Trying to stay present - The challenges of coping with serious PTSD on a daily basis
This will be an extremely hard blog to write, but as almost no one reads my blogs in the grand scheme of things, that makes writing it somewhat easier. It is not my intention writing this piece to offend anyone close to these events, so I have not mentioned names, nor places, and covered only what I feel I need to say as a way of processing this for myself. I won't be including any pictures of the time period in question, just the one below of myself which is actually from 2013. I also need to prefix this blog by saying I have no regrets about attending my friends special day in 2022. I wouldn't have missed it for anything. (This photo taken from the set of The Journey in 2013, where I smoked briefly for two weeks, of Jason Flemyng and I is one of my favourite pictures of us together. How I would have got through this with out him, I don't know)
So this time last year I attended a close friends wedding overseas, where I had been given the honour of being the MC for the event. I'd just come out of a ten year relationship and was feeling nervous about the trip, not least because, had we not ended our relationship, my ex partner would have been attending with me. Consequently, after the break-up, I found going to such events, especially friends weddings, rather difficult, and to say I was feeling emotionally fragile would have been the understatement of the year. I knew reminders of the life I was hoping to have had, would be everywhere and I already ducked out of two of them as a result. However despite an uneasy feeling about the trip before I left, I was determined to go and be there for my friend. Because of the extreme generosity of my friends relatives, my accommodations for the trip were all sorted, which made it practical for me to attend. I was also proud to fulfil such an important job on the day, even though my confidence was at an all time low, my ability to organise people on grand social occasions I hoped would no doubt still be in me somewhere.
And so it was that I went. We had a hiccup en-route travelling out there and got stuck for one day on an island because the wife of the ground crew servicing the BA plane I was on had been kindapped and held hostage (yes you literally cannot make this shit up) So after a delay of a day and being put up in a hotel we were off again. That delay would have huge ramifications later.
Finally we arrived. My friends family were wonderful at looking after both myself and all the guests which had travelled, especially her Mother, whom I had to work closely with, organising the order of speakers for the day, and so on. On my arrival at the airport, there was even a banner with my name on it. I cannot even articulate how much both then and now, this meant to me. It made me feel welcome and an important part of the event. There were just a couple of days to get ready, so there was a lot of rushing around to get things done. The day before the wedding I actually swallowed some seawater when we were swimming out in rough water. Unknown to me at the time, the water had jellyfish eggs which I unfortunately swallowed. This caused me to get extremely ill and get rushed into hospital, however I soon recovered. My friend came to pick me up. I joked that at least all the drama was out of the way before the big day, tomorrow should be perfect.
On the big day I travelled to the venue with the groom, his parents, the father of my friend and one other usher. The venue was stunning, it looked onto the ocean and everything during the day went ahead without a hitch. I spent most of the day running around organising things - I didn't mind, it made me feel useful and I haven't felt very useful lately. I'm sure my friend had that at the fore front of her mind when she gave me this responsibility, for which I was, and still am, most grateful. My friend had never looked more stunning in her wedding dress. The days main events went incredibly well, I managed to get all the speeches in the right order, people laughed at my jokes, and I managed to get people to go to the right places, at the right time. It was a wonderful day, even if it tinged me with a sense of sadness at times. Her Mother had arranged surprise fireworks to coincide with the final dance. Just after that I went and found a quiet spot to send a video message to my best friend Jason, who was at the time on holiday in France. He knew I was nervous about my role on the day, in case I messed up and let my friend down somehow. I said in the video all had gone well, but then towards the end of the message ((which I still have on my phone) a strange feeling came over me and I said 'I don't know what it is about this trip Jason, but I have this horrid feeling I am not coming back...'
It was a really odd feeling that left me very uneasy. My duties for the evening hadn't quite ended, and I was trying to find the donation box, which appeared to have been removed (It turned up later)
My friend was having such a good time, she didn't want the party to end, and wanted all her friends to go back to the Condo they had hired for the next few days. It was by the sea and had a pool and by now my suit was drenched through, so I was up for a swim. Somebody shouted for me to get in the Limousine and I did so, consequently when my friends Mother went to enter the vehicle, there was not room for her, as I had effectively taken her place. I offered to get out at this point, but she told me not to worry, and she would take my place in the vehicle I had travelled in to the venue. We left for the condo, my friend was so happy there, so I went for a swim, then feeling a little sad, went and sat on the beach near the water and was dozing off into sleep. At some point I thought I heard someone calling my name but figured I was dreaming. When I woke I went back into the condo and it was completely empty. At first I thought everyone had gone to a club and left me behind when they couldn't find me, but then I called one of the Bridesmaids and was informed there had been a car crash with the second vehicle just after it left the venue and everyone was now at the hospital.
My gut told me due to the families religious convictions, that God would look after his own people and everything would be okay, and they would all be back in no time, so I offered to clean up everything, get rid of the half eaten food and prepare the place for their return. However, some 20 minutes later another call informed me my friends Mother had been killed on impact in the crash. I kept saying - are you sure... are you sure? I wanted to get to the hospital, I wanted to be there for my friend but I didn't drive and everyone was already there and I didn't think to ask for someone to come and collect me. I heard my friend was inconsolable, what should have been the best day of her life had turned into anyones worst nightmare. As I was the MC that night I felt like I had let her down. I mean it was my job to look after people, and now I wasn't even in the right place when my friend needed my support. I was stuck in the condo waiting for news and unable to go anywhere. Then I started thinking about how I ended up in the limo, taking the mothers place, which meant she went in the car I should have been in. I called Jason, in a state which I can only describe as beyond upset. While writing this, and processing it all again - I have to state, I can only imagine how infinitely worse this whole thing must have been for my friend who lost her mother. There was a second terrible incident on this trip that would severely impact my physical & mental health, but this first one was by far the worst.
I got back in the UK far later than planned, and went straight into rehearsals for a show and parked this experience aside for as long as I could. But it was difficult, I found social situations, especially around new people, very challenging and I got frequent flashbacks and nightmares. These continue to this day, and as the 1 year anniversary approaches, they've got worse. I have a recurring dream, I'm back on the night of the wedding and someone calls out to tell me to get in the Limo and I keep looking for my friends Mum, but I can't find her, and still end up in Limo instead of her. I keep thinking I'm in the wrong timeline - the right timeline was that by the summer of 2022, my life had come to a natural end point, all my attempts to raise funding for various film projects had not met with success and my career was right back where it started twenty five years ago. Lots of my friends careers were soaring ahead, but mine had come to a halt. Many friends who were around when I had a huge project looming had drifted away, and I was depressed at the best of times. I had lost the person most important to me in my life, and I had started to feel like a burden to the few friends I had left. In short when I had that feeling that I wasn't coming back from the trip, both before I left and on that night, it felt and still feels like, it should have been me in that car. It felt like it was my time to have gone. Some people have said that's fate telling me I still have things to do - God, if only I knew what they were.
(I would do the play about the Post Office Scandal upon my return, which I know meant a great deal to so many people, so I guess it could have been that project that I was meant to achieve, but this was yet another unfunded play, which only underscored to me, that my career was right back where I had started in 1997 - except now I was 50)
Upon my return I was desperate to receive some sort of counselling. I'd had counselling before in 2019 and it can be very hit and miss, but I got the ball rolling as soon as I got home. The waiting lists are horrendously long these days, especially via the NHS. I realised how hard things had really impacted me when I went to see my G.P. and I broke down sobbing uncontrollably and curled up into a ball in corner of her room. Even she was taken aback - the old Lance was such a strong, tough person - where had he gone? I was professionally assessed (and told by the assessor it was one of the worst cases they'd ever heard - reassuring!) and given an official diagnosis of serious PTSD just before Christmas of 2022 and put on the waiting list for counselling. Unfortunately the hospital to which I was allocated, ST Anns in Haringey, I have since discovered, has an extremely poor reputation among other health care professionals. Errors made by them, which included the accidental disclosure of the names and NHS numbers of all the patients due to attend the first session, including my own, meant the whole process was traumatic before I even attended the welcome meeting. The second session lacked a proper focus and documents we were supposed to have received beforehand, hadn't even been sent out. I didn't go back for the third one.
One of hardest things about all of this, is I don't have any family I can talk to about it, or lean on for support. Yes, I have some close friends, and Jay knows he is, where copyright of my work is concerned, legally listed as my brother, and as close as we might be and even though I consider him as such, sadly I am not family. He's been there for me more times than I've had hot dinners, but I can't just ring him on a whim when I feel low, it's just not fair, and the occasions when I do, I'm normally in a far worst place than I am sure he realises.
The only person who really could even begin to grasp how I feel about all this, is the one friend I had at the wedding, my friend who went through (and is still going through) a far greater loss and difficulties than I am. So how can I lean on her for support? I've already spoken to her about this, and told her I feel guilty for even discussing it with her, when I know how much more difficult it must me for her, having lost her mother that day. We both essentially have to find our own way forwards. It got to the point where I told a few friends if you see the Bat Signal up on any of my social media anywhere, at any time, it means I need someone to call me immediately and I'm in a really bad place. They're faster than the Samaritans, the last time I called them, I was on hold for 8 hours and eventually fell asleep, waking up only to discover I was still on hold.
One of the surprising things that has been of tremendous benefit and emotional support to me, even though the individuals concerned would for the most part would be completely unaware of this - that is the community I have found on YOUTUBE. Since I decided to change the focus of my channel to all things creative, reviews and supporting other creative individuals, I have found some incredibly supportive fellow bloggers online. I've even met some of them in person and a small number have become really close friends. But more importantly I really enjoy running the channel, interviewing guests and reviewing films, old and new - and finding new creatives that I can offer support to in some small way. I've found it an incredibly rewarding experience and I really enjoy being a guest on the channels of others - so must extend my heartfelt thanks to The Critical Drinker, Retro Nerd Girl, PositiveFandom, CopaCatania, Canolisaquatch, LaReina Creole, Lady Gravesmaster, Keith-E, Reni, Dark Hour, Gourd King, Cannoli Sasquatch and many, many others. This outlet has been an absolutely Godsend for me and at the same time, I hope I am making a useful contribution in giving greater insight and vital foresight into the Creative Industries to those who watch.
I have flashbacks about these events from 2022, every day. Just recently I was invited to a professional social event, for a production company which I have previously had a project with in development. They're an amazing group of individuals, not only talented, but dare I say it, really decent people. Something which is incredible rare in this business. There were also a number of people I was hoping to meet for the first time. So not attending, would only have been to my own career detriment, so as nervous as I was, I forced myself to go. I find attending these types of events really hard, especially when I cannot take a plus one. Not going would have felt like a defeat, so just not attending and saying 'oh well' - isn't a good option. I don't even like going to the Theatre on my own anymore and have essentially almost stopped going out to the cinema altogether. After these events and the end of my last relationship, the confident person I was a few years ago, just isn't there anymore. I get nervous around new people, so easily, sometimes falling back on alcohol, which is an even worse crutch to lean on in such a situation. It's better to not actually drink at all outside my own comfort zone or just do so with extremely close friends. Last time I got drunk, I broke down crying about all this, at a completely inappropriate time which was awful, even though everyone was really lovely about it.
So I went, and as nervous as I was, it was okay. Partly thanks to Hester Ruoff looking after me, and also because other friends of mine soon turned up, including the lovely Jase Flem and Craig Fairbrass, so I was alright. I did force myself to switch to coca-cola after I'd had three drinks. I could feel I was leaning a bit too much towards tipsy and I wanted to make sure I stayed present. You see, staying present is key with finding a way through this. You have to remind yourself you're not back at that place, you have to remind yourself you're okay. I was glad I attended. I got to meet Director Neil Marshall with whom I had several mutual friends with already. Actor John Hannah was there and offered to come on my channel when we do the Spartacus stream and was such a lovely man. I also met three young actors, two of whom I've spoken with before online, all of whom I know are going onto huge things and I met the glamorous Alexandra Jordan & Lauryn Najufo, and several other promising young actors I had spotted in things. One, Craige, I would have cast on the spot, if I'd had a role for him. Another person asked for a script from me, expressing very keen interest in an older project of mine. Maybe something will come from it, maybe it won't, but if I had let this thing beat me, I wouldn't have even met that person to have that conversation.
Still these flashbacks come, now a year on, with anniversaries nearing, they're hitting me every day. Sometimes its like a bolt of lightening going through my body and I jolt upright as if in shock. Other times my mind just wanders and I'm back there, at one of the two events that occurred last year. The second, involved at one stage, someone trying to kill me by throwing me down a staircase. I can still see the contempt and hatred in their eyes, partly motivated by racial prejudice. The event was so surreal, I thought I was actually dead already - punished in purgatory for getting in the wrong car. I have had to constantly remind myself to stay present, that I am okay, I just need to breathe. Those events are over.
But it's difficult, because the the survivors guilt for switching cars won't leave me. I keep telling myself I'm in the wrong timeline. I want to change places, I want to get my friends mother in the limo, make sure she is safe. I mean it was my job as MC to look after people that night wasn't it? Why did I get in the limo it before I checked on everyone else? I know why - because in my head I switched into party mode, thinking my duties were done. I was selfishly just thinking about myself and letting my hair down, my responsibilities for the day we're over. Only they weren't over and I should have made sure everyone was okay. I should have insisted on taxis for other guests. I could and should have done more. The decisions I made that night just won't leave me. I've been through some really challenging things in my life, but this experience was on a whole other level. I hide these events really well most of the time, but those close to me, can see and have commented that I am just a shell of the person they knew, and sadly they're right. I'm trying to be strong, I'm trying to be tough and most of all, I am trying to stay present. Trying, ultimately is all I can do. Trying, won't rid me of the guilt that I feel. It's the year anniversary of these events, this week and I know it's going to be a far harder time for others than for myself, even just writing this blog feels wrong. I just don't know how I'm going to find my way through all this. I know one thing, without any family, it's so, so hard. But find a way I will - like my mother said to me before she passed 'You're so damn tough Steen, you don't realise how tough you are...' Plus, having Jason looking out for you helps to the ninth degree.