My father was a war correspondent (killed in El Salvador in 1989). He used to call me from the American Colony Hotel bar in Jerusalem and I could hear the voices and laughter, the heavy clink of ice in glasses, and almost feel the heat sweeping in from the pool area, sense the relief in the abandon of all the journalists at the bar – they’d survived another day. He once called me from the Commodore Hotel in Beirut and played me a tape recording he’d made on the roof of the shelling, explosions, buildings descending into rubble, shouts and screaming. The eight-year-old me was worried about him, but he laughed; ‘I’m fine!’ he said. ‘Just having a gin martini up with a twist at the bar.’ I heard a woman’s voice there with him. Older now than he ever was, I’ve been to both those hotel bars myself, sat there with a drink half hoping he’ll walk in.
But all that is a child’s view of a smoky, boozy, sensual, war-ravaged scene – a huge romanticisation of those frenzied evenings after a day reporting on extreme violence, all heavy drinking and guaranteed sex. I thought it was so glamourous, that the women must be so intrepid and exciting, beautiful and far, far more interesting that I would ever be. And it’s not hard to glamourise that life. Actually, I’ve written five novels doing exactly that! But there is another side, of course, to a need for booze and sex. And that is trauma.
Clearly, there is a high octane kind of fun in it all, at least for a few nights. But seeking oblivion night after night over months or years as a way of processing chronic fear, anxiety, trauma and ultimately depression, gets quite a lot less fun as life slips by. If you’ve seen the horrors of war (and everyone who has witnessed the results of terrible violence knows this is not just a phrase), and you then find yourself relatively safe and sound in a hotel, it is easy to fall into promiscuity and oblivion-seeking as a way of self-soothing, of quelling the fear. And if you’re not safe and sound in the hotel, if threat is omnipresent, then sex can stand in for the comfort and intimacy all of us need when we’re scared out of our minds.
Everyone knows that promiscuity in the field is pretty ubiquitous. [NB. I am not talking here about abuse or assault]. At first it may seem like one of the perks of the job, but with time it tends to become a grubby and depressing feature of an increasingly rootless life. It often involves cheating on someone left back home, someone who is perhaps taking care of the children, and it always involves loss.
Sex as a defence against mortality is pretty classic stuff – many mid-life crises are based in it, and the kind of people who seek much younger lovers are obviously trying to ward off the inevitable process of ageing and dying. But when death is a very real and present threat, in war and disaster zones, things feel much more urgent – tomorrow really might never come – and people cling to each other in desperation for fear of being alone.
Because there is a large element of genuine enjoyment and some fleeting intimacy in these encounters, it can be hard to see them as red flags for mental health. But they are. Any kind of oblivion-seeking is a way of staving off the effects of trauma, anxiety and depression, but it is ultimately unsustainable. I’m not trying to be pious or to tell anyone what they should or shouldn’t do of an evening – I’ve certainly tried these anaesthetics myself in a big way. But what I would say is that when it’s not working any more, when it’s getting you down and it’s hard to see a way out, there are people you can talk to about it, people who have been there too and can help you recalibrate things and work with you towards thinking stuff through instead of acting stuff out. Work with you towards some peace of mind.
If you recognise yourself in any of this, please be in touch.
—Anna Mortimer, Therapist, Journalist and Co-founder of the Mind Field