Paul met his therapist John, for his first session at 10am, 3rd of May, 2013. The sense of fear was immediate and palpable. Paul was shaking, hadn’t slept meaningfully for weeks, was barely able to function and in unbearable psychological and physical pain. In The Struggle Continues, together with his daughter Natasha, Paul tells the story of his Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the life that led to this life-threatening and life-altering diagnosis, and the long, hard road back from the brink.
But this is a story told from the other end of the therapist's couch. Not a case study, or academic work, but a real-life account from the perspective of a trauma survivor, told by a father and daughter.
The writing of every book is a story in of itself. Here we share the Prologue of The Struggle Continues, where Paul introduces his story, the cast of characters, and also explains why he decided to write this book. He talks about the many challenges in writing such a story, and how he and his daughter decided to go about it. It's not a typical life, so obviously enough, this story is not going to be written like a typical book. In this opening chapter of the book, Paul also describe's the events that led to his mental collapse, and diagnosis, leading up to that first meeting between Paul and John.
Natasha would like to give her first warning about the nature of this story. It's a difficult and dark road that you'll be walking down as you follow this tale, clearly some of the subjects have the potential to be triggering, and Paul's Prologue has all the subtlety of a cannonball to the face (direct quote from Natasha).
We do hope you will come with us on this journey, but we are also all to painfully aware of how uncomfortable this can be, and of the impact of this subject matter. Just so you know what you're getting yourself into, and please be sure to look after yourself as you read. Take breaks, take time to process, whatever you need.
Prologue by Paul Fjelrad
"Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this, too, was a gift.", Mary Oliver, Thirst
I might be stating the obvious here, but the decision to tell this story was not an easy one. Firstly, the practical difficulty of being dyslexic, which in my case specifically impacts my writing rather than reading ability. It’s taken me years to figure out how to get the thoughts in my head out into a document or email, principally by having a conversation in my head, like I’m explaining an idea to someone, and writing my side of the conversation. Secondly, I have substantial memory problems prior to age thirteen, caused by dissociative amnesia, which I’ll explain in more detail later. Sometimes, with the right prompting, I can access some of these memories. But it’s a difficult and draining process, like staring through fog, while driving on a dark road at night.
Then there is the consideration that the key events of my life obviously involved and impacted other people, and it’s nigh on impossible to talk about one without the other. Therefore, I had to make a decision about what, and how much detail, I would include in my story, and how I would approach those parts of any narrative. I have been told, by both my therapist and friends, that I sometimes put the concerns of others in front of my own in a way that is not constructive to my own mental well-being. I also had the thought that if I was to do this, then it would be cowardly of me to do anything other than to tell all of my story and not to pick and choose. The second I become selective about which parts I do and don’t tell, then I’m either shielding others, out of concern for their feelings at the expense of telling the truth, or I’ll find reasons to leave out elements of my story because of how it reflects on me.
So, I made the decision that I would tell the story in its entirety, and the only reason elements would be left out would be because they don’t serve the goals of this book and would therefore be unnecessary. In this, my daughter is the best narrator and editor I could have, and she’ll keep me on the straight and narrow in telling the story as it needs to be told. So, what are the goals of this book?
Firstly, I believe that there is no greater thing that someone in pain can discover than to find out that they are not alone. That someone else has been where they are, felt what they feel and, more than that, that there is hope. That somewhere, there is a path that can lead them out of this pain.
But this is not a self-help book, nor am I qualified to write such a thing. All I’m saying by writing my story, is that I found a path and, therefore, maybe, others can find their own path as well. Particularly, with regard to my diagnosis of Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, I have read many of the books out there on the subject, and yet haven’t read anything from the perspective of the person living with that diagnosis, their life story up to that point and what they went through during the treatment process.
Secondly, it is my belief that children suffer abuse across this country, trapped in fear and silence, and I believe this is allowed to go on partly because we, as a society, look the other way. No one said a word when my brother went to school with bruises. There was nothing done when my brother was sent away by my mother and died in that home for children with what we would euphemistically describe today as ‘behavioural problems’. I understand now that my mother surrounded us with a narrative that we were evil, nasty monsters, and maybe my brother said nothing about what was done to him, and indeed to all of us, because he thought there was no hope. But surely something must have been there to alert our teachers, doctors, neighbours or social workers as to what was going on in that house. Yet apparently no one saw anything that suggested further investigation might be appropriate.
We have seen this pattern with terrible situations like the Rotherham girls and the horrific abuse they suffered, and cover-ups of abuse within religious institutions. We have seen it is the vulnerable that are targeted, and blame is shifted onto the children for anything that seems out of the ordinary, who are portrayed as troublemakers and delinquents. So anything I can do to raise awareness, furthering understanding of how this happens, and how it looks from both the outside and inside, I believe may have some value.
Thirdly, this book, as you’ll see, is predominantly a conversation between me and my daughter. She and I have been through our trials and challenges, both together and apart. As you’ll also come to see, she played a pivotal role in my recovery, and I could not be prouder of the amazing young woman she has become as she has triumphed in her own journey through adversity. I imagine many would always seek to shield their children from hearing such things as will be described in this book, however this isn’t how our relationship has developed and through this process, I would like her to understand her dad better. Indeed, how some events unfolded has also had a fundamental impact on her own life, so maybe she’ll come to understand herself a little better as well.
It may seem like a strange way to do this, but this was the choice I made and perhaps the why of it will become clear as you read the book. Taking this decision means that it is inevitable that I’ll be telling my daughter some things that she didn’t know, and also some things that will be very challenging for her to hear. It is my profound hope that the very act of turning this conversation into a book, will help her (and me) to process these events and from it, gain a new perspective.
So, now you understand what I’m looking to achieve by writing this book, let’s introduce some characters. One of the early decisions was that although I will endeavour to tell all of my story, without fear or favour, I will only mention my name, and that of my daughter, as joint authors of this book. My daughter and me, you will come to know through the narrative, so let’s go through the rest of the cast:
So we’ve established the cast list and set the stage, now we come to the question of how my daughter and I would like to tell this story.
I now see my life clearly as being in two parts. Before my mental collapse, which I will explain below; then my diagnosis with C-PTSD and what happened after. So this is how we will tell this story: Life 1, running from my birth up to before my ‘descent into madness’ and Life 2, my rebirth through therapy and learning to live with the person I am now. This isn’t just a narrative device, but actually how I see it as I look back and barely recognise the person I was before. In truth, when I hit the bottom and bounced back up, I had to leave behind everything that I was before that moment. I can of course only guess, but I think I feel somewhat like someone who survived a cancer diagnosis, where all hope was done and dusted, and they had been given bare months to live. Yet, somehow, they were now in remission and were miraculously granted a whole new life. Not just due to the therapy, but this experience has changed me, and this is one of the things I hope will be conveyed by this story.
So let’s get on to what caused all this and what I’ve described, only slightly tongue-in-cheek, as my ‘descent into madness’.
It all began with a phone call or, more correctly, two phone calls...
The first call was the one where my daughter, now seventeen, got back in touch with me after thirteen years when I wasn’t part of her life. I won’t get into the details of this now, aside from saying that this for me was the impossible made possible. I had never allowed myself to even dare to hope during those thirteen years and had been in a continuous and seemingly never-ending grieving process for the little girl I had lost. Yet here, out of the blue, she was talking to me on Facebook and on the phone, and we were planning for her visit to Spain, where I was living at the time. Again, the details of all this will be described in depth later but the only piece of the story I’ll explain now is that, during that first visit, I saw the telltale scars on her arm that told me she had been self-harming, and the way she brushed aside my query about the scars told me that this was ongoing.
Over the next year, aside from a very tentative conversation on Facebook, there was never the opportunity to get into a meaningful dialogue with my daughter about those scars. Our relationship was still too new, too fragile, and building up the trust needed to have that talk was made more difficult by the distance between us and the infrequent nature of her visits.
Then came the second phone call and this is where it all changed...
I was working on a client site that day and was in a stairwell, running up several flights of stairs to get to my next meeting, when the phone rang. I stopped, looked down, saw my daughter’s name displayed on the phone and answered, mostly to tell her, ‘Hey, darlin’, I’m busy, Is it urgent?” and, “Can I call you back?’ Even though this very moment has replayed in my head innumerable times as flashbacks and nightmares, what she said next, or how I replied’ is a complete blank. So I’ll just lay it out for you: She had tried to take her own life. She was lying on the floor of a college bathroom, waiting for the ambulance to arrive. She needed me.
Unless you have been in a similar situation, and I sincerely hope you haven’t, then it’s impossible to describe this moment. For any parent, the idea that your child would be so full of despair and without hope that not only did they want to die, but were willing to severely injure themselves to do so, would be an unimaginable nightmare.
For me, this was the culmination of a forty-year nightmare and was not only imaginable, but was a horror that had played through my head more times than I can count, particularly during the thirteen years when I didn’t have contact and didn’t even know if she was alive or dead. You will see through this story that it seemed like everything was leading to this moment, like the inevitability of an approaching avalanche.
My mind didn’t collapse in on itself immediately, but the stone had been kicked off the top of the mountain and the process that would lead to inevitable destruction had started.
What followed was a blur. I know there were taxis, trains, an aeroplane and a hire car involved, but I remember little of the journey to the hospital where Natasha was being treated. At this point I must have been running on autopilot. I don’t remember much about the initial conversation as I rushed into Natasha’s room. Just the tears, the hugging, and the blood that was still in her hair. That visceral image of the blood in her hair was one that would replay itself in my head over and over again during the next few years, always accompanied by the overwhelming emotions of horror and a painful desperation.
I had a brief Facebook conversation with GB over the next few days, where I explained to him that I knew something was happening inside me and that in my head, I was storing up a price that I was going to have to pay sooner rather than later. But I also explained that this was something I’d deal with another time and right now, the only thing that mattered was Natasha. Little did I know what was heading my way. I may have felt the tremors of the approaching avalanche, but I hadn’t yet comprehended the scale of what was coming.
Within a couple of months, while the focus was primarily on ensuring Natasha got the right therapeutic help, my mental stability started to shatter. My relationship with LT was disintegrating and my emotional state became more unstable by the day.
Then, after yet another argument, LT met up with a guy, cheated on me and, when she returned to our flat, she told me what had happened: that it was ‘a beautiful moment’ and that our relationship was over. Once again I do not know what happened next. It was like the walls of my world caved in and my mind ceased to function. I apparently lay immobile in bed for the next few days until the flat tenancy ending forced me to get up and start moving. I packed a few things, dumped the rest, got in the car and drove to my sister’s house in Bristol.
Everything from this time is blurry. The only clear moments were the nightmares, which had kicked in with such a force that I barely slept, the flashbacks assaulting my mind in a non-stop barrage of terror and pain. The overwhelming and inescapable thought was that the only way out was to die.
Then, after one completely sleepless night where I sat on the windowsill, smoking, and thinking only about whether and how I could die, the sun rose and I went down to the garden to sit, think and make a decision. I had this brief moment of clarity and a simple choice was laid out in front of me.
Either to end my life here and now, as there was no way I could continue to live with the pain I was feeling and the endless parade of nightmarish visions being replayed in my mind’s eye.
To start to climb up, fight back, and find a way to deal with what had happened.
I’m sure it’s a lovely romantic notion that I, as a father, saw that my daughter needed me, and my friends and family would surely miss me. That I had a lot to live for and therefore I shouldn’t take my own life, but should find a way to start to heal for both myself and them.
This would be a lie...
As I sat there, I felt like I was staring death in the face and, in the other direction, there was nothing but a fight I didn’t believe I could win. When I made my choice, it was down to one reason and one reason only.
Fuck you! Fuck my family and every person who had hurt me and by whose actions or inaction I had ended up in this place! Fuck the universe, fuck life and fuck death! Fuck everyone who had a happy life and everyone who had turned their back and looked away while I was being hurt behind the doors of 2 Lower Chapel Lane. Fuck everything, everyone; and fuck you!
I was furious and I wasn’t going to be beaten. I wasn’t going to give them the satisfaction, whoever the hell ‘them’ was. I would find a way back just to spite them, regardless of what it took.
Then I stopped and grew calm as my choice had been made. I thought of my daughter and I knew that I could never do this to her. She needed me and I would somehow figure out how to be the father she needed, because what had happened to me should not hurt her any more than it already had.
I had no idea what was ahead of me and no idea how to get there. I could barely function, and I had nowhere to turn. So, for reasons that don’t make sense to me, even now, I found a therapy centre in Brighton, back where I had lived with LT, made an appointment for an assessment, booked a hotel to stay in and drove back.
... and Life 2 started from this moment.