The Painful Truth by Monty Lyman
Chapter 5 - 'The Meaning of Pain'
The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.
H. P. LOVECRAFT
For our physiology to calm down, to heal and grow, we need a visceral feeling of safety.
BESSEL VAN DER KOLK
EVAN IS AN affable and articulate Australian, able to seamlessly move from extolling the benefits of beer-temperature controllers to explaining the nitty-gritty of international humanitarian law. As we chatted, I found it almost impossible to imagine that this wise head behind a cheeky grin had been through hell on earth.
In 2006 Evan had achieved a lifelong dream: the twenty-three-year-old soldier could now wear the ‘sandy beret’. One hundred and sixty tough, fit and intelligent soldiers had undergone Australia’s Special Air Service Regiment (SASR) selection process, and only nineteen – of which Evan was one – had passed. He was now a member of an elite special forces unit with an international reputation. And they were preparing to see action. That year, the Australian government announced the deployment of a mentoring and reconstruction task force to Uruzgan Province in Afghanistan. The task force’s role was literal and metaphorical bridge-building, while the role of the special forces was to identify, detain or neutralize threats to the task force. After the special forces captured enemy combatants, they would be detained by Australian interrogators from the Defence Intelligence Organisation (DIO) for a period of no longer than ninety-six hours before being handed over to Afghan security forces. In preparation for this task, the DIO interrogators practised their techniques on young SAS soldiers. With instructors of limited experience and no accountability, it was a recipe for disaster.
‘“Resistance to Interrogation” training is designed to expose you in a limited and controlled way to what happens if you are captured,’ Evan told me. ‘It’s not designed to be torture, it’s not designed to break you, it’s not even designed to take you near that point. It’s meant to be exposure.’ As part of their training, the soldiers were meant to hold out for at least forty-eight hours while only providing the ‘Big Four’: name, number, rank and date of birth. In the articles of the Geneva Convention, a prisoner of war is bound only to give this information.
Evan was bagged, dumped into the back of a truck and driven to an undisclosed interrogation centre. ‘Once you got to the centre, they took your equipment and tried to recreate who you are, such as what patrol you belong to. They pride themselves on being able to get all this information – and they’re good at it. But I knew all this beforehand, and had sterilized every piece of equipment and removed anything that could give away my role or what patrol I belonged to. This was clearly a challenge for them, and it was clear that at the outset they decided “right, we’re going to break him”.’
Evan was tortured for almost one hundred hours. ‘It’s so incredible what they’re able to do to you … how malleable they can make you. It’s as though you’re under a spell. You’re deprived of all your senses. You’re wearing blacked-out ski goggles. Blaring music is coming at you from all directions. You’re handcuffed and made to sit – completely naked, except for a hospital gown – on a cold cement floor with your legs splayed out in a stress position.’ Evan would later find that these techniques had been directly taken from Guantanamo Bay, where, in the years following 9/11, interrogators became experts in causing excruciating pain without the incriminating evidence of tissue damage.
Evan was taken out of the room nine times over the course of the ninety-six hours for interrogation. The interrogator would sit directly opposite him and shout the words: ‘NAME. NUMBER. RANK. DATE OF BIRTH. NAME. NUMBER. RANK. DATE OF BIRTH. NAME …’ The persistent, hypnotic demand is a strategy to lull prisoners into giving away more than they should. But Evan didn’t yield. After one interrogation, he requested to be escorted to the toilet. Denied this, he was instead viciously assaulted by the instructors. After he was dragged back to his cell and placed in a stress position on the cold cement floor, Evan noticed blood running down his legs. One of his assaulters had kicked him so hard in the buttocks that they had caused an anal tear. The slow hours of torture continued.
Evan had been driven to a state of helplessness and humiliation and was under constant physical threat. He was in genuine fear for his life. The lightest touch or subtlest muscle-twinge now caused pain: ‘even the anticipation of going through pain again caused its own pain’. Psychology, emotion and context are just as important to the experience of pain as physical input – and indeed are often more so. ‘There’s pain – sometimes extreme pain – you can tolerate. Take “weekend warriors”, for example, who do triathlons and crazy ultradistance races. It’s a controlled atmosphere: you’re in control, there’s no real threat and you have a goal. You can endure that pain with a goal in mind. And when I was going through SAS selection, it was frequently painful, but I had the goal of the sandy beret and we knew that we could quit at any moment. But this was very different.’ Roughly seventy-two hours into the torture, during which he also had neither food nor sleep, Evan lost consciousness.
In the first months following this ordeal, Evan wasn’t able to express or even understand what had happened to him. One evening he walked into the toilets of his barracks and suddenly began to hear a disembodied voice echoing around the bathroom, repeating the words ‘NAME. NUMBER. RANK. DATE OF BIRTH …’ This was the first of many symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). One of the worst of Evan’s symptoms, and one that confused and distressed him immensely, was an extreme sensitivity to pain. He prided himself on a high pain threshold and an ability to tolerate the gruelling labour required of an SAS soldier, but now he felt agonizing pain when putting on boots or entering a swimming pool of any temperature cooler than a warm bath. The pain was often felt over his whole body. Evan’s traumatic experience of torture had forced his brain to make a rapid jump from short-term to persistent pain. His brain had essentially been rewired to be on hyper-alert for any potential threat. If pain can be crudely likened to an outdoor security light that switches on when a human-sized intruder approaches your house at night, Evan’s light had become one that is triggered by a leaf blowing in the wind. Persistent pain is very common after torture but is under-recognized as a post-traumatic symptom. Interestingly and crucially, the development of long-term pain after torture is dependent not on the extent of physical damage sustained during the experience, but on the psychological and emotional impact of the torture and the emergence of PTSD.
Pain is both sensory and emotional. These elements overlap and intertwine in terms of both the brain’s physical real estate and our own lived experience. They are often so blended as to seem indistinguishable. Scientists have long known this; the most widely accepted international definition of pain describes it as ‘an unpleasant sensory and emotional experience …’ Torturers, too, have long known this, and are experts in how our emotions and thoughts influence pain. Evan’s interrogators built a sense of anticipation and threat, removed any sense of control he had over his own body, humiliated him and subjected him to pain at unpredictable times in seemingly random ways.
But the same emotional circuitry that torturers exploit can be used to help people deal with, and sometimes eliminate, pain.
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This concept of an external threat, coupled with a loss of control, explains why Evan’s torture was so excruciatingly painful. Strapped down to a cold, dank floor for hours, with sight removed by goggles and hearing overwhelmed with a volley of loud music, his brain interpreted any touch as a potentially damaging, life-threatening encounter and his pain system went into overdrive. The pain-worsening effect of helplessness has been known for a long time.
Monty Lyman, The Painful Truth, (London: Penguin Books, 2021), pp. 88-91, 96.
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