Fergal Keane on addiction, PTSD and why he will never go back to the frontline

November 4, 2022. Series 7. Episode 51

Fergal Keane is the multi-award-winning BBC Foreign Correspondent and author – a man who through the very nature of his job has spent much of his 33-year career immersed in crisis.  The newsreels of genocide and mass atrocities in places like Rwanda and Sudan, that we all have watched from the comfort of our homes, are first-hand horrors embedded in Fergal’s mind. Memories that have caused him to be diagnosed with complex PTSD and other mental health issues. So, this is a conversation first and foremost about resilience. But it is also a discussion about how to find positive ways to, as Fergal brilliantly puts it, mitigate against your difficulties.  A useful episode, I hope, for anyone struggling with traumas of the past. My thanks to Fergal for sharing his story.

TW: this episode includes references to multiple forms of trauma, including intergenerational trauma, sexual assault, and violence.


Fergal’s Crisis Cures:

1st Crisis Cure – Writing a gratitude list – reminding myself each day of the things I am thankful for.

2nd Crisis Cure – My dog Deilo. He can sense when I’m in difficulty and will nudge me to take him for a walk.

3rd Crisis Cure – Watching Ireland’s greatest rugby tests.  Watching sport takes me so far out of myself.



Pre-order Fergal Keane’s brilliant new book – https://amzn.to/3Wy23wy

Fergal’s Twitter – https://twitter.com/fergalkeane47?s=20&t=-2xWWUDhvzsgJI0XTZdMqg


Full transcript:

Andy Coulson:                   [0:00:05] Hello. I’m Andy Coulson, and welcome back to Crisis What Crisis? the podcast which aims to guide you towards a more resilient approach to life and whatever it might throw at you.

We’re joined by the multi-award-winning broadcaster and author, Fergal Keane. During Fergal’s 33-year career at the BBC he has immersed himself in crisis, reporting on the human impact of conflict from countries including Northern Ireland, South Africa, Rwanda, Lebanon, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and most recently Ukraine.

Fergal’s job, as he puts it, is to find and tell the painful, intimate truths of these crises. And now, with his brilliant new book THE MADNESS: a memoir of war, fear and PTSD, he is telling those painful and intimate truths, only about himself. About his battle against mental illness, most acutely the complex, post traumatic stress disorder that came as a result of what he has witnessed in the course of his work. PTSD, in essence, that drove Fergal to the absolute brink.

So this is a conversation about being in the close company of crisis, about the valuable insights and understanding that it can provide, but also of course the deep psychological damage it can cause.

Fergal Keane, welcome to Crisis What Crisis?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:01:28] Thank you, Andy.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:01:29] Great to be talking to you.

I want to start by asking a question about the book itself, and the process behind it. Because as I touched on there, you’ve written many books very successfully. You’ve talked about it being a process that you love. Did you love writing this book?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:01:47] No, I hated it, the truth be told. It was one of those situations where I had to drag myself to it, and the further I went into it the more dragging it took. There was never that sense of- I remember an American write once describing, Raymond Carver, that sense of ‘amazed completeness’ when you finish a chapter. There was nothing like that. Every line I felt I was forcing onto the page.

I don’t want that to sound melodramatic, but I was just- I think I was so weary from PTSD and mental illness itself, it had taken so much out of me, that then the further process of putting that experience on a page, in some respects was like going through the whole thing again.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:02:38] Were you worried that the writing of the book would be as damaging as it would be therapeutic? Because you are obviously reliving.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:02:47] Yes. There were times writing the book when I felt exactly that. I’d go to bed after writing about Rwanda, for example, and I’d end up with nightmares. And so I felt I was back in there again.

Now, here’s the thing. Very often people say to you, “Well, if you write this or talk about it, it’ll be cathartic.” And at the beginning of this process and indeed during it, I would have said to people, “No, that’s bullshit. That’s not what it is for me. It’s nothing like that.” Now, sitting talking to you, what I can say is that maybe it was cathartic.

Because, you know when you have to sit down and write the story of what happened, and you’re forced to look at yourself and the choices that you made? You do this in rehab, for example. They get you to write your life story. I had to do that when I was trying to kick alcohol. And in this, trying to write the story of my PTSD forced me to look at it and accept that one of the central facts of my PTSD was my addictive nature, was being addicted to war. And having done that I’ve accepted it, this ugly truth about myself.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:04:05] You’ve accepted it, but you have also acted on it.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:04:07] I’ve acted on it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:04:08] Because it is no more war for you.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:04:09] Yes, but it’s an ongoing battle.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:04:10] I mentioned Ukraine in the introduction, but you won’t go back there now. You recognise that enough is enough.

Can I ask you, when you’re watching the news, your colleagues- you see Jeremy Bowen who has just gone back.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:04:26] Brilliant.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:04:27] He’s been a guest on this podcast a couple of times. When you are watching the news and you’re seeing those reports, is part of you feeling, “I should be there, I want to be there,” still, or have you now go that sorted?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:04:41] When I watch Jeremy or Orla Guerin on the front line, some of the really, really brave journalists, I am terrified. I’m terrified watching it. You know?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:04:57] Does it physically manifest?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:04:58] Yes, it’s a physical thing. I don’t watch it actually, I’ve stopped watching it. So that’s something that has- and I thinking writing the book helped me get to that point. For I am now actually repelled by the idea of being on a front line.

I can still do stories about refugees, people fleeing the effects of war, the aftermath of war. But I’m never, ever, ever, and I say this to you, okay, as much as I say it to myself. Maybe saying it in public helps me say it to myself, if that doesn’t sound paradoxical.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:05:34] Yes, yes.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:05:34] I’m never setting foot on a front line again. Because my nerves can’t take it, it just can’t.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:05:41] Yes. You say Fergal that your upbringing caused you to be- the phrase you used is, “Hard-wired for crisis.” And yet you also say in the book, and describe beautifully and dramatically in places in the book, that you’ve been afraid all of your life. You describe how that fear can come from nowhere and at times leave you sobbing on the side of the road.

Tell us if you can a little bit about your family history, and why it left you with what appears to be this kind of incredible resilience on the one hand, and an extreme sort of vulnerability on the other. Because it was both of those things.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:06:26] Yes it was, and I’m glad you used the word resilience because I think it’s a much greater truth of mental illness. People tend to look at those who suffer from a mental illness as broken people. Actually, they are extraordinarily resilient. To go through what so many people go through in their childhoods particularly, and to pick up and keep going, to get out of bed every morning.

If you’re a kid who is in a broken home, for example, to get out of bed and go to school to try your best. Or you’re an adult who is struggling with depression. That sheer force of will, the need to survive that gets you out of bed and out meeting people and trying to do a job of work. These are signs of resilience, which to me is the greatest characteristic of those who struggle with mental illness.

In my own case, I grew up in a home where alcohol defined your sort of sleeping and waking hours. My father was a chronic alcoholic: he struggled to quit alcohol all of his life to the end.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:07:36] Your father was a very successful actor.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:07:37] He was a very successful actor, a very gifted, talented man. And he kept- at the end of the book, in the acknowledgements, I was trying to come up with my feelings about him and I wrote, “He always tried to be the best man he could to the end, and didn’t succeed. But he tried.” And it’s the trying that matters to me. The trying that matters.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:08:00] Yes.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:08:01] And so I think when you’re around alcoholism as a child you learn that it’s about unpredictability. It’s an atmosphere when anything can happen. Sudden changes. You learn not to depend on things. And it makes you quite mistrustful and wary.

But on the plus side, if you’re a journalist, if what you do is you’re going into journalism, you learn to read a room very quickly, you learn to read another person very quickly. Whether that’s knocking on a door in a tough council estate tracking down a criminal, or whether it’s at a roadblock in Central Africa.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:08:37] And some of the environments that you’ve been in, that’s literally how to keep yourself alive.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:08:40] Oh yes. I think I’ve become sort of hyper-sensitised to the possibility of threat, to changes in the atmosphere, a very subtle change in the atmosphere that I can pick up. I know lots of adult children of alcoholics who will tell you exactly the same thing. It’s widespread if you read any of the literature about it.

So I suppose perversely it gave me a set of tools which enabled me to function very, very well in conflict situations.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:09:09] I’m also interested by this idea of cross-generational kind of resilience and trauma. Because of course your family, your grandmother in particular, she was a revolutionary.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:09:23] She was.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:09:23] In the War of Independence.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:09:26] So, writing the book I had to dig into it. One of the great things nowadays is with all of these genealogy websites and that is you can go right back and find family records. There’s a whole cottage industry in it. And so I got back to the period of the famine and discovered- traced from that the Great Famine which had hit the area that my grandmother grew up in particularly badly. And I discovered that she grew up listening to the stories of her own relatives who had survived the famine.

And surviving it in that part of the country meant you had to be very lucky, very tough, and you grew up as survivors witnessing mass graves, mounds of bodies, dogs attacking corpses. It was an apocalyptic landscape.

So she grew up listening to that. Then in her own lifetime she becomes a revolutionary. She joins the Irish Volunteers, which becomes the IRA, and takes part in the war against the Crown in North Kerry. During which terrible things happen on both sides. Terrible things are done. Policemen are assassinated on the main street, men are tortured, bodies are buried in bogs. Pretty familiar stuff to those of us of course who have experience of covering the troubles in Northern Ireland.

And so she went through all of that. She went through being targeted with a death threat by a young Black and Tan, a guy called Darcy. It’s an interesting story because it’s about trauma. Here’s a guy who- we all thought in the family growing up, this fellow Darcy was a- in the kind of mythology of Ireland at the time they were emptied out of an English jail and sent to Ireland to kill us.

No he wasn’t, he was an Irish Catholic from Donegal, who joined during the First World War as a teenaged Tommy. Under-age, joined up, was sent off to the Western Front, and he was in what they used to call one of the Special Brigades. They were the people who were there to counter German gas attacks. And so they would fire gas, use flame throwers, it was one of the worst jobs for any soldier let alone a teenager, a guy who was below the age he should have been for enlistment.

So eventually after the Battle of the Somme and the massive casualties that take place, a lot of these teenage Tommies are sent home. He is. He’s bored, he’s hanging around looking for a job, living in Scotland, and joins up when the war in Ireland stops. Joins the Black and Tans and is sent to North Kerry.

So this traumatised young man is sent to North Kerry where he gets a pretty nasty reputation. He is singled out for assassination, my grandmother is told to track him and she does, but he turns on her, catches her tracking him, puts a gun to her head and tells her to get out of town. And that death threat hangs over her but she doesn’t leave town, she’s a tough cookie.

But it’s years later that I see the impact. Now, I’m not saying everything that she- all of her mental trauma, her depression, was entirely the result of the war. I can’t even say that all my own is, you know? We’re complex human beings and there were so many different influences in her life particularly, growing up in the dire poverty of Ireland in the 1930s and trying to raise a large family, all of that.

But I do know from looking into her military records, because she applied for a military pension, and they used the phrase neurasthenia which is very commonly used to describe shell-shock during that period. And it’s used by a doctor whom the army sent her to before deciding, and she gets the pension, the disability pension, and she gets a medal.

But I kind of often wonder, when I remember this lovely woman, this strong woman lying in bed, depressed, would things- could things have been different if she lived in the kind of society that I live in now? Where there’s no shame in talking. I feel no shame sitting here talking to you, at all, okay? Because I know you get it. You get the mental illness thing. And many other people do, most people do. Surprisingly there is still stigma attached, you know. People don’t want to talk about it as much as they possibly could, but it’s, you know-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:13:51] It’s so much better.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:13:52] It’s so much better, there’s no comparison with the past. And I do wonder about that, you know. I think I’m phenomenally lucky to live in the time that I do. And to get the kind of support I have got from friends, from employers, who recognise that just as breaking your leg or breaking your arm is an illness, so too is when the mind breaks.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:14:14] Yes. You were a newspaper journalist before you moved into broadcasting . Your rise was rapid. You join the BBC, you’re working in Ireland, you’re promoted very quickly to Southern Africa correspondent.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:14:32] That’s because I never, ever forgot that the only important thing you do is knock on a door and ask for a comment. Do you know what I mean? You’re a reporter. In The Quiet American by Graham Greene there’s a great discussion between the American who is full of high-mindedness and theory, and he talks to the sozzled old hack, the foreign correspondent. And he says, “Do you believe in God?” And the old reporter answers him, he says, “God is for the leader writers, I’m a reporter.”

But that, you know, in terms of staying sane and managing the pressures of the job, I think that’s absolutely essential. The minute you lose the run of yourself-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:15:24] I want to ask you about that later, because there must have been during the course of your career pulls into different directions. But let’s talk about that later.

So you’re 29 at this point, when you’re promoted. You’re on your way Johannesburg to take up this incredible opportunity, you’re at the airport, and you have your first breakdown.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:15:43] Mm.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:15:45] Can you tell us what happened?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:15:48] I think what happened was, it’s something that I would see becoming a pattern in later years and other breakdowns. And that is, I started forgetting things. The world seems to be speeding up, and I’m slowing down, right? It’s like the mind is going into shutdown, and it becomes this deepening spiral of panic and fear. And at its heart is this terror that I’m going to be abandoned, and that’s like death.

It’s hard to explain to anybody who hasn’t been through it, but it’s existential. I’m sitting there on this plane in the middle of a four-lane seat at the back of economy, and flying into-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:16:34] It should be a triumphal moment for you.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:16:36] Absolutely, yes. It should be this massive moment. And I’m convulsed. I’m getting up and I’m going to the loo, and I’m churned over crying, the staff are looking at me thinking, “What’s up with him?” They’re afraid that I’m going to go nuts and terrorise the other passengers. So I’m conscious of people looking at me, but I’m incapable of stopping it.

I get to Johannesburg and there’s this, whatever it is, 48 hours or so of being in a hotel and wandering out looking for a doctor, or the hotel getting a doctor. He comes and gives me an injection that doesn’t work, and it’s a powerful injection, I’m still panic-stricken. And then I end up in hospital, and then I’m on a flight back home, dosed to the gills with sedatives.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:17:32] And the diagnosis is what, at this point?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:17:36] God, I can’t even remember but it was acute anxiety I think or something like that. It wasn’t PTSD.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:17:42] Yes, of course.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:17:43] I think it was just covered under the thing of mental breakdown.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:17:50] So you’re back before you’ve even started.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:17:52] Yes, I’m back before I’ve even started, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:17:54] The BBC, it seems from this distance, were amazing. They were-

Fergal Keane:                    [0:17:58] They always have been. They always have been. I mean, they understood, and this thing across our industry, it’s only lately that we’ve begun to ask the question whether, hang on, if soldiers who do maybe one or two tours max in a war zone are suffering from PTSD, what about people who are going back for decades into this kind of environment? Surely there’s going to be potential issues?

Now, not everybody, I want to stress that, is going to get PTSD, because we’re all made differently. But a significant number do, I know that from the number of people, of journalists who have contacted me privately once I became public about this. There’s a lot of it about.

And it’s funny how the symptoms that I describe of acute anxiety, I mean, your self-worth just vanishes, you know? I thought I was just a piece of shit. I was nothing.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:19:02] And you were feeling that self-loathing at that early stage after this first breakdown, you just obviously didn’t have the tools or the-

Fergal Keane:                    [0:19:12] Yes, and I did a lot of therapy, the first proper therapy I went to-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:19:16] Was at that stage.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:19:17] Was at that stage. The lesson I took out of that, now PTSD wasn’t diagnosed in that therapy or anything, but I got one very valuable lesson which is only I am responsible for getting myself better. It belonged to me. And so, thinking that anyone else was going to fix me was a delusion. It’s a really, really important lesson for anyone who is struggling.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:19:48] So Fergal, at this stage you are quite quickly back in the saddle, right? You get back to work. I know it’s more-

Fergal Keane:                    [0:19:55] I think after about six months or something, I can’t remember exactly.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:19:58] Obviously it’s considerably more complex than that, and I know at this stage you are also finding solace in alcohol because your recovery comes later.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:20:08] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:20:10] But I suppose it comes back to this point of resilience. You know, six months later you’re back in the saddle. Not just back in the saddle, you’re riding at speed back towards an environment of crisis. That’s where you wanted to be.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:20:27] Here’s the thing you’ve got to remember, though. It’s young men. And not just young men, because lots of women do this job and do it brilliantly. But I speak for myself as a young man, just around 30, I’ve got all that energy, I’ve still got massive ambition. I’ve got phenomenal curiosity, I’m a hack to my bones, that’s what I do. I want to be there, I want to be the person who breaks the story first and gets closest to the action, and all of that is driving me.

But of course, what I’m doing at the same time is piling up the damage inside. And it’s a very permissive environment, you know? When you’re around a group of journalists in the field and you’re all chasing the same story, there’s great camaraderie and immense competition. And that’s a drug, you know? That’s an absolute drug.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:21:24] You’ve described it more as a compulsion than an addiction.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:21:28] Yes. It is a compulsion. But I suppose you know, if you can’t put something down, if you can’t let it go, and critically if you can’t acknowledge that it’s a problem, it kind of sounds like an addiction to me.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:21:41] I’m just curious why even then, and I totally accept that the understanding of PTSD and the understanding- the PTSD comes in- we’ll talk about that in a moment when you get to Rwanda. But the mental illness that was clearly manifesting itself at that stage, that you clearly felt, “Right, I need to be back in these visceral environments, that’s what I need,” for all the reasons that you’ve just explained. But no one put their hand up and said, “That’s probably not best for you. That probably isn’t the road you should follow as a journalist, Fergal.”

Fergal Keane:                    [0:22:13] People did.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:22:14] But you just ignored them.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:22:16] Come on.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:22:16] Yeah, yeah.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:22:18] People did, Andy. It wasn’t for the want of wise advice.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:22:21] Yes, of course.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:22:23] And in fact the very first therapist I had, a very wise guy who said, “If you want to get better, it’s up to you.” He more than gently pointed out to me that it mightn’t be the wisest thing to be heading into the places I was going. And many did afterwards, but I wasn’t for listening.

And here’s the other thing. If you’re a heroin addict, if you’re a chronic alcoholic, people aren’t going to pat you on the back and say, “Well done, that was fantastic. That was an amazing puke you did last night,” you know? “That was a great overdose,” okay? But if you’re a highly functioning correspondent-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:23:11] You’re getting awards.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:23:12] Who’s getting prizes from the RTS, from BAFTA, from whatever, you know? You’re disfunction is rewarded. Nobody is going to tell you, “Are you sure about this?” Not those, your immediate- it’s a terribly permissive environment. The people around you aren’t going to say, “Are you sure going to war is really good for you?” They did later on, but when I was in my ballroom days as it were, winning awards all around me, then no.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:23:48] Ego plays a part as well.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:23:49] Oh massive yes, of course it does. You couldn’t do that kind of job that I did particularly in those days, without a very, very strong, big ego.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:23:59] Can we go to 1994 and Rwanda? A country that became, as you put it very movingly I thought, a country of corpses, orphans and terrible absences. What you saw there cemented the PTSD, have I got that right?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:24:18] Yes. I think it did, I think it deepened it. It took me to- I think the big change with Rwanda was that PTSD up until then had been a matter of physical reflexes, anxiety, fear. After Rwanda it became- they use this phrase nowadays, this idea of moral injury. So I added that to the PTSD, this sense of humanity was lost and hopeless, there was nothing we wouldn’t do to each other. And that makes you feel very dark and despairing about the world, and twists your view of the world.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:25:04] In preparing for today I was watching some of your reporting from Rwanda. You’ve got the kind of real, and I know much deeper and fuller, memories of what we saw glimpses of in the reports. And the glimpses in the reports were brutal. Bodies floating down a river, decomposing children on the side of a road. The reporting, watching it on television was traumatic. That’s a snapshot of what you were experiencing every day.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:25:47] And that’s maybe one of the frustrations about the job at times, is the ability to convey the true horror of something. How it smelled, the sense of the air around you being contaminated.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:26:06] Do you remember the first time, Fergal, that you were in an environment like that? The first time you saw a body? The first time you saw the-

Fergal Keane:                    [0:26:13] I would say it was a body, a little bit of a body, was after an explosion in Northern Ireland.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:26:20] Right at the start of your career.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:26:21] Yes. But the thing about- interestingly, one of the questions I asked was, I haven’t written a lot about Northern Ireland in the book even though I was there for nearly five years, was that because the conflict had been going on for so long by the time I got there, the police had become very efficient at keeping journalists back from the scene of the crime, as it were. So you didn’t get up that close to it. You were close to the grief and the trauma of people, but not to the physical horror.

South Africa was different, I saw quite a bit of it there, but Rwanda was just like, it was everywhere. You just couldn’t avoid it, even if you tried to. And what you couldn’t see, you could smell. So you just knew death was all around you, it was everywhere.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:27:10] So how did you deal with that on a day-to-day basis? We had Richard Shepherd on the podcast who is one of the country’s most eminent pathologists, a man who spent his entire professional life in the company of death. And he talked about the beginning of his career, and he said there is that moment when you know, “I can either cope with this or I can’t cope with this.” It’s kind of very straightforward in his profession, and he knew that he could, and went down the path that he went.

But you had that moment, did you? Were there moments or times when you thought, even when you were in it, “I can’t cope with this, I can’t-”

Fergal Keane:                    [0:27:55] I’ll tell you what it was like, was disbelief at times. You’ll see something and you’ll say, “Is that real, or is it a movie?” You’re just struggling to believe what you see. It was a small group of us, and so we were quite a tight-knit team. You asked me how I kind of got through it: well, you get through it with camaraderie. Also with, at night, booze and a sleeping tablet. Because there was nothing, there were no shops, it was just a wilderness of death, we had to ration the booze. And that was quite a struggle because I wanted to kill the pain, I wanted to be asleep.

And I was terrified. We were all very scared for a lot of the time. Because remember, we went in to Rwanda at a time when there were no mobile phones that were working in the country. There was one satellite phone that the BBC had and that was in Kigali. And then we were in a team that was out in the country, and there was no comms once you left, that was it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:29:06] Right, yes.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:29:07] It was us and the drivers and this landscape which you were never quite sure what was going to turn up there. Well, you were sure about one thing: there were going to be dead bodies. But who you were going to meet, who might ambush you, that was- to put it mildly, it was unpredictable.

And none of the skills that I thought I had, you know, from childhood, of dealing with danger, of dealing with fear, equipped me for what we came across there. It was just different. How can I tell you? It was just- it was off the scale.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:29:44] What did it teach you about the behaviour of others in those crisis environments? You’ve talked about how ordinary people- I think what you said is that in the sort of environments that you’ve been in, you’ve come across very few psychopaths. What you have come across a lot of are ordinary people, people who maybe days, weeks, months previously were, you know, driving taxis or working in bar or whatever, who now had a gun in their hand and were murdering innocents at will. Driven by a sort of government in some cases -fuelled mania, that drove them to these kinds of horrors. You’ve seen a tremendous amount of that.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:30:32] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:30:34] Talk to me about how that kind of environment, that extreme environment of crisis kind of leads to, in the case of Rwanda, mass genocide.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:30:48] I think, you point out about the psychopaths question. I’ve heard people time and again saying, you know, “Oh my God, when these psychopaths get loose.” And it’s not, that’s not the problem. The number of psychopaths in war zones are- when you compare them to the amount of killing for example in a place like Rwanda, there’s comparatively few. There’s a lot of opportunists; people who see this killing as a time to make themselves rich, to steal what their neighbours have.

There’s a lot of people who are afraid. I think the majority of people who did killing in Rwanda were afraid, and they had been convinced by their government’s propaganda, by the fact of there having been a civil war already ongoing in the northern part of the country, which allowed the government to make most of the propaganda, painting the minority as an existential threat. And essentially saying to people, “If you don’t kill them, they’re going to kill you. And here’s something else. Don’t just kill them, kill their children. Because you know what happened before when we didn’t kill the children? They came back. They’re the people who we’re fighting now.”

I mean, that’s kind of simplifying it a bit, but that’s it. When you subject people to relentless propaganda, when you tell them that their own lives, whatever little piece of the world that they own, that all of these things can be taken away. Then you can get to a point where, with a little bit more coercion by the army and the police, turn them into killers. People who are willing to kill their neighbours.

And it was like this- somebody called it a claustrophobic, airless hell, pre-genocide Rwanda. It was just waiting for the spark. And when the killing began there was no stopping it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:32:35] In 1997 you are awarded an OBE for Services to Journalism. A great moment for you and your family, your wife Frances and your children. But behind the celebrations I assume you had on that day, that also seems in your timeline to have been a point at which you were properly struggling. Am I right about that?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:32:59] Yes, it was what, three years since Rwanda. I’d gone to Hong Kong as the BBC correspondent there to report on the handover. But the battle was ongoing and I leave Hong Kong, I still go to wars. Hong Kong was kind of bit of a respite, that story, in that there was no conflict going on. It was a big moment of-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:33:25] Of history.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:33:26] Yes, and late British history. And so I wasn’t- there was no sense then that you would be afraid for your life in a place lie Hong Kong. But of course Hong Kong is followed by the conflict in Kosovo. It’s followed by trips to the Democratic Republic of Congo, back into that world of massacre and terrible violence. And, an escalation of my drinking. I kind of know. I know in this period that the game is up with drinking. I know it. But like any good addict, I’m doing my best to avoid knowing it. Or sort of acting among the consequences of the knowledge.

And so I’m going through all those horrible things you go through with alcoholism. The physical sickness, the getting into a shower in the morning and turning the water on as hot as you can to try and drive the poison out of your system. And saying to yourself in that shower, “I’m not going to drink today. I’m not going to drink.” And within minutes of getting out of the shower, making a plan for the first drink before lunch.

One of the defining things to me about alcoholism is just the mental exhaustion. “Will they notice if I have one more drink? Oh my God, they’re going to leave half a bottle on the table, or a quarter of a bottle. What kind of people do that?” It’s bonkers, but that’s how your mind works.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:03] The logic of the addict.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:35:04] And it is just exhausting. It’s physically exhausting, mentally exhausting.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:10] Yes. And when did you reach that proper-

Fergal Keane:                    [0:35:14] I went on holiday with a few mates to Northern Spain. I’d been in Kosovo, come out, and we’d gone on this- it was supposed to be a kind of pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Figure that one out. Four lads, a car. You know, the first thing is you’re supposed to walk that pilgrimage.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:40] Yes. It’s got a touch of the Chaucer about it.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:35:41] It does, yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:42] The Reporter’s Tale.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:35:44] Yes, yes. The Drunkard’s Tale. And the other three guys were not alcoholics, not at all. I could see it, I knew it. One of the things you pick up very fast as an alcoholic is, who is going to be your mate? Who is going to be the one in the bar with you at two or three in the morning?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:35:59] Right, allies.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:36:00] Yes, and listening to you bore them to death with your war stories. And I found by the end of that trip I had- it just wasn’t working. Sitting in a bar with a beer that tasted like poison, and it wasn’t having any effect except to make me sadder and more miserable. I came back and I kind of got that this was it. They talk about a rock bottom in alcoholism, that was my rock bottom.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:36:42] You sought out-

Fergal Keane:                    [0:36:43] Yes, I rang a mate whose mother had been in treatment in her eighties and I thought, “If she can do it…” I went into treatment in London, a 28-day rehab programme which was I’d say one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. Really, really tough. There’s no hiding place, there’s no, “Poor you, God love you, poor thing.” That was what I needed, you know? It was what I needed. The company of other drunks and addicts, and counsellors most of whom had been in the same situation as you were, and who didn’t take any bullshit.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:37:29] Did you hope that the answer to- because your issues were multi-layered, as we’ve been discussing.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:37:36] Nice way to put it, multi-layered.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:37:39] Did you hope that by finding the answer, as you’ve done successfully, with alcohol, that that was somehow going to be the answer to all of the things that were going on in your world? Or did you at that stage have an understanding, these are different things that I need to deal with?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:37:58] I knew that, okay, so I came out and I think I was so preoccupied for the first year definitely of- stay sober one day at a time. Don’t pick up a drink, it’s not the answer to your problems. It’s very simple, you know? If you want to be sober, they say in AA, keep it simple. It doesn’t need to be complex. In fact if you make it complex, you’re running the risk of relapsing.

And so I got that, I was, you know, just don’t pick up the drink. Talk to another alcoholic when you’re feeling wound up and angry.

But I still had the compulsion to go back to war. And I was no way close to accepting that I was addicted to going to the wars. No way. Because what would happen Andy, if I’d done that? Who would I be? Who would I be if I wasn’t Fergal Keane?

Andy Coulson:                   [0:39:01] You would have been pulling the rug completely.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:39:03] Yes, if I wasn’t Fergal Keane the war correspondent, the foreign correspondent. You know, people patting him on the back saying, “Ah, you’re great.” Right then, I couldn’t live without that. And I was not going to cut my supply off at source by acknowledging that I had a problem.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:39:24] So you keep working.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:39:25] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:39:26] And you keep putting yourself in those situations. Let’s move forward to 2000.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:39:29] There’s a bit in the book where I’m- I was actually writing the book and I just said to myself, “Jesus mercy, I’m weary reading this. I’m worried that the reader will feel the same.” Because it’s conflict after conflict after conflict.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:39:48] Yes, this wasn’t an occasional thing, Fergal. You were- I don’t know if this is an inappropriate phrase to use, you were very good at it, putting yourself- you were quite good at the work obviously, but I mean you were quite good at finding- because I’m just thinking about the professional kind of process that leads to you being at those jobs all the time. You must have been- in the office in between those jobs you must have been working hard to make sure you were the guy who got the plane.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:40:20] Yes, in a very competitive environment. What can I say? There was a lot of war around, there was enough for everyone. But I was, you know, you’re right. And it’s this thing of you come back from a conflict and then you kind of have a week of still on the high of the work that you’ve done and people saying it was great, and then it goes quiet.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:40:44] How were you in those periods?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:40:47] I’m already watching what’s next. Where’s the next fix, as it were.

Now, when I say all of that, I want to be careful not to invalidate the work that I did, or the other motives that, you know, yes, being compulsive, addictive, that was a huge part of it. But there’s also the part of me that was phenomenally curious. You know, I’m like a hack, as I said, to my bones, it’s what I do is find things out and tell stories. But I was just doing it in the wrong places.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:41:24] This is fascinating, because the product of your addiction, compulsion, was to the benefit of us all, right? Because you know, I mentioned earlier those clips on Panorama and various other, endless number of reports that you were behind. That’s nothing other than a massive net positive. Not to get grand about it, but that’s the truth of it, isn’t it? That your- that was incredible work.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:41:58] I mean, I want to be proud of the work that I did, but I’m not proud of the consequences for me, for the people I loved.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:42:09] But you can separate those two things?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:42:12] I’m working on it.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:42:14] Let’s move forward to 2008. I’m sorry to take you back again to the next stage, but it’s an important part of the-

Fergal Keane:                    [0:42:24] Don’t worry, it’s not a book that’s exactly full of, “Here’s a high point.”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:42:31] 2008 is when you had another breakdown. How did it manifest itself this time, on this occasion, Fergal? Because this is when you are now finally, formally diagnosed with PTSD.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:42:46] So my pattern is that I will continue, I will go through a period of doing things which are just not good for me. Going to the wars, going to conflict, and build and build and it builds, and then it gets to a breaking point. And it’s never about what the immediate issue is, I can’t even remember, it’s what builds up and builds up and builds up. And then something will trigger the forgetfulness, the sense that the world is speeding up, and then this crippling anxiety, this desire to just lie under the covers and not face the day. That’s what happened in 2008. I’m admitted to hospital and I’m diagnosed with PTSD.

Back when I was in rehab, one of the doctors said, “The patient is showing underlying symptoms of PTSD.” They spotted it back then, whatever it was, 1999.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:43:46] How did you react when that diagnosis was delivered?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:43:50] Relief. Relief.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:43:54] It was an, “Ah, right,” kind of moment.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:43:56] Yes, kind of, “I know what’s up with me.” But, relief but also, “Does this mean I’m not going to be able to do it any more?” so I go in, I go into rehab, I get treatment, I meet a fantastic therapist, Cristina. She’s Spanish, treats military people, really knows the territory, who I later find out, when she was young, a teenager, wanted to be a foreign correspondent. I said to her, “I hope treating me has cured you of that.”

But I do it, I come out, but you know, I still- it’s like this bargaining thing, you know? Bargaining with myself.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:44:47] And you go back again.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:44:48] I go back again. And then I eventually take up the job as Africa Editor of the BBC, at a time when Africa is really changing for the better. There are far fewer wars, there’s elections everywhere. And so I said to myself, I said, “Look, I can do this job and it’ll be a really meaningful job. It’s about a place I really care about, this continent.”

And I go, but of course it does involve war, and it involves a particularly horrendous incident that triggers the final- I hope, the final breakdown.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:45:26] Tell us about that.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:45:28] So I go to Sudan in 2019, and there’s pro-democracy protests taking place, it’s extraordinary. I go to Khartoum, which incidentally is the first African city I ever visited back 30 years before. I move among the crowds, there’s singing, dancing, and the great thing is there are people from all over the nation; different ethnic groups who had previously fought each other. A real sense of unity. There is promise by the military government to have proper elections and all of that.

And so I go back to London, and then I get a call from a mate in the middle of the night saying, “They’re killing. The killing has started.” And there’s a massacre that takes place.

Now, should I have got on the plane to go and cover that? No. But I did. I did.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:46:32] Did you hesitate?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:46:35] No. No I didn’t. I didn’t hesitate. And it wasn’t because I wanted to immerse myself in violence, but it was the story, you know? It was going to be the lead, I had invested all that time in covering it up to then.

And so off I go. We get to Khartoum and we’re trying to find witnesses to what had happened. We’re told about a safe house, and you know, it’s a tricky business getting to the safe house through checkpoints, but critically not bringing- making sure we’re not followed, so that the people who you’re going to meet and going to interview don’t end up being arrested and possibly killed because we’ve gone to see them. And that’s the kind of weight of pressure as well that you deal with, don’t make things worse for people.

We get there, and among the people in this crowded safe house is a man who was an ambulance driver on the day of the massacre. He described to us seeing a young man carrying a wounded woman and then being stopped by the militia, and the militia started to rape her. And by the time he gets over there, he drives his ambulance over and gets out, the militia leave and he sees that the woman is dead, and he believes they were raping a dead woman.

He is telling us this story, and the translator who is with us can see that the man is getting upset, and he puts his arm around him to comfort him. The gesture just triggers the guy and he has what I can- it looks like a seizure. He’s twisting and turning and he’s on the bed, and it takes several of us to hold him down and calm him. We have an ex- British military guy with us who does our kind of security, thank God. He’d been watching the road outside and I went and grabbed him, and he came in and he kind of made sure the guy wasn’t choking, and we managed to stabilise him.

But that was, you know, I thought to myself, “My questions will have done that to this man.” You know? There’s a lot more to it than that, of course, it was his experiences. But I was sort of saying to myself, “What is the-” you know?

Anyway. I came back pretty soon after that, and it was the summer. I was due to go to a wedding in France and it was baking heat, it was a heatwave, and I could feel myself spiralling, the symptoms I’ve described to you a few times now; forgetfulness, mounting anxiety, despair.

I got to the wedding, and the morning of the wedding I just- I’d become adept at managing anxiety by swallowing enough Xanax to smooth things out-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:49:51] Even yourself out.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:49:52] Without becoming a gibbering idiot or like a zombie. I get to the wedding and I pass for normal, and then it gets too much for me and I go for a walk. I wander up this lane way and I come across a war cemetery. German soldiers killed in World War I. It’s in Alsace, where the wedding is. I just lay down there, and I fell asleep.

I came back, and following day was making my way back to London, got on the wrong train, all the old stuff. I was lucky. People are kind to you, you know? When you’re unwell, people will be kind. And so this train conductor took me off the train, put me on the right one. I got back and I knew I was in trouble, I really knew I was in trouble. I rang up my doctor and I went in, and…

And I remember those first few days in hospital, depending heavily on medication just to not go over the edge completely.

And eventually coming out of it after a few weeks, and at that point saying, “You know, you’re an addict. The first thing you do now is you step down from the job as Africa Editor, because no matter how you dress it up, it’s going to involve war and conflict.” And so I did. It was a major step. And then I decided I would state publicly why I was doing it. Why did I do that? To put a road block in front of myself.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:51:50] Yes.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:51:50] From going back. And then along comes the Ukraine war.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:51:57] Let’s just pause for a second around that decision. You’ve said, which I think anyone who is listening to this who has experienced trauma, that the worst element of it actually is the impact that it has on others, on the people that you love. Presumably when you reached that decision, the reaction of those people that you love must have been enormous relief, because they’ve all been thinking it, presumably some of them have been saying it?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:52:27] The people close to me, the people who care about me, yes, great relief. I’m reluctant to go further in describing what other people feel, because it belongs to them, and their experience of what I was like belongs to them. But I could say that I’m- I think I’m a nicer person. I’m an easier person.

That is not to say- and we can talk about this in a minute, that the struggle with PTSD and the part of myself that is compulsive is not an ongoing daily one. It is. But no more than picking up a drink would be guaranteed to make my troubles a million times worse, setting foot on a front line would not only make my troubles worse but would make it much worse for anybody who cares about me.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:53:21] Yes. So Ukraine.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:53:24] There you go.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:53:26] So, so you get this sorted, and then…

Fergal Keane:                    [0:53:30] So Ukraine happens, and I look at it and I say to my bosses, “Look. I can’t cover the front line, the fighting, I just can’t. But I will do the refugee thing.” You know, I’m very experienced in refugee stories, how aid is organised to deal with people. I said, “That’s a human story I can tell without putting myself in harm’s way.”

And so off I went to Lviv. Within a day- I crossed the border at midnight I think on the 25th. The war started on the 24th, by the 25th I’m at the border. And there’s just this flood of people. It’s extraordinary. I’d seen big refugee movements but this was-

In the dark you’d cross from the quiet of the Polish side and then suddenly this- women giving birth by the side of the road. A memory that strikes me is that everybody seemed to have brought their pet dog or their pet cat or their pet rabbit, this kind of domesticity in turmoil.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:54:41] So no sort of manifestation of, “Well, that missile is flying towards you”?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:54:46] No, that was 600km away, the trauma of others.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:54:50] Quite, but the crisis is there. So you’ve removed yourself from what you call the front line but you are still immersing yourself in human crisis.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:55:00] Absolutely, exactly.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:55:01] So how did you react to that?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:55:04] That’s it, and it’s the bargaining inside that’s going on here, you know? How much of this is actually legitimate? Are you the guy reserving himself for a seat at the bar, is the saying. “Just reserve for me. I’m not drinking at the moment, but keep me a seat at the bar.”

Andy Coulson:                   [0:55:22] Right.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:55:23] And so I went down to Lviv and did the story, and then about half way through the people who run Ukraine Railways offered us the chance to ride the rails from Kyiv to Lviv with the refuges, which would have been a very dramatic kind of story. My God, I fought with myself. I rang my boss, the Foreign Editor, and he said to me, “I don’t think this would be a very good idea for you, do you?” I kind of-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:56:06] You needed someone to say that.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:56:07] I did yes, because I was half way through, “Well, you know, they’ve got very good safety procedures, they’ve got-” all the bullshit rationalisation that you do. And so I stood on the platform and I watched the team take off without me. It was tough, but it was the right thing to do.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:56:30] Fergal, you have a philosophy about trauma which I think is deeply, deeply helpful to anyone who has faced serious trouble in their life. We’re going to try and summarise it, and I hope I get it right.

You say that your memory, your hard drive as you describe it, is full of those terrible memories. But trying to wipe those memories is a) impossible, and b) is entirely the wrong thing to try to do anyway, because they are a part of you for good and bad. But what you can do, this is the phrase I love, what you can do is you can mitigate against those memories by working as hard as you possibly can to be happy.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:57:13] Yes.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:57:14] Have I got that right?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:57:15] You’re spot on. Bottle it and sell it. 100% proof.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:57:23] So I’m going to end a) by thanking you for talking to me today. It’s been a privilege to hear your story. But I’m also going to ask you to give us your three crisis cures, because they are, I think I’m right in saying, the means by which you mitigate against those memories and work as hard as possible to be happy.

So what are the three things that get you through now? What are the three things that you lean only, really, in those moments?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:57:53] The first one I learned in rehab, but it took me a long time to put it into action. And that’s get up in the morning and write a gratitude list: I write the things that I’m grateful for. When I’m tempted towards-

Andy Coulson:                   [0:58:09] You get up, you sit at your laptop.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:58:11] Make a coffee and I sit and I write my gratitude list. “This is what’s good in my life.” And I remind myself of that on a daily basis, because I’m bloody lucky. I’m really lucky. I consider myself one of the, you know, blessed.

The second thing is the dog. He’s a dog from Wales, from Llandeilo, who is named Deilo. And he’s just the best thing ever because he can sense- he’s a Labrador Spaniel cross and he senses when I’m in difficulty and he just moves in. Moves up to me and leans his head on my lap, and nudges me and gets me to take him for a walk.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:58:59] What breed is your dog?

Fergal Keane:                    [0:59:01] He’s a Labrador Spaniel cross.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:59:03] Right, okay.

Fergal Keane:                    [0:59:04] Spanador, they call them.

Andy Coulson:                   [0:59:06] We had a guest on the pod who had I think the best line about the importance of dogs in a person’s life, and he said that one should aim to be the man that your dog thinks you are. And I think-

Fergal Keane:                    [0:59:23] My dog looks at me as if he totally trusts that, “He’ll be kind to me,” and he brings that out in me. So we go for walks.

And the last thing is quite curious. It’s watching on saved drives Ireland’s greatest rugby triumphs. There haven’t been that many, okay, but there’s something about sport. Or if there’s a live rugby match with my team Munster playing, or Ireland, watching sport just takes me so out of myself. And it’s a time when you can be truly tribal and partisan without hurting anyone.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:05] Do you watch a lot of live rugby as well?

Fergal Keane:                    [1:00:06] Yes, I love it. I absolutely love it. And that’s- I can scream and shout, and there’s a great virtue in just being a kid again, in a ways.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:19] Yes. Fergal Keane, thank you so much for joining us today. As I say, it’s been a privilege and I hope today’s people that are listening, I’m pretty sure of this, it has been incredibly useful.

Fergal Keane:                    [1:00:30] Thank you very much.

Andy Coulson:                   [1:00:31] Thank you.

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