In anticipation of our inspiring evening with General Romeo Dallaire on Thursday, November 16, we are honoured to share this excerpt from Dallaire’s highly-acclaimed new memoir, Waiting For First Light. Tickets are still available for the event – don’t miss out!
Content warning for mentions of PTSD, self-harm, suicidal thoughts.
After reading your memoir of the holocaust that engulfed you in Rwanda in 1994, it is striking that your anguish was so akin to that of S. T. Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner. . . . After your premonition went unheeded, you were virtually abandoned by all but for a small band of brave soldiers. Thus you were left powerless to halt the horror of the slaughter of innocents by the génocidaires and, like the Mariner, as a commander you felt steeped in guilt. Also like the Mariner you endure the anguish of lifeindeath. But you ultimately mustered the courage and resilience to subdue it, then devoted yourself to providing succour to the victims of war. . . . I offer you the poem as a token of my respect and admiration.—IR
A few years ago, I received a package in the mail from the deputy head of UN Peacekeeping Operations during the Rwandan genocide, Iqbal Riza. An unfailingly sensitive gentleman, Mr. Riza had sent me a large, illustrated edition of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
As I turned the pages, I became immersed in the Ancient Mariner’s retelling of his doomed mission. I was struck by so many similarities between his story and my own: the burden of his command, his witness of unadulterated horror, his impotence, his guilt, his resolve. And his unconscious imperative, that maddening drive to educate the world about what he had experienced.
To summarize the story (in case high-school English class was as long ago for you as it is for me): an old man pulls a wedding guest away from the nuptial festivities and forces him to listen to his story. The old man had commanded a crew on a voyage of exploration, aboard a ship bound for parts unknown. When the weather turned rough, the ship was lost, and of all the crew, only their helpless captain survived. “Water, water, everywhere/Nor any drop to drink.” The Ancient Mariner remained forever tormented by guilt: guilt at being alive when so many others died; guilt at failing in his command, failing to keep the others safe, failing his mission; guilt over his part in the tragedy, for which he is forever blamed.
The horrifying deaths he witnessed were senseless, and void of meaning, as was his remaining alive—a roll of the dice. But it is human nature to seek understanding through cause and effect, and so the Mariner relives again and again the moments before the horror, trying to understand what he could have done to prevent it. Rightly or wrongly, he blames himself for bringing on the horror by shooting an albatross.
The Mariner is burdened by both guilt and responsibility. The guilt—represented by the albatross hung around his neck—is relieved, at least a little, when he rediscovers beauty in place of his revulsion. However, his responsibility—imposed on him by a character called “Life-in-Death”—never leaves him: the eternal responsibility to tell the tale, since he was the commander, and the survivor.
I, too, was a commander who set out on what I thought was an exciting adventure, only to bear witness to the most terrible horrors on earth. I, too, was responsible for the mission, and therefore bear the responsibilities for the deaths. I, too, face blame— from others and from myself—for not preventing the atrocities. I, too, live Life-in-Death.
We—the Ancient Mariner and I—both became mired in guilt, both wanted so much to die but could not, and both eventually chose to take meaningful action. We persevere in our resolve to ensure the story is never forgotten, and that those who died did not do so in vain.
When each of us told our story in its entirety for the first time, we began a cycle that will continue throughout our lives: reliving the pain by telling the story, an action that attenuates the pain, which then returns upon the telling and must be relived to be relieved.
Teaching others by sharing our stories relieves us, temporarily, of our suffering. Of course, full recovery from a trauma this great is impossible and lasting serenity will forever evade us. The Mariner and I lived, when so many beautiful, innocent people died. The pain of that will never cease, and so we both devote our lives to sharing the story with others who might understand and learn. In this way, we attempt to build an ethical legacy, creating sadder but wiser humans.
I have already told my story of the Rwandan genocide. In Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, and in speeches and presentations before and since that book was published, I explained what I saw. What I did. What I was unable to do. While I have not been silent about the injury I sustained in Rwanda, I have kept mostly private the effects of that injury on my mind, my body, my soul. Until now.
In this book, I describe how I came to live with an operational brain injury called post-traumatic stress disorder: PTSD. It is not an instructional manual on how to get better or an inspirational text of my triumph over adversity. After more than twenty years, I’m not “better,” any more than a soldier whose leg was blown off is able to grow a new one. But as that soldier can adjust to this new reality—physically with prosthetics, crutches, a wheelchair; emotionally with professional, personal and peer support—so, too, have I learned how to cope, with some small victories and plenty of defeats.
Due to the nature of my injury—the resultant sleep deprivation, flashbacks, nightmares and emotional turmoil, plus the medications I must take to mitigate even worse effects and the manic pace of work I’ve undertaken as another way to cope—my memory has necessarily suffered. I cannot guarantee the absolute accuracy of every detail shared in this book. What I do promise is that these pages tell the true story of how I’ve felt and how I have perceived the world around me over the past twenty years, living under the pervasive and ever-present shadow of PTSD.
My sharing this story will have been worth it if, as a result of reading about my experience, even one soldier, one parent, one spouse, one child may better understand the effects of this long-taboo and long-misunderstood operational injury.
PTSD, which was known in the past as “shellshock,” “battle fatigue,” “combat stress reaction,” and even derogatory names such as “malingering,” destroyed the person I was. That carefree, vital man became two men in the wake of the injury. One is the person you meet, still duty-bound, whose emotions are identifiable and whose reactions usually seem normal. The other is the man inside me, the one who never really came back, who still lives on the battlefield.
This duality causes an eternal crisis that I unceasingly try to navigate. That inner person is the one that drives the outer man to act (in both senses: controlling his behaviour, as well as causing him to feel like an imposter of a human being). But that inner man is often impossible to control, and overwhelms the outer one, even tempting him with suicide.
The last time I experienced that temptation, I emptied the better part of a forty of Scotch. I found my father’s old army shaving kit—the blade must have been five decades old. I was sitting in the living room, toying with it, and I just started cutting.
Not deep, just enough for the blood to flow. The warmth of the blood was so incredibly soothing. It didn’t hurt; it was a complete release. I did my legs, my arms. The blood was flowing.
That’s when they found me.
Excerpted from Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD by Romeo Dallaire. Copyright © 2016 Roméo A. Dallaire, LGen (ret) Inc. Published by Random House Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.