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A decade free of nightmares

I have been touched and humbled by the stories and personal journeys of many of my colleagues who have taken up the challenge of shining a spotlight on the mental health of journalists.

Since Dean Yates started his project to bring mental wellbeing out of the closet, I have avidly followed his blog and the contributions of others.

What has struck me is that many of my colleagues are writing about their current struggles, issues they are trying to deal with and overcome at this point in time.

I thought that if I have any contribution to make, it would be from the perspective of somebody who has now gone for more than 10 years free of the nightmares that used to plague me.

I no longer wake in a state of panic and sweat, the most horrendous images at the front of my mind. My long-suffering wife Joy says I no longer grind my teeth incessantly in my sleep, toss and turn and cry out every night. Joy does say I now snore, but perhaps this is a better outcome.

From 1989 to 1995 I covered the often-violent transition of South Africa from apartheid to democracy, as well as civil wars in countries such as Mozambique and Angola.

During this time I was part of a small team of reporters for Agence France-Presse. I spent hundreds of days each year on the road and witnessed some truly inspiring events, but also some absolutely horrible examples of how brutal people can be to one another.

I witnessed a mob kill someone they thought was a police collaborator in a township south of Johannesburg by the infamous necklace method, in which a car tyre was placed around the victim’s neck, filled with petrol and set alight.

I’ve also been shot at a riot, and still have the bullet in my shoulder as a constant reminder (and yes, it does light up the full body scanners at airports sometimes). I’ve been shot at more times than I can remember, driven over a landmine, seen mass graves and starving refugees.

I once had a Pan Africanist Congress activist come up to me in a township near Johannesburg, place a pistol against my chest and pull the trigger.

The PAC was the more radical leftist alternative to Nelson Mandela’s African National Congress and they had the charming slogan of “one settler, one bullet”. The young activist was trying to give me my one bullet, but his Makarov pistol jammed and the gun didn’t fire. The almost funny thing about this was I could see what was wrong with the pistol and could have unjammed it in a second or two. Instead, I pushed the gun away from my chest, said “not today” and walked away.

I’ve also seen a lot worse than those incidents, but the common thread to all of them is that all I did was observe and write about it later. I never intervened, and for good reason as I would have only put myself at risk. But it takes a mental toll to put aside one’s humanity in order to be an objective reporter.

But while I wouldn’t change my experiences, they did leave me with mental scars that took some time to manifest themselves.

I started to suffer from nightmares, but like many men, I thought I was too “tough” or too proud to seek help. I found large crowds hard to deal with, couldn’t stand repetitive noises and my physical health started to suffer. I probably drank too much as well.

I lived with this for several years. Moving with Joy to Australia in 2000 didn’t end the nightmares or the anxieties, they relocated with me.

As is often the case, matters eventually came to a head. In my case it was Joy falling pregnant with our second child. I had struggled with the first baby, and I was convinced I was failing as a father and the thought of another baby was daunting.

It was Joy, who was reaching the end of what I now realise was an extremely long tether, who strongly encouraged me to seek professional help. She found me a suitable therapist and with great reluctance I went.

At first we just talked about my fatherhood issues, but the therapist quickly realised there were underlying problems and although it took a while, eventually I felt able to talk about my experiences in-depth and without restraint.

I told her the stories I’m happy to share with others, the ones I seldom talk about, and even the ones I have never mentioned to anybody else. I opened up about how they made me feel, and how they tortured both my conscious and unconscious minds.

Looking back, this was the turning point. What I managed to do, with help, was find my own way of dealing with the memories. For me, the therapist taught me how to pack my memories into mental boxes and file them away. I can still open the box, take out the memory and interact with it, but I can also now put it back in the box and file it away again.

I recognise that for different people different paths have to be found. What I am grateful for is that I found a path that worked for me. It has made my life immeasurably better, and hopefully it has done the same for my family.

Without Joy’s intervention I probably would have lost my marriage and the opportunity to try to be a father to our two wonderful children - teenagers who enchant and frustrate me in equal measure.

What I would say to anybody struggling to deal with traumatic past experiences is that you can recover, you can get better and it’s worth the effort.

Clyde Russell is Thomson Reuters' Asia commodities and energy columnist, working from home in Launceston, Tasmania. ■