Northern Ireland news

North Belfast priest left for dead in South Africa speaks of PTSD as he opens respite retreat to help others

Fr Kieran Creagh talks to the Irish News. Picture by Hugh Russell

A NORTH Belfast priest left for dead after being shot during a robbery in South Africa has spoken candidly of how he was "lost" for more than a decade as he struggled with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Fr Kieran Creagh (57) was shot twice and seriously wounded at a hospice he set up to help people with Aids in 2007.

For years after the horrific attack, he said he "felt very unwell, mentally, physically, spiritually" until he was finally given the PTSD diagnosis.

"I didn't know much about it, it was something you hear about and then it made sense," he said.

"There's 12 symptoms of PTSD and I had 10 of them so it was bad, but it was good, as it was a relief to see it written down, that I wasn't going mad, but actually I had something and there was a name for it."

A member of the Passionist religious order, Fr Creagh now wants to use his experience to help others.

He has established a 'Respite from Trauma Retreat' at Tobar Mhuire, Crossgar, offering a "space where people can come and be understood and listened to".

"It's not about comparing traumas and sharing traumas, it's about sharing space, that we are people who are damaged by trauma in some way," he said.

The first weekend retreat takes place next month, offering a 'break from your trauma', with activities such as art, music and yoga as well as a time to 'rest, relax and reflect'.

Ordained in 1993, Fr Creagh worked with Aids patients in poverty-stricken areas for a decade before opening the Leratong hospice in South Africa in 2004.

He was the first person in Africa to be injected with a trial HIV vaccine and was named Irish International Personality of the Year in 2004.

But in February 2007, the popular priest was shot during a violent robbery in Pretoria.

He spent several months recuperating in Ireland and recalls how he "couldn't walk that far, I'd very little energy, it was just about getting my energy back, a normalisation".

But he was determined to return to South Africa to complete the building of a church, crèche and health clinic on a site adjacent to the hospice.

"Much against everybody's will on the 1st November 2007 I went back to South Africa, back to the same place, same job, same everything - everything was the same - except I wasn't, but I didn't realise it," he said.

Fr Creagh, pictured in South Africa where he opened the Leratong hospice in 2004

"I didn't have any psychological treatment, what I was longing for, from the moment I woke up in intensive care, was to speak to somebody who had been through something and come out the other side.

"The physical side never really bothered me, I was in pain and nearly died twice in the shooting and a couple of days later when I lost all my blood and had to go for emergency surgery.

"Certainly being in intensive care and being on life-support - they had to wake me up on life-support - was one of the worst experiences ever in my life.

"But I just got on with.

"When I returned, I realised things were different - I wasn't as free in the township as I'd been before.

"I could have driven round the township, through the squatter camp, doing sick calls during the night, it never bothered me, window down listening to music, into Pretoria, out of Pretoria, but it was more sinister.

"I now had a fear on me, even if I would leave my house to go into the hospice, which was just beside each other, I would check the wardrobes, under the beds.

"I had never done anything like this before."

The priest said over the next two years, he was the target of four attempted hijackings, including one where a gang chased him in his car.

"One time, they were dressed as police, they wanted me to get out of the vehicle," he said.

"I refused and said follow us to the police station and then we will get out. The next night an elderly couple were killed at the same spot by people dressed as police.

"It just began to wear me down.

"Then I was driving on my own to Lesotho, you just knew who they were, five of them in an old Toyota, revving up behind me.

"I didn't know my truck could do 147 mph, but it did.

"I was racing along for about half an hour until I came to three combine harvesters blocking my way. Just like the Red Sea, they parted and I drove past them and it was something between me and them.

"That really hit home - I got very ill, my blood pressure shot up and I was just very, very sick.

"I came home for three months, but felt very unwell, mentally, physically, spiritually - I was drinking a bit too much, it works as it takes away the pain, but it doesn't work."

It was then he was diagnosed with PTSD and on his return home began to attend a psychotherapist three times a week.

He said he went from being "afraid of everyone and everything, living daily in fear and night terror" to feeling "much better" which led to him moving to Tory Island in Co Donegal, where he stayed for four years.

The retreats will be held at Tobar Mhuire in Crossgar

Fr Creagh returned to his home parish in 2016 to take up a post at Holy Cross Church, but "it was like one big massive trigger".

"There was a scuffle outside the church with Fr Gary (Donegan) that weekend and a guy was shot dead in the area - all in one night and I just spiralled," he said.

"Trauma builds on trauma and a lot of my trauma was living in Belfast, living on the Crumlin Road, witnessing things as a teenager you shouldn't have to witness, just the whole tension of north Belfast during the Troubles, sectarian shootings - you were always on edge.

"I know things had moved on a lot, but I hadn't really moved on and to be back there and these traumatic events in one night, I just turned to alcohol.

"I started drinking too much and I realised this wasn't right."

He sought further help and last May entered Khiron House in Oxfordshire, which specialises in therapies for psychological trauma.

"I felt I was drowning and the suicidal thoughts, I was never going to commit suicide, but that never stopped the thoughts," he said.

"I planned my funeral many times, but not the actual event.

"Suicidality is one of the main symptoms of PTSD and because I love my family and I love people, I wouldn't do it.

"In Khiron House, very slowly but surely after being there for a month or two I realised I needed to be there.

"After five months, I felt in a much better place, it had been a difficult time trying to face my demons."

Now in a "better place", Fr Creagh said: "I only go for therapy once a week, I'm off all my medication, I don't drink any more.

"I have chronic PTSD, so it hasn't gone away, but they taught me ways of dealing with it.

"I've only had one night terror since I left Khiron House, I get nightmares now and again, but I'm not as anxious and don't have that terrible fear of every other human being and the lack of trust of every other human being."

In a bid to help others, he has set up a 'Respite from Trauma Retreat' at Tobar Mhuire, where he is now based.

"I wanted a trauma spa for the brain, there's none in the north, none in the south and the only one in England I could find was for ex-service people or people currently in the services," he said.

"It's creating a space where people can come and be understood and listened to, to offer people a taste of a retreat for a weekend.

"I want to palliate trauma, introducing them very gently into a bit of exercise, art, music because music can lift you, it can put space between you and how you're feeling.

"The retreat is for people who have PTSD and PTS or who feel less than because of some trauma, anyone who feels traumatised in any way, shape or form and want a break from that.

"It's not going to be heavy therapy, it's all very gentle and everything during the weekend is optional, because people with trauma can be triggered and overwhelmed.

"It's to give people a comfortable, safe and gentle place to go."

Fr Creagh said he knows "how lost I was for many years", but wants to "spread a little bit more listening, understanding and a bit more kindness".

"I think in this world if we could move that forward, it's very healing for people who are traumatised and actually very healing for everybody," he said.

:: Three retreat weekends have been organised, with the first to take place from March 6 to 8. For further information, call 02844830242 or email secretary@tobarmhuirecrossgar.com

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