Ingeborg van Teeseling

“This Is Your Life Now”: Former Hostages Explain How They Endured Isolation

(Photo by Jr Korpa on Unsplash)

Terry Waite and John McCarthy were hostages subject to confinement and dehumanizing barbarity. While our situation is nowhere near that, their coping strategies can make it a little easier.


On 18 November 1991, Terry Waite, then the Special Envoy for the Archbishop of Canterbury, landed on an RAF base in the south of England. For 1,763 days, he had been a hostage, chained to one wall or another. He had been tortured, subjected to pseudo-executions, lived through hunger and thirst. He had also been in solitary confinement for most of that time.

Three months before his plane touched down, another hostage, journalist John McCarthy, had also stepped on the tarmac after years of imprisonment in Lebanon. He too had been locked up for more than five years.

Of course, their experiences with isolation are vastly different from ours. We can look out the window, go outside for some exercise, we are not being starved. More to the point: we have choices.

Nevertheless, as Terry Waite recently told the BBC, “from extreme situations you can take something that is applicable to normal life,” and even to life under COVID-19. Because these are our questions, as they were theirs: “How am I going to utilize this time?” and “How am I going to live through this, more or less intact?” So, maybe it would be a good idea to listen to how they navigated their situation.

The first tool they recommend is acceptance: “Remember one thing: this is your life NOW. Not yesterday, not tomorrow, now. And in this moment, don’t be defeated,” as Terry Waite said. And John McCarthy agreed: “Fighting your situation takes up too much of your limited mental and physical resources. You can’t afford that, so you have to start with what you’ve got.”

That doesn’t mean, though, that your mind has to be confined. In fact, both men told me years ago that they were saved by their imaginations. Waite wrote his first book in his head, coming up with sentences, then paragraphs, then whole pages. He had to remember everything, because there was no paper, but after he was released most of it was still there, fully formed during those days and weeks and months.

Art helped too: reciting poems, stories that he had read: “Something that you can draw on, something that will fill out your life. Art is good at doing that.”

In the meantime, he walked. In his head, obviously, but nevertheless, he walked. “Through the village I grew up in. I stopped to greet people, talk to them, hear their gossip. It was all very real, and the only way to see the sky, feel the wind.”

McCarthy too, escaped his dungeons through the power of imagination. Every Sunday, his mind left his cell and had dinner with his parents; spoke to them, enjoyed lovely food. It kept him going.


When John McCarthy was released after 1,943 days, he was met by a psychiatrist who told him to take his time. “It will take you as long to get over it as you have been locked up,he said, and that turned out to be right.


For Waite, the most difficult part of his experience was the time after his incarceration: “It felt like I had the psychological variant of decompression sickness: the faster I tried to get back to some sort of normality, the worse I felt. After years of living without color, a dish of cherries blinded me. When somebody opened a door, I startled. And I couldn’t eat in public anymore. I had grown used to the inside of my own head, but now I was confronted with the world again, and I couldn’t handle it. It took me a long time to become one whole person again. And the only way to do it, was to realize that this was part of me now. Ignoring it, pretending it hadn’t happened, gave no relief at all. So I have learned to listen to what it has taught me, about myself and the world.”

When John McCarthy was released after 1,943 days, he was met by a psychiatrist who told him to take his time. “‘It will take you as long to get over it as you have been locked up,’ he said, and that turned out to be right. What also helped was to use my experience for good. In that prison cell, I had become naked to myself, incapable of lying. I had realized that there is no way around feelings, that you have to go right through them and look them in the eye. Talking about them with others who know heals you. In my case, those were other victims of torture and imprisonment. I belong to that brotherhood, that community. And community is the most important thing.”

Of course, Terry Waite and John McCarthy’s experiences are extreme. For us, there will be less trauma, and we can share it with more people. The world, in fact. But like them, we will probably come out of this experience changed. If not naked to ourselves, then with fewer clothes on than before. Both Waite and McCarthy have used the rest of their lives to make the world a better place.

McCarthy is a patron of Freedom from Torture and an activist on a number of issues. Waite is the co-founder of Y-care International, an international development and relief agency. He is a patron of Storybook Dads, an organization that records prisoners reading bedtime stories to their children. And in 2012, he did the unthinkable and flew to Beirut to reconcile himself with his captors.

Maybe, after this is all over, we can all do a little more.


Ingeborg van Teeseling

After migrating to Australia from Holland ten years ago and being warned by the Immigration Department against doing her job as a journalist, Ingeborg van Teeseling became a historian instead. She is writing a book and runs Lifebooks, telling people's life stories.

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