Durban - Norman McFarlane’s newly-released book, with its “border” cover and title, looks like it tells a war story; only its emphasis is more on the post-war narrative, recounting what he took home with him from Angola and held on to for decades.
Post traumatic stress disorder.
A far more penetrating image from his army days than his mates in battle fatigue is that of a boy soldier lying in a road in Angola, dead, without his head.
“I saw it every waking second of my life,” said the Cape Town businessman turned journalist turned ward councillor on a visit to Durban, where he lived as a boy and from where he boarded a train to report for compulsory military duty in the mid-seventies.
The image of the headless boy soldier in Angola never leaves his mind, and it threads through the latter half of Across the Border: Surviving the Secret War in Angola, in chapter after chapter.
He carried the image with him as he developed new behaviour, uncharacteristic of the “sissy too sh*t scared to do anything” before he was conscripted: first rock climbing and volunteering as a firefighter and then, in later years, baiting his wife, Eppie, to create a conflict.
“All I wanted to do was take risks.”
In between were temper rages that caused him to lose business clients and friends.
“It wasn’t always easy, and there were some interesting times,” said Eppie.
“I’m of the generation when you take something on, and you deal with it, and I spent a lot of time dealing with it.”
However, there was a limit.
Norman said: “It endured for decades before I eventually sought help because, one time, she said, ‘this is the last time I am going to tell you to go and find help’, and the implication was ‘if you don’t, I’m out of here with the girls’.”
“So, that’s when I realised I had better do something. It was very hard on my family.”
Norman’s message to his old comrades, veterans of any other Southern Africa’s wars within wars and others who may suffer post traumatic stress disorder from things like awful car crashes is to seek help and get your life back.
“Most people who come back from a situation like that, and have a condition like that, actually don’t talk about it.
“If they do, it’s about the funny stuff, not the bad stuff.
“And they’re never going to talk about the fact that they struggled because you don’t do that. You don’t admit that you struggled. And if it comes out, you say, ‘don’t give me this nonsense. I can deal with this myself. I am not going to see any bloody shrink’.”
Loved ones often cannot do much to help.
“The tragedy of that is that it’s not because they don’t want to help. It’s that they can’t because they don’t understand. Their partners don’t disclose it. They don’t say ‘I’ve got a problem’ because they don’t want to admit that they have got a problem.”
Norman agreed to go on medication and accepts that he’ll be on it for the rest of his life.
“It took a month for them to kick in, but they’ve made all the difference. I still have to watch myself. I still have to be careful. Sometimes, when I am tired, and it has been a long, stressful day, I tip over the edge. It normally results in me screaming at somebody.”
He said he normally saw himself as being on the straight and narrow when things were OK.
“My behaviour is normal, but when it starts to spin out of control, I move from normal, contained behaviour to either side of the fight-flight divide. I either want to kill people, or I want to hide in a deep, dark hole. And I’ve got no control over it.”
On the advice of his counsellor, Norman has pasted the image of a traffic light on the back of his cell phone to manage stress and anxiety. It reminds him to read which signal might be coming out when he is in challenging company.
“I had to learn how to respond rather than to react.”
He looks at the traffic lights and asks himself – is it that person’s sh*t, or is it my sh*t?
“If it’s that person’s sh*t, walk away from it. Leave it alone and get on with your life.
"If it’s my sh*t, what am I going to do? How am I going to fix it? What plan am I going to implement? When you think it through, you’re going to intellectualise it. OK, let’s put this plan into action and let’s move on.
“It’s saved me so many times from calamitous engagement. And I wish I had had this technique years ago.”
He implores those battling with images equivalent to the headless boy soldier on the Angolan road, or other symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder, to seek help and live their remaining years tasting a life that is “brighter and lighter”.
- Across the Border: Surviving the Secret War in Angola
The Independent on Saturday