Thursday, February 20, 2014


WARNING: Contains traces of self-pity

Before 1998, I never used to get these panic attacks.

Before then, I never had the sudden rush of fear over something I had done, something I had not done, something I had said, something I had left unsaid.

Before 1998, I never experienced that sudden rush of fear turning into an all-encompassing paralysis of indecision, not knowing which way to turn, screaming out loud for help that would never come, decisions I could never make.

It didn't help that the majority of these panic attacks were in the car, on the way to or from work, because behind the wheel is about the worst place to have one.

It is all one can do to pull the car to the side of the road, take the key from the ignition and have wait for the crisis to pass. Then drive on, feeling faintly embarrassed.

That was before I went to the Republic of the Congo in 1998, got trapped there for a week, and was detained and robbed by AK47-wielding thugs at the airport.

I might have told you a slightly jazzed-up-stroke-sanitized version of events that make a good read. But while the facts of my week in Brazzaville remain the same, I glossed over the mind-wrenching fear I felt every waking minute of the day, every sweat-soaked night.

Because in Brazzaville, I learned the value of my life: 600 US dollars. Also, a leather jacket and my favourite camera.

The panic attacks don't come all the time, they only arrive if I fall out of my comfort zone, or - more likely - if I fear I'm about to fall out of my comfort zone. I love my comfort zone, which means I'm getting a long-service bonus for being in the same job for 25 years.

So, what's brought it back this time around? I wish I could tell. But birthdays come and go, and you feel increasingly mortal, increasingly out of control, more than a mere "pull yourself together" can deal with, and the memories of that week in Brazzaville come flooding back. The full unexpurgated version, rather than the sanitised cut that lets me sleep at night.

But that alone was no reason for wallowing in my nightmares, for I felt the slide coming whole days before that.

I shiver at those memories, the endless guns, the wreckage, the smile on the face of the uniformed goon who beat that money out of me with the butt of a pistol. The muzzle of his comrade's assault rifle, prodding at me, not knowing if it was loaded, not knowing if the safety was off, not knowing if the finger on the trigger would curl another inch. The treacle-like hyper-reality of the situation, every last detail imprinted on my mind, filed away for instant recall.

The feeling of never being so alone and so abandoned in my life. No wonder I spent sixteen years forgetting.

No wonder it comes back without warning, it only takes the most unlikely of (no pun intended) triggers, and I'm at the side of a road, shouting at the steering wheel, not knowing whether to stay, go, turn around, get out and run away.

Most days I'm happy. I've found happiness, a confidence to get on with my life that doesn't just come from being told to stop moping and pull yourself together, are you a man or a mouse? Eek, eek, I think you'll find.

But some days, I'm back there, that white-painted room at Maya-Maya Airport, finding out how much my life is worth. Not much, it turns out. But still being able to breathe, to love, to live, is priceless.


Cliff said...

I don't get it.

OK, no seriously. Very good post. Hang in there, but don't feel you have to. I don't know which took more guts, writing that post or getting through an armed robbery with your life. Either way, you can't expect to be a hero all the time. Kia kaha.

Pavlov's Cat said...

Sounds like PTSD to me mate, not only Soldiers get it.

find some proper help , it's not a weakness, been there

Joy said...

Writing about this on your blog seems like an important step. So sorry you experienced that trauma. Facing death and surviving didn't make me want to run through the world exclaiming about the beauty and thrill of it all. It scared the hell out of me and did you, too. A natural reaction, I'd say. I agree with the others who said to get some professional help for the PTSD and reach out to supportive friends and family. We're here for you whether you reach or not. :-)

nrp said...

No self-pity that I could spot in there. The fact that you're able to talk and write about your experience is quite, quite astonishing and proves you are no mouse. The human brain didn't evolve to cope with that sort of sustained trauma so it's no wonder you're still feeling the after-effects.

isolator42 said...

They've all said it mate: you're a survivor, no self pity, you ain't a mouse, & we've got your back.
Brave as hell to put it out here like this.

Not sure what's available on the NHS. If it's no good, go private if you can afford it.

Jan said...

What they said. Seriously, any near-death experience like that is bound to leave echoes in your life. I reckon it's PTSD - had it myself after a v nasty medical emergency in 1990 - and it does fade over time, but some expert counselling would definitely help.

You do realise you write superbly about things like this? Powerful stuff.

Anonymous said...

On February 18 you posted this:
"......So, one thing led to another, and I won the competition to find the UK's funniest blogger for the second time in three years......"

Two days later you post this?

Sounds like The Tutor's time in Nong Khai, Thailand.

You'll have to click-through the Google Content Warning Page I reckon. The page is there on account of my foul mouth - no porn.

TRT said...

So... have you finally conquered your aversion to Um Bongo?