'I was nearly murdered 5 years ago today’: how running helped me overcome a traumatic attack

Friday, 12th February 2021, 4:31 pm
Updated Friday, 12th February 2021, 4:54 pm
Hewitt's book Outrunning The Demons tells of his battle back to health

by Phil Hewitt

Exactly five years ago today I was nearly murdered.

Which is, of course, a stupid thing to say. You are either murdered or you aren’t. There is nothing in between.

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Except… that’s exactly how it feels. A part of me died that day – and if things had been just a little bit different, the rest of me would have probably followed, departing this life in a pool of blood in an ugly Cape Town suburb.

February 14 was a Sunday in 2016, just as it is a Sunday today – the day I nearly became my very own St Valentine’s Day massacre, a day that never leaves me.

Which is understandable really. If you are lucky enough to survive a knifing, it’s precisely the kind of experience which will stay with you forever. Because of it, I now know exactly how it feels to lie on a pavement, incapable of moving, thinking that my next couple of minutes might very well be my last. And I know it because I feel it now, almost every waking moment.

My vision was starting to fade and my consciousness was starting to slip away. The horrible thing is that my mind is still in that moment.

There was a lot of blood. I couldn’t stand. I desperately needed help – and there was nothing I could do to make that help happen. Stabbed, punched, kicked, fading – and utterly helpless. And you don’t move on from that.

‘It has never been a day I have wished hadn’t happened’

Inevitably it still governs my life. My daily task is to block out the overwhelming intrusiveness of a horror which refuses to become my past. It is present. It is here. It is right now. But today, February 14, isn’t just another day. Today feels particularly significant. The fifth anniversary.

As a journalist, I have always loved writing about anniversaries. They are almost always positive, happy stories. They are stories about the way we evaluate an achievement and celebrate its longevity.

Which is precisely what I would like to do with my own anniversary, a rather grimmer one. I want to try to understand why the day I was mugged, stabbed and left for dead in a bloodied heap has never been a day I have wished hadn’t happened.

The old John Lennon song goes “You don't know what you got until you lose it.” Thank goodness, I didn’t lose it. But I have certainly learnt to cherish it. Life has been difficult these past five years, at times horribly difficult; but it has also been immeasurably the richer.

What happened that day is a tale I have told in my book Outrunning The Demons (Bloomsbury, 2019) – the tale of how a gorgeous day watching England lose a cricket game in Cape Town so nearly went so disastrously wrong when I made stupid decision after stupid decision after leaving the ground – and ended up, an expensive camera around my neck, in one of the city’s most dangerous suburbs.

Running back to health

In Outrunning The Demons (available to buy on Amazon), I tell of my own battle back to health through running. I also tell the stories of 34 other runners from around the world who have been to hell and discovered that the surest, safest, quickest way back is to run.

I am convinced that running absolutely unpicks trauma; it directly addresses the fixation-in-the-moment of trauma, the powerlessness of trauma, the isolation of trauma, the sheer sleeplessness of trauma. But I still fear that one day I will overhear someone say: “Poor old Phil, he was never quite the same after Cape Town, you know.”

The trouble is that they would be right. In many ways, the whole experience has changed me for the worse. But in my saner moments, I know that all the negatives are vastly outweighed by the greater appreciation of life which you get from nearly losing it.

The years flash by. School, university, job, mortgage, children, children’s university etc etc. There is an increasing feeling that the short time we are on this planet is accelerating uncontrollably, never giving you a chance to think – amid our non-stop daily routines – what it is all about.

And then someone sticks a knife in you twice, kicks your ribs in and runs off with your camera. 18 stitches, three broken ribs and a messed-up head. It’s not the nicest wake-up call, but it’s a wake-up call nonetheless.

As a result, I am insanely, exhaustingly, embarrassingly jumpy. In the olden days, when we used to eat out, if the waiter or waitress came up behind me, I would leap a mile. When they placed food on the table, I would watch them do so and then jump out of my skin when plate touched table.

At home, I am even worse – and I fear lockdown is exacerbating it. My wife brings me a cup of tea and I react as if she has run at me with a machete. It’s knackering (and boring) for the both of us. And talking of knives, I will shudder at the sight of one when I am not expecting it. I am left unnerved. Even more annoyingly, I know I have lost the instant recall of names I used to have (PTSD does that, I guess).

Recently on the seafront I bumped into a former colleague I hadn’t seen for three years. She was chatting away. Shamefacedly, I had to admit that yes, of course, I recognised her, but I hadn’t a clue where from. We’d sat back to back in the office for two years, she very gently, sweetly reminded me. OK, that’s an extreme example, but it’s that “out of context” element that throws me time and time again.

In many ways, the attack has simply worsened characteristics that were already there. The knifing (well, at least I like to blame the knifing) has left me with a total and disgraceful loathing for bureaucracy and an ability to take seriously the things I don’t think matter. I dislike the rudeness of my attitude… but the new me likes even more scrawling across a form that I think is asking the wrong questions.

Elsewhere, my mind wanders shamelessly. A good friend of mine often appears not to be listening and yet can chuck it all back at you with verbatim recall. I appear to be listening but haven’t heard a thing – and believe me, that’s the worse way round. Again, there is a rudeness there that I dislike.

Also odd: rather like Harry in When Harry Met Sally who always reads the first page of a book first just in case he doesn’t reach the end, I will often look up the ending of a film… and only then can I fully enjoy it.

Worse, and I swear this never used to happen, it’s surprising how often… ahem… a piece of grit will creep into my eye at the end of a sentimental old weepie or even a trashy romcom.Yes, as L P Hartley might well have said (and was probably glad he didn’t), the traumatised mind is a foreign country: they do things differently there.

But I can live with that – and I am happy to live with it for all the good things that happen precisely because the emotion of my moment is always so much nearer the surface. It’s the way I am these days. It’s by far the better way to be: no longer outside looking in, but always right in the thick of it. And because of that, it seems to me my appreciation of everything runs so much deeper now.

Appreciating the people closest

Our son Adam was a second-year medic when I was stabbed; our daughter Laura was just applying for medical school. Adam qualified in 2019 and spent a huge chunk of last year on A&E in his first full year as a doctor. Laura has just started her finals.

I am hugely proud of them both. Insanely proud. And obviously I would have been proud even if I hadn’t been stabbed. But I can’t help feeling that my ordeal has helped me understand so much more the immensity and the brilliance of this great thing that Adam and Laura are doing. Their achievements are enormous: I always knew that. But now they are in technicolor.

And my wife Fiona. My goodness, what she has gone through. Living with a twitchy, distracted, mega-jumpy, inattentive old git, someone who at times has been frankly absent, must be quite a few notches off the top of the scale of our marriage vows. And yet she has managed everything with love and with grace. It has been humbling.

And that seems to me to be the point to cling to: if something happens that makes you appreciate those closest to you all the more, then how can you possibly say it’s a bad thing?As for old friends. I am not sure I have ever enjoyed their company more (when we can, of course). The fact that you know them so well, the fact you can predict them and then get them wrong, that’s the sheer pleasure of those bonds that go back years. Those bonds have never felt warmer.

My stabbing has made me dismissive of the things that I don’t think matter; but I would rather look at it the other way round: it has made me all the more thankful for the things that do.Oddly, it’s all summed up in the bigger of the two scars on my leg – a scar that stings almost all the time. I am sure I could do something about it. There must be some treatment. But I don’t want it.

The scar is uncomfortable – but it tells me something crucial all day every day. It tells me that yes, I might be a bit bonkers, but so what. My scar tells me that I am still alive.

As the hubby says at the end of Brief Encounter: “You've been a long way away. Thank you for coming back to me.” I might just say the same to myself.

My sleep is abysmal. But there again, there’s a rich and rather wonderful bonus. I can only ever properly get to sleep once our cat deigns to jump onto our bed. And then everything is alright. The sound of purring in the darkness is the most comforting, calming, healing, soothing sound in the world. I will always enjoy it all the more for waiting.

And that’s all part and parcel of the new me. No, poor old Phil was “never the same again.” But he is twitchily, jumpily OK. In fact, he’s doing fine…

Outrunning The Demons was published by Bloomsbury in 2019 and is available from Amazon.