PTSD – Overcoming my biggest demon

HolidayThis summer we had a family holiday abroad. As a family of four it was the first time we have gone on a package holiday to chase the sun in 6 years. Over that time we have been camping or stayed in holiday homes and the nearest we have got to leaving England was getting on a ferry and going to the Isle of Wight.

My eldest son, who is now 13, has been asking for years for us to go abroad. ‘All my friends go abroad, why do we have to go camping?’. I have to admit, we had tough days with him on our most recent holidays, tough in the sense of getting him to engage with what we were doing. All made worse because we weren’t abroad, I’m sure.

I said all the things you would expect a mum to say, ‘You may not think you’re enjoying it now, but you will look back at these holidays fondly one day’. That maybe true but really didn’t help in the moment. I also highlighted that he sounded very ungrateful because the fact is, staying in a luxury holiday home for a week on the Isle of Wight doesn’t cost that much less than a holiday abroad would. But, again, a difficult argument to understand when you’re 12.

The last time that we had been abroad, as the four of us, our youngest son was just 5 months old (he is now 7). A combination of PTSD symptoms, anxieties and maybe even postnatal hormones contributed to it being a real struggle for me. I had been nervous on previous holidays that we had had when it was the three of us but having my baby to be responsible for too made it worse.

Leading up to the holiday that year, I prepared myself to pack up and take my two children away to die. That is how I perceived holidays. I couldn’t see any positives. I genuinely didn’t get it. Why would people look forward to, be excited about or see a holiday as a good thing. To take your family away on holiday, to die, it just made no sense to me. I just couldn’t see past that thought and so would have no involvement in the arranging of the holiday or look forward to it in any way.

That said, I was fully aware how irrational those thoughts were but knowing it and believing it were two different things. My mind was telling me that the rational thoughts could no longer be proved, that my irrational thoughts had more weight to them and therefore overwhelmed any kind of logic. Even if I looked at facts it didn’t help. The main thing that I would focus on was the chance of a natural disaster happening. I would look at the world map of the tectonic plates to see what the chances of an earthquake would be. I would Google ‘natural disasters in….’ to see if any had happened before in that area. Any slight chance and I mean slight, would confirm that I was right to be thinking what I was thinking. When you have been so closely affected by an event, no facts or statistics can out-whey the chance that it could happen again. People would naturally say ‘nothing is going to happen’ or ‘the chances of that happening are very low’ but all I heard was ‘there is a chance, as small as it may be, that something could happen’ and I simply couldn’t argue, in my own mind, against that. I had seen how such a small chance could devastate lives and that memory was way stronger than the rational way in which I thought prior to that event.

I was the same leading up to our honeymoon but when we headed off to Croatia leaving our two children at home, as fate would have it, I was OK with that. We got married on the Saturday but didn’t leave until the Tuesday. Our wedding day did something quite remarkable. It counteracted my PTSD symptoms by showing me again that I could experience the opposite of trauma, I could feel weightless again and I deserved the feeling of happiness, love and contentment. And that stayed with me for a few months. When we went away I had those feelings and they were strong enough to allow me to be in the moment with my husband and actually enjoy the honeymoon.

It’s all about state of mind. What thoughts overpower others. The thoughts that shout the loudest are what you believe. For years, I fought them with all my strength but when you believe them and have an experience to back them up it is a battle that you can’t win and it’s exhausting.

The key to winning the battle is to retrain your mind. Learn to see them in a different light and from a different angle. As you start to see them differently you start to feel them differently too and then you begin to realise that your thoughts were controlling how you felt and actually, if you were thinking THAT it’s no wonder you were feeling like you did.

I still had some of the same thoughts as I did before, on my recent holiday but the difference is I’m OK with them now. I don’t try and fight them. I accept that they are the things that will always go through my mind.

I asked my eldest son, whilst we away if he knew why we hadn’t been abroad for so long. He thought it was his dad’s decision! I told him it was me and explained why. He remembered me showing him a blog I had written a while ago and so just said ‘That makes sense. So does that mean we’ll do this again?’ I nodded. That is one happy teenager!

**Don’t tell him but this week, after seeing the 9/11 posts on social media, for the first time ever, I want to go to New York. So, on Thursday I made myself say it out loud and said to my husband, ‘I want us to take the boys to New York’. I still get nervous that my positive thoughts towards travelling will pass but I hope that if I keep going with it it will become my way of thinking over time.

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My Mental Health First Aid Kit

There are so many things that we are already doing to support our mental health without even realising it.

Think about a first aid pack that you buy from the chemist, the type you may purchase to take away with you on holiday. Here is a list of what they may contain:

  • Plasters
  • Bandage and dressings
  • Safety pins
  • Tweezers
  • Antiseptic cream
  • Sting and bite ointment
  • Disposable gloves
  • Anti-bac wipes
  • Pain killers
  • Cough medicine
  • Upset tummy medicine
  • Distilled water

Most people would know how to use all of the above if needed. We all know how to put on a plaster and could even dress a wound and bandage it up in an emergency. These are all things that at some point we have needed to use either for ourselves or on others. We wouldn’t question ‘should I put a plaster on that cut?’ or ‘do I know how to put a plaster on’ we would instinctively know if a plaster is needed and open the packet and apply it to a cut without having to give it too much thought. However the effect that that plaster has, means that the wound will heal quickly and won’t get infected. This is simple physical self care that has come through the generations and we don’t question it.

What is most obvious to me is that at no point and during no generation has anyone said ‘I don’t use plasters, they’re only for weak people’. I know that this message is often highlighted and seems to have lost its strength from being overused, but it is absolutely true. In the wars and the traumatic events that have happened over the years, never did the first aid or medical support team say ‘You don’t need us. Toughen up and get on with it without us’. We are very accepting of any self care we can use to prevent us getting physically worse but when it comes to our mind, we wade through mud, getting deeper and deeper until we can go no further without reaching out for some support…why?

For me, even in my lowest and darkest times, I still found myself searching for answers. Now that I can look back at my symptoms I can see that I was doing many things that kept me going. I did have a self care first aid pack, I just didn’t realise it or have the strength or headspace to see it in that way or even see that Any of my actions were doing good. Without a diagnosis there’s no way to know what needs addressing and without knowing what needs to be addressed there could be no management plan. It’s the management plan that gives us some control back. It gives us a focus, a goal and something to aim for. Without a diagnosis, what do we aim for and how do we gage what is good for us and what isn’t.

If you look on the back of a box of plasters or any of the items listed in the first aid kit above you will see there is a long description. If a box of plasters can have a purpose that people trust and believe in then why can’t something as simple as ‘a hug’ have a purpose that is just as well understood. The positive things that we do in our life are so underrated. They have such a powerful affect on our state of mind but we seem to ignore it. Not saying we should celebrate every time we sing a happy song or eat some healthy food but what I find powerful is reflecting on what I’ve done that is good and realising what that means.

My first aid kit for my mental health:

  • Being with my family – This not only had a positive affect on my state of mind it also highlighted that I knew the importance of showing my children a happy homelife.
  • Exercising – not something that comes naturally to me but I always felt better for it and still do. Also helped me to trust and believe that was healthy and not going to die
  • Plan and prep an event – (short term) . enjoyed doing things for my children, birthday parties etc. Making memories.
  • Have coffee with a friend – I know that I’d not have got through my difficult years without this
  • Eat good food – My relationship with food has always been a rollercoaster. I do however know what foods are good for me and the effects eating bad food has on my mental state.
  • Buy new clothes – a new dress or shoes can make me feel much more confident out in the world
  • Walk the school run – can’t always do this but always feel better when I do
  • Hugs with my children – (lots of) to me, this is absolute proof that hugs are good for your mental health
  • Researching my feelings and emotions – I spent years reading about the ways that I felt, searching for answers
  • Always looking for a reason, a life that I wished I was living – I never gave up on finding a life that I deserved to live.

The song ‘Is this the way to Amarillo’ just came on the radio and so me and my son marched around the house, through every room, doing silly things like spinning on a chair as we past it or picking up a hat and putting it on. You can see that for what it is, a bit of fun, or you can take from it the following:

  • A break from gadgets
  • A burst of exercise
  • A memory that we will always remember
  • A release of endorphins which make you feel happier and less stressed
  • A reduction in the hormone cortisol which can reduce negative feelings
  • A bonding moment between me and my son
  • A confirmation to me that I’m in a good place today (there have been many days when I wouldn’t have had the emotional energy to do that)

So on days when my self esteem and confidence is low and I start to question whether I am coping, I try to break down the small things and take huge positives from them.

I still live with the scars of PTSD and always will but I also live in the knowledge that I have a first aid kit of my own that is there whenever I need it, free for me to dip into without even thinking about it…so why wouldn’t I?

You deserve the compassion you show to others

BikeI learn so much about emotions and mental health from my children from listening to what they say and observing their behaviour.

Just the other day, my 7 year old was out the front of our house, riding up and down the road on his bike, when my husband came out, got his bike out of the garage and said bye to us both before heading out for a bike ride. He cycles regularly and so often goes out for a few hours at a time. As he headed out of sight my son said ‘Mum, it’s sad when you leave people’ to which I responded ‘do you feel sad that dad has gone out?’ ‘Yeah’ he replied and then cycled off up the path shouting out ‘watch me go one handed!’

There were a couple of things that I took from that. One, he recognised that he felt sad and recognised why. I could hear a slight wobble in his voice when he said it. My husband had worked from home that day so had been around him ever since he’d got home from school. It was about 6.45pm when he left to go out for his bike ride so my son obviously felt the pull of him leaving. Two, he said it out loud and then instantly moved on. I like to think that if he continues to recognise how he feels and why and then acknowledges it and accepts that it is ok to feel that way that he will then be able to air those feelings when he needs to and move on from them, back to where he was at that moment. I guess that’s what mindfulness is, right?

My 7 year old son has very little baggage so I guess that’s why he is able to feel an emotion, accept it and move past it quite quickly. If I think of that scenario in my world, if I’m really honest with myself, each time my husband goes out for a bike ride I have a whole host of experiences and history that I pull out of the bag and that get added on to my thoughts. I don’t just think ‘it’s sad when people leave’, added to mine are the following:

Is that the last time I will say goodbye to him?

Will he come home?

Will he get hurt?

If he gets hurt will he recover?

How will I cope if he never comes home again?

What about my boys?

How will they cope?

Could I survive losing someone else?

Nobody is indestructible

Please be ok and get home safely

A couple of years ago I would’ve tried to fight all those additional thoughts. I would have tried not to think them, because I felt that I shouldn’t think that way. ‘It’s not normal to think like that. You can’t live the rest of your life thinking that way. The chances are he’ll be fine and nothing will happen’ But, all that did was made me feel worse. My physical symptoms added to the thoughts created anxiety and so I would be fighting against my own thoughts, fighting against my own thoughts. I feel exhausted just writing about it.

I am so lucky to have come through the worst of it and not be like that anymore. The difference is actually very subtle but the impact on me is life changing.

I still think all of the above. Not all of them every single time I say goodbye to someone but depending on the scenario and depending on who it is, all of those thoughts are still there. Of course they are still there. I doubt there are many who have experienced a sudden loss who would not have those thoughts connected to the last time they said goodbye to that person. I challenge anyone who would suggest that I should get rid of those thoughts. How could I? How could someone possibly get rid of them and forget that last moment that they saw someone who was then taken away. The difference now though, is that I’m ok with thinking those thoughts. I am at peace with it. I don’t fight it anymore, I accept that because of who I am I will always think that way but it’s ok. In fact it is perfectly acceptable to think like that given that I have lived it. My alternative option would be to simply not think about my past experience and how it affected my life. To not think of it at all I would need to not care. In other words the alternative would be to think ‘oh yeah, that reminds me of when I said my last goodbye to someone.. I don’t even really remember it because it didn’t bother me that I never saw them again’. I know that I will never think that so I have learnt to show myself some compassion and be kind to myself instead of trying to be what ‘they’ say I should be.

My mental health is everything that I have experienced. Not just the negative but the positive too. I believe that it is because of the positive experiences that have influenced my life that I have been able to eventually deal with the negatives and it is only because of who I am at my core that caused me to walk the difficult path for so long. That proves to me that my heart is good and without it I wouldn’t be the person I am.

Looking back at my PTSD recovery

Building a house

It’s been a long road but I finally feel I’m through the worst. Getting to this point has been like completing a journey that I didn’t know I was taking. I can now look back and articulate it as something that I achieved and did myself but at the time I had no idea that that was what I was doing.

Just 4 weeks after the loss of my partner I discovered that I was pregnant so for me my bereavement was put on hold. I was quite aware of what I was doing and I actually felt like I was in control of it. To me, at that time, I had no other choice. Not only psychologically but also physically. My body forced me not to process it all at once. Plus, I had an unborn baby to think about. That was my priority over anything else. It’s not that I thought I had to put me second, that wasn’t a conscious process, I just knew I had to put him first.

Life then just took over. I looked for openings as to when I could take the next steps but they just never happened. It’s impossible to just stop life from carrying on, certainly not in the sense of being able to give me the time and space to purely focus on one thing.

Life’s milestones would come and go and sometimes things would make me feel like I had progressed naturally but they were false alarms. They were part of the bigger picture but they weren’t enough to make a difference on their own.

Unfortunately I had to go down further before I got the calling that I needed to make my efforts count. And even when I started to process my symptoms it was a very gradual process. But it was a process that worked and now I can see how powerful it was.

It is such a shame that you can’t see where it is that you’re heading. Even when told where you are heading to, it is only when you experience it that it makes sense. I don’t know what made me able to come through such a deep routed trauma. I don’t know what made it work when it did or why it didn’t the numerous times that I’d tried before. It has to be the right approach, at the right time, at the right speed. Everything has to sync at the same point even though it all happens gradually.

To me it’s like the process of building a house. You need the land, then the plan, the materials, all the different skills from a variety of people, plumber, electricians etc. Once the foundations are dug then the build can start and for many of the processes certain ones have to completed before the next one starts. Once the house is built, then comes finding the fixtures and fittings and then the decoration. But without all the previous steps being complete there would be no room to paint or to put a sofa in with your favourite cushion on.

All of those steps would be very difficult for one person to complete alone with no guidance, help or support from others. It was the same for me, overcoming PTSD. Without all of the components I wouldn’t have got through. The main work and the effort was done by me, without a doubt but it was only possible whilst being held up and supported by others.

I always felt that there was a significant moment ahead when I would be able to do good with what I had experienced. The knocks along the way we’re difficult to accept at times and I had got to the point where I thought I needed to simply accept that where I had got to was that significant moment. I felt that I had tried everything but couldn’t get through any further. To be honest, even at that point I had done amazingly well to get there. But I was still really suffering. I had daily struggles and demons that wouldn’t go away which were weighing me down.

As I write this my sights are on the future and not on the past for the first time in over 13 years and I am excited as to what it holds for me and my family.

 

Anxieties – small steps, big changes

I’ve struggled this week to find an area to blog about. Up until now they’ve just come naturally depending on what’s been going on or conversations that I’ve had.

I think it’s because this week has been focused more on helping others, which is where I hope the focus will be more and more. A few people have reached out to me to talk about ways in which they feel and struggle with anxieties and panic attacks.

I experienced and lived with them for many years and so know just how they feel. You live in fear because a good moment, a good day, a good week can be ruined in a flash. You can be feeling fine, going about your day, not giving your negativities any of your time and suddenly a physical symptom will start. Mine were always based around the fear of dying or more specifically a heart attack. Sometimes the pain would start in my chest, sometimes my left arm, sometimes my neck. My first instinct would be to tell myself it was my anxieties but the longer it stayed and the more time I had to think about it the worse I would feel.

Imagine the scenario – you’re in a safe place, with people who make you feel comfortable, having a nice time, living in the moment, you feel good and then your body suddenly throws you into a place of fearing for your life….it’s brutal.

At first you tell yourself it’s ok and it will pass but as it progresses you think about where you are and who you’re with to try and find a reason for this fight or flight reaction that your body has thrown you into. How can you make sense of it when you’re not being threatened by anything and as far as you are aware you are perfectly safe.

It’s those moments that can talk you into making future decisions based on the experience. When asked if you’d like to go to that same place or be with the same people you’ll relate that feeling to that scenario and to try and protect yourself decline the offer. This is how your world starts to become smaller. I did this. My safe bubble started off being where I was in that moment. This meant that most of the people that I had around me day to day were in it. But that was 14 years ago. People move on. I’ve moved on. And with that my safe bubble had fewer people and places in it by the time I hit rock bottom. I pushed out people who no longer made me feel safe and those of whom I felt didn’t have time for who I then was. Understandably people pulled away from me. The new people who came in, in particular, my husband, got to know me with my symptoms. The people I learnt to trust got to know me how I was and so I let very few people in. I dreaded meeting new people and withdrew myself from social engagements and was unable to proactively get involved in social circles. So gradually people moved out of my safe bubble and very few were being brought in so my world just got smaller.

What I’ve learnt this week is that by listening to the person who is talking and then tailoring my scenario to theirs they can see that they’re not alone and it allows them to look in detail as to what they can do to help themselves. If you get it right, small changes, processes or ideas can make a massive difference to your state of mind. These small changes enable a little space to be freed up in your head. Each time you do that a little bit of positive can ease its way in, gradually clearing the way to enable you to start looking forward.

PTSD symptoms – an invisible weight

I often reflect back at the person I was before the event and compare her to the person after. I have to say it’s really difficult to see much difference as crazy as that sounds, even though I am fully aware that I have experienced a whole array of different emotions both positive and negative and lived for so long with numerous symptoms of PTSD since then. Recognising a difference tends to happen when I go through something that is the polar opposite of where I’ve been stuck for so long. It highlights the change in me.

My wedding day was without a doubt the best day of my life. It was extra special to me because it reminded me, 8 years on, what the opposite of traumatic felt like. It reminded me what happiness felt like, that I was able to experience happiness as a feeling and that I was allowed to feel it. It reminded me that I was allowed to be free of the weight of negativity. I had no idea at that time that I was living with PTSD.

Last week I got my summer clothes out from being packed away for the winter. Each year I go through them deciding what to keep and what to give to charity. I tried a few things on to check if I still liked them and whilst doing so I realised that the way I felt in those clothes was very different this year to how it was last year. Last year I was still dragging around my anxieties and self doubt and so with a lack of confidence I had a negative spin on most things related to me. My appearance was something I battled with constantly. Always wanting to be thinner, fitter, prettier and more liked. The energy was all being focused on the me on the outside because focusing on the inside was too daunting. When I looked in the mirror this year, don’t get me wrong I didn’t suddenly see me as slim and fit, but instead I saw the whole me which I can now see is great in so many ways.

It’s bizarre because my focus for many years has been on what the scales show when I stand on then but actually the weight I should have been trying to reduce was the weight I had in my mind. If what I was carrying could have been calculated into something tangible over the last year I would have seen my weight reduce week by week. If that had been the case people would have been asking if I’d lost weight. They would have noticed it physically and my clothes would have started to get too big.

Change in our minds is not something that people necessarily notice, recognise or potentially ever mention. People need to accept that the change is real and to the individual is just as rewarding and gives you as much pride as losing weight does. If I lost weight it would be noticeable and I would not only feel proud of myself for doing it I would receive comments, which would recharge the belief that I had succeeded.

I’ve done a lot of inward dances instead, celebrating those moments when I realise I’ve come so far. But that’s all I’ve felt I can do, celebrate on my own. To tell someone in the hope that they will celebrate with me would mean explaining too much, so I don’t bother. Processing, accepting and shedding the weight that I have carried around with me for 13 years is just as big an achievement but because it doesn’t show, it’s only me that can fully appreciate it and understand how much I’ve lost.

Not only is it a lonely existence living with Mental illness the recovery is lonely too.

As I start to come through my recovery I am beginning to consciously see the changes in me. Some remind me of the me before my life changed which is refreshing however I will never be that person again. I can’t expect to be the same when I have been through so much.

Maybe, what people will notice will be the ways that I am now able to change on the outside. Not because I focus on them in a negative way but because I’m channeling my energy on me as a whole. That care will inevitably support what’s on the surface as much as what’s in my heart.

Having an allergy to emotions

For many years, I was unable to talk about the emotions related to the traumatic event that had affected my life. I could talk about the events that surrounded it but in a very non-emotional way. Very matter of fact. It was my way of avoiding actually processing how it had damaged me emotionally. It allowed me to talk about it when I needed to and actually helped to make other people feel comfortable when talking to me about what had happened.

Now that I understand what a healthy mind should look like I realise that being fully in control of your wellbeing is a step in the right direction to accepting who you are. I had my own torments in regards to how I was living day to day and had no control over the anxieties attached to the symptoms.

I’ve realised that although I lived with struggles, anxieties and symptoms of PTSD for many years, when it came to processing them, I was able to recognise my feelings and emotions and so able to articulate the way I was feeling to my therapist and therefore give her the information that she needed to help me to retrain the way I was thinking and over time, recover. When I came out the other side of my trauma, I wanted to share that feeling and all the knowledge that I then had in regards to facing your feelings with everyone. The amazing feeling of freedom and lightness that I was experiencing again, I wanted everyone to feel that way and so thought that the same would work for all. But one size doesn’t fit all…

Some people aren’t able to recognise their emotions and so unable to articulate them. This traps them in a world of negativity and low self esteem. I had no idea that this was possible but the more I have learnt about myself and mental health, the more I have come to understand that many people are unable to connect to others emotions or their own.

‘Talk about your feelings’ – this is often at the top of any list that talks about how to look after your mental health. It’s a very important message but only works for those who are able to articulate their emotions.

For some, emotions are something that is seperate to them, rather like having an allergy. Imagine that you are intolerant or allergic to the one food that is recommended to you to significantly improve physical symptoms that you have.

Example:

You’re allergic to bananas and this is the constant advice that you are given or read about:

‘Just eat bananas. If you eat bananas every day you will be cured of your illness and life will be so much better’ (‘just talk about your emotions. If you talk about how you’re feeling you will start to feel much better’)

‘I’ve had those symptoms but I started eating bananas and they went away’ (I’ve been where you are but once I started to talk about how I was feeling the dark thoughts went away’)

‘It’s important that you eat bananas’ (‘It’s important that you talk about how you feel’)

‘If you don’t feel you can eat bananas with me, think about reaching out to a professional so you can eat bananas with them’ (If you can’t talk to me why don’t you get some counselling/therapy so they can help you’)

It sounds like such an easy suggestion ‘You just need to talk to someone about how you’re feeling’ but for some, that is impossible. No matter what advice you’re given, even though it is given with the right intention, unfortunately it is useless.

Likewise, if we were told what a banana tasted like, having never eaten one before, no matter how detailed the explanation was you would still not know what you were missing out on. So, if you’re not familiar with what emotions feel like, how can you understand what you are missing out on?

I understand what it feels like to park your emotions but fortunately for me, before the trauma I was emotionally aware and realise now that I have always been lead by them. I had to lock them away for a while (a very long while). I put up a wall of defences to protect myself from the pain of dealing with them all at once. My reason for doing this was very clear to me. So actually, being who I am enabled me to eventually process them and come out the other side. For some, they don’t have them to look back on and refer to. It makes me feel blessed that I had the tools to knock my defences down but I am learning that not everyone has that luxury.