PTSD sufferer: ‘I know how lonely it is to be a victim’

Audrey O’Carroll suffered post-traumatic stress disorder after she was attacked by a man who had ’invaded’ her life, writes Catherine Shanahan

STANDING looking out her kitchen window, two weeks before she was viciously attacked, Audrey O’Carroll experienced a deep sense of foreboding. She said “Audrey, you have isolated yourself”.

“I sort of felt something was building up. I shook my head to try and get rid of that frightening awareness.

“Still looking through the window, I thought ‘I’ll ask for help... but where? I never did’.”

Indeed, Audrey had isolated herself so much that although she felt considerable unease about the presence in her life of a man she had not invited in, she had nowhere to turn.

The man in question, a complementary therapist, had been recommended to her by a friend when, after the death of her mother in 2001, she struggled with a number of ailments. She was having back problems and difficulty getting in and out of her car but arthritis had been ruled out. She went to see the therapist.

“He was an old-fashioned countryman, always completely polite, always very nice to me,” she says. But as time went on, he began to “invade” her life.

“I had attended him a number of times when he started calling around to my house. I had not told him where I lived. He told me he had just dropped by on the way back from a hospital visit.

“He started to call more frequently. Over time, I was beginning to feel surrounded. He would drop in unannounced. But I didn’t have the skills or the courage to challenge him. I had never been good with conflict. And I suppose I was in denial. I was disbelieving the evidence of my own eyes and ears,” Audrey says.

A very private person, Audrey felt unable to ask for help even though she was eventually “essentially being stalked”.

“I felt foolish. I was a middle-class music teacher. I was old-fashioned I suppose, passive, shy. I had that old shyness of revealing self. And I certainly didn’t challenge the authority of those assumed to be good people.

“Even though I was relatively well educated, I had a quality of character that made me unable to deal with hassle, so I let it go. That is until the day I broached it with him, very softly. And he attacked me. And I just about survived,” she says. That was in 2004.

Even talking about the experience more than a decade later is a considerable challenge for Audrey who developed post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the wake of the attack.

“I was very grateful to have survived but everything goes into a very strange state. I had years of emotional pain. I had flashbacks. A large cat loitering outside my kitchen window looking at me through slitted eyes brought me back to the attack — everything but my rational brain was telling me ‘that’s your killer’.”

Audrey eventually sought professional help which led her to consultant psychologist Dr Gillian Moore Groarke. She found release from the pain in her music, in nature, in creativity, in people rather than pills.

“I found healing in art, in literature, in music, in people. I bought a wetsuit one winter so that I could swim in the sea every morning and make myself happy. I made small creative choices like that and they helped me enormously.”

Audrey now intends to try and help others deal with the frightening experience of post-trauma and that is why she is giving an educational talk this evening.

While the terror of her own experience has blunted over the years, a trace remains. “I carry it like a stone in my pocket,” she says. “I have largely dealt with it, although it took years of emotional pain and work to get here. I have 95% of my energy back. I have flexibility back. I’m solid again.”

During her darkest times, she sought information on PTSD, particularly an account of the experiences of others she hoped to identify with. “I couldn’t find any.” She decided to write about her own experience and is hoping to publish a book soon. She has an agent.

“In a way it will be like a victim impact statement. The reason I wrote it is because I know how lonely it is to be a victim. I wanted an inspiring, humane, account of a recovery when I was trying to heal and I couldn’t find any. I hope my account will be useful to others who endure a trauma like mine.”

Audrey will talk about her experience this evening at 8pm in the Deane Suite at the Kingsley Hotel, Cork, as part of a free lecture series to mark Dr Gillian Moore-Groarke’s 25 years in practice. All are welcome to register and attend.

I didn’t have the skills or the courage to challenge him

What is PTSD?

PTSD — post-traumatic stress disorder — is a debilitating mental disorder that follows experiencing or witnessing an extremely traumatic, tragic or terrifying event. People with PTSD usually have persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and feel emotionally numb, especially with people they were once close to.

It is generally agreed that the event must be life threatening to be capable of evoking PTSD.

Only a small number of people who experience trauma go on to develop PTSD.

The most common causes of PTSD are sexual, emotional or physical abuse, combat exposure or severe accidents such as hurricanes, earthquakes or floods.

It is important to note that anybody can develop PTSD during their lifetime, including young children.

PTSD first came into focus following World War One when it was known as “shell shock”. It can be misdiagnosed as depression or psychosis.

Alcohol and substance abuse is frequently used as a coping strategy and can mask the true cause of a depressive or psychotic episode. Management of the condition can include building coping skills, teaching stress and anger management, and prescribing medication where absolutely necessary.

An adult of child who has exposed to acute or chronic trauma should seek professional help immediately. Early intervention can significantly reduce the likelihood of PTSD developing, or of symptoms persisting long-term.

Compiled by Dr Gillian Moore-Groarke, consultant psychologist, Harley Court, Cork City


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