Coping with Traumatic Anniversaries

This weekend marks seven years since I was involved in a particularly traumatic incident. I won’t say what happened, the cause of the trauma is irrelevant to this post, but it was something that went on to change me irrevocably.

Anniversaries of traumatic events are often painful years after any bruises or scars have faded. I must admit to being wildly optimistic and naive for the first few years, expecting it to get exponentially easier each time the date inevitably swings around again. However to my dismay I have learned it doesn’t work like that.

The first year was undoubtedly the worst. I had no point of reference, I had never experienced something so traumatic and had no idea what the anniversary of the date would hold or how I would react, I also had the date burned into my brain so I knew there was no way to trick myself and forget which I thought was an option as so many people told me to “leave the past where it belongs” and not to “be morbid and mark it” because they perceived that as unhealthy and wallowing. So I expected the worst case scenario, quite typical for someone with PTSD, and to be fair I wasn’t far off. I used the day itself to go back through some old diaries and mementoes from that time hoping to find some news clues or perhaps even some closure. This proved to be a mistake, I didn’t find doing this particular activity at all healing until several years later. But that’s me, always trying to run before I can walk. Hell I never expected to develop PTSD in the first place and somehow believed I could just “get over it”, that is wasn’t a “big deal” and move on unaffected.

As the years pass my trauma symptoms diminish but never truly go away. What was initially like an all consuming fire inside me lessened. In the immediate aftermath I was a wreck, I was convinced that my trauma was burned onto my forehead so that everyone could see, just by looking to me, what had happened. Thankfully the flashbacks waned until they were once every couple of months at most, not multiple times day and night. In fact there have been periods of whole months where I have not thought once about that day.

In more recent years I have at times completely forgotten that date, the one I thought would be forever etched in my memory, burned into my grey matter.

Some years I felt I had an obligation to mark the date, some years I have been more than happy to let it slip by with little or no recognition, in fact one year I didn’t remember until several weeks after the date.

This tricked me into believing that all was well and I was putting my past behind me, laying my demons to rest. Unfortunately as I know objectively, but can often forget, trauma doesn’t work like that.

This will be the seventh anniversary and in recent weeks, by total coincidence something was brought up in my group skills class that hit a very painful and well buried nerve that I thought was beyond reach. It sparked the biggest resurgence of PTSD symptoms I have had in years; multiple vivid flashbacks through the day, nightmares, increased hyper-vigilance, trouble getting to and staying asleep and some very physical reactions. For example I unfortunately and accidentally caught a glimpse on television of something that for me is a particularly strong trigger and immediately I was running to the bathroom throwing up bile and shaking like a leaf for the next hour.

This year the anniversary falls on a Sunday so for me this is a real opportunity for me to live by my words and have a bit of #SelfCareSunday. I tend to find either total distraction or total relaxation is the only way to go on the anniversaries and this year I have opted for the latter. My partner, who has stood by my side for the last five anniversaries is well versed in what not to say and how to support me.

So this is how I intend to spend the day:

IMAG1271-01.jpeg

We’re planning on having a lazy day, not setting our alarms but letting my SAD light wake us up, staying in bed to read comics before watching films. I won’t want to leave the house which he understands so we will stay in and cook together. I have got a Moogle to make me smile, Dreamtime tea for the evening to keep me calm, my Buddy Box, a heatable Bagpuss , lots of loveliness from Lush and my ongoing game of Final Fantasy XII which Ryan and I have been playing. The day, I hope, will pass without incident.

So there we have my take on surviving traumatic holidays from a personal point of view, what I would recommend, if you are unlucky enough to be in  a similar situation is this:

  1. Let people know – it doesn’t have to be a public blog like this but I always think it’s important that someone close to you knows that there is a day approaching that may be difficult for you, that way if you do need any support it can be planned in advance, that way if you need it, it’s there.
  2. Go with your gut instinct – sometimes it’s totally okay to absolutely ignore the anniversary and sometimes you will feel like doing nothing more than hiding under the duvet with your phone switched off. Reacting to trauma is entirely unique to the individual and we often at a gut level know what we need even if we may struggle to express it verbally due to high levels of distress. If it’s a week day you may feel being at work or university and being distracted is better or you may want to take the day off to reflect or because you’re struggling in which case taking a day of annual leave is a good idea.
  3. Remember: This too shall pass. As I learnt it doesn’t get exponentially easier each year but it changes. Some years are better than others and there is no roadmap to healing from trauma or official “end date” as much as that would be helpful. All I know is that although this year has been bad I have had much better years in the past and I have faith there will be better days to come.
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Breaking Convention: My first Psychedelics conference

bc15-banner-brown

This weekend I attended something quite unlike my usual conferences, as many of you will know I am something of a veteran of the conference scene – in particular health (especially mental health), social care, youth work and technology. As much as I love being part of this scene I do often find that:

1) I have a fairly good understanding of a lot of the sessions, workshops and talks already

2) When I present at these conferences I often find myself facing a room full of faces I already know, who have heard me give the talk or something similar before – preaching to the converted.

So I decided to shake things up a bit and attend a very different conference: Breaking Convention 2015.

Breaking Convention is a multidisciplinary conference on psychedelic consciousness, featuring more than 130 presenters from around the world and attended by around 800 delegates from an equally dizzying array of countries.

Look at all these happy faces!

Look at all these happy faces!

I actually first found out about BC through a school friend, Dave King, who is one of the co-founders of the organisation. I have been following some of his incredible, groundbreaking work over the last few years but this was the first year I could 1) manage and 2) afford to attend the actual event – and I’m so glad I did!

Other than the Breaking Convention talks I really didn’t know what to expect and I was a bit anxious as it was one of the few times in my life I’ve been to a conference where I’ve only known one other person. Thankfully my suspicion that it would be a wonderfully open and welcoming conference was confirmed on day 1 and by day 3 I had made several friends from across the world and had some incredible, meaningful conversations on a huge range of topics: from mental health to human rights and so much more.

Days 1 and 2

On the first few days I mainly went to talks about clinical applications and research into Psychedelics as this is something I know a bit about but wanted to know more – especially some of the more cutting edge international work that is being done in countries with far less restrictive laws than the UK. I will make a list underneath of all the talks I attended that I thought were particularly interesting or had the most profound effect on me.

You will also be able to Breaking Convention videos when they are uploaded over the coming weeks.

I also may have found a new look for myself – this is what happens when you play “I can fit more through my tunnel than thou” with strangers at strange conferences..

Flower Power

Flower Power

The final day

As day three was the last one I decided I would not only try and attend as many sessions as possible but also to go to sessions which I knew nothing about so I ended up learning about some completely new ideas and research.

The show stealing presentation was of course given by Professor David Nutt who is something of a personal hero of mine. His talk was titled “Throwing the baby out with the bathwater: How irrational drug laws are hampering medical research” and left us with a sobering picture not just of how hard it is currently in the UK to conduct research in this field but also just how dangerous and stupid the New Psychoactive Substances Bill is. You can Professor Nutt twitter for more updates on his work and campaigning and I also recommend his book Drugs Without The Hot Air.

Obviously this was a major highlight of the weekend for me:

David Nutt tweet

What did I learn about?

Over the three days of the conference I didn’t manage to attend as many talks and workshops as I had hoped due to anxiety and fatigue but I still managed to attend all the talks listed below, videos of all talks will be available on the Breaking Convention videos soon.

– Synesthesia and Psychedelics
– Concepts of Psychedelic drugs as therapeutic agents
– The discovery of the Endocannabinoid system and it’s importancy for treatment with Cannabis
– Ketamine for Depression: A pill for all pains?
– An fMRI investigation into the acute effects of MDMA administration in chronic, treatment resistant PTSD
– A mixed method investigation of Ayahuasca ceremonies as a candidate therapy for Bipolar Disorder and Cyclothymia
– Your Human Rights to use Psychedelics
– Dealing with powerful, difficult, emotionally intense experiences in the context of Psycholytic Therapy
– Psychonauts going Psychonuts
– Criminals and Researchers: Perspectives on the necessity of underground research
– Psychedelic Therapy: Notes from the underground
– The real secret of magic: Burroughs, McKenna, and the syntactical nature of reality
– On “Object manipulators”, Psychedelic festivals and the contemporary youth sociopolitical participation
– Entheogens and the emerging Internet of Everything
– Sacred medicine for a secular culture: How to make spiritual experience accessible
– The Psychedelic Shadow

I also had a chance to try out the Discovery Dome. This was an odd, inflatable igloo of sorts which inside was filled with pillows and blankets and projected incredible visualisations and played beautiful music. I had a chance to try out the dome on both the second and third days and saw different “shows” and had a very different reaction to each.

There was also a wealth of beautiful art littering the conference, many workshops and a lot of afterparties and music that I sadly missed in order to pace myself but I have heard were wonderful.

Closing ceremony 

Breaking Convention Blessing

Because I paced myself I did manage to stay until the end of the last day and attend the closing ceremony which was unlike anything I have ever experienced as we were lucky enough to gather to meet Mara’akame Paritemai, a renowned and well respected medicine man and healer who closed the conference with a blessing.

Conclusions

I consider myself so lucky to have had the chance to attend Breaking Convention 2015, I met so many incredible people doing groundbreaking work, I felt so welcomed and comfortable and I learnt a lot along the way.

The venue itself, the University of Greenwich was gorgeous and we were very lucky with the weather for the majority of the weekend:

No filter, it genuinely is this beautiful!

No filter, it genuinely is this beautiful!

I would definitely recommend the conference to anyone that has an interest in Psychedelics, Mental Health, Wellbeing, Drug Reform or just a general curiosity in any of the above.

The only things I’d like to see next year is a bigger presence on social media – although we had 800 attendees we need many more people to join the Scientific Drug Research cause. Also as much as it is an academic conference and that should remain the focus I would love to hear from more of the study participants – the actual users of Psychedelics who can talk about their own experiences.

I also found that parts of the conference brought up a lot of emotions for me, mostly anger at our ridiculous government and it’s continued wilful ignorance and dismissal of scientific evidence and my own sadness that I have used Mental Health services for 12 years, tried over 20 psychiatric medications most with awful side effects and yet something that could really help me would make me a criminal.

But that’s for another post..

My reaction to the recent conversations around rape – TW

Let me preface this blog by saying that i started thinking and feeling a need to write about this subject quite some time ago but the catalyst has definitely been my experience of the last few weeks. And i would like to say this is just my own thoughts and feelings on the subject so please bear in mind and respect that while reading. Also some of this content may be triggering for some and i would urge people to read with caution and stay safe. I’ve included some resources and information at the end of the blog too.

The subject of rape has very much been catapulted into the mainstream media recently and especially so due to several recent incidents by high ranking public figures (i.e. the ones who have a position of power and should know better). There are many examples but the obvious ones would be;

Todd Akin and his comments about “legitimate rape” and  his spouting of absolutely bizarre “scientific” theories. Attitudes that show nothing if not a very strong argument for a better sex education system and which  also absolutely horrify me.  The fact that he has refused to stand down and has used the backlash to push for funding for his campaign..and received it is a whole other matter i won’t even start on.

The issue of Assange, George Galloway and “bad sexual etiquette”.
For me this is not an issue with whether a crime did or did not occur, either way as a supposed beacon of freedom of information, transparency and above all justice something sits really wrong with me that we are wasting our time defending really harmful sexual behaviour and battling over semantics. Something is really wrong here.

Endlessly questioning what is “legitimate” rape leads to thousands of women and men feeling great shame about their own negative sexual experiences. We need to break down this preconceived idea of what rape is and start unpacking the subtler aspects. Not all rape is violent rape, much rape has a strong element of coercion and not all rapists look like brutish thugs that’s for sure.

The prevailing message seems to be that fault lies in the hands or the clothing of the victims. As a woman i have been taught that i must be careful, i must protect my drinks, i must be careful with the company i keep, that public spaces after night has fallen is dangerous and i have been taught that if something goes wrong (sometimes even if all these things have been done) i am to blame for not doing enough to stop something happening to me. This makes me so angry in a way i cannot coherently express.

It sickens, shocks and most of all saddens me that as a society we so often dismiss and laugh about rape. I know it’s the cool thing to do at the moment, people glibly talk about committing “facebook rape”, jokes are made not just about the act but also about the victims, the way they dressed etc.

I know i will probably be branded unable to take a joke and a killjoy by some for this, people don’t think about it, they think it’s harmless. Please, i cannot say this loud enough; it hurts.

It hurts so many men, women and children who have been violated or exploited in a sexual manner, in whatever form and also has some pretty serious consequences. This year the Met reported a substantial drop in rapes reported. And i’m sorry to be blunt but i highly doubt that this because less people are being raped. People aren’t speaking out and reporting crimes of this nature because a lot of the time they don’t see the point. A scandalously low number of defendants in rape cases are convicted and many do not expect to be believed if they do report what happened. And then when we start belittling serious sexual assault and rape and refusing to believe that this is not a black and white issue people don’t tell and that can be incredibly damaging.

 

Fall in reported rapes ‘shows victims’ lack of confidence in Met’s sex crime unit’

Although these are  examples of the huge swathes of ignorance, the widespread dismissal of rape and it’s victims and so many ugly beliefs it has done one thing. It has got people talking. It has outed a lot of misconceptions that need to be challenged as well as really showing the results of the gaps in PSHE.

And i’m thankful that we are finally talking about some of these things i just wish it wasn’t so often so blunt, insensitive and upsetting.

I am acutely aware that for a lot of people, male and female, it will have been incredibly triggering. The sheer amount of hate and exposure this subject has got recently has been overwhelming. I commute into London on a daily basis and found that it is almost impossible to find a carriage which doesn’t have an array of people reading newspapers riddled with stories and headlines about rape sitting next to someone with a copy of 50 Shades of Grey or some variant in their hands. I find this personally to be another quite awkward, uncomfortable juxtaposition but each to their own i guess.

I myself have felt some of the “rape fatigue” described in Jezebel earlier this week: Rape Fatigue and You: When There’s Just No Anger Left

And i want to leave you with the words of a few who have said it a lot better than i have and some resources if you are struggled and have been triggered with recent media coverage or with this blog post. Stay safe everyone.

Recommended Reading *TRIGGER WARNING*:

Please be warned that these could be triggering

Penny Red: It’s Trigger Warning Week

An open letter to Tod Aikin from a woman who got pregnant from rape

Resources:

Rape Crisis (UK)

Information and advice from the NHS

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in rape survivors: