ABC Journalist Reflects on PTSD

ABC correspondent and Ochberg Fellow Sally Sara wrote for the first time about experiencing post traumatic stress disorder after returning home from Afghanistan. Scroll down to listen to her piece, and read the full text below.

This piece was originally published on ABC's Correspondent's Report. 

Usually, these stories only take an hour or two to write.

But, this one has taken me almost three weeks.

It's about coming home. Really coming home. What happens when the assignment finishes and a correspondent returns.

We don't talk about it much or, if we do, we stay on the surface.

When I first returned from Afghanistan, I could squeeze the joy out of just about anything. The novelty of being home was endless.

I remember laughing when I googled the word freedom in Australia, and found that Freedom Furniture was the first thing to come up. It was so deliciously ridiculous.

But, the novelty slowly faded away. There was something empty about being home that made me feel disconnected. I was an outsider.

I was on the edge for attacks that never happened and outraged by injustices far away in Afghanistan that weren't my stories to tell anymore.

Then, in late October 2012, it all slipped into something else.

Some mornings I couldn't see the faces of the other commuters on the train. It was as if everything around me was blurry, almost as if I wasn't there. My concentration was gone at work and at home it was almost impossible to complete simple jobs, like making a phone call to the bank or sorting out a bill.

During my time in Afghanistan, I'd been careful. Every few months, I'd phoned a counsellor assigned to me by the ABC to debrief on what I had seen and experienced. I took care of myself and coped well in the field. I was steady, competent and anchored by a strong sense of purpose. When bombs went off or shooting started, I was calm. Maybe too calm.

But, deep inside, beyond where I could feel, the trouble was starting. 

On November the 1st, 2012, it hit. 

When I woke up that morning, I had no idea what was about to unfold. I could never have imagined how the day would end. But, when I look back now, I can see it was almost inevitable. 

The thing is, that everyone has a breaking point. No matter how much they've seen, how experienced they are, how careful they are. It's a very human reaction to so many years of bearing witness. I had spent more than eight years out in the field, often covering trauma. Maybe you could have lasted longer than me or maybe you wouldn't have lasted the first month. Who knows? Everyone has their limits. The trouble is you don't know what yours is, until you hit it.

On that November day, I hit mine.

The detail of what happened on that day is private for me, my family and close friends. It's not something I'll talk about publicly. Partly, because it's still raw. But, also, I'm a working journalist. Next time I have a story broadcast on the ABC, I need the audience to concentrate on that story, not me. So, that's my choice. I think it's very important for people to be able to choose what they share, rather than feeling pressured into an all or nothing decision. 

What I can say is that what happened on that day was terrifying. An episode of thoughts, confusion and fear that was beyond anything I have ever experienced in my life. It was far more frightening than anything on the battlefield. So much of the fear came from ignorance. I didn't understand what was going on or even have the words to describe it. 

In the days that followed, I was shocked and shaken. Stunned. I felt so sad and ashamed that I had broken. There is almost a kind of grief that goes with that - finding out that you are not as strong as you thought you were. I kept thinking, this will forever be on the timeline of my life. I was terrified that I had lost it, worried that I may lose my job or financial independence.

The turning point was going to see a specialist to get professional help. That changed everything. The doctor was an older woman, with years of experience – especially dealing with journalists and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. She was so gentle and reassuring. I walked home after the first session feeling an overwhelming sense of relief.

She was able to explain to me what had happened to my mind and body from so many years of being exposed to trauma. I understand now that human beings have a deep, deep aversion to life threatening danger. And when you go against that instinct, again and again, year after year, damage is being done, and one day, it will snap back and hit you. And that's what happened. 

As for the bigger picture, we know that journalists who cover war are far more likely to be affected by PTSD than their colleagues. We know that the longer journalists are out in the field, the worse it is. We also know that journalists who work on their own are at increased risk. 

The other important thing to understand is the delay. PTSD can hit months or years after the actual trauma. For me, it was 11 months after I got back from Afghanistan. In some ways, coming home from war can be more difficult than going in the first place. 

One of the big misconceptions is that PTSD is all about the blood and bullets and the bombs and the fear. But, for many people it's more complicated than that. Mental health experts use a term called moral injury. That means that what you saw was not just physically confronting, but it was wrong, morally wrong. 

Maybe you saw a child killed or injured. Maybe you felt like you let someone down or failed to do your job in the midst of the trauma. That's the stuff that can haunt people for years, if they don't get help. 

I think as journalists, we celebrate those in our profession who go beyond the limits. We celebrate courage, risk taking and doggedness. As we should. But, we don't celebrate setting limits. We don't give enough recognition to those who say no, those who say that's enough for me, for now. Sometimes the bravest thing is to get help and to know when to pause. I wish that more of our younger journalists knew that it's ok to say no.

I quietly returned to work a couple of weeks after I broke down. It was really a strange experience, eerie. I told my colleagues that I'd just had some time off to move house. My life had completely changed while I was away, but I came back and sat at my desk as if nothing had happened. It was all still excruciatingly private. 

In the weeks and months that followed, I slowly told the people closest to me at work, in detail what had happened. I was also able to talk with some of the senior managers at the ABC, to make sure that our counselling and other services were the best they could be. Talking about it made all the difference. It took the shame away.

Post traumatic stress and acute incidents of mental illness can be utterly frightening. But, it's not the end. There is so much help and hope, if you only ask. There's nothing shameful about it. 

For me, life now is joyful, captivating and full of contentment. The shadows of the war have long gone. I can't tell you how beautiful it is. 

This is Sally Sara for Correspondent's Report.