My career made me suicidal – now, I see PTSD as my superpower

·9-min read
I can describe my PTSD is how you would feel if someone told you the most distressing news you could imagine - Christopher Pledger
I can describe my PTSD is how you would feel if someone told you the most distressing news you could imagine - Christopher Pledger

At its worst, the only way I can describe my PTSD is how you would feel if someone told you the most distressing news you could imagine. But instead of that one moment, I felt like that all day, every day, and it was almost unbearable. People who knew me wouldn’t have recognised me at that time – it even made my face change. I had a look of horror in my eyes, like I’d seen a ghost.

It was a gradual buildup to the moment where my brain just completely shut down. I’d started my career in journalism as an assistant on Radio 4’s Today, where I worked up to becoming a researcher. On my first assignment in 2008, I was sent to Jersey to cover Jimmy Savile’s involvement in a children’s home abuse scandal. It was the first time I had ever talked to survivors, and as journalists we were gathering evidence, but it was also heartbreaking.

Over the years I didn’t cover many upbeat stories. News desks are difficult places to be; competitive, chaotic and time-pressured with a lot of shouting, swearing and battling on all fronts. I can see it wasn’t entirely healthy for me, but I was in my twenties, and learning my trade. You see a lot that doesn’t make it on to the news. You meet people who are vulnerable and distressed. But I really wanted to be a good journalist, so that people’s lives were made better by talking to me.

It wasn’t until my husband Alex and I had my daughter, Edie, five years later (when I was 29), and I returned from maternity leave that I began to notice an impact on my mental health. By then, I was making a weekly Radio 4 programme. In the wake of the Saville revelations there were lots of other similar crimes being reported.

Having my own child heightened my sensitivity to what I saw, as I spent months on a child murder investigation and an incest rape story, and reported on what was happening to the children in Romanian orphanages. It was also the time of the Syrian refugee crisis: I met vulnerable displaced people living in awful slum conditions in Turkey.

Inspiration: in her new role, Rosie has met Angelina Jolie - Mondadori Portfolio
Inspiration: in her new role, Rosie has met Angelina Jolie - Mondadori Portfolio

Two young women had just a plastic sheet for a door to where they were sleeping, and there was a buggy in there, which turned out to be for carrying things around, but the thought there could be a baby in there produced such panic in my heart.

I lived in a bizarre world where one minute I was producing a programme from a refugee camp and the next I was at home in Brighton with a toddler. I remember going home after reporting on an incest rape, sitting at dinner with everyone chatting and thinking, “I can’t do this.” I’d become isolated from my real life. I was lucky, my life was pretty lovely, but I just couldn’t engage with it.

One day, I went to parents’ evening and, as I sat there being told how my daughter was learning to hold a pen, I thought, “Why can’t I do it? This world of finger painting and potato art isn’t my world.” It was awful to feel so disconnected, and while I was managing to function as a parent, I wasn’t in the room.

Suicidal thoughts

I felt so much responsibility to the people I was telling stories about that the pressure made me suicidal. If something goes wrong, I thought, I’ll throw myself off the top of the BBC building. It sounds shocking but, at the time, it was completely undramatic and rational to me. I thought, “What are my options?” and that felt like a tangible one. These feelings were so personal that I completely internalised them, to the point no one around me was noticing, even my husband. I never talked to anyone.

At the time, the BBC didn’t have much mental health support – resilience was the word. But I was in a constant state of heightened emotional stress and, when one of my shows won an award, all I felt was more pressure. One day, I went to make a cup of tea when a colleague came to chat and I burst into tears. I knew at that moment I had to leave. I said to her: “I can’t do it. I will never be able to do it again.” I don’t even remember how she reacted. I left the building and felt as though I’d just walked out of the world.

I didn’t see a doctor, I couldn’t reply to friends and I would sit at home and hours would pass unnoticed. My sense of reality became so altered that normal tasks like cooking or having a shower didn’t seem real any more. My husband didn’t know what to do.

Eventually, I saw my GP who signed me off work, diagnosing complex post-traumatic stress disorder, a condition caused by repeated exposure to traumatic events, with symptoms such as constant feelings of hopelessness, worthlessness and dissociative feelings like depersonalisation or derealisation.

I could barely cope with existing. My husband would often find me in dark rooms as it had got dark outside and I wouldn’t notice; I’d been sitting in the same position for hours. They even assessed my ability to look after my daughter.

Debilitating

But thank God I did have a small child to look after because she became my reason to live. Life became about doing small things for her. The instinct to care for someone else kept me going, so she didn’t suffer, but I’d gone from being a fully functioning person to a burden, and living with a zombie who is completely closed off must have become really challenging for Alex.

It was so debilitating that I felt I’d never be able to work again, and that was tough because I really cared about it, and believed I was good at it. Staying alive was the only thing I had to do, but it was hard just doing that.

PTSD is complicated to treat and I didn’t take medication, but there was a lot of therapy. The intense dissociation went on for about nine months and, after a year, I tried to go back to work. All I wanted was to be a normal person with a job, but the trauma was too great. The fear and anxiety of going through the front doors of the building was so unbearable that after a few weeks of forcing myself back in, I walked out and never went back.

The best thing that happened to me was getting pregnant with my second child in late 2016. I was nervous about having another baby, but I really wanted to – how much could I let the PTSD take away from me? I was put on the severe mental-health register and finally given the care and support I needed.

I had a therapist and a psychiatrist, who recognised the seriousness of my condition, and had plans in place in case I had an episode of dissociation, and a mental- health nurse on 24-hour call. I also had this brilliant app on my phone called StayAlive, which gives you reasons to consider living. I uploaded a picture of my daughter on to it and I looked at that picture so many times.

Since my son, Francisco, was born five years ago, things have become gradually better. Wherever you are in life, there is always hope. I began working for an artist one day a week running her studio, and then later started producing podcasts for The Economist.

Pye's new role has her flying back and forth between New York and LA - Khaichuin Sim
Pye's new role has her flying back and forth between New York and LA - Khaichuin Sim

Everything felt so precious that I had my life back, that I didn’t want to do anything safe with it. If I was going to do something, it needed to be something big. So I went freelance, started making podcasts for Google and, through that, met Kim, my business partner.

Together we launched Blanchard House, a podcasting production company, and we raised a million in seed investment after weeks of tireless pitching to investors. To do a million-dollar funding round and start my own business is a massive transformation. We’ve gone on to strike a big deal with Audible and sold five stories to be made into TV shows in America.

We’re signed to a Hollywood agency, so I fly back and forth to LA and New York to sit at shiny marble tables and pitch to the people who make my favourite shows, like HBO, Apple TV, Lionsgate and Netflix. I’ve even had a meeting with Angelina Jolie, a hero of mine. It feels like every day something unbelievable happens.

One of the positives of having gone through this experience is that it makes you braver. You feel like you’ve failed as badly as you can fail and, after that, how hard can it be pitching to HBO? In a way, PTSD has become my superpower.

I see it as part of who I am, but I’m not defined by it any more. I can live the life I want to live. Some of the things I’m doing now are harder than I had to do at the BBC, but I don’t neglect myself and I know the dangers of struggling alone. I want Blanchard House to be an environment where you can work and also manage whatever you’re going through.

What I do now nourishes me to be a better person around my family, instead of a shell of a person. I don’t want to spend the rest of my life just trying to keep my PTSD at bay. I’ll do that when I have to, but run Blanchard House on the good days. It’s what you do on the good days that matters and I appreciate every one of them.