Ghosts Within: Journeying Through PTSD is written by former war zone journalist Garry Leech, who developed post-traumatic stress disorder in response to the horrors to which he’d been exposed through his work.
The book does describe some of the traumatic events the author experienced. This took a few forms: as descriptions of flashbacks, as part of his work with his therapist, and as short descriptive but emotionally detached clips interspersed throughout the book. The descriptions of violence are not gratuitous, but readers with a history of trauma should carefully consider whether these sorts of descriptions might be triggering. This is explained in the book’s introduction.
The book opens with Leech experiencing intense suicidal ideation; he was able to stop himself from acting on this by thinking of his family. I thought this placement at the beginning was quite effective, as it sets the tone that this book is going to tackle difficult subjects head on.
Something that struck me as a bit odd was his explanation early on in the book of how he met and fell in love with his current wife, which happened while he was married to his now former wife. It doesn’t add value to the story and may unnecessarily bias readers against him. It doesn’t help that in the same part of the book he mentions that he found out he had a daughter when she contacted him as an adult. That becomes significant in the story much later on, but the way it was included at the beginning alongside with the way he met his wife was perhaps not the best choice.
Hyperarousal was the first symptom that became quite noticeable, and this manifested as frequent angry outbursts. He explains how challenging this was for his wife. As the illness progressed, he would regularly tell her to leave him. She was the one who first suggested he had PTSD, but he brushed it off at the time thinking it was something that only happened to soldiers. His own slow process of coming to understand his diagnosis underscores the importance of his stated intention to raise awareness about PTSD.
He wrote about changing his appearance so not just others but also he himself wouldn’t be able to recognize him as the person he had been. He walks the reader through what it’s like to experience flashbacks and panic attacks. He also shared the story of an intense flashback that led to him uncontrollably self-harming. As a result, police and ambulance attended, sedated him, and took him to hospital in restraints. It was after this incident that he agreed to start medication, something he had previously been opposed to.
He explains how he worked regularly with a therapist, which helped to control his symptoms to a point. In the hopes of being able to get his life back, he decided to try eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). As is so often the case, there was a long wait to get it through the public system, and his insurance would not cover the treatment. Luckily he was able to pay for it out of pocket.
He gives thorough descriptions of the work that was done during EMDR sessions, so even a reader unfamiliar with the therapy would get a good sense of it. With the therapy he was able to work through the shame and guilt related to the trauma. He also came to understand that the numbness he felt was dissociation. It was at this point he also came to realize that he had blocked out the memory of learning of his daughter’s birth while she was an infant.
The EMDR treatment was very effective, and after seven weeks the intrusive memories stopped. While he has continued to have some ongoing symptoms, he was able to get to the point where he felt he could live a meaningful life again. He tried going off his medication, but the hypervigilance and anxiety returned, so he restarted it.
He explains that despite how challenging PTSD has been, the experience has put him more in touch with his feelings. He feels more vulnerable, which makes it harder to trust others, but he recognizes that there are also upsides. He found writing therapeutic, and advocacy around mental illness awareness has helped to give him a new sense of purpose.
I suspect that for those who are unfamiliar with PTSD this book may be very eye-opening. PTSD among journalists is not something that receives much attention, so this book can help to address that deficit in awareness. The only real downside for me was that I found some of the chapters a little long given the effects my own mental illness has on my concentration. Overall, though, this book makes a useful contribution in showing the journey from knowing very little about PTSD to being able to conquer it.
I received a reviewer copy of the book from the publisher via Netgalley.
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