(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)
Last Thursday, I wrote a blog about attending a Symposium at Lincoln University.
This Monday, I wrote a blog about being in a mental asylum when I was 18 after attempting suicide.
I only realised today that there is a link between the two, though tenuous.
One of the participants at the Symposium – a retired senior fire officer – said that, at one point in his life, he kept having a recurring image (spot the tautology) popping into his mind of a young girl with a hideously burnt face and body sitting in the back seat of his car when he looked into his rear view mirror
Eventually, he was able to find someone who could get the frightening image out of his mind. All that someone did was to tap their finger rhythmically on the senior fire officer’s hand.
It took three sessions, but it worked.
No idea why it worked.
Perhaps it was something to do with the rhythm of the distraction bringing the brain back to reality.
But, afterwards, he no longer saw in his mind the image of a young girl with a hideously burnt face and body in his rear view mirror.
The image he saw in his mind was eventually identified as the view he had had of a girl through the windscreen of the car she had been sitting in when it collided with another car, trapping her feet. The car burst into flames and she burnt to death, while fully conscious. The senior fire officer had been in charge of the team that recovered her body, which involved him putting his face next to hers.
The repeated tapping on his hand somehow removed the repeated Post Traumatic Stress Disorder image from his brain.
I asked if the speed of the rhythm of the taps altered or if they were always at the same speed, because I thought maybe there was some connection with the fact that people can have epileptic fits when they see tsunamis of flash photography. I read once about people having epileptic fits when driving along a particular road in France.
It was one of those long, straight, flat roads with tall trees planted on each side at regular intervals. When there was bright sunlight shining through the trees at one side and a car drove at a particular speed, the trees caused the human eye to see flashes of sunlight at a rhythm which, I think, coincided with the brain waves of drivers prone to epilepsy and they had a fit. The solution was to replant the trees at irregular intervals.
I wondered if tapping at a particular speed was somehow replicating the speed of some brain waves.
I showed a rough version of the blog you are now reading to the retired senior fire officer this morning. He warned me:
“Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is somewhat different to the epileptic fit process you describe and it does not help those who suffer to confuse the two.
“In my case, I blame thirty plus years of emergency service work in both the Police and Fire Services. Whilst a single traumatic (traumatic in the eye of the beholder, but not necessarily in the eye of someone else) event can have long lasting impact, the impact of multiple traumatic events over a period of years, (say daily or more frequently for thirty years) is more likely to cause problems for that viewer, unless they are emotionless.
“The impact of long term exposure to horror or stress has been described to me as being like placing books of problems on a shelf. At some point there will be too many books on the shelf for the screws holding it up, they will loosen and the shelf collapses. The shelf and books have to be re-hung and re-ordered. That’s what the tapping does. It re-tightens the screws and re-orders the books in the right place.
“My burnt girl vision came about some years after the event when my then employers sought to train me and five other officers in how to deal with traumatised fire fighters. To do this, they used a number of actors to play the roles of the said fire fighters and explain to us their feelings after a particular set of scenarios including a person being burnt alive. We had to recognise and treat their suffering. Four or five of the six of us receiving this training then experienced our own Post Traumatic Stress Disorder symptoms, which had to be treated. The training method was then abandoned.”
It would be interesting to know why the repeated tapping cured his Post Traumatic Stress Disorder visions of the young girl with a hideously burnt face.
I have never tried chanting mantras morning and night – as someone I met the other week does. My sense of the ridiculous holds me back. But I think I read somewhere that it does not matter what you chant – you could chant over and over again Om mani padme hum - or Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare - or Scrambled eggs, see me eating, thirty scrambled eggs to the tune of The Beatles’ Yesterday – and the effect would be the same.
I remember lying in a bed in King George’s Hospital in Ilford after I had tried to commit suicide and I realised, without consciously having started to do it, that my forefinger was tapping rhythmically on the mattress under the pillow loud enough for me to hear it through the pillow though not loud enough for anyone else to hear it. For some reason, this helped clear my mind of thoughts, perhaps like some sort of repeated mantra.
It is the repetition not the content which is important.
The human brain must be an interesting thing.
I wish I knew something about it.
Perhaps those episodes of Doctor Who which had The Master going on and on and on about hearing a tap-tap-tapping in his head had some reflection in reality.
I must watch the repeats.