Ghosts Within: Journeying Through PTSD is written by former war zone journalist Garry Leech. It covers his journey with post-traumatic stress disorder in response to the horrors his work exposed him to.
The book describes 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 of tackling difficult subjects head on.
Something that struck me as a bit odd was the explanation early on in the book of how he met and fell in love with his current wife. This 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 finding out he had a daughter when she contacted him as an adult. That becomes significant in the story later on, but the way it was included at the beginning 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 and their relationship. As the illness progressed, he would regularly tell her to leave him. When she first suggested he had PTSD, he brushed it off at the time, thinking only soldiers got PTSD. His own slow process of coming to understand his diagnosis underscores the importance of his stated intention to raise awareness about PTSD.
Leech wrote about changing his appearance so no one (including himself) would be able to recognize him as the person he had been. The reader learns 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. After this incident, he agreed to start treatment.
He explains how he worked regularly with a therapist, which helped to control his symptoms to a point. Hoping to get his life back, he decided to try eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR). There was a long wait in the public system, and his insurance wouldn’t cover this treatment that can be life-changing for trauma survivors. Luckily, he was able to pay for it out of pocket.
He thoroughly describes his EMDR sessions, so even a reader unfamiliar with the therapy would get a good sense of it. He shares how therapy allowed him to work through the shame and guilt related to the trauma, and how he learned that the numbness he felt was dissociation. At that point, he realized he’d blocked out significant memories.
The EMDR treatment was very effective, and despite some ongoing symptoms, he was able to get to the point where he could live a meaningful life again. He tried going off his medication, but symptoms returned, so he ended up restarting it. I thought this gave a very realistic picture of how the PTSD recovery journey is definitely not linear.
Leech explains that despite how challenging PTSD has been, the experience has put him more in touch with his feelings. There were downsides, but 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 doesn’t receive much attention, so this book can help to address that awareness deficit. The only real downside for me was that some of the chapters were a little long given the effects of depression on my own concentration. Overall, though, this book makes a useful contribution in showing the journey from knowing little about PTSD to being able to conquer it.
Ghosts Within is available on Amazon (affiliate link).
I received a reviewer copy of the book from the publisher via Netgalley.