18 years ago, I’d just had my first child and then my life hit rock bottom.
But today I know that that might have been the best thing that ever happened to me.
You wouldn’t believe how many people are walking around out there, who’ve been through something that has them feeling broken and lost, like the rug has been pulled from under their feet. They might have a constant cloud over their head that they’re not even aware of, and it’s making their life so much harder.
The worst thing about trauma is that many of us have gone through it, yet when we talk about it in public we’re either belittling it, or dwelling in it, but we’re rarely dealing with it in the right way.
Yet whether we belittle it, or dwell in it, we’re forgetting that the struggle is real and the aftermath is too.
My struggle began 4 months after my daughter was born.
It was Monday 4th November 2002.
In the middle of the night, my husband Sam woke me up with crippling pains in his head, and had multiple seizures through the night.
I called an ambulance and Sam was taken away early that morning to hospital.
I couldn’t go with him in the ambulance because I had to look after our baby. I got me and baby ready and followed along a short while later.
Walking into the emergency room with my baby strapped to my chest, I asked if I could see Sam.
I was taken aside by a young doctor so he could ask me questions.
As the doctor spoke to me, glancing nervously at his clipboard, I knew something was terribly wrong.
I saw fear in his eyes. His pupils were like saucers, and as he asked me questions about Sam’s history and recent behaviour, I could feel his panic.
Listening to him speak, my mind felt numb and blocked, as I struggled to take in what was happening.
I could hear trolleys clanging together and machinery beeping, and all around me the bustling busyness of lives being saved.
Alas for Sam, and me, this was not to be his outcome.
He was found to have a massive brain tumour which had for some reason triggered internal bleeding, and caused irreparable damage to his brain stem.
He was pronounced brain dead on Tuesday 5th November 2002.
He was 34 years old.
I came home from the hospital and the house felt eerily quiet.
Sam’s lifeless coat hung over the banister; dirty plates sat in the sink from the night before; two theatre tickets for an upcoming show stuck to the noticeboard.
These benign signs of ‘normality’ held an alien heaviness, and there lingered an ache of emptiness that could never be filled.
My brain continued to fight the truth I knew in my heart: he’s never coming back.
For years after Sam’s death, I struggled to come to terms with what had happened.
The shock, the disbelief, the anger and hurt.
The pain of losing him threatened to crush me.
I was living a shell of a life, holding on just enough to raise my daughter in the best way I could.
Trauma happens to all of us, and how we deal with it determines its impact on us.
I’m not the only one who goes through this.
This is what hundreds of people go through every day.
Whether it’s the death of someone close, a relationship breakup, the loss of a job, or even a car accident.
It doesn’t really matter what the event is; every trauma has a similar devastating effect.
Whether from the event itself, or the way we respond to our feelings about it, the aftermath of trauma can be as destructive as the initial incident.
And it can make life so much harder than it needs to be.
A lot of us try to just pick up the pieces and move on as quickly as possible.
We try to go back to ‘normal’ life as if nothing has happened.
We do this for a variety of reasons, one big reason being shame.
We feel ashamed to call attention to ourselves, and ashamed to admit that we need help.
“When something traumatic happens, our perception of reality slows down, yet for everyone else life carries on as normal.”
So there’s a disconnect between our slower reality, and what’s happening with everyone else in our old life.
Some people might be kind and supportive for a short time, and make allowances for our expected behaviour change.
But eventually people forget and expect us to get over it much more quickly than we can manage.
The danger is that we buy into this misconception and feel ashamed when we’re not yet over it.
This is especially difficult when we’re sensitive, because we feel much more acutely than other people do.
As sensitive women, we’re more attuned to the expectations of others. We want to fit in, and cause as little fuss as possible.
Processing our painful feelings takes time and energy, and there’s a temptation to try to bury our feelings so we can quickly catch up with everyone else and be ‘normal’ again.
Yet as psychoanalyst Carl Jung said, “what you resist persists”, and burying our feelings can lead to all sorts of problems later on.
Unprocessed trauma can cause us to try to keep busy, working longer hours to distract ourselves from the pain we’re suppressing.
We can feel ashamed for feeling ashamed.
We can get easily distracted and pulled off track, so we need to work even longer to catch up.
We can feel anxious and stressed, yet frustrated and disappointed for not being as on it as we think we should be.
We can find ourselves not taking breaks, not being able to relax, and so not sleeping well at night.
As that cycle repeats every day, it can rapidly lead to burnout if we don’t deal with the underlying cause.
Unprocessed trauma can lead to addictions and numbing behaviours.
We can feel helpless and worthless, and try to numb that pain with food, alcohol, or drugs.
We can grasp for external approval and validation by becoming involved in unstable sexual relationships.
We can spend money we don’t have and run up credit card debt, as we seek to fill the void within us by buying more stuff.
Knowing that we’re behaving recklessly yet being unable to stop can lead to anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.
Unprocessed trauma can cause us to alienate ourselves from those we love, and who love us.
We might stop calling friends and family; we decline social invitations, and spend more of our time alone.
We can feel so desperately sad and misunderstood, that we tell ourselves it’s better that we stay separate, so we don’t disrupt the happy balance of others.
If I’d understood this cycle back then, I would have sought help much sooner than I did.
I would have allowed myself to talk about it, and give myself permission to take as long as it takes to process what had happened, so I could grieve properly.
I would have made sure that I kept my friends and family close, so they could help me, instead of feeling like I had to deal with it all by myself.
Self-awareness is the path to healing from trauma.
When I hit rock bottom I realised I had to change something to give my life meaning again, and to make sure I had more of me available to give to my daughter as she grew up.
I took my life into my own hands and decided to study Neuro Linguistic Programming (NLP) as a way to understand myself better, and to learn to live my life in a different way.
After 2 years of study, I became a certified NLP coach.
Healing from my loss was a long and winding journey, but NLP made it easier to navigate.
Along the way, I learned how to process those painful experiences, so they stopped crushing me.
I explored the different parts of my psyche, and found a nurturing part of me that could hold me close, even in my darkest moments.
This enabled me to unpack what had happened and to actually feel what I felt about it, safe in the knowledge that I wouldn’t be overwhelmed by it all at once.
I learned how to reframe what had happened to me, so I could start to live again.
I was able to look at things in a different way and to put some distance between me and the horrors that I witnessed.
That change in perspective helped me to sleep better, and to feel a little bit lighter each day.
I started out on a new path, a different path from what I’d planned, but one of life and the possibility of happiness once again.
I became conscious of my inner critical voice, and I was able to change the way it spoke to me.
I learned how to be respectful and compassionate instead of blaming myself.
I learned how to be kind to myself, and to see every new day as an opportunity to be grateful.
I developed a journalling practice, to write out my feelings and to explore what they meant, in a safe container. I gave myself time and space to reflect on everything that was going on in my head and heart, without judgement.
If something similar has happened to you recently, my heart goes out to you.
It’s totally normal to feel huge sadness and emptiness; it’s ok to cry and flail and feel like you’ll never recover.
But that doesn’t have to be the end of your story.
Life will never be the same as it was, but you CAN be happy again.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in life it’s this:
“No matter what’s happened, no matter what you’ve been through, I truly believe you don’t need to be defined by it.”
You too can create a new happy ending.
I was able to replace the aching emptiness I felt over losing my husband, with a new feeling of hope and joy.
When I think about my husband today, I don’t think of the pain and the loss, I remember the love and the good times we shared.
I remember the story of how we met.
We met at a weekend Mensa gathering in Norfolk, England.
I had arrived on the Friday afternoon, after a long drive from London, with a friend who was organising the event.
My friend had all the name badges, and I was a late-comer (having not pre-booked my place).
I had ‘borrowed’ one of the name badges and was desperately hoping that it’s real owner would not turn up at all.
The badge I had chosen was labelled ‘Sam Brown’ (an androgynous sounding name which I took a liking to)
Alas, as the evening wore on, the real Sam Brown turned up, and asked for his name badge.
I uttered the now infamous words (between us at least)
“But I want to be Sam Brown”
…. and thus our friendship and then relationship was born.
We joked about that moment, and the weekend we met, for years afterwards.
It was a funny memory that I cherished, and held close, and it will stay with me forever.
This can happen for you too, it’s not impossible.
You can get to a place where you can feel happy again, even after deep loss.
If something in my story has touched you, and you suspect that you might have experienced something in your past that’s still having an impact on you, then I can help.
Maybe you’re procrastinating in your work, feeling disorganised and frustrated with yourself, and wondering why you feel continuously stuck.
You don’t need to struggle alone.
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