Why do I specialise in psychological trauma?
The answer is a very personal one and one that is explained through a childhood memory below.
I have no recollection of what happened prior to 2pm on March 10th 1987 but the rest of the day can be recalled on in a flash. For confidentiality reasons, all names have been changed.
All our 7 and 8 year old heads turn to look at the school hall door as we notice some teachers talking in hushed voices in that area. Up until that point I imagine music in the hall with our little bottoms sat on the parquet flooring was much the same as any other week. I remember catching Mrs Clough's eye, in that brief moment I knew the whispers were about me. Her look of concern with hints of panic will stay with me forever.
I was beckoned over to the door and told that my childminder was here to pick me up. I can still feel the confusion of feelings from the awkward silence the 30 second walk from the hall to the cloakroom. Helen, my childminder, was busy gathering up my things. I desperately tried to read her face to see if I could make sense of what was going on. She wasn't giving anything away. Burgundy blazer, hat and school bag in hand she says 'your mum has had a car accident, she's ok (that was debatable I later found out) but in hospital. We are going to go there now'. My 8 year old self knew that something didn't add up. I remember thinking, 'if mum was ok I wouldn't be getting picked up from school early'. This was the first time the feelings of guilt, which I later became so familiar with (a reaction common with trauma) crept in, thoughts along the lines of 'all those times I've looked at the clock and longed to go home early, but this doesn't feel nice, is this punishment?' flooded my mind. That's when numbness first hit too, for me it felt like floating, not really being in my body. I know now that was my survival system kicking in. My brain couldn’t compute the adult’s reactions around me, it didn’t make sense. Therefore, my stress response was signally to go into shutdown, detach from what I am feeling and this will make me feel safer.
Not one word passed Helen's lips as we rode the 15 or so minute drive to the hospital. As we walked through the large clear automatic doors the smell floored me. To this day I’m still not keen on that heady antiseptic NHS hospital smell. If I let myself I can be taken straight back to this memory when in an NHS setting (the place that process smells in the brain is also next to one of the places that process’s memory, that’s why smells are so evocative).
We walk down the long corridor, I want to run away (flight response) but I'm only 8 and anyway my legs feel like lead. When we enter into the private hospital room shock overwhelms me. Mum looks dreadful, she says some things and I remember something about an x ray being mentioned but I don't really take it in. She puts the telly on for me and my mum, her friend Sue who is there and Helen talk. I block out what about, this is too much to take in, please make it all go away.
I have vague recollections of them talking about broken bones and a plaster that will cover mum from head to waist, I think there was a doctor in the room at one point too. My mind was telling me to concentrate on the telly and it will all go away. The next memory I have is walking into our living room that evening and feeling very alone. Helen murmurs something about going to make up the spare room. Everywhere feels huge. I curl up on the sofa and suck my thumb.
In the days, months, years that follow I don’t remember anyone genuinely asking me how I was feeling about the accident. All I do remember is people commenting and giving me the definite impression I should be grateful my mum is alive and not paralysed. Cue more guilt as I didn’t feel grateful at all. In my 8 year old eyes (life is very simplistic at that age, connections to ‘adult’ kind of thinking are only just starting to be made) my life had been turned upside down and it felt dreadful what was there to be grateful for?
My mum had a head on collision in her car and broke the top bone in her spine, if it had been one veritable down she would have been paralysed. I’m not blaming anyone at that time. They all did what they thought was best and the impact of children’s experience of highly stressful events was not understood one bit. I had a lovely teacher at that time but I don’t even remember her taking the time out to understand how I was feeling. My school work deteriorated, I was so angry at home but no one put the two together. Or at least if they did they didn’t communicate that to me. A crucial factor in trauma recovery is clear communication along with empathy.
The two years that followed are a blur in my mind. The next strong memory I have is when mum had her spinal operation in 1989. I remember being very anxious and scared but my overriding memory is of my mum’s best friend being kind and gentle with me and giving lots of hugs. However, the guilt continued and my own physical and mental health took a bashing in the years to come. Something I believe is related to unresolved trauma from the accident.
When I discovered trauma therapy and how the brain processes stress so many factors of that time fell into place. The guilt has pretty much disappeared as I’m now able to rationalise those feelings and understand I was a lost little girl. I’ve given my 8 year old self the love, compassion and empathy that was missing from that time and can do so when triggered to feelings which transport me back to 1987.
Being able to heal myself through understanding humanistic therapy and neuropsychology has given me the passion to help others in this way and that’s why I specialise in trauma. I believe I’ve developed a unique relational style of trauma therapy that really works. I continually add to my tool box of resources to help clients so they can feel normal again.