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PTSD to Publication by Matt Johnson

Article by writingie © 21 March 2016 Matt Johnson .
Posted in the Magazine ( · Crime ).

Many years ago, as I sat trying to explain symptoms and experiences to a PTSD counsellor, I experienced what many people in similar situations go though – raw emotion. A surge that comes from somewhere within and soon prevents effective dialogue.

Over the coming weeks, as I followed my counsellor’s advice, I started to learn more about a condition which, until that time, had been a mystery to me.

PTSD manifests itself in many ways and, whilst there are common symptoms and effects, to the best of my understanding, no two people will experience it in exactly the same way. My first personal indication came a couple of years after the 1992 St Mary Axe bombing in London. I’d been at the bombing, it was part of my job. I was a police inspector covering the area immediately adjacent to where the bomb was placed. Several years later, I attended the sudden death of a young woman who had fallen from a high building during a roof party. When I looked over the roof parapet to where she was being attended to by paramedics, I had a flashback to the scene of WPC Yvonne Fletcher’s death. Yvonne was a friend and, in 1984, as a PC, I had driven a police car that escorted her to hospital after the shooting outside the Libyan Peoples Bureau.

I had previously experienced some feelings of guilt at not getting Yvonne to hospital more speedily but had been able to bury these feelings and get on with my job. After this initial flashback at the roof party tragedy, I experienced repeating and unpleasant dreams that caused me loss of sleep and to become irritable and to start to display other symptoms that I learned much later were a form of PTSD.

PTSD causes both physical and mental symptoms. As I explain in my blog at www.mattjohnsonauthor.com, the initial trigger tends to be an incident of overwhelming terror that causes hormonal changes in the brain resulting in recollection of the event being temporarily suspended from conscious memory but committed to sub-conscious memory. At a subsequent time, memory of the initial event can be triggered, often in dreams and flashbacks and the sufferer can, as a result, experience serious mood and personality changes. To describe what PTSD ‘feels’ like is challenging as there are so many effects but common amongst them are feelings of isolation, irritability and guilt. Problems with sleeping and concentration are also reported.

matt johnsonI experienced symptoms of hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance, a sensation of being overly aware of perceived threat and of having to either remove myself from it or to take steps to reduce it. For example, I still find that I have to avoid crowds. The first indication I will get is one of raised body temperature. I feel hot, I start to sweat and my heart rate increases. I struggle to focus on my surroundings and soon become overwhelmed by a need to ‘get away’ to somewhere cooler and quieter.

As a way to help me cope with my emotional surges, my counsellor suggested that I should try to write things down so that she could better understand me and we could start to move forward on a recovery programme. I did as asked and, many sessions later, as I improved, this counsellor commented on how much she liked my style of writing and had I ever considered writing a book. She meant a non-fiction work but the seed of an idea had been planted.

This was the first time it had occurred to me to try writing. Not that it was the first time I had written. As a police officer, a lot of your life is spent writing reports. As trainee detective, for example, I found that by making an extra effort putting together evidence, I could paint a better picture of a scene or an incident when describing it to a magistrate or a jury. I found that I was asked by colleagues to help them find words to describe things and then began to realise that I was quite a competent report and evidence writer. I also began writing odes, short poems, that I would deliver at social functions such as retirement parties and my brother’s wedding. I enjoyed setting stories to rhyme, found that I could raise a laugh and enjoyed entertaining people.

Since starting as an author, I have learned that there seems to be two  principle techniques for completing a book. Either the author knows the skeleton of the tale and just adds the flesh to the bones, or they start at the beginning and see how the story unfolds. I am very much in the latter camp. When I started writing my first book, ‘Wicked Game’, it had a very different title and was not the story that the book eventually became. I used personal experience, both of events and characters I knew to build the story and plot as I went along. It was an enjoyable and cathartic experience. I say cathartic, because I found that writing had a profound affect on me. In a most unexpected way it helped my recovery. At times, the first attempts to commit thoughts and experience to paper were emotional and challenging but, as I persisted, I found that my thought processes became clearer and more organised and many unpleasant memories became just that, memories. I stopped re-living them.

I liken it to the de-fragmentation process of a computer, where a picture of the hard disc (the brain) taken before and after appears very different. After de-fragmenting, the disc becomes organised, structured and compartmentalised. For me, this is what writing did.

My first writing project, Wicked Game was self-published through the Amazon programme for independent authors.

I started Twitter and Facebook accounts. Sales started slowly, and then, following a sudden surge over a bank holiday weekend, I started to build a readership. Then, I had a bit of luck. The kind that every budding author needs. An RAF Chinook force loadmaster was sitting in Afghanistan reading Wicked Game on his kindle when Belfast-based author Antony Loveless walked past. Antony asked what the loadie was reading. He went on to buy the book, like it and recommended me to his agent. Within a few weeks, I was in London, being interviewed as a prospect to be added to the list of Watson-Little Ltd.

Not that this means instant success. It doesn’t. Many rejections later, I was starting to accept that I had peaked. Then an offer came in, and then another. I met with one publisher who stood out above the others. Her name is Karen Sullivan. Karen is a hugely enthusiastic and motivated publisher with her own company, Orenda Books.

And now, many months later, with editing, re-working and many re-writes behind me, a new version of Wicked Game is set to be released to the public. It’s an exciting time for me, one that, on reflection, I wish had happened when I was younger. But then, I accept that in those days, becoming a writer would never have occurred to me.

Now that it has, I hope you enjoy the result.

(c) Matt Johnson

About Wicked Game

2001. Age is catching up with Robert Finlay, a police officer on the Royalty Protection team based in London. He s looking forward to returning to uniform policing and a less stressful life with his new family. But fate has other plans. Finlay’s deeply traumatic, carefully concealed past is about to return to haunt him. A policeman is killed by a bomb blast, and a second is gunned down in his own driveway. Both of the murdered men were former Army colleagues from Finlay’s own SAS regiment, and in a series of explosive events, it becomes clear that he is not the ordinary man that his colleagues, friends and new family think he is. And so begins a game of cat and mouse a wicked game in which Finlay is the target, forced to test his long-buried skills in a fight against a determined and unidentified enemy.

Wicked Game is a taut, action packed, emotive thriller about a man who might be your neighbor, a man who is forced to confront his past in order to face a threat that may wipe out his future, a man who is willing to do anything to protect the people he loves. But is it too late?

Wicked Game is in bookshops now or pick up your copy online here!

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