Why Michael Rosen doesn’t have PTSD.

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Michael Rosen is the celebrated children’s author, former children’s laureate, and presenter of Radio 4s Word of Mouth. He was on the radio last week talking about his experience of having the coronavirus. He was very seriously ill and spent seven weeks in an induced coma on a ventilator. As he recovered, he naturally had no memory of the seven weeks. However, he was told what he had been through.

Talking about his current situation he gave us a colourful image describing his legs as “feeing like two cardboard tubes full of porridge”.

He also described how various images related to his experience would come into his mind. He could have described these as ‘flashbacks’, but he didn’t. He used the simpler normalising term ‘images’.  Calling them “images” leaves his experience in the realm of normality. He is then not likely to think of them as symptoms of a condition or disorder. He will not fall into the psychopathological narrative of PTSD. Some will argue that PTSD has been incontrovertibly established as a disorder that we can suffer from. However, it is only one narrative for describing an ordinary, natural reaction we have to challenging events. If we see our images as evidence of a disorder it makes it harder for us to recognise the very ordinary psychological processes involved. If we don’t recognise these, we will not be able to do anything about them.

In reality, whenever we go through an experience that challenges or threatens our assumptions about the world and ourselves, we are very likely to experience the sort of images Michael described. Knowing these are normal makes a difference to how we regard them and ultimately how we deal with them.

Michael Rosen did say that he didn’t want his images. In this way he was putting one foot on the slippery slope of not fully accepting the images as truly normal. But ‘not wanting’ is quite a mild reaction. Other choices we can make are to see our images as horrible, even abnormal. We can hate them and hope they won’t happen again.

Images are not neutral. They come with emotions attached. This is often what we react to. It is not easy to see the fine detail of how we are reacting to any images we have. However, understanding our reaction is crucial to understanding how our experience evolves and progresses. If we hate our images or fear them rather than accepting them as normal, we are making them matter and giving them intense meaning.

This breathes more life into them. It guarantees they will keep coming into our minds. Depending on the detail, our reactions can even intensify the images. This is how such images can become more frequent and stronger over time. Sometimes they can start long after the event even when, at the time of the event, we weren’t troubled by them.

Our reactions can get caught in a vicious circle. The more intense an image becomes the more we worry and react to it.

As part of the way we react to our images we might be tempted to work out things we can do to avoid them in the hope they will not ‘happen’. Just as absence is supposed to make the heart grow stronger, avoidance is likely to make the fear stronger or at the very least to keep it alive in our thinking.

Michael Rosen is still recovering physically. If he wants to ‘recover’ from his images as well as his porridge legs, there is only one thing he must try to do. If possible, he needs to fully accept the images are quite normal and more or less inevitable. Ultimately, he needs to go slightly further than ‘not wanting’ the images. It is important to not mind them. This would strip away the remaining vestiges of meaning and concern he currently has with them. It is a guarantee they would fade and in time disappear altogether, since, as a general rule, we simply don’t notice things that don’t matter to us.

I am sure anyone who knows his work would wish him well and looks forward to more of his wit and wisdom.