Confessions

Gang Life Gave Me PTSD. Psychoanalysis Saved Me.

In the criminal world you see things you can't unsee, and get told to bury your feelings.

by Mahmood Fazal
20 May 2020, 5:23am

That's me up the back, Paul in the front. RIP

Confessions is a series of essays on personal experiences, many of which have been kept secret for a long time. By sharing these previously confidential accounts, we explore our own mental health without judgment and in the hope that it makes it a little lighter of a burden for us to carry. It's also a reminder that no matter how odd or unique these experiences can be, there's always someone who can relate – and none of us are alone.

On a sunny afternoon in August, 2015, I was eating Nando's in Bentleigh while talking on the phone to my best friend Paul. We planned to go out that night to pop bottles of champagne and eat seafood on the harbour. It was the last phone call Paul ever made.

Back then I was a high-ranking member of the Mongols motorcycle club. My drug-fuelled world had no order and my time was wasted on limitless partying. I remember visiting my grandmother at the hospital that night, because she had suffered a stroke. While drinking a chocolate milkshake in the foyer, I received a Facebook message saying something had happened at Paul’s house. His street was littered with police cars and his house had been cordoned off.

And then my phone rang. It was my cousin screaming down the line that Paul was dead. His life had ended at the age of 24. His parents had come home to find him lying in a shallow pool of his own blood. The police said Paul suffered a gunshot wound through his eye and had died instantly. What happened? We still don’t know. I don’t remember dropping the milkshake.

There’s a numb buzz that envelops you when you receive a call like that. A shell shock that blasts off in your head and shakes out all the other feelings in your body. In movies, the world comes to a standstill and everything is silenced. But in my life, the world suddenly felt like glass and everything seemed to be one fragile decision away from loudly shattering.

I spent the next few months blurring my emotions with Oxycontin. The club made sure there was always someone with me. The idea of being alone with myself was harrowing. There were constant nightmares that physically drained me. The strange paradox was that the death of my friend had made waking up a painful duty.

It took me roughly six months to seek help. My circle of friends was made up of drug dealers, ex-prisoners, and gang members. I had become accustomed to thinking that hardship was just something men have to cop on the chin, as it was something that everyone I knew had endured in some shape.

The first question the doctor asked me was “have you ever spoken to anyone about these issues?” The answer was no, because speaking about emotional issues would mean losing face in the eyes of the hyper-aggressive world to which I subscribed. Our way of dealing with deep-seated issues was to avoid them or to use drugs as an escape.

After two referrals, a psychiatrist told me I was suffering from bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorder. I found it difficult to talk about the loss of my friend and an incident of physical abuse that had occurred in my childhood. Transforming repressed memories into speech was agonizing. At times it was as though I’d forgotten how to speak.

I was eventually prescribed Prozac and Seroquel, and told to see a psychologist. But I stopped visiting the psychologist after a few sessions because we didn’t get along. The drugs were easing my physical pain by disconnecting me from my thoughts. The downside was that I felt confused, my sex drive was diminished and my ability to focus was completely impaired. A friend of mine was on a similar course and it was working for him, but I decided to stop my prescriptions because the side effects were outweighing the benefits.

I wanted to start my life again, but I realised that to do that I had to break away from the people and the environment that was choking me. I started to move away from my friendship circle, and eventually I left the club for the same reasons. But what I thought was an escape from the so-called criminal world was actually just a disguise. In reality I was running from the triggers around Paul's death and dissociating from my past. I got rid of my encrypted phone, deleted my social media, and went back to university.

One day, while reading about PTSD I discovered that several universities were beginning to experiment with psilocybin as a potential treatment for PTSD and depression. I remember eating a “shamanic dose” one night and watching Tron and it was the first time I had laughed until I cried since I was a kid. My mind felt like it had been washed in colour. The entire experience was the re-energising jolt my system needed.

I began to take a very small dose, three times a week, and for the first time since Paul’s death I began to feel whole again. The following year I stopped relying on monthly mushroom rituals and started boxing. I soon realized that structure and routine were the tricks to keeping my mind from falling apart.

Three years later, another close friend was gunned down outside my uncle’s home in what was reported as a bikie war. I felt like the boulder had rolled down the mountain again. I remember thinking that could have been my younger brother, my cousin, or me lying dead on the lawn that day. I realised that it’s not just the ones bleeding out that suffer, it’s everyone who loves them sharing the pain.

When you see a mother pleading for the killers to come forward on television, or a father trying to juggle his grief with the logistics of organising a funeral, or a son shaking hands with people who are offering condolences, you would be delusional to think it doesn’t change you. All the bravado falls to the wayside when you throw dirt on the coffin of a murdered 20-year-old.

Grief would crash into me like unexpected waves. While lining up for a coffee, or in a work meeting, or while listening to the radio. Some nights I’d lose all control and plot an annihilating bender. Other nights I’d lock myself in my room and refuse to speak to anyone.

Eventually a friend suggested psychoanalysis because it’s essentially just talking through anything that’s been on your mind. In my first session, the analyst was wearing an army green bomber jacket and oxblood Doc Martens. There was something about his punk look that made me feel like he would understand me. In detailing the shootings and violence from my past, I was confronted with the sad reality that I was finally telling the truth about the world I was part of. Psychoanalysis helped me dig out the subconscious issues that were clouding the way I saw the world. I was forced to face feelings of regret, blame, and guilt.

Although we know how to speak, sometimes we don’t know how to say things. I quickly learned that the way we express our darkest memories reveals our relationship with events from our past. My proclivity for avoidance became crystal clear in the way I talked around the death of my friends: in short sentences and always eager to divert the subject off in tangents.

As my voice echoed throughout the room, I’d be confronted with my issues in a completely new light. There was something about speaking that gave me a sense of separation and helped my mind illustrate the way my problems were shaping my emotional state.

People always say that whether you’re going through some sort of internal crisis or feeling down, just talk to someone about it. But the criminal world taught me to keep my cards close to my chest at all times. Everything in crime was on a need-to-know basis and you never spoke out-of-school. Psychoanalysis helped realise that the point of talking to someone isn’t about sharing your trauma with someone else. Instead it’s about allowing speech to serve as a mirror to what’s going on in your head—in a language you understand.

Psychoanalysis is expensive and I’ve since reduced my sessions but I’ve found that writing now serves me in the same way. Writing in a notebook any thought that springs to mind, every event that troubles me, every anxiety, every dark thought, every terrible or nice thing I have done that day—I write it down, then read it until I can make sense of why I might be feeling that way and throw it in the bin. It might not work for everyone. Everyone dances with their demons in different ways, but it works for me.

I’ve now moved away from my past and found peace. I’m allowed into bars and nightclubs that had bikie bans. I can eat at restaurants without my back against the wall. I can post anything I want on social media without feeling like I'm representing an image. And I can write about others who are still in that situation to show them that there is another world out there, and with a little help you can rediscover endless hope.

For more, follow Mahmood on Twitter

This article originally appeared on VICE AU.

Tagged:
PTSD
crime
Australia
mental health
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organised crime
bikie gangs
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