The Catharsis of Writing
I came to writing quite late in life and through a series of unusual circumstances. Twenty-five years as a soldier and cop, a diagnosis of PTSD, a counselor who asked me to try writing therapy, and then an attempt at turning the notes I made into a work of fiction.
It has surprised me how many people are now trying out writing as a contributory means to help treat PTSD. Questions leveled at me, as to how writing helped me have prompted me to write this article now.
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 a biological basis in its effect 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 counseling, 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 neurotransmitter. It is widely thought to be a contributor to feelings of well being and happiness. What it does is smoothly transmit thought processes so that the brain operates in an organized and structured way. Serotonin also has some cognitive functions relating to memory and learning. Its 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 and chemical surge in the brain. A hormone called cortisol is released into the amygdala section of the brain, the section that handles memory. This hormone release acts as a memory enhancer. Thus, an incredibly detailed and indelible memory of the catastrophic event is retained by the brain.
This enhanced memory explains, to an extent, why victims of PTSD struggle to ‘forget’ the event and move on and also why they suffer flashbacks and dreams about the event.
Most folks reading this will have heard of PTSD, some—those not familiar with the condition—may have 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 a lot of people realize and can vary widely between individuals. They may develop during the first month after a person witnesses a traumatic event. However, in many 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—only a victim.
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 concentrating are symptoms that 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 publicized 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 we’ve seen in tears 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 programs.
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 experienced.
PTSD often leads to the breakdown of relationships and causes work-related problems.
Surprised at the range of symptoms? There’s a lot of them isn’t there? Imagine trying to cope with them and you will have a handle on the challenges facing victims.
Many victims, me included, find that counseling 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 counseling doesn’t fix the symptoms on its own. Anti-depressants can be 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 counseling. 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 counseling session that I could use to refer to and which might help the counselor 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 focused, to get my thoughts back in order and to regain structure and control.
It helped immensely.
And it had an unexpected benefit when my counselor was moved to comment on how much she enjoyed my writing.
So, as I mentioned at the beginning of this article, one day I followed her advice 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. I now have three published crime thrillers, so what I can say is that the feedback did inspire me to carry on writing and, for the future, we’ll just see if it continues to help keep the demons at bay.
And, if you’re minded to read the result, I hope you enjoy reading it.
UK national, Matt Johnson served for 25 years as a soldier and Metropolitan Police officer. His debut novel Wicked Game – a crime thriller – was published by Orenda Books in March 2016. The sequel Deadly Game, was published March 2017 and the final part of the trilogy, End Game, came out this March.
Wicked Game was listed for the UK Crime Writers Association Dagger award, has topped Amazon and KOBO charts in several categories and in 2018, Matt was voted at #22 in a UK national poll of the world’s top 100 best-ever crime writers.
Peter James, the international best-selling novelist said of Matt’s work – “Terse, tense and vivid writing. Matt Johnson is a brilliant new name in the world of thrillers.”
Kevin Maurer, co-author of No Easy Day wrote “ … has the authenticity I look for in a thriller. While the plot kept me turning pages, the characters made me care. Matt writes like a man who has lived it.”
In 1999, Matt was retired from the police with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Whilst undergoing treatment, he was encouraged by his counsellor to write about his career and his experience of murders, shootings and terrorism. His novels are the result of that process.