While backpacking around Asia, and since falling sick in Cambodia, I’ve struggled with some PTSD symptoms, the past month or so. I feel I’ve regressed, and fallen back into some self destructive thought patterns. I’m ashamed to confess, it’s not the first time it’s happened. There have been times I’ve tried to avoid what I’ve been meaning to confront and face up to. I knew when I left London, being so isolated, this trip was risky, but although I’ve had a few knocks a long the way, it still feels like I’m on the right track in terms finding a way back home – mentally and physically.
So, to try and get back “on point”, in terms of healing my PTSD symptoms and sharing this journey, I thought I’d give you some insight regarding the first time I had a serious flashback after the tsunami. Unlike on the island, it was a flashback which I couldn’t control my reaction to. As a result it was a genuinely terrifying experince. I’d never experienced anything resembling an anxiety/panic attack, claustrophobia or any other PTSD symptoms prior to what your about to read.
The extract is taken from my trauma narrative, which was a key part of my PTSD treatment and managing my PTSD symptoms at Oxford University. To give you some context, the following occurred about 36 hours after the 2004 Asian tsunami hit. After unsuccessfully searching for my friends for a day and half on the island. I left Koh Phi Phi island thinking I had left them for dead. However, once I arrived in Phuket, I received word that they were actually alive and were in Krabi. I was desperate to find them and immediately got on a local bus from Phuket to Krabi. I was absolutely shattered mentally and physically, I’d only slept for a couple hours since the waves hit, the morning of the day before.
Welcome to Claustrophobia
We start picking up speed, we’re back on the main road. I’m completely clueless to what time it is, where we are and how long we’ve got to go until we hit Krabi. It’s pitch black inside the bus and there’s hardly any lights on outside. We must be passing through the countryside, there isn’t any traffic. It reminds me of driving through the endless tunnels back in Kyoto. Japan’s so mountainous you literally have to drive through mountains, there are a ridiculous amount of 1km plus tunnels. It’s so weird to get used to, an uncomfortable drive to put it mildly. I don’t know why but something’s wrong. I can’t breathe properly, what the fuck! It’s too dark, I need air! The police are gone but it’s happening anyway. I can’t explain it, it’s not rational. My heart is going nuts like when I was on the balcony. I need to get of this bus, I don’t know, everything feels as if it’s caving in on me. Then it hits me like a fucking truck. I’m back in my room with Becky. I can’t see the French lad, I’m on my own. Becky’s bleeding out! I cant stop the bleeding. I don’t have enough sheets. Where’s the French lad? What the fuck is going on? This is too much, I’m fucking going mad!
Blood and Memories
I’m frozen in my chair, gripping the arm rests like I’m being fried in an electric chair. The images don’t stop, I can’t take it any more. I’m trapped back in my room with all the blood and memories. I’m banging and kicking the door but it’s no use. I can’t move from my seat. In my mind I’m screaming bloody murder but no one hears me. I need to get out of my bedroom! It’s too much, I can’t take it. I crash through the door, jolting up from my seat grabbing my day pack, startling the Thai gentleman sitting next to me. I awkwardly scramble over him, doing my best to keep my shit together while apologising. It’s too dark to read his face, which is a good thing as it means people won’t be able to see my madness.
I’m unsteady walking down the aisle, my head’s spinning I feel like I’m on the balcony again. I need to escape from my head! I make my way to the front, I haven’t even thought this through. All I know is that I need air. It’s probably already too late but I’m going to lose it if I don’t get off the bus. I’ve been having flashbacks pretty much from the very beginning and have managed to control my reactions. But this is different, there isn’t anyone to help or more trauma to distract from the flashbacks. I’m completely disorientated by the intensity of it. I need help but I’m on my own with myself. There may be 40 Thai locals on the bus with me but I might as well be in middle earth that’s how fucking alien I feel.
“Mate I Was on Koh Phi Phi, please!”
The driver just ignores me. He’s barking mad if he thinks I’m just going to sit back down. I repeat myself, “I need to get off the bus, please can you stop”, I feel so trapped. This time he reacts by muttering something in Thai, waving me off with his hand. I’m finding it hard to control myself, breathe Sam. A few passengers in the first couple of rows have noticed me and are watching. “I need to get of the bus, please!”, he snaps something back at me. I can understand where he’s coming from, he’s driving at speed on a pitch black motorway and I’m distracting him. I repeat myself but this time my tone is not polite, nor is it softly spoken, it’s aggressive. My eyes are welling up, I look back at the Thai locals staring at me, and turn back to the driver, “Mate I was on Koh Phi Phi, please!”. Saying the island’s name triggers tears, I can’t believe it happened. I feel so alone. The Thai locals that were staring at me start talking, they recognise the word Koh Phi Phi. I think they understand. One of them gets up and speaks to the driver. I’m trying to hold back the tears, but I can manage a heart felt thank you. He puts his hand on my arm to acknowledge my gratitude and as a form of comfort. He doesn’t understand English but I know he can see it in me. I feel like I’m going mad. People are genuinely concerned about me. They’re all good people.
Alight Here to Breathe
The coach starts to slow down as it pulls on to a side road. I’m itching for the door to just open to get some fresh air. It takes an eternity for the bus to actually come to a complete stop and for me to be able to bolt out the door. The driver follows me of the bus. I’m already sitting on the pavement, with my head in my hands. I just need to breathe. I’m trying to shut out the images but wherever I go to mentally, they seem to catch up. He’s still going on at me in Thai, I know his intentions are good and he’s probably asking me to rest for a little and get back on the bus. That we’re probably not too far from Krabi and we’ll stop at the next rest stop as we’re in the middle of nowhere. He can see that I’m traumatised from the island, it must be written all over my face. But I’m not getting back on that bus. I don’t give a fuck how logical his argument is, he’s not the one tripping balls on apocalyptic trauma. After a minute or two of sitting on the road, I refocus and tell the driver that I’m not getting back on the bus and can I have my big pack. He can see I’m serious. I’d rather walk all the way to Krabi than get back on the bus, however long it takes. He’s not happy about the situation but gets my pack. He’s still muttering at me as he gets back on the bus but like I said I don’t give a fuck.
I can see why he wouldn’t shut up. I’m in the middle of nowhere. I properly take in my surroundings as the bus pulls off. I really don’t know where the hell I am. There’s nothing to see except darkness, no towns in sight, not anything. Luckily this stretch of road has some lighting. I look up at the moon, thinking how lucky it was that there was a full moon and a clear night on the island. Despite me losing it big time on the bus and I’m now stranded. The fact that I am out in the open makes all the difference, I’ve got all the air in the world. I’ve never suffered from claustrophobia in my life. The only room that I have ever felt trapped because of an irrational fear was my blood soaked bedroom. The bus was intense but I feel safe now like I’m on higher ground. I light a cigarette to sort me out. Drug addiction, clever marketing ploy, psychological brainwashing, whatever it is, cigarettes have worked miracles the past 48 hours, in terms of my managing my emotional and psychological well being. I’m more focused now and can see why the bus driver took so long to finally come to a halt. He wanted stop close to the lit up intersection, I’ve already seen a couple of cars pass. I start walking towards the light. It’s weird 5–10 minutes ago I was fearing for my life, like I was suffocating, literally trapped back on the island. And, even though my current predicament would worry a lot of backpackers regardless of the tsunami, I’m back on point and it’s nothing . I can breathe.
Written years ago...before Cancer.