/ 15 September 2023

Confronting the madness of war, trauma

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Though I had lived with recurring mental illness for the greater part of my adult life and for much of my childhood too, there is something definitive about the collapse I experience in the summer of 2018 — a conviction that I cannot ever again endure the pain which has brought me to hospital in west London on this night of calling owls and stifling heat. I am too tired, too old to go on living with the self I have embodied until now. I am morbidly fearful. Like Chekhov’s doctor hurrying through the rain to conduct an autopsy, I feel “a strange oppressive dread … as if some misfortunes were about to overwhelm me”.

My children are asleep in another part of the city. I try to picture their faces in sleep. My arms ache to hold them. I pray they do not worry for their father. I have given them much to carry. I wonder how I will face them when they come to visit. My stomach churns in shame. You have brought this on yourself. You have brought this on them. All your wars have led to this. This is how my mind is working now. 

A memory. 

It is sometime in the middle of March 2003, the night before I depart for the Iraq War. I have pushed hard to go to the front. I will be a “unilateral”, trying to report the fighting with a small team, away from the “embedded” reporters already waiting in the desert with the armies of the West. 

My head is far away already. The party scenes are happening to other people in another world. I need to be gone from here before I weaken and decide I won’t go at all. I find my brother-in-law and ask if he will come and walk with me. We have only walked a few yards when I break down and tell him I am afraid I will not come back. This fear has been on my back all day. He embraces me and I lean in to the comfort of his words: “You always come back. You have a lucky star over you.”

I leave before the house is awake. 

I went to the war. I came back. I went away again. I kept going to the wars.

The night nurse puts her head around the door. 

“It’s hot tonight,” she says. She waits for me to speak. I nod and she retreats. She is from Zimbabwe and, a few days previously, when I had begun to emerge from the dead weight of Temazepam, we spoke of places we knew in common: Marondera, Chinhoyi, Rusape. 

They were some of my roads. I am eager that she likes me. That anybody would like me. But I have no wish to speak tonight. 

The nurses are discreet here. After the first few days of being watched closely I am left to my own devices. The checks slip away, from every hour to every few hours. Once or twice in the deep night my door will open, and a nurse’s head will peep inside. A moment, and then gone. I sleep lightly but I don’t resent the interruptions. There is a profound comfort to this sense of being watched over.

The other patients are asleep, or they lie awake in their own anguish. Occasionally somebody gets up. A room door will open, followed by footsteps in the corridor, a heavy shuffle to the nurses’ station and then back and the door closes again. 

Our little wing is a lost colony. It is a quiet period. There are only a few patients on the men’s ward. We meet in the communal kitchen for meals. Occasionally we smoke a cigarette on the lawn outside. The days are filled with long silences.

I do not make friends. That’s the thing about repeat visits to hospitals of the mind. You become, as it were, a bit of a “professional headcase”. Do what is needed to get through and get out. I do not seek companionship or friendships. They involve too many questions. 

What could I say to give comfort to those on their first stay? Don’t worry, you’ll be as good as new in no time? Maybe they will, maybe they won’t. I cannot offer comfort where I can find none myself.

I need to sleep, to let my beaten brain rest. I am marking time. I accept there is no cure that will send me bouncing back into the world. Learn to live with it or die from it. Do not expect a “Hallelujah Chorus” of redemption. 

BBC special correspondent Fergal Keane has covered conflict and brutality across the world for more than 30 years, from Rwanda, Sudan, South Africa, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Ukraine and many more. Driven by an irresistible compulsion to be where the night is darkest, he made a name for reporting with humanity and empathy from places where death and serious injury were not abstractions, and tragedy often just a moment’s bad luck away.

But all this time he struggled not to be overwhelmed by another story, his acute “complex post-traumatic stress disorder”, a condition arising from exposure to multiple instances of trauma experienced over a long period. This condition has caused him to suffer a number of mental breakdowns and hospitalisations. Despite this, and countless promises to do otherwise, he has gone back to the wars again and again.

In this powerful and intensely personal book, Keane interrogates what it is that draws him to the wars, what keeps him there and offers a reckoning of the damage done.

The Madness: A Memoir of War, Fear and PTSD is published by HarperCollins costs R340.