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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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ON WAKING UP

Depending on how you interpret statistics, it seems that 80% of people check their phones within fifteen minutes of waking up. I imagine them rummaging around under the duvet, growing more frantic if their fingers don’t connect immediately with their precious device. An irrational fear of missing out on something that had happened over night, seems to override common sense. I know this feeling, because I was one of those people.

I’m looking out through my study window down to the river, pondering on those halcyon days before the internet sunk its claws into us.   I’d be gently woken by the radio, tuned quietly to a local station while the Teasmade whirred into action. Fifteen minutes of uninterrupted time, before getting ready for work, always put me in the right frame of mind for the day. Nobody would have dreamt of phoning so early, unless in an emergency. An unspoken etiquette wrapped a framework around such intrusive behaviour.

Today’s waking up times are shattered by compulsive tweeting and messaging.  Just because everyone else seems to be plugged in, doesn’t mean we have to be. Surely whatever feels so urgent can wait. Count to ten, breathe slowly and let that urge to respond in a flurry of righteous indignation dissipate. 

I asked some sensible, grounded people I’ve met since I started my writing life, to share their post-waking up moments. Many are common sense but that doesn’t mean they’re common practice.

  1. Smile. A new day brings new possibilities and opportunities.  John Fish, book reviewer, @TheLastWord1962   I love the idea of smiling the minute you wake up. It releases those feel good chemicals of serotonin and endorphins, lowering blood pressure and heart rate and… it costs nothing. 
  2. Read a motivational quote and reflect on its meaning.
  3. Make tea into a pleasurable ritual – warm the pot, spoon in the tea leaves, wait for it to brew, pour into a favourite mug/cup. It encourages patience. 
  4. Drink a glass of water. A great tip to start the day from Anne Coates, author of the Hannah Weybridge series. www.annecoatesauthor.com   So simple, but how many of us do that on a regular basis? It fires up the metabolism and helps the body flush out toxins. 
  5. Don’t worry about what the day will bring. Reflect on the words of the Stoic philosopher, SenecaTomorrow will take care of itself, so take care of today, otherwise tomorrow will take ill-care of you todaythus losing today. If you lose today every-day, you are lost every-day.
  6. I walk around the garden with my second cup of tea. This makes it sound like I live in a National Trust property. I don’t. It’s a short walk but it’s calming, depending upon overnight slug carnage. Tom Hocknell, Author of The Life Assistance Agency. https://amzn.to/2LrwMWC  
  7. I lie on the floor and breathe slowly and deeply for five minutes whilst listening to soft piano music. Angelena Boden, Author. Life coach.
  8. I take the dogs into my field of the back of the house, lean on the gatepost and have a fag. Then it’s black coffee time!  Charles Evans, Artist, Author, TV presenter, Main demonstrator for Daley-Rowney, UK   http://charlesevansart.com/
  9. I nearly always go outside first thing, wander around, sniff the air and look at the sky.  Dr. Andrew K Black, retiring consultant psychiatrist, author. 
  10. I write down my dreams, if applicable. If not I breathe and listen to the birds. Nikki, IT Tech and psychic. Nikki @Daimon Mediation

Tea, (and biscuits), books, walking, wandering, observing, watching the morning news, nature and dogs all featured in the research results. Maybe you do some or all of these things, or you have your own morning routines that don’t involve technology, but if not, you might want to consider the benefits of replacing that small blue screen with nature’s enormous, colourful canvas. If only for fifteen minutes.

Photograph courtesy of Charles Evans, Northumberland. 

Thank you to everyone who took part. 

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Gratitude

LIVE EVERY DAY AS IF IT IS YOUR LAST

            When gratitude has to have a hashtag and the Twitterati behave as if it’s an amazing new invention, I have to wonder what philosophy of life people are buying into. There’s a difference between wanting something from life and seeking something rewarding out of it. The former links to the material successes and comforts, the latter a sense of a life well lived.

            Gratitude lists have become the new affirmations or the latest ‘must-have’, ‘must-do’:- something else to mark off as completed on life’s ever-growing checklist of achievement. Surely there’s something wrong with this thinking.

            The Stoics suggested we should never underestimate or overlook the small things in life and paying attention to the micro details benefits our wellbeing; morning dew on a rose, tea warming in a beautiful pot, colouring with a child.

 I’ve talked to many people suffering from mental ill health who assured me that by reconnecting with the simplest of things and performing day to day actions with care and attention helped their recovery.

Gratitude for being in the world, for the experiences we’ve had so far, without putting a value or judgement on them – good or bad – reminds us that the world will keep spinning when we’ve gone, like the billions before and after us. Those fields we tramped with the dog in the pouring rain, moaning about sodden socks and miserable fellow walkers, will still be there. Maybe it’s time to enjoy sodden socks and wet dogs before the chance trickles down the drain to join the stream of all past lives.

If we release control and treat each day as it comes as a gift, accepting that all experience is beneficial even if it’s not what we want – in fact, it’s those negative experiences that help us grow -  we free ourselves from a craving for more that can never be satisfied.

I’m sometimes criticised for being a pessimist when in fact I’m a realist.  Planning for the worst possible scenario is good business practice as I found during my career. Today this translates into accepting whatever comes my way and knowing that it doesn’t really matter either way. Accept the worst and move on. If you lose your job, you’ll be in good company and if your relationship breaks down – ditto.

There’s an old saying, What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. That’s not universally true. Many people are broken by tragedy and bad luck but the strength comes from accepting that this is how things are until death, the great leveller, brings release from the suffering. It amazes me how many people behave as if they are going to go on forever -  as if death doesn’t have their card marked. 

I am drawn to the philosophy of Seneca.  We get caught up in the inessentials, the stuff that doesn’t matter and in so doing, spend no time in exploring our minds and hearts, ( instead of watching Love Island J )  He said,

‘It is inevitable that life will be not just very short but very miserable for those who acquire by great toil what they must keep by greater toil. They achieve what they want laboriously; they possess what they have achieved anxiously; and meanwhile, they take no account of time that will never more return.’

The future is uncertain and always has been. That’s the nature of it so living in the now is the way to keep a sense of perspective.

Letting go of all expectations is not the mark of a loser or a failure. On the contrary, when we reach this point of releasing the ego and merging into the true self, we gain awareness of what we want from life. It maybe acceptance that you did your best, that you find joy in day to day things or if you’re like me, you found a calm spot under an oak tree from where you could watch the birds, simply being.

For a short read on Seneca, this book is worthwhile.

https://amzn.to/2vytquZ

My new novel, Edna’s Death Café is out with Matador on September 8th 2018

https://www.troubador.co.uk/bookshop/contemporary/ednas-death-cafe/

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