Caring for my dying sister gave me PTSD

Caring for my dying sister gave me PTSD: As pop star Rita Ora admits to panic attacks when her mother battled cancer, a writer shares her story

  • Rita Ora suffered post-traumatic stress disorder when her mother had cancer
  • Faith Eckersall also experienced trauma after her sister died from a brain tumour
  • She reveals how de-cluttering, reading and writing helped her to heal  

The tears poured out as I sat shaking in the office loo. Consumed by panic, I was so sure I would physically burst that I tried to hold myself together by zipping my coat up tight and pulling the hood over my head.

Slowly the terror subsided but I was left feeling bewildered.

One minute I’d been laughing with colleagues, the next I was reading a work email about a teenager with cancer. The words on the screen grew bigger as the space around me closed in.

I saw — actually saw — disjointed visions of hospital corridors, lights and my darling sister in a white bed. I fled, but only made it as far as the loos.

That was my first panic attack, though I didn’t know it at the time. I just thought I might be going mad.

Faith Eckersall (pictured) began to experience symptoms of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, after her sister Lucie died 

Eventually, after months of these episodes, I was told by doctors that they were a classic sign of PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder).

I just knew my world was falling apart. A month earlier, my younger sister Lucie had died at the age of 51 after a short battle against a fast-acting brain tumour.

Every day, for the brief 12 weeks we knew she was ill, the disease quietly took another part of my sister. Her ability to walk, part of her hearing and then, worst of all, her speech.

I had worsening nightmares; skeletons in coffins, and one where an ogre scrubbed my face with wire wool until it bled. But they were nothing compared with the time I dreamt Lucie was still alive, six weeks after her death.

When I remembered she was gone, I was so distressed I couldn’t get out of bed.

Tall, stunningly beautiful and clever, Lucie had Masters degrees in maths and statistics, a wonderful new boyfriend and was about to start a teaching job.

But in August 2017, she had fallen off her bike for no apparent reason. She looked thin, too, and seemed very tired, but then Lucie drove herself hard — she had beaten breast cancer at 33 and wanted to enjoy every day.

When she complained of forgetfulness, our family put it down to stress. But when she got lost on her way to work in early September, I was really worried.

That month she was signed off work with depression. Less than 12 weeks later, she was dead.

Faith said she started drinking at least half a bottle of wine a night and took sleeping pills to blot out panic attacks. Pictured: Faith and her sister Lucie

Lucie’s tumour was diagnosed in early November. No operation or treatment was possible, we were told.

Alongside my desk job as a news writer, my days were filled with hospital visits, helping my elderly parents and obsessively searching the internet for a surgeon who might believe that something —anything — could be done.

She died that December.

Lucie’s first cancer diagnosis had brought us closer than ever. Unable to have children of her own because of her treatment, she relished her role as fun auntie to my two sons, now 28 and 25, and my niece, now 16.

But when I had lost her the panic attacks started at random.

Terrified, I started wearing my coat in the office, finding the contained feeling calming. It became a kind of armour for me. At home there was no one to see me wearing it all day, just as no one saw me shut myself in the hall cupboard when things felt particularly bad.

I started drinking at least half a bottle of wine a night and took sleeping pills to blot it all out.

I was unable to cope if the smallest thing went wrong. I kept falling asleep, couldn’t concentrate and had no energy.

Eventually, in April 2018, I went to a GP for more sleeping pills. She asked if I was OK and I burst into tears. The story poured out; but I was incredulous when she said I might have PTSD. Wasn’t that just for soldiers?

Faith said she was fortunate to recover relatively quickly from PTSD, as a study suggests about 5 per cent of people who suddenly lose a loved one may be affected. Pictured: Faith and Lucie as children 

I have since learnt that psychologists believe PTSD occurs when our mind tries to protect us from something we can’t face. Although it is often associated with war and terror attacks, the NHS says about one person in three who suffers a traumatic experience — from road accidents and sexual assault to childbirth — may develop PTSD.

A global survey has suggested that about 5 per cent of people who suddenly lose a loved one may be affected.

I know now I was very fortunate to have PTSD diagnosed and to recover relatively quickly from it. For others it continues for years.

My GP offered help, including counselling and medication, but agreed I could wait to see if I improved on my own. I was lucky; some people suffer unrelenting flashbacks for years. For me, a few rare moments of light in those dark days helped to turn things around.

The first was the impulse when, sitting in traffic one day, I decided to put on some music. A tiny thing; but after months on autopilot I could hardly work my stereo. I found a David Bowie CD in the glovebox and put it in.

Faith (pictured) said reading a book of short stories made her feel like she was escaping from herself but also returning to reality 

As I drove away, Space Oddity came on, bringing echoes of happier times all but forgotten.

We had been clearing my sister’s house for 11 weeks when I finally screwed up the courage to tackle her untouched handbag. As I opened it, I felt the tears rising.

How typical of my organised sister that she always carried a sewing kit and mini clothes-brush with her. It calmed me — but also made me feel ashamed of my own cluttered bag that held 30 receipts, broken sunglasses and an eye pencil drawing a squiggle across the lining. Later, as I de-cluttered it, I felt lighter.

But my husband was responsible for the biggest change in me.

I’d been so listless, he bought me a book of short stories by Jenny Eclair. Reading it, I felt I was escaping from myself but also returning to reality.

On a whim, I entered a writing competition — and actually won.

When PTSD has taken over your life, it can feel as if nothing will ever change. But a small action can start a transformation.

When I accepted my prize in June 2018, wearing a lovely summer dress, I could hardly believe I was the person who had spent months in a zipped-up coat, feeling she would explode into nothing.

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