“I don’t believe in PTSD”, the driving instructor informed me gruffly. An awkward silence descended over the car as we both tried to ignore the massive elephant in the car with us, namely that the sole reason that this driving lesson had been booked was to give me my first driving experience since the accident and my treatment for PTSD in relative safety.
I tried to concentrate on the road ahead of me and not fill the silence with protestations about diagnoses and medical opinions. The truth was, to his ex-military eyes, I was just a precious snowflake who had pathologised weakness. People suffered traumatic experiences all the time and they got over it, they did not make a fuss and bleat on about PTSD.
In the initial aftermath of the crash, the focus was quite understandably on patching me up physically, trying to save my leg and enabling me to walk again. Any acknowledgement of the emotional scars that the accident had wrought were limited to one brief conversation a month into my hospital stay. The consultant on ward duty, without making eye contact, told me I appeared depressed and offered me some Prozac. The fury at the dismissive, disinterested way in which she had made this throwaway diagnosis could not be adequately expressed. In my eyes, it was clear I was not depressed, I was processing loss and coming to terms with the still unknown impacts of my physical injuries. I thank my lucky stars that I have never been prone to depression as this would have thrown me to the bottom of a very deep well. I refused the Prozac.
A year later, I was finally disagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. The anxiety that I felt was not a normal reaction to events but a heightened, physical response that clouded every waking moment and hounded my sleep. During daylight hours, loud noises or the sounds of cars made my heart pound fiercely. Oncoming traffic could reduce me to tears of fear. At night, recurrent nightmares of being trapped in the dark, woke me shaking and sweating.
I was referred for a course of EMDR, a type of psychotherapy that uses eye movements to
help process traumatic memories. No-one is quite sure of how it works, only that it is remarkably effective in treating PTSD and is a quicker and less painful process that traditional talking therapies.
My first experience of EMDR was transformative and visceral in a way that I had not anticipated. “Look at the lights and think of the moment of the crash”, my psychotherapist said before starting a sequence of lights that flashed on and off across a light bar positioned at eye level in front of me.
With some scepticism I allowed myself to visualise the last moments before the impact, when it was without doubt that the out of control car hurtling towards me was going to hit my car head on. Almost at once, the freezing, bright light of that October morning was flooding my mind and I began to physically shake with cold and fear. When the lights were stopped and I readjusted to the prosaic surroundings of the therapists room, I promptly burst into tears. It was like the brutal ripping off of a plaster, fiercely painful yet shortlived, leaving only a vague sense of disquiet that hung heavily over me for the rest of the day.
Once a week for the next four months, I sat in a leather swivel chair in a dimmed office in front of a row of small flashing lights. Sometimes we talked for a long time, using the lights for a short five minute burst. Other days, I spent longer following the sequential pattern and reliving those hours trapped in tangled metal.
Over those months, the clammy, heart wrenching fear began to recede. My brain started to treat these memories as just that, echoes of the past rather than repeating the fear and stress of the crash like a nightmarish highlights reel. The bad dreams began to be more fitful and although they still blight my sleep on occasion, I can discard them more readily when I wake.
Don’t be mistaken into thinking that post-EMDR, the PTSD sufferer continues happily on with life as though the trigger event had never occured, but EMDR can make the emotional effects more bearable. Adrenaline fuelled heart racing panic is replaced by grief, fear and anxiety. PTSD carves a fault line though the heart of a person which EMDR papers with a tissue thin layer of perspective and emotional distance.
The biggest effect that the EMDR wrought was apparent when I was finally physically ready to get behind the driving wheel of a car again. That I could sit in that seat and start the ignition was testament to how far I had come. I made the decision to leave the driving instructor with his disdain and take to the roads on my own again.