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.