense of the word, no it’s not but I’ve drawn deeply on many personal experiences and allowed the characters to experience and react to them. My niche market has developed as writing about the tragedies within ordinary life.  I shall continue to write snippets of my own life into my novels if the day ever comes when I feel comfortable writing my own story.. or when I am so famous, publishers are banging on my door demanding it. J

http://angelenaboden.com/index.php/component/k2/item/397-tea-and-chemo-with-jackie-buxton

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Turf War - mothers and daughters

I’ve been asked to go to my younger daughter’s place she shares with her partner to puppy-sit for a day. It will be the first time I have been in the apartment on my own and I know my fingers will be itching to rearrange the cupboards, put a load of washing in the machine and do a general tidy up in the small patio area. However, I will curb these urges and do what I’ve been asked. Feed the puppy, walk the puppy, love the puppy and relax with a book. Hmm.

  I remember my former mother- in- law coming each year from Iran and completely taking over my household, believing she was helping. My lip was torn to shreds from the constant biting down on it. During her prolonged stays I would find myself swigging from the sherry bottle as soon as I got home from work, a practice I carried out in the shower as she would have been horrified. My nerves were shredded but my husband at that time thought it was all quite normal. ‘It makes her feel useful and gives her something to do. You should be grateful.’

  This was my territory and my turf. Everything she did was like an attack on my competence. ‘I’ve cleaned this properly,’ she would say.  Or, ‘Now you’ve got more time, why don’t you do your nails, get your hair done ( complete the sentence to suit).

  Even my own mother didn’t interfere and she knew how things worked. My MIL, being in a strange country and not speaking the language, rearranged my home to look like hers in Iran. Even the fly swats were hung up over the window as in her kitchen.

  The problem with mothers of adult daughters is still see them as a child or teenager needing correcting. In turn, the daughter reverts to teenage behaviour and the mother falls back into her old patterns. Daughters fight off over-involvement sometimes for the sake of it for fear of losing their hard-won identity. This can mean moving miles away from the parents, particularly the mother, to avoid feelings of being consumed. Mothers act out their hurt by refusing to help out with childcare and even avoid making any contact at all. It’s like they want to punish their daughters for having a life that doesn’t include them.

  I wonder if there is some jealousy afoot here?  Life for many women in the fifties centred on their family and domestic duties which were time consuming and tough compared to nowadays. They wanted their daughters to do better – go to college, get a training, be independent and not have to rely on a man. Mothers of the eighties are those same daughters and they want even more for their own daughters but they don’t see that nurturing independence means there is a price to pay. The daughter doesn’t need her mother to fix her problems but she might want some practical help from time to time and can’t understand why her mother goes passive-aggressive on her. ‘Sorry Darling but I am so busy you know. You told me to get a life….’  The daughter wants her mother to be happy for her, to be her friend after all the years of battling and fighting to be free and finds herself rejected.

  So what’s going on here?  Quite simple. The generation of mothers has an expectation, or should I say hope, that her daughter will invite her to help decorate her house or buy the cushions she’s been ogling. It makes her feel useful in the way it had made my foreign mother in law, who spoke no English , feel wanted by her unfathomable English daughter-in-law. I’m sorry that I didn’t understand that at the time. After the divorce twenty years ago I never got chance to say that.

 

  It’s about making too many assumptions about what is acceptable. Would this same woman go into her friend’s house and rearrange her cupboards? Of course not. So it should be with the daughter. I’ve asked mine to write me a list of what I need to know about the puppy’s needs ( don’t have a clue about dogs) and whether or not she wants me to do anything – shopping, meal preparation and so on. I’ve made it clear it’s her home and I won’t judge her for how she lives. It’s interesting how she used to be so messy as a student and yes, I did go on at her about germs but she’ss more like me now… a bit of an obsessive tidy-upper.

  After a few years of very little contact, I choose my words carefully and respect her boundaries. It doesn’t feel natural as she is still my little girl in my mind but I am proud of how far she’s come with her award winning business and the fact that when she was awarded her Hon Doctorate by Aston University, she said her success was down to being raised by a strong mother. So, I didn’t do a bad job and all those accusations of ‘You’re a horrible mother,’ although heartfelt at the age of fifteen, were par for the course of separating.

 So, back to the puppy. I hope I don’t lose it, stand on it, forget to feed it or anything worse. I won’t because it will be like loving my baby girl all over again.

  

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