PTSD Part 1
This is Week 3 and it’s been a tough one to write about, not because the diet and exercise was hard, but because part of this journey has to be about acknowledging emotional healing and that involves “coming clean” in a way that many people in my life have never heard. I guess people, no matter how close they are, just don’t know how to ask and some don’t know how to listen. Other times I have tried to spare other people’s feelings, but it’s time to put my healing and myself first.
I have PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), I also have Complex PTSD, which together creates a fun little package of extremely lifelike flashbacks – some over 30 years old, poor sleep and general shitty feelings of helplessness. This I have learnt through various ‘Mesearch’ (so called because all research is essentially done as an investigation into oneself) leads to “Your Body Keeping Score” and creating physical barriers and protections from the “outside’ world, even though PTSD is essentially all “inside world” stuff. So I find myself face to face with another challenge on my fittest by forty plan.
In the case of my current PTSD, it was caused in 2013 while on a trip to Hong Kong with my friend from High School, Sara-Leigh (she called herself Sarah as she was tired of people pronouncing her name wrong). Sarah and I had not seen each other in 20 years. She has moved schools and then after graduating from Uni, I moved countries to the UK. Sarah remained in Cape Town and loved it very much. Both, having little contact with our siblings, decided to spend Christmas together in Asia – first in Hong Kong and then in Vietnam. We arrived in Hong Kong on 22 December and had the most amazing time together, it was like we were 13 in the back of maths class all over again. We spoke of our besties, hers – ‘Cupcake Chick’ – and how much she loved and admired her. We spoke of our love of travelling and her new love interest and the fact that he was “considerably younger”. We had deep tissue massages. We ate out of this world seafood. We laughed and laughed for 3 days straight. Among other things, we went on a Crystal Bottom Cable Car and I discovered halfway up that Sarah was terrified of heights. She laughed and squealed all the way to the top. Petrified but happy with herself to have conquered it up and down. We fed the cows at the top of the mountain and took photos at the base of the stairs to Big Buddha, when asked if she’d like to go up the stairs she yelled at me “Chick I smoke hey, that’s a no”. We played with the dogs instead.
The next day, 24 December, we went to the beach and had a picnic and laughed at the locals going to the beach in full business attire, including shoes and socks who were looking at us like we were crazy with our bare feet and no sunblock. That night we went for dinner and drinks in Lang Kwai Fong, the expat area of Hong Kong. It was Christmas Eve and spirits were high and we had a lot of fun. So much so that we headed back to the hotel around 3am, grabbed some beers from the offie and sat on a step outside so that Sarah could smoke and had a chat and a beer each. Since South Africa is 6 hours behind, she wanted to call some friends and her love interest back home. So I left her sitting there with a couple of beers and on the phone to South Africa, while I went to pack to fly to Vietnam at 10am and then go to bed. At roughly 6am, Sarah jumped on me shaking me awake and said “I can’t breathe”. I was immediately awake and dialled 999, while this is the HK emergency number, it diverted to reception instead and I yelled for them to call an ambulance. Sarah had stopped breathing with no discernible pulse, so I began CPR. I swear it wasn’t even 3 minutes later that the police were bursting through the door with paramedics and hotel management in tow. The police cleared me out and took over, with the paramedics intubating her in front of me and racing her out on a gurney before I could even ask where they were taking her. The police instead directed my taxi to the correct hospital and I was met at the entrance by Chinese police and taken into a “family room”. The doctor came out and told me that it wasn’t looking good and I absolutely lost my shit telling him to “get the fuck back in there and save my friend”. Sarah did not make it and I immediately called my mum in South Africa. It was around 1am there and she was convinced I’d called drunk, to wish her a Merry Christmas, as you do. This was not that call. I called the British Embassy and they said they would come get me and fly me out that night, but I didn’t want to leave Sarah and I had no reason to leave in a hurry. The police took me into a separate “family room” to say goodbye to Sarah. Even now just writing this, my heart is racing and there is a lump in my throat as if it is happening real time. It was horrible, but it was only going to get worse.
I was then taken to the local TST police station in a police van, where I was interrogated by Chinese Police for 8 hours – Merry Christmas mate. They also made me call Sarah’s mother, whom I’d never met, from Sarah’s phone (imagine her shock) and tell her what happened when I didn’t know any more than they did i.e. she was alive and then she was not. They asked me to hang about in Hong Kong just in case, so I did but then the police made me accompany them to the mortuary 2 days later to identify her body, even though I am not family and her uncle was flying in. In a very touching move I will never forget, the young police paramedic who had intubated Sarah came to sit with me at the mortuary, he spoke no English so occasionally would hold my hand or pat my knee, all the while with tears in his eyes and offering tissues. The Coroner pleaded with the detectives not to make me identify her, saying it would be terribly traumatic. They made me do it any way. It was so horrible, the Coroner cried for me, just let that sink in.
I flew out to South Africa to be with my family and friends on 30 December as I could not face flying back to be alone in London. It was one of the most intense times filled with lessons about who should or should not stay in my life and came with huge realisations of how fake some people’s friendship or care really is. Equally though, I discovered who my friends really are and I love and trust every single one of them implicitly and am forever loyal to them. I am surrounded by amazing, because I orchestrated it that way.
In the End…
Eventually, the autopsy report came out and Sarah had suffered a Deep Vein Thrombosis, probably developed during the long flight and released by the deep tissue massage we had on the first night in Hong Kong. It had been fatal as Sarah had previously suffered from Tuberculosis and lost the function of one of her lungs, the thrombosis hit the healthy one and killed her. The autopsy also stated that she had once again contracted TB, which opened a whole new can of worms and worries for me as I had performed CPR on her, potentially exposing myself to a TB infection. I had to have periodic tests for TB as the doctors were so worried, which brought me no comfort at all but at least in the end I was clear. I gain no comfort from missing Sarah every day, from thinking about her every single day, from wondering what might have been. I only get comfort from knowing that she chose me. I have since read that only around 17% of resuscitation is successful and almost 100% of that 17% is done by medical professionals – those are terrible, sobering odds but strangely they put my mind at ease somewhat because I now know I did all I could.
As a result of Hong Kong, I have PTSD which has left me with a sense of numbness about death that sometimes shocks people, I very rarely hear a story that surprises or shocks me. Many stories hurt me deeply and I feel empathy and a deep, deep sadness but almost never shocked. I also have a terrible gallows humour, which is apparently very common in people with PTSD. This weekend, I am going on a course called “Treating Trauma” both for CPD points which will aid me in getting into a Masters in Psychology, should I still wish to pursue that when my memory is much improved, but also to get to the bottom of PTSD once and for all. Hopefully I can also help at least one person, even if that one person is only me.
This week progress has been slow, I say slow but my clothes are no longer fitting me so I’ve had to buy a new wardrobe for work. I couldn’t put it off, the President of the Company is in this week and you can’t go around with your trousers falling down. I have been retaining water, so I’ve upped my water intake and am watching my sodium. Hopefully I will have more improvements to report next week.