The Ghosts Within: a Journalist’s Struggle with PTSD

Photo by urban_data | CC BY 2.0

Photo by urban_data | CC BY 2.0


I was sitting by myself in a bar in Cali, Colombia when I suddenly burst into tears. Seemingly out of nowhere and for no apparent reason, the tears just flooded down my cheeks and I could not stop them. I didn’t know why I was balling but I was conscious of being in a public place and needed to get out of there. I took a taxi back to my hotel room where the crying continued. The next day I flew home to Canada on a journey filled with more tears. During a layover in Panama City I sat in an airport restaurant crying for more than an hour. On the long flight to Toronto I cried some more. What was happening to me? I didn’t know. All I knew was that I was having an emotional breakdown.

The emotional turmoil continued when I got home and my partner Terry convinced me to see a therapist. Terry thought I might be suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) as a result of my work as a war correspondent, but I wasn’t convinced. Nevertheless, I acquiesced to her wishes and saw a counsellor who specializes in treating PTSD. He confirmed Terry’s suspicions. And so began a new journey that has required both me and my family to learn how to live with my mental illness.

Covering Colombia’s Conflict

For almost two decades, I worked as a journalist in Colombia, Venezuela, Cuba and the West Bank. I conducted most of my work in Colombia where I spent 13 years investigating the US war on drugs and the armed conflict. My primary motivation, as a US citizen, was a desire to make the US public aware of the foreign policies of its government. To that end, I would spend a couple of months each year in Colombia’s rural conflict zones where I encountered many facets of the war. And it was during those years that much of the trauma that resulted in my PTSD occurred. But while I was working in Colombia the thought of being affected by PTSD never entered my mind. I certainly was not aware of the fact that 29 percent of journalists working in war zones become afflicted with the disorder.

In my work I met many Colombians who inspired me with their bravery and their commitment in the struggle for social justice. But I also witnessed and experienced horrific suffering. I visited massacre sites and saw carnage, the images of which will forever be ingrained in my mind. There was a peasant woman who had been killed by a bullet to the face from close range—she was eight-months pregnant. There was a farmer whose face had been pummelled by a blunt object and caved-in beyond recognition. There was the unbearable stench and grotesque disfigurement of a massacre victim whose body had been decomposing in the tropical heat for three days. There was the butchered body of a young male who had been hacked up by machete-wielding right-wing paramilitaries.

There was the farmer who had not only lost his left leg to a landmine, but had also lost his land and his will to live despite the best supportive efforts of his wife and four small children. There was the woman who spent a long night lying wounded with her baby amidst the dead bodies of 119 women and children in the rubble of a church that had just been bombed by leftist guerrillas. There were the sick children who had been poisoned by chemicals sprayed on them by anti-drug fumigation planes. There was the anguish of the four mothers whose sons had been abducted by the US-backed Colombian army and then executed and passed off as guerrillas killed in combat. There were the villagers whose community had been occupied by right-wing paramilitaries who then systematically raped most of the women and girls. And there were the countless women and children I met who had been forcibly displaced from their homes and lands and who had to live the precarious lives of refugees in dangerous shantytowns.

It was not only the violence and terror perpetrated against others that I was exposed to, but also the threat of violence against me. Working in conflict zones requires functioning constantly with a heightened sense of awareness. In other words, I would be on edge all of the time anticipating a sudden burst of gunfire, a bomb attack or an encounter with a military or guerrilla checkpoint. On numerous occasions I accompanied army, guerrilla and paramilitary patrols through the jungle in constant expectation of being ambushed or stepping on a landmine. In one instance, I was surrounded by automatic gunfire in the middle of a major nighttime street battle when guerrillas attacked the town of Saravena.

I also regularly came upon checkpoints of the armed groups never knowing whether I was going to be detained and interrogated, or worse, kidnapped or killed. On three occasions I was detained and held at gunpoint by armed groups: twice by leftist guerrillas and once by right-wing paramilitaries. Those detentions were the most terrifying experiences of my life. I was held on remote farms in the jungle where I was interrogated and threatened with death. The sense of impotence was overwhelming. I had no control over whether or not I would walk out of there alive. My future—if I was to have one—rested entirely on the decisions of local military commanders. The fear and anxiety were intense and almost overwhelming, particularly during the last of the three detentions, which occurred when my oldest son Owen was just three-months-old.

I experienced one particularly intense nine-month period during which I endured three traumatic events. My father had a heart attack, slipped into a coma and died at the age of 67. One month later, I encountered numerous brutalized bodies at a massacre site in rural Colombia. And then I witnessed the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York City on 9/11 and participated in the search for survivors amidst the mounds of rubble at Ground Zero.

I had also experienced trauma prior to my work as a journalist in Colombia when I was detained for eight days by the army in El Salvador at the height of that country’s civil war. During that detention I witnessed horrific abuses including the gang-rape of my female cellmate by three Salvadoran soldiers. But despite all of the traumatic events I had witnessed and experienced, I believed I was fine. I was not an emotional person, and I rarely ever cried. I thought that I was a strong independent man who could handle anything.

Bringing the War Home

In hindsight I now realize that some of my PTSD symptoms began to emerge in 2013—three years prior to my breakdown. Terry and I had decided that Owen should be homeschooled because of the problems he was having in the local school. I took on the responsibility of homeschooling Owen (and two years later my youngest son Morgan too), which meant that I had to cut back on my journalism work. I could no longer travel to Colombia to conduct investigative journalism in the country’s conflict zones, but I thought this period would only constitute a temporary respite and that I’d return to the frontline in the future.

It was following this shift in my life that a change in my behavior began to occur. Perhaps the repressed emotional responses to past traumatic experiences had sub-consciously been given the green light to begin coming to the surface after I stopped working in Colombia. For most of my life I had been a relatively positive, laid-back and out-going person who was very socially engaged. However, during the three years prior to my breakdown, I became increasingly irritable, angry, negative, distant, depressed and solitary.

The thought that these changes in my behavior and personality were related to PTSD never occurred to me. And my behavior soon began negatively impacting my relationship with Terry to the point that she began wondering how much longer she would be able to live with me. It caused massive anxiety for her. She never knew when she woke up each morning who she would encounter. Some days it would be the easy-going Garry of old. Other days it seemed that any simple act or conversation could trigger the emergence of the angry monster.

I felt on edge all of the time and any sudden or loud noise would immediately elicit an angry response. Consequently, Terry would often walk on eggshells around me, particularly when she knew I was having a bad day. Also, the most trivial of incidents would trigger disproportionate outbursts of anger. A Tupperware container without a lid would result in the offending object being thrown across the kitchen. An uncooperative window blind could find itself beaten up. My forgetting to put out the recycling bags on pick-up day would trigger an angry outburst at myself, which could involve self-harm in the form of punching myself in the face. Thankfully, my anger never manifested itself in physical attacks that targeted Terry or our sons Owen and Morgan. It only targeted inanimate objects and me.

In fact, Owen and Morgan had a calming effect on me. Their upbeat, positive energy was one of the only things that could make me feel good, and the thought of doing harm to them was intolerable. Their presence was often therapeutic because it forced me to try to be upbeat and positive. And in the darkest times, when I wished that I would just die, the idea of actually taking my own life was inconceivable when I thought about what it would do to them. Terry, on the other hand, was not so lucky. She bore the brunt of my dysfunctional behavior on a regular basis. But thankfully she never gave up on me.

During those years, my view of the world also turned increasingly negative. I didn’t see any point in the journalism work I did and grew more and more cynical about the human condition and society in general. As a result, I became alienated from myself. While my writing and teaching still reflected my belief that collective and compassionate action is necessary to achieve social change, I was personally becoming increasingly isolated in my daily life and incapable of exhibiting compassion towards myself. I no longer wanted to socialize with friends and acquaintances or participate in activism and social justice events. We rarely invited people over to our house, and I preferred that Terry socialize elsewhere. When I did go out it would usually be alone to a bar to watch an English soccer game or to read a book quietly while enjoying a few pints. I used to be the center of the party; now I wanted nothing to do with the party.

Constant fatigue was another symptom that appeared during those years, and I blamed my short fuse on that. There were many mornings when it would take great effort to get out of bed—and some days I wouldn’t even bother. Instead, I would just lie there depressed and full of self-loathing. And the mornings when I did get up I would feel lethargic throughout the day. I thought the fatigue and lethargy might be related to my bouts of insomnia, which were getting more frequent. Or that it was some sort of physical ailment.

I went to the doctor but blood tests and other physical exams didn’t provide an answer. I went to a naturopath, but adjustments to my diet failed to have an impact. I then thought it could be allergies, but testing dispelled that theory. The allergy doctor did say that many people in Cape Breton have sinus problems that exhibit allergy-like symptoms but are caused by environmental irritants. Believing this to be the problem, the only solution I could come up with was to leave Cape Breton Island. But this was not a particularly practical or desirable option because Terry was a tenured professor at the university, where I also taught part time.

My Emotional Breakdown

In 2015, I was asked to teach a course on media and conflict as part of a Master’s program at Javeriana University in Cali, Colombia. I was teaching the course for the third time when my emotional breakdown occurred in November 2016. Three days earlier, I had been speaking to two Colombian human rights workers about the deaths from malnutrition of more than 4,000 indigenous children over the previous eight years in northern Colombia. It was a region that I had worked in on numerous occasions to investigate the human rights and environmental consequences of Latin America’s largest open-pit coalmine, which supplied coal to power plants in the United States, Canada and Europe. The foreign-owned mine was a major contributor to the children’s deaths because it used most of the region’s water, thereby leaving an insufficient amount for local farmers to cultivate the crops they depended on for food.

The day after that conversation, one of my female students took me aside and, as tears welled in her eyes, she pleaded with me to go to the Colombian Amazon to investigate armed groups who were forcing indigenous children into prostitution. It was a region I’d worked in only a few years earlier and had discovered that a Canadian mining company was exploring the possibility of extracting coltan, a rare metal that was situated on indigenous lands.

Most of my students were Colombian human rights defenders and NGO workers and, the previous two times I had taught the course, several had asked me to visit their communities to investigate various issues. While I still viewed myself as an investigative journalist, I always politely declined their requests because I simply did not have the time due to my commitments to homeschooling and teaching at Cape Breton University. But that female student’s request for me to investigate indigenous child prostitution elicited a very different response. As usual, I responded verbally by stating that I doubted I would be able to travel to the region because of time constraints. But inside I experienced an entirely new and disturbing reaction.

While talking with her I suddenly realized that I actually didn’t want to investigate this human rights crisis. The thought of returning to a conflict zone filled me with anxiety. For the first time, I wasn’t declining an invitation to investigate a story because of time and logistical constraints, but because I couldn’t handle the stress of working in a war zone again. My response shocked me.

My work in Colombia’s remote conflict zones meant that I often stayed in primitive lodgings and ate whatever food was available. But while teaching that course in Cali I was staying in a luxurious four-star hotel and eating in gourmet restaurants, courtesy of the private university that had hired me. I could not reconcile the luxurious working and living conditions I was enjoying with the feeling that I should be in the countryside investigating indigenous children who were dying from malnutrition or being forced into prostitution. But I didn’t want to have to deal with the stress of working in conflict zones again. I didn’t feel like I could cope with it. I actually wanted to be in that luxury hotel. This led to me being consumed with guilt and anger—both at myself and at a world I perceived to be full of injustice.

Two days later I had the emotional breakdown in the bar. It seems the realization that I no longer wanted to be a war correspondent meant that I didn’t have to sub-consciously keep all of the trauma-related emotions buried deep inside me in order to be able to function in conflict zones in the future. And so the flood gates opened and those emotions finally came pouring out—and I cried and cried and cried.

Since my breakdown, my PTSD has not only manifested itself in crying, but also in crippling anxiety. I feel intense anxiety from the moment I wake up in the morning, and often during the night too when bad dreams and my frequent bouts of insomnia disrupt my sleep. The thought of completing the simplest of tasks often seems overwhelming. I don’t feel as though I can cope with anything and often don’t want to leave the house. Just driving to the store intensifies the anxiety, as does taking the kids to their after-school program or to an extra-curricular activity.

Socializing with other people is completely out of the question. Part of the problem is that PTSD is an invisible illness. From the outside I appear to be my old self and people engage with me as if that were the case. But on the inside I feel broken, and the thought of having to interact with people in my “normal” way is overwhelming. Neither pretending to be “normal” or spilling my guts every time I encounter someone is especially appealing, particularly when the latter will trigger uncomfortable emotional responses in me.

Consequently, things that I did effortlessly before my breakdown now require enormous mental effort in order to overcome the anxiety—and that effort is exhausting. Initially, I couldn’t pinpoint a reason for the anxiety. As with the crying, it would just happen and there was nothing I could do about it. Those episodes, along with my irritability, anger, negativity and depression made me feel like I was going crazy. And those dysfunctions were compounded by the survivor guilt that also consumed me. It was a guilt rooted in privilege and the fact that I was still alive. After all, who was I to feel depressed when millions of Colombians have been killed, maimed, raped and forcibly displaced?

Learning to Live with Trauma

In therapy and through my own research I learned that PTSD can be caused by a single traumatic event or, as in my case, an accumulation of traumas. I was also surprised to learn that PTSD actually changes the brain. Researchers using MEG scans have shown that the brain of people with PTSD is physically transformed by trauma when compared to those who have experienced trauma but do not have the disorder. When most people experience trauma the brain triggers an emotional response that subsides over a relatively short period of time. Consequently, as time passes people return to “normal” and can reflect on the traumatic experience without triggering the original emotional response.

But sometimes trauma results in PTSD, which occurs when a short circuit in the brain doesn’t allow the separation between the traumatic event and the emotional response to develop over time. In other words, the person keeps experiencing the full-force of the emotional response to the trauma over and over, often for years, as though the trauma is happening in the present moment. And because victims re-experience the traumatic event long after it has occurred, they often try to avoid situations that are reminders of the event and also exhibit hyperarousal and negative changes in their worldview.

For me, the crying and anxiety constitute a re-experiencing of the emotional responses to traumatic events. And because most of our thoughts happen at the sub-conscious level, I often feel like I’m crying or feeling anxious for no reason. But, in actuality, the crying is me responding emotionally to sub-conscious thoughts about past traumatic events while the anxiety is rooted in a trauma-induced fear that something bad is about to happen. These emotional responses are also triggered by conscious thoughts and by specific occurrences such as the sound of a traffic helicopter overhead, which instantly causes my mind to transport me back to my experiences with Colombian army helicopters in that country’s conflict zones. I also have to avoid political discussions and news stories because they can also become triggers.

I continue to experience hyperarousal in the form of extreme sensitivity to sudden or unexpected noises, which instantly trigger irritability and anger in me. This occurs because I am still functioning mentally in the same state of hyper-alertness that is required to survive in a conflict zone. Because my brain has failed to recognize that the danger no longer exists, it responds instantly (often with irritability or anger) to the perceived potential danger that a sudden noise represents rather than taking a moment to analyze the situation in order to determine the appropriate response.

Through therapy I have learned coping techniques to help me live with the trauma and the related survivor guilt. These have included developing mindfulness techniques that help me to focus on the present moment, particularly when a trigger is activated. The objective is to separate the emotions from the thought. Focusing on the present situation helps me to recognize that the emotional response that is surfacing is actually related to a thought about a past event and has nothing to do with what is happening at that moment.

This practice of mindfulness can help diminish the intensity of the anxiety and other emotional responses such as disproportionate levels of irritability and anger, as well as bad dreams and insomnia. It has helped me to recognize that my over-the-top angry reaction to the Tupperware container was not caused by the inherent evilness of that particular object (or its lack of a lid), but rather it was an emotional response to past traumatic experiences.

In addition to therapy, I have sought out articles, books and documentaries about PTSD and people who live with it. While there is a lot of information available regarding the PTSD experienced by military personnel, there is a shortage of material about journalists who suffer from the disorder. I initially wrote this article to help fill that void but quickly discovered that the writing in and of itself proved therapeutic. It has, however, also induced further feelings of guilt. It seems that white male privilege prevails yet again. After all, I have access to therapy and an outlet for telling my story while many of the Colombians I have met in that country’s conflict zones who likely also suffer from PTSD continue to be ignored.

Learning to live with my PTSD is proving to be a huge challenge and so far the results have been mixed. I still have a largely negative and cynical view of human beings and of the world in which we live, and I haven’t yet been able to escape the frequent bouts of depression. There are occasionally days when I feel like I am doing well and have things under control. But there are many more days when I feel overwhelmed by the multitude of triggers and resulting emotional responses.

Meanwhile, Terry and I talk to Owen and Morgan about my disorder so they can understand what their father is going through and gain some insight into my behavior. And for both Terry and me, just understanding the cause of the change in my behavior has helped alleviate some of the stress that resulted from not knowing its origins before my breakdown occurred. At least we now know what is happening and why.

As my therapist has repeatedly told me, I am never going to be the same person I was before. That person is gone. In some ways this is a good thing because in the years preceding my breakdown I was a person who was slowly falling apart. But now I have to learn to live with the trauma because it will always be with me. It is a part of me.

My biggest question at this moment is related to how that trauma might manifest itself in the new me. And not yet knowing who the new me will be is in and of itself very disconcerting. After all, traits such as being laid-back and out-going, which had been prominent parts of my personality for decades, are no longer evident. So who will the new me be? Will it be a continuation of the angry and anxiety-ridden person that I am at the moment? Or will I eventually become a more mindful and compassionate person capable of managing the ghosts within. On my good days, I endeavor to become the latter.

Garry Leech is an independent journalist and author of numerous books including Ghosts Within: Journeying Through PTSD (Roseway Publishing, 2019), How I Became an American Socialist (Misfit Books, 2016), Capitalism: A Structural Genocide (Zed Books, 2012); The FARC: The Longest Insurgency (Zed Books, 2011,  Beyond Bogota: Diary of a Drug War Journalist in Colombia (Beacon Press, 2009); and Crude Interventions: The United States Oil and the New World Disorder (Zed Books, 2006).  He also teaches international politics at Cape Breton University in Nova Scotia, Canada.