Fury, paranoia, hypervigilance, overreaction to a perceived threat – all are common in a traumatised person. The psychologist who helped me to get better characterised the condition thus: imagine your memories are a conveyor belt of cardboard boxes heading towards a final point, where they are processed. But if something life-threatening disrupts that process, the box memories get stuck, trapped in the amygdala, that bit of the brain that triggers your fight or flight survival impulse.
The amygdala knows no sense of past or present, and so, when faced with a perceived threat, it responds how it sees fit, unbeholden to logic, in the form of blind panic.
This is, of course, a very basic way of explaining an extremely complicated condition, but it certainly helped me. When faced with irrational outbursts of anger, flashbacks, paranoia, sleeplessness, knowing this was a source of comfort. For months I was terrified that the tube was crawling with terrorists intent on blowing me up. “What’s the worst that can happen?” my therapist would ask, appealing to my rational self. “What’s the worst?”
I was treated using trauma-focused cognitive behavioural therapy, provided by the NHS. I was fortunate that there wasn’t too long a waiting list; others aren’t so lucky. A survey by the We Need To Talk coalition found that one in five of those with mental health problems were waiting more than a year for referral, but studies have shown that those with PTSD should be given therapy within three months.
Part of the treatment involves reliving – an emotional and arduous process where every moment of the event is recounted and expanded upon. I was surprised by the things I remembered, how the patchwork quilt of that evening became increasingly more detailed. It made me wonder about those legal cases involving victims, fleeing conflict zones and seeking asylum, that hang on the consistency of their evidence. What if, instead of sanctuary, a guilty verdict, and someone saying “I believe you”, I had been told that my fractured, confused story didn’t add up? If you’d been through an experience like that, wouldn’t you take the magic pill?
I don’t know how many people there are in this country walking the streets addled by trauma, but I know that they need to be better looked after. And I wonder if the research will ever come to anything. Just how much horror, after all, can a mouse experience?