Anniversaries have a special resonance for many trauma survivors.
For me, certain dates are etched into my mind. They bubble beneath the surface, threatening to spill over as they approach, reminding me of the need to be extra kind to myself at these times.
There’s one date that marks a turning point for my relationship with trauma – the day that I fell apart. I hadn’t given much thought to the specific date it was – which I suppose is a sign of my recovery.
But in preparing for a talk on mental health at City University in London, I became a bit obsessed about figuring out the exact date. After some good old fashioned journalism research, I discovered it was April 14, 2018. Three years to the day of the talk. This is an edited version of what I shared in the panel discussion, hosted by Professor Jane Singer, with moderator John Crowley and journalists Pamposh Raina and Shayan Sardarizadeh.
I decided to begin my talk, with this date, because we all know that journalists like a good anniversary hook for a story.
I began April 14, 2018 hungover in a hotel room in the Italian city of Perugia, trying to piece together memories of the previous evening, and suppress snapshots of the nightmares I’d just woken from.
I was at the International Journalism Festival where the previous day I’d chaired a panel on journalism and mental health, as the director of the International News Safety Institute, the journalism safety charity I ran.
I’d ignored warnings from my colleagues en route to the panel, who had commented compassionately on how I seemed out of sorts.
Instead, I had channelled my energies into facilitating that conversation which addressed something called moral injury – which I’d written about in a recent report for the Reuters Institute at Oxford: the idea journalists covering crises were often impacted by their work, feeling guilt or shame for things they had witnessed.
After the event, I went to a dinner with a group of people interested in mental health and journalism. I ended up reminiscing with a colleague about our experiences of covering traumatic stories. I talked about the sounds, tastes and smells I remembered from Haiti, a place I love, but somewhere bound up in my experiences of trauma. By the end of the night, I had drunk so much wine that words I’d been unable to speak for years came spilling out.
And so, I woke on April 14 2018, having dreamt I was trapped in an earthquake, held captive by a man who had abused me, at risk of losing my children. I woke, tangled in my bedding, sheets soaked, my mouth dry as if full of dust. I gasped for water and air. I shook like I was in a physical earthquake. Perugia sits on a fault line, but the only aftershock was inside me. I know now I was experiencing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, though I tried to suppress them at the time.
Somehow, I managed to get up and go on to moderate another panel about sexual harassment in the media. It was six months after the allegations emerged against Harvey Weinstein, leading to the emergence of the #MeToo movement. I remember standing beneath a beautiful frescoed ceiling, feeling like a fraud for not sharing my own experiences of sexual assault, which underpinned so much of my trauma, even though I’d written a book for journalists called ‘No Woman’s Land’ about gendered safety for journalists, even though I was chairing a conversation.
Three months later, I finally wrote about being sexual assaulted on the eve of my first journalism trip to Haiti in 2004, and how I was later raped by someone connected to that visit. Sharing my experience was painful and combined with other personal pressures it precipitated a further falling apart.
I was scared and ashamed to speak about my struggling. People who had abused their power over me had conditioned me to think I would not be believed. Journalism is a macho industry and there’s often a reluctance to admit vulnerability, for fear our reputations will suffer if we do. This fear is often exacerbated for anyone marginalised within our media.
It took me more than a year to ask for the help I needed.
It took me several more months to accept a diagnosis of PTSD and even longer to speak openly, in fact it wasn’t until last summer that I did.
In order to recover, I chose to leave my job at INSI, where I had learned the language of journalism safety and mental health, but where I was frequently triggered. I am recovering, but recovery is not always linear and I’ve learned to acknowledge it’s ok to not be ok.
Many people have got in touch with me saying how much hearing and reading about my experiences has helped them to feel less isolated. It can be exhausting talking, but I know it helps.
Around about this time last year, it became clear Covid was going to exacerbate the mental health pressures on journalists, and this meant it was even more imperative that we normalised conversations around wellbeing and tackled some of the taboos still in our industry.
So, for the past year, as well as my main job as the director of the Ethical Journalism Network, I have been facilitating discussions with journalists and journalism organisations. I do see the space opening up for these conversations. I think the way we are now working – disconnected and hyperconnected, where the boundaries blur between our home and work lives – makes this subject one that people know they need to take seriously.
There’s a real merit in creating safe spaces for people to share their stories. I recently set up a network called Headlines and in two weeks I’m stepping down from my day job to focus more energy into this project and related ones with John and other colleagues. In our initial Headlines conversations, it was wonderful to hear people sharing solutions to common struggles and to hear them realise they weren’t alone in what they were dealing with.
I believe we are starting to see the real merit in more open discussions around mental wellbeing. But there are still many newsrooms where this conversation hasn’t even started.
We need to take this seriously. Until we do, I worry journalism will lose really talented people either because they choose not to enter the media or because they leave, burnt out and exhausted. And I fear that those people will be those we most need – who represent diverse voices and communities.
And while we look to the future, I want to finish with a nod to the past. It’s April 14, three years since I woke uncertain about how I could carry on. Things got worse before they got better. But they did get better. I found help, learned to look after myself, to set boundaries, to focus on what I could control and to worry less about what I could not control.
I was fortunate to find an amazing NHS therapist, after a bit of a wait. I put my experiences to paper, even writing a memoir in the process. Finding the words to speak and write about my experiences helped me process them and also helped me feel less alone and less ashamed. It’s not always been easy and some days, I simply have to focus on putting one foot in front of the other.
My journey has taught me a great deal about myself and our media industry – about the normal reactions we have to abnormal experiences and how we are story tellers, but how we have our own stories too. I’m grateful to be able to share my story.