The sound of birds and a crack of light: Those were the things that helped to save him.
The poetic imagination of Roméo Dallaire – something the retired lieutenant-general, former senator, author and humanitarian rarely discusses, not even in his new memoir, Waiting for First Light, My Ongoing Battle with PTSD – is a part of his mind that potentially exacerbated the war trauma he suffered but also allowed him to survive it.
"Fiddling with my entrails" is how he describes writing this harrowing account of what he felt in the aftermath of serving as force commander of the ill-fated United Nations peace-keeping force in Rwanda in 1993 and 1994. In the most painful passages, he describes his desperate, suicidal moments, drinking a 40-ounce bottle of scotch in less than an hour on top of his medications while sitting on a park bench in 2000 – an incident reported on the national news; driving too fast; cutting his thighs and arms with his father's razor blade.
But in other places, it hints at his romanticism. Often, a new dawn would send the demons away for another night.
So I ask him whether nature provided solace.
And he looks up from his seat on a sofa in a downtown Toronto hotel room, a grandpa with a dark side, dressed in his neat blue sweater and beige pants, his hair and mustache a snowy white, filled with stories no child would want to hear. "You're coming out of the darkness that is all-encompassing," says Mr. Dallaire, whose first book, Shake Hands With the Devil, documented his time in Rwanda. "The world comes back to life. The birds start singing. They don't sing at night." In Rwandan villages, amid the massacres of hundreds, he always marvelled that the birds survived and would sing over a scene of devastation.
Mr. Dallaire, who is 70, is a courtly man, offering tea to his visitors. On a table in front of him is a cup of coffee, a muffin and a long plastic pill container in which he organizes the medications he calls "my prostheses [that] permit me to be reasonable. … You don't want to know me without the medication. I don't want to know me any more."
But this odd juxtaposition of outward gentleness and inner turmoil is only one aspect of his complexity. He is an intriguing oxymoron: a deeply feeling man of action; a poetic general; a soulful warrior.
I ask him, at one point, how he reconciles the fact that he once pleaded with people to kill him when a suicide attempt failed, and that now as he gets older, he is angry his time is coming to an end.
He raises his eyebrows and offers a small, quizzical smile. "That's right," he says, acknowledging that he has been happier in recent years. "Maybe it's the subject of another book." The hidden work of writing is a great comfort, he says.
Does he feel that he was spared for a reason?
"Ah, that would be a bit pretentious," he begins. "But I have started to go back to church a bit." Raised a Roman Catholic, he served at mass for six years as a boy. In Rwanda, "I got pissed off, having been abandoned." But now, he says, "I find a bit of solace. … But I have never been able to go farther than the back pew."
"I'm not sure I'm allowed to go up there yet," he says simply. "I'm still trying to figure this guy out."
"God, you mean?"
"I saw more pairs of eyes at night mad and bewildered at what happened to them. And that's difficult to say that was God's plan."
Throughout Waiting for First Light are the tips of psychological icebergs. His father, a Second World War veteran, was brutal. He used corporal punishment. There was "no love to speak of," Mr. Dallaire writes. I wonder if the therapy he continues to do helps him understand the influence of his childhood.
"The number of nights I would go to bed wanting to kill my father are incalculable," he answers flatly, revealing far more than he does in his memoir.
"You were angry?" I ask.
He looks at me with a placid expression. "I wanted to kill him. I wanted to get him out of the life of the family."
Mr. Dallaire recounts his stories and his feelings with a surprising dispassion, as if he had lived them so many times in his head that the re-telling is as boring as repeating what you ate for breakfast.
He understands his father now, he continues. "He was suffering massively from PTSD." And that memory may have influenced him to keep a distance from his own family when he returned from Africa – another aspect of his life that is not fully explained in the book. His sister-in-law, Christine, plays more of a role in the book than his wife of 40 years, Beth, now a UNICEF ambassador and advocate for family support centres.
"Christine had an uncanny ability to sit and listen without asking questions. Often your peer support doesn't easily come from close family because they're too close." Still, there has been a rapprochement with his family. The book is dedicated to his wife, three children and their offspring.
At the end of the memoir, he worries that readers, knowing how far he fell, will "hold me in contempt." Why? He looks at me with his calm, blue eyes. "I come from a sect that instills in you the sense that you command, you lead others, you are always to be an example to others."
His mission now – certainly in this book – is to be a leader for talking about mental trauma without shame. "There's a lot of people who have this injury and may not have been able to articulate it even to their family, so this might be useful," he says, emphasizing "the significance of the injury and that it needs to be treated – just like any other injury – and not left to fester in the closet in the hope it disappears."
But I wonder – does he ever think that while his injury is typical for many who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder, he may struggle a bit more because he is deeply interested in examining his entrails?
It is part of that romanticism I detect in him, that need to examine fully the horror and beauty of humanity. He argues, for example, that PTSD is a "moral injury that ravages our minds, our souls" after "repeated assaults on our most sacred and fundamental values and beliefs." And he tells a story about a Canadian platoon coming across a rape site in Rwanda, and how the soldiers jumped in, unprompted, to offer whatever comfort they could despite the fact that most could not be saved and infection with HIV and AIDS was a risk. "That is us," he writes. "It is a reflex we have."
To answer my question about his romantic imagination, he attempts an explanation.
When he was a boy, he played for hours, building fortresses with playing cards and placing little metal soldiers and Dinky Toys in the scene. And as an officer, "you have to imagine a lot. You have to imagine the enemy … So I think that imaginative side made me vulnerable [to trauma], but it also gave me an escape from it."
I think of something he said when he talked about the early light of a new day giving him hope after a tortured, sleepless night of nightmares. "It means darkness has been overcome," he said. "It means reinforcements are coming. You have a chance. The cavalry is coming over the hill."