At the moment I am again in the disconcerting backcountry of PTS.
I know this place. The terrain is ugly, but it is also familiar. I can predict where most of the attacks are likely to come from, and what is needed to mount counter-attacks.
It is not a safe place, most of it mined with the risks of flashbacks and a sense of doom that has the power to stop everything in its tracks. Both have the capacity to blow up in your face at any given moment, often without warning. And in the foreground there is the constant war playing out between Life and Despair.
Despair is a guerrilla enemy, setting cruel ambushes, attacking when I feel the most bruised, naked, unprotected, and vulnerable. Life tries to fight back in a more old-school way, holding ground, sending back messages from the frontline that the situation is under control, that Despair is being pinned down under fire.
For a moment I believe the message being sent by Life.
Yes, all is going to be okay. I just have to stick with the steady routine of sleep, eating well, exercising, and paying very close attention to what is actually going on, even when being constantly knocked back down, each time Despair launches another ambush, and then another, and another.
Every part of the daily round feels as though it is a challenge demanding more energy than there is available. Another cruelty of PTS is that is does not distinguish between the important and the mundane, between having to pick up something at the supermarket, or take on some major professional task—both seem equally fraught with threat, everything open to attack.
Each morning, every re-entry into consciousness from sleep, means the weight of dread falling back down around me. And so the battle begins again: attack, counterattack, attack. On it goes, until I, we, everyone who lives with PTS reaches the time when we do not think we can fight anymore.
Taking Back the High Ground
But unlike so many I have the lucky advantage of a carefully-tutored awareness of what is actually going on.
This is my work. It is what I do.
I was trained to observe thought, and to rigorously separate what is real, and what is not; between the present and a lie branded in the mind by violence that repeats its dark story over and over, to the point where you cannot separate between the dark lie and the truth.
Even out here in the backcountry I can still experience joy—the temperature of the cool summer air in London on my skin as I run in a park, the scent of the lime trees, the sharp good taste of coffee drunk beside a lake.
I know those things are real even if the message the mind keeps sending is that the only thing that is real is violence—the people shot down, the wailing of those who are wounded, or of their families as they die, the sucking silence after a grenade has been thrown.
The daily battle in this backcountry of PTS is trying to find the balance between these two, between life and despair. Our challenge is to find someone or something that gives us the ability to be able to distinguish between the two. Then we have to persuade ourselves, over and over, that the cool air on our skin, the scent of linden blossom, the taste of coffee, is the present, and that the recurring memory of violence is a part of our inner landscape that must not be the inevitable winner.
And even if, at times, actual violence again becomes our present, we have to keep reminding ourselves that it is not the only reality—that it will end.
I am going to put a part of that again, in another way. Please, if you are someone who battles it out in the backcountry, find someone or something that will train you and your mind to be able to engage with the world around you as it really is, to help you know and believe that the back-country battleground is indeed a battleground, but it is not your life.