5 Lessons From a Trauma Survivor

Your biggest enemy will be your desire to reinstate normal life.

John Walter 🌍Mar 30 · 8 min read First published in Invisible Illness on Medium

Photo by NRKbeta on Unsplash

To varying degrees, as a result of Covid-19, everyone on the planet is joining this previously elite club.

Trauma survivors.

Apart from the physical, economic, cultural and social damage, there will be an enormous impact on the mental health of everyone from survivors and the medical professionals to those who found their livelihood evaporate overnight.

Those in abusive relationships will have the trauma complicated by the undesirable imprisonment with their abuser.

Children sold the story that steady progression through the education system is the only way to achieve a meaningful life will find themselves swimming in currents that no one had warned them about and for which they are ill-prepared.

Grief will become commonplace.

There will be a massive spike in those exhibiting the symptoms of PTSD

The main symptoms of PTSD are:

Re-living the traumatic event through distressing, unwanted memories, vivid nightmares and/or flashbacks. This can also include feeling very upset or having intense physical reactions such as heart palpitations or being unable to breathe when reminded of the traumatic event.

Avoiding reminders of the traumatic event, including activities, places, people, thoughts or feelings that bring back memories of the trauma.

Negative thoughts and feelings such as fear, anger, guilt, or feeling flat or numb a lot of the time. A person might blame themselves or others for what happened during or after the traumatic event, feel cut-off from friends and family, or lose interest in day-to-day activities.

Feeling wound-up. This might mean having trouble sleeping or concentrating, feeling angry or irritable, taking risks, being easily startled, and/or being constantly on the lookout for danger.

It is not unusual for people with PTSD to experience other mental health problems as well, like depression or anxiety. Some people may develop a habit of using alcohol or drugs as a way of coping.

[Pheonix Australia]

Lesson 1. Nothing will ever be the same again.

I have had two major traumas in the past five years.

A brain tumour administered the first. It knocked out all of the hearing in one ear overnight, caused me to lose my balance necessitating walking with a stick and gave me several months of facial pain, anxiety and depression.

After four weeks of sick leave, I tried to go back to my job as a music teacher.

I wish someone had told me that nothing would ever be the same again. I wasted enormous amounts of energy, trying to get my life back to normal. I went to countless meetings, we agreed a phased return to work and carried out an assessment of fitness for work all because I wanted life to be normal again.

The moment I walked back into that school, I intuitively knew that I was no longer capable or interested in being a teacher. Walking into a crowded classroom was a terrifying experience. I could no longer tell the direction in which sound was coming. I had no depth of sound field, so the voice of the child in front of me was drowned out by all the other voices in the room. In a music classroom, I was overwhelmed with a cacophony and unable to use my hearing to focus on one sound to the exclusion of others.

My mind drove me on. “You should be able to do this! You have to earn a living. There are plenty of deaf teachers. You are only deaf in one ear.”

After two trial lessons, I gave up. Thanks to a wonderful boss, I was given a part-time job in a quiet office with no further contact with children.

The lesson is – look at what you want to be doing with your life anew. If you have lost your job, are you going to bust a gut to get back into the same line of work or could you step into something more challenging or fulfilling or more suited to your current situation?

If your relationship came under strain during this period, are you going to soldier on with it or use this opportunity to move to something new?

If your business collapsed will you automatically look for support to rebuild it or will you step sideways into something more relevant to the times?

Acknowledge the grief.

When I look back at those weeks struggling with the loss of my hearing and my livelihood, I can now see it as circumstances allowing me to make changes in my life that were well overdue.

Can you grasp the awful circumstances of a pandemic and see a personal opportunity for growth opening up?

Lesson 2. You will find yourself responding to events in a way that seems out of your control

My Second Trauma was in July 2018 when my beautiful, extraordinary daughter Holly took her own life. It was entirely out of the blue, she seemed to have everything she needed in life, but in a shockingly short period, her mental health deteriorated and became fatal.

Holly

In a short article, I can’t possibly express all the feelings that I have been wading around in since that time. What I do know is that my body can suddenly start shaking for no apparent reason. My mind will sometimes become triggered, and I can no longer hear a word anyone is saying. I have had cramps in both legs and disconcerting dizzy spells.

I accept them now as a result of trauma. I don’t try to medicate or expect them to go away. I accept I have suffered trauma, and I will always have reactions to some events, and I will not always know why.

https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg22429941-200-the-lifelong-cost-of-burying-our-traumatic-experiences/

The lesson here is not to try burying your traumatic experience. After WW2 many in my parents’ generation tried to live their life without referring to the awful events in their youth. It is not a good idea. Your body will remember if your mind tries to block it out.

Learn to listen to your body. It is telling you that there is unexpressed emotion stored up. There is nothing wrong with you. It is not something you need to fix.

I am practising telling people when it is happening. Often I am feeling powerless in some way. Recently I was watching a political interview and simply had to switch it off and breathe as my body was shaking. I was powerless to prevent Holly from dying, and whenever I feel powerless, my body reacts.

Lesson 3. You are a different person since your experience.

Change has already happened. You may not recognise yourself, your reactions or your responses. Trying to resist this change is futile, painful and ultimately useless.

After the death of my daughter, I desperately wanted to carry on as usual. It was not viable. Pretty quickly, I enrolled on a Counselling Diploma course. I felt I needed something purposeful to do and something that would connect me with Holly, who had a Masters in Psychology.

The change in career has served me well. What has not helped me is trying to keep other activities going because they were part of my routine.

I was in a band that I had been enjoying for a couple of years, and I was keen to keep it going. After a while, this became painful. I was no longer the same person, but I found it difficult to find expression for the new me. It all ended in tears.

My lesson from this is that I have to accept that I have changed. I also have to allow that others will continue treating me as if I was the old me. I have to enlighten them.

There is no shortcut to this. As a man trained to hide my feelings and keep a stiff upper lip, it was extraordinarily difficult. Over time it becomes easier. I have learnt to trust my feelings and express them as best I can. If I feel assumptions are being made based on how I used to be, I make it clear the assumptions are wrong and enter into dialogue.

Take some time to assess what has changed in you. What can you create for your future in the light of that?

Lesson 4. Purpose and meaning become much more relevant to you.

The cumulation of my two traumatic events has pushed me to a new level of purposefulness. No longer will I accept doing a job just because it pays the bills. What sort of a waste of life is that?

I focus on doing things that are meaningful and fulfilling, and at the moment, I trust that I will make a living at it in the long term.

The fabric and structure of education, society and employment are now put on hold to support us through this awful crisis. Maybe now is the time to reassess. When you can rebuild your life, what will you be delighted to bring back? What would you prefer to leave out?

Lesson 5. No one outside of yourself will ever give you what you need.

The first reaction to any trauma is to blame. Who did that to me? How can I call them to account? How can I make them change their ways? How can I punish them?

Blaming is pointing out there, rather than in here, into your own mind, when you find yourself in a painful or uncomfortable experience. Blame means shifting the responsibility for where you are onto someone or something else, rather than accepting responsibility for your role in the experience. Iyanla Vanzant

With this pandemic, it is going to be difficult to accept responsibility for our part in it. If you want to move forward and create a new life from the ashes of the old, you have to embrace this.

My mind went into overdrive with blame when Holly died. I started by blaming myself and my wife, then her husband, the workplace she was employed at, the GP she visited. I soon realised this was all a futile attempt not to blame Holly for her actions.

Ultimately I had to accept that what happened happened and I will never know why. I have no desire to waste vast amounts of energy trying to unearth the unknowable.

When the dust has settled on Coronavirus will you leap straight back into all the things you were doing before? Or will you give yourself some breathing space? Will you recognise that you and your loved ones have suffered a massive trauma?

You need time to heal and rebuild yourself and your lives in light of the different world in which we find ourselves.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s