STARTING

So I did it. I took the plunge, did what I’ve said forever I was going to do, and I started a blog. Cue angels and harps and fireworks and the X-Factor winner from three years ago to make the moment memorable. Or not.

Some of the things we do, we just… do. We don’t know if it’s going to work out or not. We haven’t planned it, sketched it, spreadsheeted it into existence. We just get on and do it.

And this is one of those moments.

Even as a kid—while all that stuff was going on, although I was dissociative for it—I said I wanted to be a writer. I had no idea what writers did. I mean, I figured they knitted words together and somehow birthed books, but I had no concept whatsoever that writing is slog, that writing is hard, unthankful toil, and that verbal constipation in the face of a deadline is as close as anything to mental torture. I wish I could go back to the 12-year-old me and advise her that teaching would make a great career after all.

Writing lays you bare. You meld these words together and other people sit and pick them apart. And I don’t enjoy that. I want my words to help people, I’m astounded when they do, but mostly I forget that I’ve even written them. The rest of the time I’m intensely private and long for the perfect aloneness of out walking my dog by the sea. I forget that my words are on show.

I’m often ambivalent about writing, this great dream of mine. Mostly I have to pull myself away from eviscerating Amazon boxes, or descaling the kettle (twice this week already) in order to actually get any writing done. I am procrastination incarnate.

So my blog is for my benefit, not yours. If I put that out there right now, you can’t be disappointed, right? I’m just going to try to meld some words together every day, and let’s see what happens. Because I know that I’m supposed to be writing. I just need the terror of actually starting.

I don’t even know what I’m going to write about. There’s all sorts of stuff that churns around on the inside of me and I’m going to stirrup it somehow into sentences, and we’ll see where we go from there. If you’ve read anything I’ve written before, or you’ve heard me speak, you’ll know that I’m deeply passionate about a few things, recovery from suffering being the greatest. I hate stigma and silence and oppression and slavery and trauma and torture and pain and I want to see people live free and alive and hopeful and grateful and throbbing and pulsing with life. So that’s what I’m going to write about, somehow. Let’s see.

So no fanfares, no ticker-tape, no grand entrance. I’m just starting. That is all.

DISTRESS IS NOT ILLNESS

I’m not comfortable with the term ‘mental illness’.

I know there’s a lot of rhetoric around ‘parity of esteem’ for physical illness and mental illness, and that’s why the term has been pushed to the fore. But for me, mental illness and being traumatised are two different things. One is a malfunction, a disease—something that has gone wrong in the brain, such as dementia. The other is the way that our brilliant brains have adapted to something that has gone wrong in our environment.

If I hadn’t been abused in the first place, I wouldn’t have developed a dissociative disorder. Simples. There has never been anything wrong with my brain.

And yet I am full of paradox, because I don’t mind the term ‘disorder’. When I look at how life was for me after my breakdown, my life was very much disordered, and I wanted it to click back into straight boxes. It was unbearable to live like that. Suffering drizzled out of me day and night.

But I wasn’t ill. I was just distressed.

It’s a strange thing that as a society we pathologise sadness and hurt and fear. On the one hand, yeah. Because when life is disordered, let’s not pretend that we were meant to live like this—terrified of eating, terrified of trees, of dogs, of people, of new places, of anything and everything that ever resembled our original trauma. That gut-gripping terror is not how life is supposed to be.

But on the other hand, do we tell people they’re mentally ill so that we can euphemise their pain? This isn’t someone—we say—who’s distressed because she’s lost her family, her children, her very life. This is someone who’s ‘mentally ill’. Puts the emphasis on something being wrong with her, doesn’t it? And takes the pressure off us to be compassionate—to sit with her in her suffering, to mourn with her, grieve with her, protect her, sustain her.

People talking about mental health is a great thing, because everyone has mental health, and we shouldn’t be surprised when we have big emotions when big things happen to us.

It doesn’t worry me when someone responds to the death of their child with vehement emotions—when they can’t stop crying, or they’re too numb to cry, when they can’t sleep or eat, or they can’t stop sleeping or eating. It’s normal that our natural, bodily and mental mechanisms go awry after such an enormous event. Of course they should. It’s our grief speaking.

It’s more worrying when we think that they should ‘act normal’ and contain their emotions into a narrow tube of socially acceptable behaviour. If we love deeply, we will hurt deeply. Our feelings spray out of us like watercolours depicting our experience. Of course we feel feelings when we are hurt: big feelings, overwhelming feelings, feelings that we never knew we had, feelings that we don’t even know are feelings and transmute into somatic symptoms. Feelings are meant to be felt. Let’s not call them mental illness.

Being distressed by distressing events is normal. Being traumatised by trauma is normal. Calling someone ill when they’re being normal isn’t normal. Surely?

WHEN THERE’S NO HOPE

I remember back then too well: it was dark, and empty, and I was lost, and all around me were walls, and all within me was pain, and I was sat there in despair, just dying.

I remember the hopelessness too well. Like the air had been sucked from my lungs. Like the strength had been sucked from my bones. No energy left to hope. Just tick-tick-ticking the moments away, waiting for it all to be over.

It’s a grim place to be. I’m glad to say I’m not there any more.

A big part of who I am now, what I do, and what I write about is hope. And the internet is full of mummy-bloggers, tweeters and memers telling us that hope is coming, to believe in ourselves, that the best is yet to come. And sometimes I gag on it, because it’s all so prissy and woolly and cheap.

Real hope isn’t cheap. Real hope is born out of a bloody struggle. You can’t slap it on someone—‘It’ll all be fine!’—and then walk away. That’s not how hope is birthed. Hope has guts. Hope is what you’re left with when you’ve stared down the despair.

I believe in hope, because I’ve believed in hopelessness. Over a period of around 4 years or so, I couldn’t grasp why on earth I’d want to live until the end of the day. It was a period of such devastating emptiness, such pain, such torment. I would stare hopelessness in the face, and it would win every time.

So what changed? How did I get from hopelessness to hope?

It’s not because anyone rescued me—came in and made it all better. It’s not that anything magical happened. I think it’s because I couldn’t bear the hopelessness any longer.

Which sounds odd. Because the usual response to that is to commit suicide: when things get too much, you end it. And many times I was tempted, and many times I tried.

But it’s not enough. It’s frustratingly flaccid as a response. Maybe there was too much anger burning in me, at the injustice of it all, and killing myself wouldn’t have let me put things right, make a difference, or get revenge.

Whatever it was, I just got fed up with the hopelessness of it all. So fed up that I was willing to do something about it. Sometimes I think our problem is not that we’re hopeless; it’s that we’re not hopeless enough. Because we have enough hope to keep on hoping that something will just change, by itself, magically. We have a glimmer of hope that says that if we just wait this thing out, it will get better.

I got to the point where I truly believed in hopelessness, in despair. I truly believed that it wasn’t going to get any better.

And maybe you can only really believe in hope when you’ve really believed in hopelessness.

Once I fully believed that I was hopeless, I knew I had to do something about it. Kill myself or heal myself—one of either option, but not remaining sat still, frozen. I had to act.

Normally we think we need the hope first, before we’ll be willing to act. Or we worry that we won’t know which particular action is going to be successful. But looking back, I realise that it was the act of acting that was effective. It was the stirring myself, taking charge of myself, and deciding to move forwards. Even without any hope that by doing so things would get better.

And then strangely, by acting, the hope came. In droplets, one at a time. I began to hope. Not because my circumstances seemed any different, but because I seemed different.

I realised that my hopelessness was a symptom of trauma, my brain’s way of saying, ‘Don’t move.’ It was keeping me safe by keeping me still. ‘Don’t hope,’ it said. ‘Don’t act. Don’t move. Keep still.’

To break out of it, I just had to act. To do something to change my life. Small steps, small changes, to my routine: today I’m going to get out of bed. Today I’m going to make the bed. Today I’m going to get dressed. Today I’m going to read for five minutes. Today I’m going to go for a walk.

When we’re hopeless, we don’t bother trying anything new, because we’re convinced that it won’t work. We’re convinced that inaction is better than action. We’re convinced that there is nothing at all we can do to change our circumstances, so we have to stay still and do nothing and wait for things to change by themselves.

But hope comes when we start to move. When we start to act. When we start to take steps—any steps—to make things better for ourselves.

I broke out of hopelessness only when I realised that nothing was going to change unless I changed—when I really, truly, became hopeless. I broke out of hopelessness by realising that it was a survival strategy, of giving up and staying still, but that it had outgrown its usefulness. I broke out of hopelessness when I decided to act before I had any hope that those acts would be effective.

Are you feeling hopeless? If so, how hopeless? A bit hopeless, so you’re still clinging to the hope that things will change by themselves? Or have you reached rock bottom yet, where you are truly and terribly hopeless and know that you have to change things? What steps can you begin to change, to create hope for yourself?

WHERE’S YOUR SAFE PLACE?

I was travelling into London last week. By contrast, I live in a fenland market town. By contrast, therefore, London is Big. Too Big (for me). It’s noise and bustle and cars and grime and horns and grey and shiny, and it’s busy, busy, busy. As we came out of our hotel, I realised that you couldn’t see the sky unless you tilted your neck exactly vertical. It’s not what I’m used to.

Even coming into London, I veer towards the edge of my window of tolerance. I just want everyone to quieten down and slow down. It’s part of me being a grade A introvert. And it makes me realise what my coping strategies are based around and what I need to feel safe.

I need openness and sky. I need countryside and earth and breeze. I need crunchy twigs underfoot and birds all around. I need quiet.

What do you need?

Years ago, when I first started therapy, I was invited to imagine a safe place. I didn’t understand the concept at all. First off, I didn’t understand how powerful positive visualisations can be. Secondly, I didn’t know how to feel safe. And thirdly, I didn’t have anywhere that I could summon to mind and feel positive about. Bummer.

To hide my feeling of inadequacy, I dismissed it as therapy-geekery. But it had piqued my curiosity. What would it be like to feel safe, and what it would be like to have a place that was so nourishing and additive that even just thinking about it could slow your heartrate and soothe your agitation? It was a cool idea even if it felt at that time impossible.

Fast forward to today. I have a dozen places now that I can call to mind and they ooze inside me with sticky toffee goodness. There’s one place at the foot of a mountain. The air is so clean and the only sounds are of stags baying. Trickling, pure-clear water ripples downstream over a million combinations of rock and stone and pebble. Everything is so still. Everything is so sweet. It’s glorious emptiness for miles around, the mountain on one side, the hill on the other, the river in between, and the air sings as with middle C. And there it is, in my mind’s eye, and I well up inside with the goodness of it, and it’s safe, and it feels safe, and at last, after all these years, I’ve found a safe place visualisation that actually works.

But I had to go there first. I had to experience it. My imagination wasn’t enough, because it was hedged in by the not-knowing. I’ve been alive over 40 years, but trauma hijacks your eyes and your ears and your nose and your feet and all you can focus on is danger and threat and malice and pain. And you can’t feel the turf below you, you can’t hear the goldfinch tribble, you can’t smell the trees and the moss and the bracken and the sea air. You forget how to be alive. You just focus, always, on danger, and it’s all you can do to get through the next day.

So it’s taken a long time for me to have safe places. I’ve had to seek them out. And then I’ve had to practice, mindfully, being there and noticing. I’ve had to inhabit my body and my senses and actually learn what it’s like to suck in all the goodness around me. I’ve had to switch off my radar and zoom into the reality of safety around me. I’ve had to break the habit of looking, always looking to the periphery for threat, and focus on the immanent: the ‘what is’ around me, rather than the ‘what might be’. Some people call that being present, or being mindful. Whatever you call it, it doesn’t work unless you actually do it. You have to start training your brain to focus on what’s safe and good and pure, rather than what’s not. It’s a tough habit to crack.

But it changes everything. Because you can begin to actually enjoy life, rather than feeling so afraid all the time. Recovery from trauma is so much about learning to feel safe. It took me years to find it, and even longer to learn how to do it, but at least I know now what a safe place is, and at last I know how to feel safe too.

Where’s your safe place? If you haven’t got one, what plans can you put in place to begin to find one?

ANGER SAYS NO

 

For a very long time, I didn’t ‘do’ anger.

In the family I grew up in, the adults were allowed to be angry, and even my sister was allowed to be angry, but for some reason I was not. The adults were allowed to be angry with me, but as a child I wasn’t allowed to be angry with them. Nothing much changed when I myself became an adult, and mostly I just accepted it as the way it was.  Many of us grow up with the mandate of ‘Don’t upset your mother’.

There’s a lot of people who are uncomfortable with anger, and I seemed to run into an awful lot of them in my early adulthood.  So by the time I arrived in therapy, I was armed with my version of what it takes to be ‘mature’: ‘I don’t do anger,’ I said, and not only did I sincerely mean it, but I actually thought it was the end goal of adulthood.  I didn’t understand the puzzled look that came back towards me.  I certainly didn’t understand when my therapist seemed to indicate that my ‘not doing anger’ might be something we’d want to work on.

I equated anger with vehement, violent rage. It was destructive. It was demeaning. It was ugly and putrid and rotten and foul. Surely everyone in their right mind should be aiming to ‘not do anger’?

‘Aah, but there’s anger and there’s anger,’ my therapist said, unhelpfully.  By this point I was beginning to feel a bit unsettled.  Even talking about anger was making me squirm.  I was convinced it was some sort of a trap, but I couldn’t quite figure out what for.

‘Part of your problem is that you’re not angry enough.’

You can go right off therapists, you know.  This one was really getting under my skin.

And then there I was this weekend, talking to a survivor, and encouraging her to find her anger and use it to keep herself safe.  ‘Part of our problem is that we’re not angry enough,’ I said, unoriginally.

It was an arduous journey from anger-teetotalism to where I’m at today.  I had to unpick a lot of cognitive distortions, beliefs implanted covertly by abusers to cover their tracks.  Because it was convenient that in my family I wasn’t allowed to be angry: convenient for the people who wanted to keep me quiet and didn’t want to be confronted by the reality of their own wrongdoing.

But I hadn’t seen it like that.  So many of the beliefs we grow up with, we end up clinging to because we uncritically believe them to be true.  Yorkshire is better than Lancashire; the milk goes in before the teabag; Christmas lunch can’t be eaten before 3pm.  And children aren’t allowed to be angry with their parents.  Obvious, huh?

But if you want to hurt a child, you need to maintain a secret. What better way than to create a family culture where the children are never allowed to object to anything that is done to them? Where anger is forbidden? Where the child is always in the wrong?

There are lots of reasons why I didn’t ‘do’ anger, but it took me a long time before I realised that this was one of them.  I had been set up never to be angry, because if I were angry, if I found my voice, if I learned to say, ‘No!’, then where would that leave my abusers?

Once I realised it was a set-up, it made me doubly angry: angry for the abuse, and angry for being tricked into never being angry.

So now out it all came—anger unleashed.  Angry that I wasn’t allowed to be angry.  Angry at what they did to me.  Angry at the way they covered their tracks.  Angry at their blaming of me, how I was the one nobody could trust, the one nobody should ever believe.  And angry too because it was a set-up, to maintain their secret.

Anger is a protective force and a creative force.  Anger doesn’t have to explode all over another person, to destroy them, to eviscerate them.  Anger at its simplest is the boundary that says, ‘No!’

I had to get angry with them, in order to protect myself from them.  They kept on expecting me to take the blame and be silent.  They got angry with me when I dared to say that I’d been abused, even though I never said by whom. But this time I got angry back. I refused to take the blame. And I put up a boundary for the first time in my life.

That was ten years ago, and it was the best thing I ever did. And now I’m standing talking to this dear survivor, and she wants to know how she can keep herself safe from her abusers.

My heart explodes on the inside of me.  I seethe with the wrongness of it all. Why should she be hurt? Why should she be so fearful? Why should they get away with this?

My mind spins through the obvious options, of grounding and breathing, of journalling and ‘phone a friend’.  All the usual stuff—good stuff, wise stuff.  But something more is needed.  Something fundamental in all of this.  How do we keep ourselves safe from people who would abuse us, when we don’t even know what we’re doing, when we’re programmed to obey them, when we switch automatically into submission mode?

It surges up within me, and I know what the answer is. We need to get angry.

We find the explosive energy of decades of unexpressed rage, and we tap into it to set a boundary.  All the pain, all the hurt, all the injustice—instead of using it against ourselves, we lay a hold of it to plant a wall around ourselves.  We say, ‘No!’

No, we’re not going to do what they say. No, we’re not going to let ourselves be hurt.  No we’re not going to take the blame again.  No, they can’t have access to us.  No, we won’t do what they want.

No, no, no, no, no.

Want to stay safe? Get angry.

Want to change your life? Get angry.

Want to heal?  Want to find help? Want to succeed? Then get angry.

Because the anger is in there.  Anger is the natural response when our boundaries are transgressed.  It’s the natural response when we’re invalidated and abused, when we’re maltreated and betrayed.  Anger is the normal response to having been abused.

But we often fear anger, as if by acknowledging it, it will erupt all over us and we will set fire to the world around us.  But I think we should fear our anger-less-ness more, because it’s that which fails to set a boundary, and keep us safe.

Anger is a protective force, a creative force.  We mustn’t use it to hurt anyone.  But we must use it to stay safe.