Excerpt: ‘Waiting For First Light: My Ongoing Battle With PTSD’

Zoomer | November 10th, 2016

In this exclusive excerpt from Roméo Dallaire’s new book, Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD, the retired lieutenant-general describes his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder as he fought to better the quality of life for Canada’s veterans.

I am drowning in dark water, struggling to push my way up through the bodies. Gasping for air.
Breathing in blood. 

I jerked to consciousness with a start, soaked in sweat, my heart racing. The clock read 11:55 p.m. Would the night never end? Stumbling into the kitchenette, I poured myself a drink and unwrapped a chocolate bar.

Over the next few days, I set up a replica of my office in that crummy little apartment. I didn’t like staying late at work, and knew I wouldn’t be able to get a good night’s sleep in that horrible place, anyway. I never slept in the cell-like bedroom again, refusing to be a prisoner in that tiny space where all the spirits could invade. Instead, I nodded off at my desk, or on the small couch beside it. The lights were always on, keeping the darkness at bay.

I stayed there for almost a year. I worked 20 hours a day—on my official duties, on my speeches, and on the Letters Rogatory—only passing out each night when I’d exhausted myself.

The separation from direct command over my soldiers, plus the weight of the urgent responsibilities I now had for the welfare of all of the troops and their families, left me even more raw, more susceptible to the darkest of thoughts and memories. No one at work seemed to notice I was fraying—after all, I had just been moved into a high-profile job—but I knew something was changing, and it wasn’t for the better. I had started to take small, unnecessary risks, like driving too fast (though never after drinking—I drew a firm line there).

For two years, work and adrenalin had warded off whatever was coming, but something inside me was now demanding attention, and it was using my dreams to make itself known, invading the little sleep I got. I dreamt of bodies moving through the water like fish, slimy against me. I was underwater, trying to get to the surface, but the closer I came, the thicker the bodies were. Many times I had a dream in which the souls of Rwandans surrounded me like jellyfish in a dark ocean. In another recurrent dream I was someplace very dark and a pair of eyes appeared, blinking like small lights. Then another pair, and another. More and more pairs of eyes. Some seemed angry, some were puzzled, and some were purely innocent. I knew these were the spirits of the slaughtered Rwandans.

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Photo: Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

The dream of eyes led me to another memory from the genocide: fifty, sixty, eighty thousand people walking in the cold rain, the red mud, with no protection from the weather, up and down the Rwandan hills. They filled the road completely, they were so tightly packed, and as they walked they dropped things that got heavy. The roads were filled with discarded stuff. And among these discards, in the rain, were elderly people too tired to go on. And children crying not only because they were hungry, and they were terribly hungry, but from fear.

I was in my vehicle, inching my way through these displaced tens of thousands, headed for a meeting to help negotiate a truce. Every now and again we had to stop because there was just no way to get through. At one such stop, I saw an old man propped against a tree. He was wet and he was exhausted and I could see that he was dying. I got out of the truck and he looked at me and our eyes locked. His were filled with bewilderment. How had it come to this? He had farmed his garden, raised his kids, survived other conflicts—and here he was dying alone in the mud.

On weekends not overtaken by my job or speaking events, I drove from Ottawa to Quebec City and back to visit the family, a 900-kilometre round trip. My Ottawa posting did not provide a driver, which was fine, though I missed the camaraderie with my old comrade, and I was concerned about losing so much productive worktime by having to drive myself. But I did not anticipate the effect that driving alone would have on me.

Next: For the first time in years, I faced straight hours in which I had nothing to distract me…

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Photo: Scott Peterson/Liaison

For the first time in years, I faced straight hours in which I had nothing to distract me. Hours in which I was alone with my thoughts. Alone with my feelings. Something about tearing down the highway at a hundred klicks in the absolute privacy of that little metal box unleashed deep emotions. For hours and hours, in the dark, a formless agony burst out of me—uncontrollable, racking. Oh, the things that went through my mind on those endless drives, as I blared music, stuffed myself with gas station junk food, smoked one cigar after another, screamed, cried, honked my horn. Christ, it was terrible.

I would arrive at the house, depleted, by midnight on Friday, and spend Saturday changing lightbulbs, scraping out eavestroughs, writing cheques, and scolding the children for offences committed through the week, watching them run off to their various activities. When I couldn’t beg off, I’d do my best to get through the social engagements my wife had planned. Then after a rushed supper on Sunday, I’d find myself on the road again and wailing.

And so, living in that Ottawa hole-in-the-wall, all alone, attacked by the press and by my own mind, taking no nutrition, no sleep and no joy, I pushed the envelope hard for quality of life for the troops. It was an issue that desperately needed attention.

We clearly needed to rekindle our soldiers’ pride in their work and encourage their willingness to serve. We needed to get out of the confrontational situation we had between the generals and the troops. And we really needed to handle the gap between a soldier’s medical release and when Veterans Affairs Canada took over. Our people were falling between the cracks because there was no bridge. I knew the gap first-hand, from the experience of my driver back in Montreal. When I left for Ottawa, I’d made sure to tell my successor not to let him go back to an operational theatre. But he did, and the poor guy only lasted three months before he crashed. He’s been trying to destroy himself ever since.

Fighting for quality of life at this time was like fighting another war. And again, I felt like I was losing.

The beginning of the end occurred during a meeting of general officers with the interim chief of defence staff. He did not share the unorthodoxy and desire for reform of his predecessor. We were being briefed on more budget cuts when I found myself interrupting.

“I’m sorry, sir, but in the process of these budget cuts, quality of life is taking an awful shit-kicking.” I doubt very much I used exactly those words, but this is certainly what I wanted to get across.

“On the contrary,” came the reply from across the massive conference table. “Troops’ quality of life has never been better. They are getting new equipment, they’ve got missions to accomplish, they are riding high, and keen!”

“Bullshit!” I exclaimed, and banged my fist on the table. Well, again, maybe that wasn’t exactly how it came out, but I did demonstrate flagrant insubordination. That afternoon, I received a note requesting me to be at the CDS’s office the next morning.

I arrived as ordered and sat down before him. He explained to me that the concerns I had for the soldiers and for their families were exaggerated. “We have Veterans Affairs taking care of things and we are doing our best.

“You are obviously under stress,” he said gently, but firmly. “Perhaps you should get some help.”

He was the first person in the chain of command to notice—or at least the first to tell me to my face. He was also my superior, and so I was obliged to obey.

I made my way to the National Defence Medical Centre, where I was assigned to receive group therapy with six other wounded military personnel. It was an all-ranks group; some had been in theatres of operations and some had suffered trauma from sexual harassment or car accidents. I was a two-star general who had been responsible for the lives of hundreds of soldiers and millions of civilians during the worst mass atrocity we had seen since the Shoah, and yet I was being encouraged to share that trauma with this group under the guidance of a young therapist I wasn’t sure could even spell Rwanda. I’m not denigrating the wisdom of the group, or the reality of what any of them had been through and were struggling with. But it just didn’t make any sense at all for me to talk to them about what I was going through, or even the world I came from; there just wasn’t enough shared knowledge, and there was too much to explain. I did one session, and that was it. I didn’t go back.

Instead, I had to undergo weekly one-on-one sessions with the same novice therapist, who was on a steep learning curve, still trying to comprehend the operational culture, to learn the terminology of the army and the realities of war. She started pumping me full of pills that didn’t work and gave me all kinds of nasty side effects (everything from dizziness and dry mouth to confusion and forgetfulness). To my mind, these sessions didn’t do anything except create a hell of a lot of anxiety, by pushing me to relive the war. The sessions, combined with the pills that made me unsure of how I was feeling, made for a terrible disorientation. My moods swung wildly and my nightmares became more and more vivid.

When I reported this to the therapist, she said I was likely suffering from sleep deprivation and sent me for an all-night test for sleep apnea. Of course, the results were “inconclusive” because the problem lay not in my airway, but in the corridors of my mind.

That winter, during one of my six-hour drives to see the family in Quebec City, I had my first concrete experience with how far I was falling. I was on the highway in a wretched state. Approaching an overpass, I realized I could simply wrench the wheel to the left, and smash into the support column in the middle of the lanes. The thought was so sudden, and so clear.

I swerved the car, hard, and sped toward the concrete column. But there was a huge pile of plowed snow at the sides and in the median of the highway. Instead of crashing into the column, the car bounced off the snowbank and back onto the road. Immediately, my suicidal trance was broken, and I regained control of the car.

From that moment, I knew suicide was a reality for me.

From Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD by Roméo Dallaire. Copyright © Roméo Dallaire, 2016. Reprinted with permission of Random House Canada.

A version of this excerpt appeared in the November 2016 issue with the headline, “Haunted By War,” p. 54-56.