Matt Johnson Book review – Shell shock; The Diary of Tommy Atkins

Shell Shock by Neil Blower

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Published by Firestep Press

£1 from each sale is donated to the UK Military PTSD charity, Combat Stress.

 

oh, but it’s Tommy this and Tommy that

and ‘Chuck him out, the brute.’

But it’s ‘saviour of his country’

when the guns begin to shoot.

Rudyard Kipling 1892.

‘Tommy Atkins’ is a slang expression used to describe an ordinary soldier in the British Army.

Although mostly associated with the First World War where German soldiers would call ‘Tommy’ across no man’s land to speak to the British soldiers, it is a nickname that has been in use for many centuries.

It is widely believed that the name originated in 1794 when the Duke of Wellington spoke to a mortally wounded Private Thomas Atkins who described the fierce engagement of the day as “It’s all right sir, it’s all in a days work.”

The words used by Rudyard Kipling to describe Tommy are very appropriate in that he highlights the fact that these young men are those that the nation turns to in times of conflict. They are the same young men that can be a nuisance in the pub on a Saturday night and yet, when called upon to fight for their country, are prepared to give their lives in order that their fellow citizens may enjoy freedom from tyranny.

Sometimes, as described in this book, the effect on those young men can be so devastating that it inhibits their ability to adjust to post military life.

‘Shell Shock’ is introduced by Colonel Tim Collins. OC of the Royal Irish Regiment, Tim Collins gave a speech to his soldiers before the 2003 Iraq war which is often quoted and used as an example of how to deliver an inspirational speech. This is an excerpt.
We go to Iraq to liberate not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them.There are some who are alive at this moment who will not be alive shortly. Those who do not wish to go on that journey, we will not send. As for the others I expect you to rock their world. Wipe them out if that is what they choose. But if you are ferocious in battle remember to be magnanimous in victory.

Iraq is steeped in history. It is the site of the Garden of Eden, of the Great Flood and the birthplace of Abraham. Tread lightly there. You will see things that no man could pay to see and you will have to go a long way to find a more decent, generous and upright people than the Iraqis. You will be embarrassed by their hospitality even though they have nothing. Don’t treat them as refugees for they are in their own country. Their children will be poor, in years to come they will know that the light of liberation in their lives was brought by you.

If there are casualties of war then remember that when they woke up and got dressed in the morning they did not plan to die this day. Allow them dignity in death. Bury them properly and mark their graves.

It is my foremost intention to bring every single one of you out alive but there may be people among us who will not see the end of this campaign. We will put them in their sleeping bags and send them back. There will be no time for sorrow.

The enemy should be in no doubt that we are his nemesis and that we are bringing about his rightful destruction. There are many regional commanders who have stains on their souls and they are stoking the fires of hell for Saddam. He and his forces will be destroyed by this coalition for what they have done. As they die they will know their deeds have brought them to this place. Show them no pity.

It is a big step to take another human life. It is not to be done lightly. I know of men who have taken life needlessly in other conflicts, I can assure you they live with the Mark of Cain upon them. If someone surrenders to you then remember they have that right in international law and ensure that one day they go home to their family.

The ones who wish to fight, well, we aim to please.

If you harm the regiment or its history by over-enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice, know it is your family who will suffer. You will be shunned unless your conduct is of the highest for your deeds will follow you down through history. We will bring shame on neither our uniform or our nation.

Regarding the use by Saddam of chemical or biological weapons, it is not a question of if, it’s a question of when. We know he has already devolved the decision to lower commanders, and that means he has already taken the decision himself. If we survive the first strike ,we will survive the attack.

As for ourselves, let’s bring everyone home and leave Iraq a better place for us having been there.

 

As with Col Collins speech, I found ‘Shell Shock’ to be a really powerful read. It stirred up emotions, made me laugh, made me cry. I had to put it down a couple of times as I found my emotional reaction overwhelming.
It isn’t a long book, it took me two hours to read it, but it is a very powerful tale of a soldier, recently returned from a theatre of war who is struggling to adapt to the comparative routine of civilian life.
Shell Shock’ is an original idea, well written and joins my personal list of favourite books. It takes the form of a diary, written by the anonymous soldier and edited by the author. You join Tommy Atkins just as he leaves the Army. He is receiving treatment for Post Traumatic Stress and he writes of his experiences with the Health Service and his family as he struggles to cope with his worsening condition.
Tommy goes home to his bickering parents and to a girlfriend, Shell, who adores him and is glad to have him back. As previously mentioned, the novel takes the form of a diary. Tommy chronicles his every day experiences – his attempts to find employment, his working relationships, his relationship with Shell, and with his parents, the ups and downs that gradually become overwhelming.
I recommend this as a book to buy. If you have any interest at all in the military, PTSD or in the way that stress affects family life, you will enjoy it. It will also open your eyes to the problems that many of young servicemen and women will be experiencing as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

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PTSD – how writing worked for me by Matt Johnson

It has quite surprised me how many people are now trying out writing as a contributory means to help treat PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder. Questions levelled at me, as to how writing helped me, have prompted me to repeat this post, which I originally published last year.

PTSD – the chemistry

In examining PTSD, one of the known factors is that an instance of overwhelming terror can alter the chemistry of the brain, making people more sensitive to adrenaline surges even decades later.

This sensitivity to adrenaline surges is a major factor in post-traumatic stress disorder, in which people can experience normal events as repetitions of the original trauma.  PTSD affects combat veterans, crime victims and millions of others. Its cause has biological basis in its affect on the brain.

New studies in animals and humans suggest that specific sites in the brain undergo these changes. Scientists say the findings may allow development of medications to blunt the biological changes present in post-traumatic stress disorder.

For the brain changes to occur, scientists now say that people usually have to experience the stress as catastrophic, an overwhelming threat to life or safety and one over which they have no control. Less severe stresses, such as the death of a loved one or relentless financial problems, do not seem to trigger the biological changes.

When I started  receiving counselling, it was explained to me like this.

When you are working in a high stress environment such as a war zone or any work where you are subject to regular, frequent and high adrenalin surges the brain is slowly, cumulatively, affected by this regular level of adrenalin in the body. Whilst adrenalin is an incredible aid in the preparation for and enactment of the flight and fight response, it has a side effect in that it ‘eats up’ a chemical called serotonin.

Serotonin is a naturally produced chemical that works in the body as a neuro-transmitter. It is widely thought to be a contributor to feelings of well being and happiness. What is does is smoothly transmit thought processes so that the brain operates in an organised and structured way.  Serotonin also has some cognitive functions, including memory and learning. It’s presence in the body is essential to the regulation of mood, appetite and sleep.

So, when exposure to a work environment or a series of events causes the body to regularly produce adrenalin, the effect is that serotonin levels drop.

As a result, the brain starts to operate less efficiently. Thought processes become less clear, sleep is interrupted, memory confused etc.

Then a major catastrophic event causes a massive adrenalin surge.

PTSD symptoms

I wonder how many people reading this will have heard of PTSD and wondered exactly how victims are affected? How many will have seen veterans talking on TV about experiences and see that brave people become emotional and unable to talk any further, the surge in feelings overcoming their ability to talk.

In fact, symptoms are far more wide ranging than most people realise and can vary widely between individuals. They may develop during the first month after a person witnesses a traumatic event. However, in many  of cases there may be a delay of months or even years before symptoms start to appear.

This is a summary, it is not exclusive, as I am not an expert.

A person with PTSD will often relive the traumatic event through nightmares and flashbacks, and have feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt.

Problems sleeping and find concentrating difficult. The symptoms are often severe and persistent enough to have a significant impact on the person’s day-to-day life.

Some people with PTSD experience long periods when their symptoms are less noticeable. This is known as symptom remission. These periods are often followed by an increase in symptoms. Other people with PTSD have severe symptoms that are constant.

Re-experiencing is the most typical and widely publicised symptom of PTSD.

A victim may involuntarily and vividly relive the traumatic event in the form of flashbacks, nightmares or repetitive and distressing images or sensations. Being reminded of the traumatic event (the trigger) can evoke distressing memories and cause considerable anguish.

Trying to avoid being reminded of the traumatic event is another key symptom of PTSD.

Reminders (triggers) can take the form of people, situations or circumstances that resemble or are associated with the event.

Many victims of PTSD will try to push memories of the event out of their mind. They do not like thinking or talking about the event or events in detail. Think of those WWII veterans who well up when being interviewed for documentaries, a display of emotion repeated by Iraq and Afghan veterans who appear to talk about their experiences in more recent programmes.

Some victims repeatedly ask themselves questions that prevent them from coming to terms with the event. For example, they may wonder why the event happened to them and whether it could have been prevented. Often, they may blame themselves and many feel guilt that they survived when others didn’t.

Someone with PTSD may be very anxious and find it difficult to relax. They may be constantly aware of threats and easily startled. This state of mind is known as hyperarousal. Irritability and anger may be a clear indication of this arousal state.

Some victims try to dampen down their feelings by trying not to feel anything at all. If you know an ex-cop or a veteran who you might describe as a ‘cold fish’ then what they may be showing is emotional numbing, a way of coping.

Someone with PTSD can often seem deep in thought and withdrawn. They may also give up pursuing the activities that they used to enjoy.

Other possible symptoms of PTSD include depression, anxiety and phobias. Drug and alcohol misuse are common as a means to dealing with the symptoms expreienced.

PTSD often  leads to the breakdown of relationships and causes work-related problem.

Surprised at the range of symptoms? Imagine trying to cope with them and you will have a handle on the challenges facing victims.

Writing

Many victims, me included find that counselling helps them to understand what is going on within their own minds and bodies. It helps to appreciate how a simple chemical imbalance in the brain has been triggered and how the physical and psychological effects that follow are a result of that imbalance.

But counselling doesn’t fix the symptoms on it’s own. Anti depressants are a great help and they worked for me. The pills help the body restore chemical balance so that the brain can then start to regain control.

For me, writing started as a way of helping the counselling. Like many victims, I became emotional when prompted to talk about experiences and describe what had caused the PTSD in the first place. Like many, I was advised not to worry and to try and make notes to bring back to counselling session that I could use to refer to and which might help the counsellor to help me. I made the notes at times when I felt up to it, writing down what had happened, how I had felt, how it had affected me. I recorded dreams that I had, flashbacks and imaginary. Over the weeks and months I found that writing things down helped my brain to get things focussed, to get my thoughts back in order and to regain structure and control.

When asked how it helped, I describe it like this. Before the writing, my brain felt a bit like a fragmented hard disk. Lots of data, confused, hard to join up and recall. Thought processes were slow, decision making was poor. After writing, it was like a PC de-fragment, where the information/memory is more organised and easier to use. It works more quickly and efficiently, thereby reducing frustration and making life easier.

Also, consider the analogy of a PC screen with too many tabs open to really use any of them effectively. After writing/counselling I was able to close down many of the tabs and focus on the relevant. Memories and distractions were filed away enabling me to concentrate on the here and the now.

It helped immensely.

And had an unexpected benefit when my counsellor was moved to comment on how much she enjoyed my writing.

So, one day I followed her advice again and started to weave the notes jotted down into a novel. The more I wrote the better I felt. There were several dips, several times when I found myself reliving things in a way that I preferred to avoid, but, despite the low points, the overall direction was onwards and upwards.

PTSD affects people in many ways, so what works for one will not necessarily work for another, but the fact that so many people have had such enjoyment out of reading a book that came about in such an unexpected way has given me immense reward. People have contacted me, some have described me as inspiring. That may be. What I can say is that the feedback has inspired me to carry on writing and we’ll just see if it continues to help keep the demons at bay. Not just for me, but also for the many others that have and will experience the nightmare as well.