SYDNEY, N.S. — Phonse Jessome is finally where he wants to be in his career but it’s been a rough road getting there.
Best known as a hard-working television and radio reporter usually found at crime, war or disaster scenes, the toll of covering such heartbreaking stories hit the 56-year-old hard, leading to two separate diagnoses of complex post-traumatic stress disorder (CPTSD). The first, in 2007, he ignored but the second in 2014 made sure he paid attention by turning his life upside down.
Jessome was working the early morning shift at CBC Halifax on that fateful day in 2014. He was at Halifax Stanfield Airport after the near-crash of a plane. There were no deaths but many were left shaken by the experience. For the Whitney Pier native, it was supposed to be just another busy morning.
But this time, it would be different.
For the first time, he was unable to finish what he needed to do. For a reporter who had lived his life successfully meeting endless deadlines, it was an odd, out-of-character experience.
“I had more than enough interviews, but what I didn’t have was video — I didn’t have good video of them standing together or sorting through luggage or doing anything other than talking into the camera, really, so I needed enough video to cover a two-minute report. I looked at the camera and it looked at me and said ‘no.’
“I couldn’t pick it up. I didn’t understand it. I never felt that before in my life. I couldn’t pick up the camera to get my shots which were nothing shots.”
Jessome had been previously diagnosed with PTSD in 2007 but he ignored the diagnosis. He didn’t tell anyone about it and admittedly worked even harder as a reporter doing the tough stories so he could prove the doctor wrong.
But that wouldn’t happen this time.
When he went to work the next morning as a fill-in host on Information Morning, he knew he needed help.
“I didn’t know who to talk to about it or what to do about it — it didn’t affect me hosting the show but I knew I wasn’t myself,” he said. “I had to hide my hands because they were shaking so badly. Someone mentioned it once before because that was one of my symptoms for the past seven years and I would say ‘not enough caffeine yet this morning ‘or ‘too much caffeine’ — it depended on whether those people had seen me drinking coffee or not. Those were my patented excuses for my shaking hands doing something I had done for 34 years so it wasn’t like I was sitting there nervous.”
'You're not going back in'
He left early and made a doctor’s appointment. The doctor told him his career as a journalist was finished.
“He said ‘you’re done — you’re not going back in,’” Jessome recalls. “He took control. I fought him all that summer to get back. but he wouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
Jessome hasn’t been back reporting since, but, true to form, he hasn’t been taking it easy either.
Although his career had taken him to war zones in Bosnia and hurricane disaster areas in the Caribbean, Jessome also covered the Swissair crash back in 1998 and may be best known for his work covering the triple murders at the former Sydney River McDonald’s back in 1992. As a result of that, he wrote the bestselling book, “Murder at McDonald’s: The Killers Next Door.”
It was a book that he was hesitant to write at the time, because, although he always wanted to be an author, he didn’t want to get pigeonholed as a lurid true crime writer. Along the way, he also wrote, “Somebody’s Daughter: Inside an International Prostitution Ring.”
He's returned to his first love of writing books. He’s wanted to write noir fiction ever since he was a 10-year-old reading Mickey Spillane novels purchased from the local five and dime. These days, he’s working on a series of crime fiction novels with the first one, “Disposable Souls,” already published to glowing reviews.
“The Globe and Mail called me one of Canada’s hottest new crime writers to watch, so I was pretty stoked on that.”
While “Disposable Souls” is available in Canada, Jessome hopes to eventually achieve a multi-nation deal, which should become easier to get once he completes a second book since series are more in demand than single one-off books.
Writing is part of Jessome’s therapy. Some of it he has to complete in a doctor’s office, especially if it goes into areas too deep to be explored safely on his own.
“The diagnosis is actually CPTSD which is complex post-traumatic stress disorder due to prolonged, repeated exposure to trauma over a 34-year period — it all added up — no one story caused it.
“I was full.”
Journalism is one of the top three professions for PTSD since journalists are rarely given time to digest what they have been exposed to.
“If you don’t properly process it, and this is true of all first responders, it doesn’t go away. It stays and then eventually someday, it’s ready to boil over, and something triggers it.”
Just about anything can trigger an attack, but the triggers are different for everyone.
“Smells are bad for me, I have a lot of triggers, given the number of stories over a period of time, but I find the smells to be the worst because I end up with the dry heaves and you can’t throw up something that hasn’t been eaten but you shake and you sweat and it’s very real. It’s not like memory, you’re not remembering the event, you’re reliving it. It’s a huge difference between a memory and reliving. I always thought PTSD was a disease about the memory but it’s not. Because the subconscious mind has not processed that trauma but has been exposed to it, it continually reprocesses it, attempting to reach its conclusion but there is no conclusion because you didn’t give it time to get one.”
Not surprisingly, the main character in “Disposable Souls” also suffers from CPTSD, yet continues to live, work and solve crimes. It’s part of what makes the book succeed and appealing to those who read crime fiction.
“I call on real experience,” says Jessome, who extensively researches his Halifax-based books. “I worked hard to keep it accurate and it’s an accurate reflection of Halifax today and the crime problems it has.”
Jessome will be at this fall’s Cabot Trail Writer’s Festival. He’s not sure yet what role he’ll play but says he’s looking forward to attending a book-related event at home.
“All I have to do now is write another one which is proving harder than I thought. Because of PTSD, the keyboard triggers me. And when you think about it everything we do ends at the keyboard. So I’m having a hard time sitting down and writing.”
But he’s confident he’ll get it written eventually.
“There’s got to be a functional level beyond what I’m living today that I can get to and I say that I’m a promising candidate. My attitude is right — I should be able to recover considerable ground.”
OCCUPATION: Writer, award-winning journalist
BIRTHPLACE: Whitney Pier
FAMILY: Wife and two grown children