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.

September Buddy Box Unboxing!

Buddy Box Image

Well I had a lovely surprise earlier this week when a mysterious package appeared on my doorstep – it turned out to be a Buddy Box from The Blurt Foundation sent by my dear friend Amy-Louise (she also has an awesome mental health blog you should check out). I’ve been having a pretty rough time of things lately and the day it arrived was especially bad but getting this actually did a lot to turn my day around.

I’ve been a massive fan of The Blurt Foundation for a long time, they are a great organisation dedicated to breaking down the stigma around mental health issues and I definitely found a kindred spirit in their CEO Jayne Hardy who is a fierce and dedicated campaigner. They recently started to do these Buddy Boxes which I think are a great way to show friends that you care for them. They’re designed to promote self care and I couldn’t wait to get my hands on one.

So here’s a quick unboxing blog to show you what I got and hopefully encourage some of you to get involved too!

The box itself

Buddy Box Image

The box itself is gorgeous (although the postman managed to bash mine a bit unforunately). I’ve noticed a lot of these box subscriptions lately (Nerd Block etc) and the boxes can be a bit bulky but this is shoebox sized and definitely something I’ll keep after using the contents.

Unboxing

Open Buddy Box

Inside everything is beautifully wrapped and like I mentioned the box is the perfect size so the contents didn’t get knocked and it didn’t seem disappointedly empty like some sub boxes I’ve seen.

The important bit – the contents!

September Buddy Box Contents

Sorry if this picture is a bit small but essentially here’s what came inside the September Buddy Box:

  1. Postcards – The first thing you can see when you open the box is a couple of very sweet postcards from Blurt themselves which I thought was a really nice touch
  2. A notebook – I don’t know if it’s an anxious person thing but I’ve noticed a LOT of us have a bit of a stationary obsession so this is perfect – as much as I’m glued to my phone and technology in general I don’t think I’ll ever be able to give up paper diaries and notebooks and always have one on me. This one is definitely going to be going in my bag.
  3. A pen – Not just that but a very cool pen which I’m definitely going to double up as a bookmark. Also as it’s flat I think it may actually be easier for me to use when winter and my Raynaud’s really kick in.
  4. Soap mmmmm not just any boring soap but gorgeous smelly stuff from Gone Crabbing who are a family run organisation which is nice as I try my best to buy as much as I can from independent companies.
  5. Socks! I don’t know how they knew but my sock collection is fast depleting so these were very welcome – also they are probably the softest pair I own and very warm which is great for people like me who are secretly cold blooded lizards and therefore ALWAYS cold.

    Buddy Box Socks

  6. My favourite bit: craft stuffm  as some of you know I am massively into crafting, having found it a very therapeutic and rewarding activity. Cross stitching obscenities got me through 18 months of a job from hell and I also find that it’s a great distraction for me when I’m feeling anxious (and likely to pick my skin or hair) or feel strong self harm urges. This little craft kit is gorgeous and when I actually have the energy will be a little cactus to match the notebook.

So there you have it! Having received a box I will definitely be paying it forward 🙂

Practice what you preach: Mental Health & Wellbeing

Over the years, I’ve realised I’ve become, in some ways a role model for some young people struggling with mental health issues. However I’ve often told people to do as I say and not as I do.

Of course I’m not perfect (newsflash: no one is) and I’m often guilty of neglecting my own mental health while campaigning on behalf of others. My overexertion and incidents of burnout are well known and I’m often asked told to slow down and put myself first for once.

I’ve been inspired to write this blog, and to actually practice what I preach, by two things recently.

Firstly:

I recently heard the brilliant Clare Gerada speak about the need for those on the NHS front line to “pull their oxygen mask down first”. She argues that it’s very hard for a doctor to look after others when their own health and wellbeing are suffering. Clare set up a groundbreaking service in London for NHS doctors and dentists with mental health or substance misuse concerns called the Practitioner Health Programme. There is, as you can imagine a real need for this type of service and in the last 5 years it has seen over 1,500 people.

Secondly:

One of my wonderful friends Vanessa, a great mental health activist, wrote here on Time To Change Leeds blog about being in hospital and feeling, in her words, “muted” by the experience.

what I can’t quite cope with is how that has spread to me being unable to stand up for other people and be an advocate for them or Mental Health in general. I am questioning my validity or role as a volunteer and not pushing as hard as I should be in standing up to the stigma and discrimination that exists for people experiencing a Mental Health Problem. There is this sense of disconnection at the moment and instead of being out there campaigning, I am in a unit not being very aware of anything that is going on or if I am aware letting them slip by me.

What struck me at that point, and I told her too, is that for me at least, the fact she is even accessing treatment, being brave enough to go through gruelling inpatient treatment in particular, is massively inspiring and a very powerful thing for the mental health activist community to witness.

We can speak at conferences and shout on picket lines until we lose our voices but often the most powerful things are the actions we take. By accepting treatment and sticking with it Vanessa has put herself first and has actually inspired me to bite the bullet and accept a referral back to mental health services.

It’s all well and good us shouting from the rooftops about mental health but it doesn’t reflect well on us when we ignore our own advice and let our health slip down our list of priorities.

I was recently asked to get involved in an organisation that promotes body confidence, I turned it down because I know I am a horrendous role model in that regards. But I don’t want that to be true forever.

So today I bit the bullet and asked to be referred to the local mental health team. I also have a new GP who is lovely and am willing to engage in whatever treatment they offer me. I’m doing my best to carve out time every day just for me, to practice self care and allow my brain to wind down and it’s already helping a huge amount.

Sometimes I feel guilty for not replying to all the messages I get from others needing advice straight away but then I remember; I can’t help people properly if my brain is fried through over work or neglect.

It’s all well and good me helping other people but I can’t forget to look after myself too.

I encourage others to seek help if they are unwell, I am no exception, I must practice what I preach.