TORONTO - The nights are the worst. The darkness. The silence. The ghostly images of the dead and dying that refuse to be laid to rest.
More than two decades after former lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire returned to Canada from Rwanda, where he and the small peacekeeping contingent he commanded were forced to stand by as helpless witnesses to a genocide that ended with the slaughter of hundreds of thousands, he is still struggling to overcome the demon that is post-traumatic stress disorder.
In his new book, "Waiting for First Light," Dallaire describes what it means to live with PTSD, a psychological injury as old as war itself, but one only recently recognized as an all-too-common hazard for soldiers, first responders and victims of physical or sexual abuse.
It is a wound the retired senator wants Canadians to more fully understand through his memoir, which he also hopes will offer solace and support to others wrestling with the condition.
PTSD occurs as a result of experiencing intense trauma that overwhelms the psyche. The condition is marked by recurrent memories of the event, flashbacks, nightmares and severe emotional distress or physical reactions to triggers that remind the person of the trauma. Those affected can feel hopelessness and despair, exhibit turbulent mood swings, and engage in self-destructive behaviours like drinking to excess or driving too fast.
"You live with a constant sense of vulnerability because you never know when a conversation, a smell, a noise, a bad day, how it can generate a mood that will be quite depressive, and as such will lead you into some reliving (of the trauma)," Dallaire, 70, said in an interview during a recent trip to Toronto.
"And you can be just as affected now as you were after the event."
That vulnerability is especially acute at night, he explained, when his mind is tortured by vivid memories of rape, mutilation and murder that come unbidden in the darkness; when nightmares of the atrocities of the 1994 genocide and his inability under his UN mandate to stop the bloodbath make falling asleep a thing to fear.
"That's why many of us sleep with the light on and the TV blaring, if we can ever get to sleep," he said of his fellow PTSD sufferers. "That's why so many suicides are done at night."
In the book, Dallaire describes how with the coming of morning's light, he is once again able to face the day, fending off the black dogs of depression and despair by submerging himself in work.
He also concedes how hard his PTSD has been on his wife and three children, who have had to contend with a very different husband and father from the take-charge career soldier who left in 1993 for the mission in Rwanda.
"You're not predictable, you're up and down, so they don't know from one minute to the other whether you're going to be mad or you're going to laugh," he said.
Compounding the situation was the fact that Dallaire was posted to Ottawa on his return from the African country — first with the military until his condition forced him to take a medical discharge, then as a member of the Senate — while his family remained in Quebec City. On weekends, he commuted back and forth.
The distance allowed him to protect his family from witnessing his relentless battle with PTSD, but it also exacerbated his sense of isolation.
Yet at the same time, Dallaire craved that isolation, an escape from the questions from well-meaning family members and friends that would inevitably reignite his symptoms.
"You do everything to avoid people. You try to hide it. And the best way to hide it is to hide," he said.
"I'm not sure whether or not that was the right decision for me. My youngest son has subsequently come to me and said maybe it would have been better if we had been all together."
Families, he said, are the too-often unacknowledged and poorly supported secondary casualties of PTSD when soldiers return home after combat missions in such postings as Afghanistan.
"We've lost a lot of people because the families haven't been able to cope, because they've split up and the guys have got into breakdowns and drinking, and they've committed suicide," said Dallaire, recalling his despair on learning in late 2013 that four Afghanistan veterans had taken their own lives in less than a week.
"The scale of pain that they live is astronomical."
Yet the ranks of the "walking wounded" are not restricted to the military, he said.
"There are the police, firemen, first responders, all types of people who ... have been traumatized and live with this mental injury. They also have families that are living with those conditions."
For Dallaire, it is not just what he witnessed, but the sense of guilt he continues to shoulder — another potential symptom of PTSD — that as commander of the peacekeeping force he was unable to stop the Rwandan genocide because of the lack of international support; that ethnic cleansing resulted in the massacre of an estimated 850,000 men, women and children, most of them Tutsis at the hands of machete-wielding, gun-toting Hutus, many of them child soldiers.
"I'm sensing that I'm mastering more and more the guilt of what happened, that the ability to find a focus has been able to move me from simply trying to exist to actually live."
At the heart of that recommitment to life is his passionate advocacy for human rights and the plight of child soldiers, embodied by the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, an organization he founded to end the use of youth combatants worldwide.
"It takes a long time to just want to live, to look beyond the next day, more importantly beyond the next night. The child soldiers cause has been a significant factor in pulling me forward and giving me a sense of purpose."
"Waiting for First Light: My Ongoing Battle with PTSD" is published by Random House Canada.