When The War Comes Home

When Patrick Howse returned to London after a seven year tour of duty in and out of Baghdad as the BBC's bureau chief, a seemingly ordinary incident on the Central Line tube took him back to the war, and triggered the onset of PTSD. It also changed his life.

(The painting image below, "PTSD Patrick," by Inge Schlaile.)

I had been covering the war in Iraq for seven years, but I had no practical understanding of what post-traumatic stress disorder actually was. That changed when I returned in early 2010. I was travelling in a packed tube carriage on London’s Central Line. I was covering an inquiry into the UK’s decision to go to war. Someone wiped the steamed up window with the sleeve of her coat and the shape that she left was to me a map of Baghdad—a place I could see and smell burning, and hear screams.

In broad daylight, in a completely normal London situation, my brain had taken me back to the city where I did ten grueling month-long tours of duty between 2003 and 2009. As one of a small group of producers acting as the Baghdad Bureau Chief for the BBC, I had been responsible for coverage of many of the most horrifying events of the war.

Somehow London, and the investigation into the causes and conduct of the war was the trigger. It was such a distinct moment, seeing that shape form on the glass. It is one I have found myself returning to in the poetry I write, in an attempt to convey the horror and revulsion—and also the excitement and thrill—of working in Baghdad.

Our lives were constantly in danger: On one stint I heard (and counted) 140 explosions, some of them at least close enough to rattle windows and bring down dust from the ceiling. There was also constant guilt, as a result of deciding not to go to the scene of a bombing for fear of a second explosion targeting responders, or directing a cameraman covering a suicide bombing to avoid images of body parts that would never make the TV news.

On more than one occasion, footage we shot wasn’t used because ‘there were not enough deaths.’

At such times I felt contempt for myself, as well as anger and revulsion with my profession, at the futility of what we try to do. Though somewhere, always, there has also been pride with the knowledge that though our ability to bear witness to terrible events may be inadequate, it’s better than nothing.

As a BBC employee, I had even taken courses to prepare for PTSD. But nothing equipped me for the actual experience, nor for the gulf between those feelings and the ‘normal’ life around me. Back in London, friends and colleagues were living in a different universe and I was unable to convey my feelings and memories of working in a war zone. When I returned to London after my last stint in Iraq, my life became unmanageable.

Over a period of a few months, I lost everything: my marriage, my career, my family, my identity. During that time, a flashback or nightmare could put me flat on my back in a dark place for days or even weeks.

Finally, during that tube ride, I realised that I couldn’t hide from the facts any longer, that I had to ask for help. Over three years, I had therapy: EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) and CBT (cognitive behavioural therapy). And it worked. I’m not cured of PTSD, I don’t think that’s ever possible. But with the help of two great therapists, a lovely partner and my family and friends, I have learnt to make it behave. I can deal with the very infrequent flashbacks; they don’t even spoil my day any longer.

And there have been unforeseen positive consequences of my illness. Having to let go, to come to terms with my limits and my real self has allowed me to feel happiness in a way I had never felt before—including the joy I have felt in my great fortune in finding a wonderful partner.

Further, the experience of PTSD unleashed a creativity that has led to a collection of poetry that would never have happened otherwise. During the therapy, the connections between events, feelings and observations came into my mind as poems. I didn’t have any choice about writing them. And while many are part of the process of therapy, directly linked to Iraq and PTSD, I have also been able to express delight with the world - an appreciation of nature, of life and happiness.

Patrick Howse’s collection of poetry with a foreword by John Simpson, can be seen online at: www.patrickhowse.co.uk