Burning brighter - My experience of PTSD

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Posted on 21/06/2012 |

Indie star Danny MacNamara opened up about his experience of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on his blog this week. He kindly agreed to let us post his blog about it here, so that visitors to the Mind site can share his insights and ways of coping.

People ask me where my lyrics come from, and I’ve always been intentionally vague in the past. I’ve always believed that a song means whatever the listener wants it to mean. That the best ideas aren’t crafted from the ground up, but really do feel like they come out of nothing. So to then impose your own interpretation on the songs seems to be a bit egotistical.

But something happened to me when I was younger that up until now I’ve only ever shared with a handful of my closest friends and family.

Something that has literally coloured everything I’ve done since. It was traumatic, terrifying, and it almost killed me. But it also enabled me to see things very differently. It enabled me to write songs for the first time, and has probably informed every single lyric and song I have ever written.

Between the ages of 19 and 22 I suffered from a horrendous condition called post traumatic stress disorder. I won’t go into too much gory detail here but all I will say is that for the best part of three years I was in a living hell. It felt like the rest of the world was at the other side of translucent bullet proof ice. I couldn’t even cope with basic functions. I was having up to fifteen panic attacks a day. I wasn’t sleeping. I wasn’t eating. I went down to about ten stone, which isn’t very much when you are 6ft 2” tall. I almost died. I’d spend all day fighting my thoughts, and all night running from imaginary demons and voices.

One thing I’ve never been short of is hope.

I’ve been really lucky to have a great family who’ve instilled in me from a very early age the belief that good usually wins. But all that hope did was make the fight for my sanity longer, and harder and more bloody horrible. It broke me down, smashed me to pieces, and then came after the pieces one by one. Anyone who knows me will tell you I’m quite a driven and determined person, and I fought back, but it was impossible.

Like trying to beat yourself in a fight to the death, starting with your soul and working your way out with minute, internal, mathematic, mechanical horror. It was almost impossible to think a nice thought. I’d see a nice view and I think of all the killers killing and the rapists raping and all the abusers abusing as far as the eye can see. I’d see a park full of flowers and all I’d think was how sad and pathetic it was that I, as a twenty year old man, had to rely on family and friends to take me out to the park for a change of scenery.

Once I locked myself in the bathroom because all I could hear in my head were these awful voices telling me to hurt and kill. I didn’t want to hurt anyone but I’d been fighting my thoughts for months and I’d got to the point where I’d become terrified that I wouldn’t be able to stop myself. I even somehow had a knife in my hands. I remember shaking uncontrollably and sitting in the bath and turning on the hot water hoping the shock would bring me to my senses. It didn’t. As the pain from the scalding water went through my body the voices just got louder and more horrific and more confident and started laughing and saying I deserved it repeatedly over and over, and that I should use the knife on myself before I hurt my family on the other side.

It wasn’t living and it wasn’t pretty, and so that’s as much as I want to say about it for now.

I wrote a short fictional story at the time based on my experiences. I re-read it the other day, and while it’s a bit green, it has an honesty about it that I’m still really proud of.

The reason I’m speaking out now is because there has been a lot of coverage of depression and other mental illnesses recently. People have come forward and spoken out in really brave and touching ways about how they have learned to live with, overcome and even in some cases embrace the dark side. And I found it inspiring.

Lots of people suffer for months and years in silence because of the stigma attached, or worse still (as was the case with me) because they fear they’re going to be locked up. According to a recent story in The New York Times, for every one US soldier who died in battle last year, 25 veterans committed suicide. Most were suffering from the effects of PTSD. The tragedy of it is that if those young (usually) men hadn’t felt isolated and weak or afraid to speak out, there might be a real chance their lives could have been saved. Men who’ve often fought selflessly for their country only to be isolated and even tragically turned into ratings winning TV casualties when they come home… “World’s Most Dangerous Drivers” really might as well be called “World’s Most Off His Face Ex Soldier” - it has to stop, and it has to stop now.

I’m really lucky I got help. My mum literally carried me to the doctors in the end, and I’m better now.

Not just well, but better. Better than I ever was before. Back then we’d spent so long trying to write songs and failing, nothing had any depth, nothing felt real. Coming out of the worst of my PTSD, I was aged 22 and I couldn’t honestly stand behind anything we were writing anymore.

Embrace sounded like our influences, as it said in Melody Maker at the time:

"A lowest common denominator blend of The Chameleons, The Bunnymen, and U2; basically that live aid performance minus the laughs”

Well let’s say it hit a nerve. Aged 22, I picked up a guitar for the first time and learned some chords. The illness took a while to lift, but as it did, the demons that kept me up all night just enabled me to spend more time writing. So I sat there with my acoustic guitar and I wrote and wrote and wrote.

And as I got better, I wrote even more. The illness that had smashed me to pieces, the horror that had me fighting for air, isolated and trapped behind an ice wall now enabled me to see the world with growing clarity as the ice melted.

Colours burned brighter, orchestras played in my head. I felt so alive, I could taste it. Songs poured out of me. As my health came back, I was able to help my dad on the building site by day and then write songs all night. I wasn’t sleeping very much at that time but it felt like I’d wasted the last three years as a walking zombie and I didn’t know how long this new alive feeling was going to last. Well not only did it last, it continued and still continues to enhance every aspect of my life to this day. It’s not all been plain sailing though to say the least. But maybe that’s a story for another time.

So why talk about this now? Last week Richard came to the studio armed with one of the most aggressive pieces of music he has ever written and for the first time I felt compelled to open up and write about PTSD.

The song is called “Self Attack Mechanism” and it’s not quite finished yet but it’s turning out like nothing else we’ve ever done before. Which after five albums is really great to be able to say.


Danny McNamara

This is an extract of a blog first published on Danny's Tumblr. Danny is singer and writer in the band, Embrace. He has had lots of messages of support on Twitter, and his Tumblr, so probably won't be able to reply to comments here.

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