You might say the first major fault lines made their appearance just as I arrived at the door of a hard-earned adult-made happiness. It was 1992 and my husband Thomas and I, newly married, were in Paris visiting his sister and her husband.
While there, we went to the cinema one evening and afterwards had a bite to eat. I felt shaky, listening as the others discussed the film. It was rare for me not to offer an opinion, but the harder I tried to formulate a coherent thought, the more it eluded me. The interest I felt a minute before disappeared. I felt nothing. An emotional lens closed.
The feeling of being detached was terrifying, though strangely I felt no change physically – no quickened heartbeat, no shortness of breath, no queasiness in my stomach. I stood up, left the table as if sleepwalking, while being held in a strange but comforting space of consciousness, and found the stairs to the street, knees weak, cold of the steel door handle on my hands. Blast of traffic. Icy wind. Blurred city lights. I watched the traffic signal turn green. No thought, concern for anything except to cross. The world had gone completely flat and somewhere inside a hypnotic wave was sweeping across my soul. Uh oh.
The last thing I felt was my foot falling short of the curb. Yells, sound of hissing brakes, screams in a foreign language. Hands under my armpits, my legs scraping against cement, knowing there to be pain, feeling it but with no care. Voices surrounded me. Thomas was with me, his sister and her husband behind him. My knee was burning, my shoe had fallen off, my foot was freezing.
After a few minutes, control of my right arm came back. I moved my hand, my fingers. I touched Thomas’s arm, and then found my voice. He lifted my head and asked me if I was OK. I opened my eyes. Some curious onlookers stood a few feet away. A bus hissed and moved on. An hour later I had my full strength, complete mental clarity, and the spell was gone. Other than a few scrapes here and there, no substantial injuries. It was as if nothing had happened at all. A blank moment, a short blink where life suddenly stopped.
Over the next six months, I experienced several more collapses, each more violent and frightening than the last. Which is why I found myself sitting in the waiting area of the neurology department at the Whittington Hospital in London, Thomas with me for support. We were ushered into a scanning room of bulldozer-sized neuroimaging machinery. I had never been so anxious for the arrival of a professional I didn’t want to see.
The doctor, wielding a clipboard, asked the standard mental-health questions concerning family history and past trauma. I couldn’t think of anything of interest to share. At this point I genuinely felt my childhood drama was one I’d never buy a ticket to see, let alone recount to this stranger. It wasn’t until I had completed my book that I realised to what extent the symptoms of PTSD – those excellent tricks of dissociation, fragmentation and dark humour that allowed me to cope with the unbearable truths of my trauma – were at play. So I was only able to explain to him that I was experiencing sudden paralysis, after which I would collapse. No amount of inner coaching seemed to help. I appeared to others to be unconscious while being horrifyingly aware I wasn’t.
To help bring the matter to a head, the young doctor asked Thomas to demonstrate what the seizures looked like. “I’d have to get on the floor,” my husband said.
The doctor nodded. So Thomas laid on the floor and hammed it up for him. I laughed, mainly to protect myself from humiliation.
“I don’t think an MRI will be necessary,” the doctor said, making it clear he had arrived at a diagnosis by scribbling more notes. “I believe your wife is experiencing pseudo-seizures and it will do her no good to go on medication.” Oh, I thought. The term “pseudo” preceding anything could not bode well.
“They’ll likely stop on their own, but just in case, I will order more tests… I have to go now as I’m behind schedule. Excuse me.” And with that, I watched as the voice of science and reason made its exit, medical coattails fluttering behind him.
After I left, I felt confused and tearful. It would take a couple of hours of chewing my mind apart to become angry, for the negative effects of the appointment to set in. Once I was at home and had an opportunity to do a little research, it only made matters worse.
It turned out our junior doctor was not so original in his interview techniques. In his essay Dostoevsky and Parricide, Sigmund Freud argues that the novelist’s seizures were merely a symptom of “his neurosis”, which “must be accordingly classified as hystero-epilepsy – that is severe hysteria”. I read on to learn that Dostoevsky, my newfound comrade-in-the-cause, had suffered severe trauma after being made to stand in front of a firing squad with a burlap bag over his head as a political prisoner, before receiving a last-moment reprieve from the czar. But that was not all. His seizures stopped after he finished writing The Brothers Karamazov, a book drawn from his experience of living with his murderous father and the child abuse the young Fyodor endured.
I could relate to what it felt like to be granted a last-minute reprieve of my life while being forced to stand with a burlap bag over my head. It was on 22 November 1978, at 4pm, during an ice storm in Omaha, Nebraska. I was 14, crossing my school parking lot when a stranger appeared, incognito in a ski mask, and stuck a knife at my throat. The struggle to get me into his stolen van lasted a whole minute.
Half an hour later, we were driving by my house so he could assess its value. Shortly after, we stopped at a phone booth, knife again at my throat, where he forced me to call my father and demand a $10,000 ransom. Slamming the receiver against the phone box with he-man rage, he threatened to kill both of us. Once he felt the terms of the deal were understood, he told my father where to meet for the exchange.
I actually thought I was safe after the call, had faith my father could fix this, that it would all be over in an hour. Instead my kidnapper tied my hands and put a burlap bag over my head, drove me across town, brutally raped me, dumped me near the Omaha stockyards in the middle of an ice storm, and left me for dead.
My fear for my father’s life helped galvanise my courage, and I moved. I found a woman outside a trailer office, who was walking to her car. She called the police, who were already with my dad. I never had to appear in court. The legal system kicked into action, charges of kidnapping and sexual assault were brought against my attacker and he was put in prison.
It wasn’t that I had chosen not to share this story with the neurologist. I just didn’t see how this could possibly be a medical issue. The problems the crime left me to deal with felt like more of the philosophical and religious kind – issues around cruelty, faith, morality and free will; the type of questions that Dostoevsky deals with in all his books. The Brothers Karamazov gave me the courage, at the age of 38, to start investigating what had happened to my 14-year-old self, and track down the criminal who stole my childhood all those years ago.
Which is how I came to pull up a chair in front of him on the day of his parole hearing, 25 years after he had kidnapped me. And then, in the months and years after, started work on my own true-crime memoir.
PTSD insulated me from my past – until that evening in Paris – then forced me to process what had really happened, becoming a primer for my recovery. To integrate my fault lines would require medication and therapy. It wasn’t a quick process; I also had to unravel multilayered themes of my dysfunctional family. Finally I built a bridge between the heavy themes of my childhood and the wonderful adult world I’d created – with Dostoevsky always in reach.
Debora Harding’s book, Dancing with the Octopus, is published by Profile (£16.99) Buy it for £14.78 at guardian bookshop.com. Follow her on Twitter @deboraharding. If you have been affected by these issues, please contact rapecrisis.org.uk