When the familiar flips to sudden terror

November 9, 2019
November 9, 2019 Philip Holmes

When the familiar flips to sudden terror

The impact on mental health of being plunged into horror

In my memoir, Gates of Bronze, I reflected on how boarding a ferry to Holland after Esther’s death had evoked memories of a previous crossing.

On the 6th March 1987, a young Captain Holmes boarded the ferry in Dover to spend my 27th birthday with my then-girlfriend, Esther Benjamins. I disembarked in Zeebrugge and drove north to Esther’s home in Groningen, north Holland. But it was a very white-faced Esther who met me at the door of her flat. She took me inside to show me the images that were on her television of the same ferry lying on its side in the harbour. I had been on the final crossing of The Herald of Free Enterprise. A few weeks ago I found the ticket that I had kept as a grim souvenir of survival.

A few years after Esther’s death, I walked the North Downs Way as a charity fundraiser. En route, I stopped off at a B&B owned by a man whom I discovered was a survivor of the crossing. I was profoundly moved as he described how one minute he had been sitting in the ship’s lounge, the next swimming for his life in the darkness of a capsized vessel. surrounded by bodies. He had been haunted ever since by flashbacks and nightmares. I am no expert on mental health issues, but from what I can gather Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) seems to find at least part of its provenance from the mental jolt that arises from this sudden flip from the familiar to a situation of extreme horror.

The girls whom we help in Nepal have similar experiences of the flip from the familiar, even the joyful, into terror. Like the case of “Radhika” from last year, happily walking home to her village after attending a wedding ceremony before being attacked and raped. Needless to say, there is so much work to be done by the ChoraChori team in support of girls such as Radhika not only in managing this trauma and seeking to retrieve their equilibrium but also in restoring their faith in human nature. So often, as is the case with rape universally, the assailant is someone that they knew and had trusted.

As I board the Liverpool-Belfast ferry on Wednesday evening to visit Northern Ireland my thoughts will turn inevitably to 1987 and, by extension, the mental health issues of the girls we help in Nepal. During my visit to Northern Ireland, I will be speaking at the regional conference of the Soroptimist clubs, proud that together we can do something significant that provides healing and empowerment for child rape survivors.

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