Living With PTSD: Five Years On

“Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is an anxiety disorder caused by very stressful, frightening or distressing events. Someone with PTSD often relives the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and may experience feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt.”

That’s what the NHS has to say about diagnosing a problem often referenced to soldiers when they return from war. You see it all the time in TV shows and movies, a car engine backfires and the ex-veteran imagines it’s a bomb and panics for his safety. But, with all due respect to those brave people serving for our country, the trauma for a person to develop the disorder doesn’t always have to be that severe.

No, there are thousands of situations where someone can develop the disorder, whether it be a child who has seen their parents constantly fighting, someone who has been involved in a serious road collision or, in my case, been the victim of a violent physical assault.

Five years ago to the day, I was walking back from a takeaway at 8pm on a Sunday night when I was attacked, mugged and left for dead at the side of a pathway in a desolate park. It sounds cliche to say something as idiotic as my life hasn’t been the same since, but there are no closer words or phrases to describe the turn that my mental health has taken since that night. Doctors have said that my brain has blocked out the memories to save my body and mind the stress of reliving the experience again and again, but I don’t believe it, because if I feel like this now, what way would I feel if I could remember the majority?

The last thing I remember is them asking for my phone. Then, I woke up on my kitchen floor, covered in blood, with no recollection of how I got there. I remember having complete amnesia, not recollecting leaving the flat or collecting the takeaway. The police arrived, took statements and my clothes for evidence, then I was taken to hospital. There, I had to get a huge needle through my nose as it was so busted up that I would’ve looked like I spent the majority of my life sniffing coke as my septum would’ve collapsed. One of my front teeth was hanging by a thread, and finally fell off the next morning, leaving me to have a root-canal to fully extract the remainder and insert a crown. Between those things and the two scars on my head, the stolen phone, iPod and hat, that should’ve been it finished.

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Speaking to victim support, I waved away further treatment, saying that I knew it could happen anywhere and that I wasn’t going to let it affect returning to England to complete my degree. But stepping out of that hospital on my first night and into my flat mate’s car, for the first time in my life I was fully aware of my surroundings. Who was where and how accessible my escape routes were.

As a teenager, I dealt with an excessive amount of hormones in a very short space of time, resulting in depression and problems sleeping. This, of course, affected my grades, relationships and mood, but I felt I came out of my turbulent teen years stronger for it. I spoke to a few doctors during that time, but knew that it was in my own head and no one else would understand. However, my head-strong attitude wasn’t going to work now. It baffled me that I couldn’t just shake off my feelings of paranoia and heightened sense of nerves and vulnerability.

The amnesia continued, and is still there today. I was a mere two or three minutes walk from my university halls, and through the years have vaguely remembered crossing the road and struggling to get through the first of five doors into my kitchen. But that’s it. And it’s travelled into my everyday life. I’ve seen the frustrations of my relationships with ex-girlfriends, friends and family as they assure me they’ve told me something that I can’t recollect. Everyday tasks in my work place I’ve had to be shown multiple times for it to finally sink in, and especially concerning when I was struggling to remember important details for my studies. My mum is the first to say that when I was younger I had a brilliant memory. I can still dig deep into my long term memory and bring up something that she’d forgotten about years ago. But what I had for lunch yesterday? There’s no chance of me remembering.

I never had flashbacks necessarily, but a constant feeling of unease. The first problem signs began exactly a month later, in the early hours of Christmas Day 2012. I woke up to see an elderly man or woman (I can’t remember) perched at the end of my bed. I jerked up in fright, and they did the same. Scrabbling around in the dark to turn on my light, they disappeared. This happened constantly for the first few months and years. I studied the James Bulger case for my dissertation and had nightmares of him running around my room laughing. I’ve saw people staring at me as I sleep. Whether these people are ever going to harm me, I’m unsure. Doctors have told me that I’m so hypervigilant during the day, that I don’t want to give way to being vulnerable and unarmed (in a way) at night, and struggle to relax.

After months of realising that the problem wasn’t going to go away by itself, I resulted to a doctor. He referred me to a counsellor and gave me sleeping tablets. Bad idea. These brought the introduction of sleep paralysis into my life, and it’s something I still struggle with today. I remember lying in my university flat, with my body asleep but my mind very much awake. My eyes skirting around the room as the shadows turned into figures, even as preposterous as leaking out of the top of my wardrobe like I was in The Conjuring film. The counsellor wasn’t much better. She was with the university, and told me she wanted me to undergo EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). I’m not going to take the time to find the official definition because, sorry to those who study and practice it, I found it a pile of shit. Vibrating stones in my hands as the woman tells me to imagine walking from the takeaway for twenty minutes? I said that it worked just so I could leave.

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Horrified at the resources provided, I went back into myself again, believing that I could change my own way of thinking. But the night terrors got worse, including nearly killing myself as I half-stepped out of my upstairs window after seeing a snake uncoil itself from my lampshade. It’s a good thing I woke up. I also seriously hurt my head and wrist toppling out of bed and across the room one night running from something that I can’t recollect. Other disasters included scaring the shit out of my cousin as I screamed and pointed to her coat claiming that ‘she’s there,’ and, after a sleep-deprived week in Ibiza, waking up to my hands wrapped around my ex-girlfriend’s neck. Realising that I had to get better, for other people’s sake as well my own, I returned to a university counsellor.

I genuinely couldn’t tell you how many doctors and counsellors I’ve seen over the years, only to be referred to someone else. One university counsellor actually said that he’s reached his limit of things that he could offer me, and told me I needed NHS help of someone who is a professional in the field. I got offered more meds, anti-anxiety ones this time, which made me sick for about two weeks as my body adjusted to them, but to no avail apart from mood imbalance and migraines, I refused to accept anymore prescriptions.

CBT (Cognitive behavioral therapy) was the next step. I got passed around a few doctors before finally settling with one lady, who decided that I was just as fucked up before the attack and wanted to talk about my childhood and trust issues, which I claimed had nothing to do with my PTSD. Alas, she went off on the sick just as we started to get into the nitty-gritty of CBT, which I felt didn’t work either, as everything she told me I already knew and thought of thousands of times before.

Now, five years on, I try and not let it bother me. I’m a strong believer that time, sleep and a good laugh can cure almost any ailment. Although I’m nowhere near ‘cured,’ I see that I’m particularly worse if I have had a few restless nights. Waking up and being very aware of my surroundings and jumping if someone pops up unexpectedly, including running out of bed and around my balcony on a lads holiday in Portugal where I was a few days in with little sleep. I no longer think that if I’m walking down a street that people are going to jump out at me and attack, or even something as ridiculous as a sniper pointed at me from an upstairs window. But I still tuck my phone away in public in fear someone could snatch it out of my hands, worry about my surroundings when getting into my car on a dark morning and try not to find myself in a secluded area with no means of help or company.

There are, however, a few advantages of my ordeal. Although my hatred for the guys who did this to me and every other scum bag that walks the streets grows, my interest in law and crime has sky rocketed. Resulting in taking a few courses, and even writing stories and my first novel around the subject. I’ve also become resilient to stupid arguments and needless drama. Don’t stress the small stuff. Situations that I won’t look back on in five years time with the same hatred and contempt I have for this situation. I’m never going to say that it changed me for the better, but I can say that it changed my attitudes towards people and situations for the better. And I’m also never going to thank those boys who did this to me, and they were never caught, for those wondering. A big hit home came a year after the incident when my blood soaked clothes were finally returned from the police with only the tiniest form of evidence, which would be too time consuming and expensive to continue further, especially if it was a lost cause. Ignoring bio-oil’s recommendations to apply the liquid to my scars a few times a day, I placed the bottle above my sink, and applied and reapplied every time I washed my hands. My head was never dry for months, and thankfully, the scars faded and I’m only reminded of them when I get a tan and the scars burn.

I refused to title this article with the likes of ‘dealing with PTSD,’ or other such adjectives. I chose ‘living‘ because that’s what I’m doing. I’m getting on with my life and not letting it win. I’ve always been a head-strong character, believing there’s nothing I can’t do if I set my mind to it, including the likes of battling depression and addiction. You can go to rehab a thousands times, but if you don’t want to be helped, there’s no point in wasting time, money and resources. You are in charge of your own future. I could sit in the house and sulk, or I can get out there and push the boundaries, no matter how scary they may be at the time. There’s no magical cure, and I haven’t found anything that’s an immediate relaxant. Everyone’s different. Some people may take to the drugs or the therapy, it just so happens that I haven’t. I’ve not seen a counsellor in over two and a half years, and believe (and hope) that I won’t have to see one again. I’m through the worst of it, and hope that anyone else feeling the same way realise that they can too.

Bradd Chambers

Bradd Chambers

Award winning journalist and author of thriller novels.