Currently I have eight stories out on submission, two at Writers of the Future, the rest at various magazines. I have a short story waiting for me to edit it, another in the process of being edited, another in the pipeline and a novel that has waited for over a year for me to get back to it. It’s a first draft and needs editing too. There are also a couple of other older shorts I want to take another look at. It seems I have a lot of editing to do.
I’m finally, after a few weeks of inactivity, getting back into the swing of things and starting to write new things too, at last.
There is a long list of things that stop me from writing. Most of it boils down to depression and anxiety, and that boils down to PTSD.
There’s been a lot in the media lately about mental health, in particular being able to talk about it. Now, I’ve never been one to shy away from the subject if asked specifically, but I don’t generally just go throw it out there. It can and does make people uncomfortable, it’s upsetting and, to be blunt, those who need to know already do.
Still, I post seldom, and I think I should say why. You never know, it might just help someone else. So, first a little personal history.
I have PTSD. It started, though I didn’t know it back then, in 2012, when my youngest daughter took her own life at the age of fourteen. It was August Bank Holiday weekend. She’d just come back from a fortnight long Army Cadet annual camp. I’m not going to go into the details, but on the Saturday morning she hugged me, told me she loved me and went off to do her paper round. I never saw her alive again.
We spent the weekend searching for her, me, my elder daughter, my brother-in-law, all our friends, most of Humberside Police, Air Sea Rescue and a good chunk of the population of Beverley. At one point there were four helicopters up looking for her, on one of the wettest August Bank Holiday weekends on record. The rain was torrential and lasted all Saturday and into Sunday.
Sunday evening, around eight I think, someone found her. She’d hanged herself in a tree that I had walked past several times and not seen her. Part of me thinks that was a blessing.
I went down to where they’d found her, one of her friend’s parents called me to let me know, and the police gently bundled me into the back of a huge black car, a Range Rover I think. A police officer, some kind of inspector, a big bloke, got in the back with me and gave me the news and then held me like a baby while I screamed a sound that I can still hear now.
Later on that day they took me to identify her. I collapsed on the floor and it took me ages to say the words they needed to hear. It just didn’t look like her. She was the wrong colour and her face didn’t look right at all. Just like that sound, that image has never gone away.
Sometime after that came her funeral and a little later, in the December, an inquest was held, but those, while still imprinted in my memory, were just a blur with little bullet points that still jump out now and then.
There was an awful lot more and a lot more awful that weekend, but that should be enough to give you the gist of it. Enough to make sense of the rest of what I have to say.
Fast forward a year, actually not quite a year, to the beginning of the following August. My wife of seventeen years, her mother and the mother of my other children, the nicest woman I have ever known, collapsed on the stairs and died in my arms.
We have a saying in our house now. Life has a habit of happening.
One of the old boys at the allotments, when my daughter died, said something along the lines of “When life knocks you down you have two choices. You can stay down or you can get back up again.” Gods, but how many times can you do that? Well it turns out you can do it as many times as you need to.
I still had two very good reasons, a son and a daughter, to get back up. They needed me now more than ever, and that’s how it’s been ever since.
I’ve developed a few sayings since, such as “Never say it can’t get worse, because it damn well can,” and the good old “I’ve had worse days,” because, yeah, I really have.
Anyway, back to the PTSD. I got diagnosed with that eventually. Not long after my wife died the sleepless nights and horrible flashbacks became more and more frequent.
I ended up, after a few failed rounds of talking therapy, being given something called EMDR treatment. It stands for Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming and sounds like something used in a North Korean correctional facility. What it actually does is sort out your memories. It was explained to me in terms of the brain being like a computer. Every day it backs up the day’s experiences, image by image, and stores it all as memories. Unfortunately, when it comes to something traumatic, the brain baulks and the image isn’t stored right and ends up popping up, as in a flashback, when you least expect it.
This storing of memories is normally done when you are asleep, in that REM stage, and the EMDR treatment tries to emulate that by either making you watch a moving finger, lights or whatever or, in my case, with a pair of hand held buzzers, to simulate that rapid eye movement. You then talk through the trauma, which is exhausting, hard work and extremely upsetting.
EMDR works. Or it did from me. I went from being unable to sleep, having persistent flashbacks and being not far from the point of having a fatal incident with the wheels of a bus, to nowhere near normal but at least sleeping better and no longer suicidal after a few sessions.
Fast forward again, to now. My last EMDR session was getting on for five years ago now. One of my children has left home and is getting married next year, the other one is six inches taller than me and better at both maths and physics.
So, back to the writing. Just what, if the EMDR worked, stops me from writing? Well, it’s simply a case of, it just never stops. The PTSD, even though I no longer want to throw myself under a bus, is always there, or maybe it’s just the grief, but something is still there. I don’t have flashbacks anymore, well not often and rarely the kind that completely stop me in my tracks. Those ones that play out like a movie in your vision hardly ever happen anymore.
It’s little things like heavy rain. That takes me back to that weekend. That image of her laid out for me to identify is always there, as is that horrible scream. I can see that image and hear that scream all the time, even now. It’s been nine years now and I can still hear that scream.
Most of the time I’m alright. I keep that image and that scream locked up in a box inside my head. Yet sometimes, every now and then, heavy rain, or her birthday, or any other milestone, Christmas, Easter and many other days on the calendar of life give my head a shake and that box pops open. Helicopters, police officers, the sound of a certain news reporters voice, a thousand little things that I don’t even recognise until they hit me.
These are the things that stop me writing. It stops me because, when these things hit you, it’s exhausting. It drains all your energy away and you just kind of slump inside yourself. You know you need to snap out of it and do something, anything, go for a walk, write a few words, anything at all, but it takes a while sometimes. Sometimes I just munch on a bar of chocolate (one therapist told me, never punish yourself, if a bar of chocolate makes you feel better, eat one, forget the diet), even though I need to loose weight. I still function. I don’t start sharpening the knives or picking out a nice bit of rope or anything like that. I still clean the bathroom and do all of life’s other chores, but my heart’s not in it. I really can’t be bothered and I feel like I’m just stumbling along, dog tired and trying not to cry about it.
In those times I want to curl up in a ball and let that scream out, but I don’t, and this is the bit that might help someone. I don’t, because all the people who need to know all this about me do, and they are there for me. My kids, my family, the few friends I keep close and, most of all, my work colleagues who see more of me than anyone for the most part, who have seen me melt down and helped pick me back up on countless occassions.
These little moments, as I call them (“give me a minute, I’m having a moment” is often heard in the office), can last a few minutes if I see them coming (you learn to do it, really), or can go on for days, leaving me feeling like I’m in a fog, functioning still, but on auto-pilot, so to speak. Occasionally you don’t know it’s happening until someone asks if you’re alright and you realise you’re not.
Exercise is good too, keeping busy. Not worrying about it is better. When you get like me and your head explodes and that scream builds up, worrying about it and stressing about what other people make of it all will not make it stop. Trying to pick out the thing that triggered this particular moment off is good, so you can spot it coming next time. If you need to cry about it, have a damn good cry. If you need chocolate, have some. The people who matter don’t mind and those who mind just don’t matter. Just remember, the ones who matter need to know about it.
Anyway, not sure if that helped me, but I hope it helped someone else. I am now going to get on with that editing and if it’s a while before I post again, I’ll either be still editing or in the corner, rocking.
(The ability to laugh at yourself is also very helpful!)