Sunday, October 01, 2006

Before you email another marriage proposal to Anderson Cooper, do you really want to have a War Reporter as your Significant Other?

Melanie Anstey is married to a high profile foreign correspondent.She is a freelance documentary maker, and now works for the Rory Peck Trust in London.

Married to a War Reporter
Melanie Anstey

'If your husband is in constant danger, you end up living on red alert, and therefore you put your own needs last.'
My husband has reported on just about every single war. Since I met him 19 years ago he has been in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Afghanistan, Gulf War One, Israel, and then in 1991 he went to Croatia where he was shot through the abdomen. He ended up being operated on by a bunch of very nice, chain-smoking, Serbian surgeons.
It was shocking, very distressing and very, very frightening. When I received the phone call, I did not know whether he was going to live. I dropped everything — ironically, I was producing a film about Medicins Sans Frontieres, in London — and his TV company flew me out with a replacement reporter and a close friend. They also flew out a surgeon from a specialist London hospital, more for my sake really.
The situation was so critical I went into adrenaline hyper-drive. I have always wondered how people cope in these situations, but to be honest, you have to. You go into this weird state of lucidity, and you do whatever you can to make sure that he gets proper treatment. When he was well enough to travel we brought him home to University College Hospital for a week, and after he came out he was on morphine for three months.
I gave up work to look after him, but it was far too serious to be pissed off about the situation. I was also lucky because I had fantastic employers who were very understanding. However, I did lose the job I was working on — it was my first producing opportunity. But the situation with him was so grave it did not occur to me respond in any other way.
We had major rows about him going back into foreign correspondent work. I understand it was important for him to re-establish his courage and his capacity for doing the work. He had dreamed of doing this job since he was a kid, so to give it up would be a major decision for him. Nor am I an ultimatum person — I have never pushed it that far.
Then in 1998 he got a near fatal illness in Baghdad. I had to go to Jordan, get him from there, and take him to a hospital in Israel. It was touch-and-go again, and we had to go through the whole recovery process once more. This time he even had to learn to walk again.
I realise now that I coped less well this time, because I had to fight every step of the way for him to get the right treatment, for his illness to be recognised and for him to be rescued in time. I was very tired and I had run out of resources, especially as I had other personal pressures to deal with.
Of course I have been traumatised by what has happened, but it is not a trauma that is commonly recognised. If your husband is in constant danger, you end up living on red alert, and therefore you put your own needs last. You forget to remember to look after yourself. You don't live a normal life; you don't think, 'What is my career path' or 'How am I getting on with everybody in the office' or 'When is my sister's birthday?'
Maybe I have always been bad at dealing with 'normal' things like that anyway, because you cannot blame events for your own personality traits. But there may be an element by which you have never been allowed to get bored. You are put into a kind of limbo state that revolves around what is happening to him. He's going away. He's coming back. He's injured. He's fine. He's tired.
During the Iraq war he went to Baghdad for three months and that was terrifying — to the extent that I had to stay indoors more or less continually for the three weeks watching those reports on television. I simply could not function any other way.
The pressure was so intense I would go out the door and start shouting at people — and I actually had one road rage incident. It was the day that the bombing was to start and I had taken the car to the garage. For once I would NOT give in to a white van man who was trying to barge his way past me. I had a furious row with him — and then I said to myself, 'Go home!' So I just stayed at home for three weeks. But in a way it became almost normal behaviour. I have a lot of Arab friends, and also a friend who has an Iraqi aunt in Baghdad — my friends couldn't go out either.
I am very afraid of him being killed — there is constant anxiety, the constant awareness of danger. But I can't think of it in the abstract when he is at home in London. He is such a home-loving, cosy person. You wouldn't imagine that somebody who does this work could be so relaxed and able to enjoy themselves.
I think experiencing trauma like this takes the relationship to a deeper level. Your bond becomes more intensely, mutually dependent. Whether that's a good or a bad thing I don't know. But even so, there are all sorts of pressures that are very difficult to deal with. One of them is absences, long absences, the coming in and out of each other's lives and trying to find common ground.
There's a big difference between being on a technicolour story and the coming home. It can feel drab in comparison. So you have to find strategies for reconnecting. Obviously it can make you feel second-rate because you cannot compete with wars and world events; you cannot compete with the importance of a war.
Also, you cannot say, 'Actually I need you home because I haven't seen you for a while', if you feel that lots of Kosovans, for example, are being persecuted and somebody needs to tell their story. It makes you subjugate your needs to your own detriment. So, being with someone who is high profile can be diminishing to the identity of the partner, and it can be difficult for you to represent your own needs strongly enough within the relationship.
I think anybody in a similar relationship faces the same difficulties. It is this huge sense of dislocation; of perhaps not sharing experiences in the way that a normal couple might, because you do not see each other as frequently, and because your experiences of life are very different.
I've been very dependent on friends to help me cope with what has happened, and how to deal with a relationship that presents such stresses and strains. I also started therapy about five years ago, partly because I was looking for a way to change professions. I found it interesting, but I think those who have been the most helpful are people who have lived through similar experiences. It's healing to talk to someone who truly understands, and to be able to tell the story time and time again. It helped me to put what happened into perspective.
I do believe that partners are co-conspirators, so I cannot say I have had a hard time because my husband's been a war correspondent for x-amount of years. What's made us stay together? A deep bond and common interest in the same sort of things, and lots of shared experiences. But above all, our friendship.
I think we have succeeded in being together for 19 years because I have a commitment to what he does. I have a commitment to the right news stories being told, and told well. Making social anthropological documentaries is my way of doing it because I don't like the pace of news, and sometimes I feel there is an over simplicity of news. I like the more ponderous, contemplative pace of documentaries. I like going right inside a community to present issues from the inside.
Although we've had a terrific relationship it hasn't allowed us to settle and to have children. I am sad about that. But, I knew I could not get neurotic about documentaries in Iraq when I'm supposed to be at home looking after kids.
Having said that, I am becoming increasingly aware that I need to change my priorities. I've run out of my capacity to cope with living separate lives. I have also run out of the energy that it takes to reincorporate him back into my life. I have decided the sacrifices were becoming too great to carry on as we are. So we are making changes to accommodate what we now both want from our relationship. I want to be more settled, and we have talked about this extensively.
On the other hand, I am very independent kind of person. I always have been like that and, as a result, aspects of this relationship have suited me very well. When I have had a documentary series to produce, I have been able to work obsessively. As a result, I deliver good results. And I know that if I had a husband who sulked every time I worked late it would have caused a lot of trouble, career-wise.

Recently Melanie and her husband have been approved for adoption in the UK, and are now planning to adopt a child from Russia.

7 comentarios:

Anonymous said...

Do people really e-mail him marriage proposals? If so, this should give them a dose of reality. Some viewers may be beginning to realize how dangerous a job it is but most still don't have a clue.

Great blog.

courtney01 said...

Thanks for stopping by, Anonymous! Hope you come back soon.

Lee said...

Thanks, Courtney. I didn't realize I'd posted anonymously. I guess I wasn't signed in.

courtney01 said...

Hi there, Lee! How have you been? Good to see you.

christiane said...

Thank you Lee!
And we hope you will visit and post frequently!

marie said...

I can relate to this person because I grew up with a father whose job put him in some of the most dangerous places in the world. My mother travelled alot for her job also but it was not putting her in danger.

As a child, I never knew any other way but that life. To my parents' credit, there was always a caretaker at home (a nanny) so I never felt abandoned or alone. I Did miss them when they were not home, but it was more like the way you miss a friend. I am fond of my parents but our relationship is more like "roommates" than anything else.

I can deal with a spouse who does the same thing as Melanie Anstey's husband does for a living. Going to war zones and other dangerous areas. I would also likely deal with it better than she has since I have experienced it, obviously.

I won't be sending marriage proposals to Anderson Cooper! LOL!!

Besides, I thought guys were supposed to do the proposing?!?!

ivy said...

christiane-- thanks for posting this article. you rarely see this kind of personal perspective in the media. People should hear more about what it takes for reporters to bring the news from "hot spots" to at least appreciate their work.


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