More than a decade has passed since that summer morning when I woke up to the sound of unfamiliar male voices in my bedroom. To the sight of four men staring at me with me in my night dress. To the fear of them harming my family with the weapons they carried. The memories of me handing over, in panic, every piece of jewellery I had in the house, lest they do something unthinkable. The memories of how, after they left when they had looted my home and had us at gunpoint for a good four hours, I sat quivering in disbelief that this had happened.
The memory of me begging them to hand me my dupatta, which they fortunately did. Memories of how strangely humiliated I felt when I went downstairs, hours after they had gone, to find out that they had broken in the night before, had eaten from my fridge and had stubbed out cigarettes on my living room carpet. But perhaps the weirdest thing was how I developed a fear of the huge window in my bedroom from where they had made me answer the neighbours who had sensed something fishy and so had arrived at my gate.
At that point, standing by that window, exchanging pleasantries with the neighbours and falsely reassuring them that all was well, I was breaking into cold sweats as two men with guns were by my side. For more than a year, I could not get myself to go near that window without shivers running down my spine. None of this is an exaggeration. I have been through this.
Sadly, many readers will relate to this story, particularly in Pakistan. In a random group at any social event, nearly everyone has a traumatic story to share in which they have stared fear in the eye and have experienced real threat to their safety, up close and personal.
Most of us have stories in our back pockets about how at a signal our watches or cell phones were taken away at gun point. Or how someone we know was kidnapped. Or how robbers broke into our house. Or how, as an ex-pat, we were robbed on our way back from the money exchange. Or how our child’s school had had three bomb threats in one year. The injury in some extreme cases may also have been physical. But mostly, it is an emotional affliction. Those moments of panic. Of fear. Of uncertainty. Of the very real possibility of injury or violation of death. And long after those incidents have passed by and blurred away into the past tense, the memories stay painfully vivid. Clear. Recurrent.
Unconsciously, unknowingly, so many of us might be victims of what is called “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” or PTSD. Any situation in which you have had a real threat of injury or death can result in this. Something as internal to a family as domestic abuse and something that affects the whole society like terrorism — this can all result in PTSD. The results can live on in your system for a long time, till you get proper support, counselling or simply time that heals. The extent to which you are being affected by PTSD will depend on psychological, genetic, physical and social factors. PTSD not only results in flashbacks and psychological scarring but alters the body’s response to stress.
Stress hormones and chemicals that carry information between the nerves (neurotransmitters) are impacted by trauma.
“I was traumatised after I experienced an armed robbery at my parents’ house when I was 13 years old,” recalls Mehtab Danish, years later, still visibly shaken at the recollection. “I was in the washroom when I first heard the dacoits arguing with my sister. What followed after was all the more scary and horrifying with my father being hit on the head with the butt of the gun numerous times resulting in multiple stitches. I got my fingers twisted resulting in permanently crooked fingers. All this left such a deep impact that I could not go to the washroom that whole day! Years passed on and I still used to experience audio hallucinations whenever I was inside the washroom; I would be convinced that someone is right outside. Even today, it is difficult to relive those moments without feeling a jolt of terror.”
Asker Husain, a resident of UK, was in London when 7/7 (the July 7, 2005 London bombings which targeted civilians using the public transport system) happened. “One of my lawyers was in the underground carriage next to the one that blew up. He was severely traumatised and had to receive psychiatric help for over a year. He no longer travels by the tube. My main concern was how people would react to me. I obviously look Asian, just like the bombers. I had my back pack, just like the attackers. I thought that given the circumstances, I would get an adverse reaction from the general public as I made my way home.” Husain was lucky as he did not get the adverse reaction he was apprehensive of. He was also fortunate he did not face trauma at close quarters, unlike his friend.
Complications resulting from PTSD are not limited to just nightmares and flashbacks; it can result in anxiety, panic attacks, depression as well as substance abuse and alcoholism. PTSD can, if left untreated, potentially destroy a person’s life.
Forms of treatment vary but for that the first step would have to be recognition. The attitude of “khud hee theek ho jayega” (the problem will get solved itself) does not work. The earlier the detection, the better the chances of solving the problem. A strong support system works, as does talking about the incident with people who have undergone similar experiences.
A form of treatment called “desensitisation” may also be used, where the victim is encouraged to talk about it and vent pent up emotions and memories of the incident. Over time, the memories, because of being relived repeatedly, become less frightful. Thus, the phenomenon we see in Pakistan and often criticise, of people becoming numb to things happening around them, might actually be a natural defence mechanism of the human system. When traumatic situations occur so repeatedly in a community, after a while numbness sets in. While apathy and indifference is unhealthy, zoning out may be the only way of dealing with it. A prettier word, of course, would be resilience.