Writing out PTSD

We were privileged to meet author and ex-police officer Matt Johnson to find out more about his experiences of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and his journey to becoming one of the most highly rated new crime writers of 2016. This is his story:

Matt’s story

Matt served as a soldier from 1975-78, and subsequently went on to serve in the Metropolitan Police for over twenty years. During his career as a police officer Matt witnessed a number of traumatic events – from responding to the Hyde Park and Regent’s Park bombings in 1982 to a terrorist attack at the Baltic Exchange in 1992. Matt was also driving one of the police cars that escorted the ambulance carrying PC Yvonne Fletcher, a close friend of Matt’s wife at the time, to hospital after she was shot outside the Libyan Embassy in 1984.

“I was driving a traffic car in central London that day, and when I was sent to escort the ambulance I had no idea that it was carrying a police officer, let alone that it was somebody I knew personally” said Matt. “I remember leaving the hospital and getting home just before the 6 o’clock news; when my wife and I saw Yvonne’s photograph on the news the atmosphere in the house was palpable.”

“I didn’t have any kind of reaction to the traumas I’d experienced until many years later, the first incident occurring when I was called to a house where a girl had fallen from the roof during a party. By the time I arrived she was being worked on by paramedics, and as I surveyed the scene from the roof I saw Yvonne Fletcher being treated by her colleagues back in 1984. It was completely surreal, and I knew that what I was seeing couldn’t be real. I remember stepping back and looking to my colleagues and finding absolutely no reaction.”

This was my first experience of a flashback and I was badly shaken up – I went back to the station, sat in my office and began to cry.

“From then on I began suffering from nightmares and further flashbacks. I started to experience what I now know as hypervigilance. I’d get overwhelmed in crowded areas and I wasn’t sleeping properly. This made me irritable, and I often fell asleep at work.”

Matt eventually realised he was suffering from PTSD after rushing to a GP surgery thinking he was having a heart attack. “I had pain in my chest and pins and needles in my hands. The A&E department was too far away, so I thought at least if am at the doctors there are medical professionals to help while I wait for an ambulance. When I got there the doctor started checking me over until the paramedic arrived.”

“They all seemed relaxed, and the doctor went back to his office as the paramedic gave me a drink of glucose. ‘Shouldn’t I be going to the hospital?’ I said, but the paramedic explained that I’d had a panic attack, so that was unnecessary. Shortly afterwards I spoke to the doctor, and he asked me how I’d been sleeping and whether I’d been having any nightmares. We started to talk and he recommended I take some time off work and see a counsellor.”

“I started to see a counsellor and was finally facing up to the situation. As we got talking, I found myself overwhelmed with emotion. I would break down and cry, and I couldn’t speak. After a couple of sessions, my counsellor suggested that I try writing about my experiences, and then talking through what I’d written during our sessions. It was really difficult at first, I’d never thought about expressing my feelings in words. We did this for a number of months and I found it really helpful, I was starting to feel better.”

“Writing has enabled me to control my PTSD so it no longer controls me. I’ve learnt to recognise my triggers; I avoid the tube in central London and live in the countryside where the openness makes me feel comfortable”

From PTSD to publication

Matt’s counsellor suggested he write a reference book, but with no aspirations of becoming a author he dismissed the idea and forgot about it. “Who’d read it?” he mused “It’d just sit in some library gathering dust”.

It wasn’t until several years later that Matt began to reflect on the idea any further. Motivated by the memory of a former colleague, Matt decided to try writing a thriller interspersed with information about PTSD and how it affects individuals and their families.

“I thought back to my time working in Tottenham  in the 80s, particularly around the time of the Broadwater Farm riots. I knew many of the officers who were drafted in, and I had the job of taking statements to form part of the post-riot enquiry. There was one particular officer who was very difficult to pin down. He started to go off the rails, drinking, turning up late and scruffy, going AWOL during his shifts. He was eventually arrested for drink-driving on his way home from work, and subsequently dismissed from the force.”

“It was only years later, when I was receiving treatment for my own PTSD, that I realised what he was going through. As his staff sergeant I’d done nothing to help him, and as an organisation I think we failed him.

I hadn’t heard of PTSD back then – I thought it was something that just only affected the military

“I promised myself I’d try and do something about it now, to highlight the need for the police and other blue-light services to do more to get their staff mentally prepared for the trauma they will experience as part of the job. I knew I could do this through writing, but rather than a text book, which would only be read by those already interested in PTSD, I decided to write a thriller.”

“I’m determined to make a difference through writing, as well as speaking out about my experiences. I may be a small pebble in a large pond, but if I make enough ripples to reach people with power then who knows what could happen?”

Wicked Game

Matt’s debut novel, Wicked Game, has been listed for the Crime Writers Association John Creasey Dagger award, has topped the Amazon and WH Smith KOBO charts in several categories and at the end of 2016 was listed by Amazon UK as the highest-rated ‘rising star’ novel of 2016. You can read more about Matt, Wicked Game and the forthcoming sequel Deadly Game on his website.

Win a signed copy

We’re giving you the opportunity to win a signed copy of Wicked Game. To be in with a chance of winning, you simply need to subscribe to our blog (below) before 28 February 2017. We’ll pick one new subscriber at random, and contact you by email. Good luck!

Paul Gauci

Paul is the communications manager at NCMH and Senior Communications Officer at Cardiff University's MRC Centre.

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