Charlotte: Sharing my Story
In recent weeks, I have realised that the parts of my story which I find most challenging to share, are the parts that will add most value to others.
And I have realised that in using my experiences to shape and inform my ‘Acute Trauma’ work, I must be brave enough to do it properly.
The summary of my acute trauma involves two 38 tonne lorries that collided with a coach I was on with friends in 2000. We were air cadets, on an annual camp, doing a 10 minute journey after a night of orienteering. Three of my friends died in the accident and in the weeks that followed I lost 20 years of my life.
When I think about the pain I’ve managed to process, I still feel utterly overwhelmed; I feel so proud of myself, so sorry for the child I was and so sad that it took so long and caused so much pain to the people I love the most. It’s a pain that has thousands of parts; far reaching, life changing, personality shaping - and I still can’t really believe I’ve done it.
So, what would I say to someone going through it? To someone beginning the battle of life after acute trauma?
Decide your safety
After an acute trauma, life is going to get pretty and there will be times throughout your life where you will feel utterly consumed by an intolerable pain. To survive, you’ll need to find ways of either sitting with that pain or avoiding it and if you leave it to chance, it is likely that you will find yourself surrounded by drugs, dependent upon alcohol, financially reckless or otherwise behaving in life altering, antisocial ways.
Some turn to sexual promiscuity, others will join gangs or turn to violence and crime. You may find you are addicted to work, to shopping or gambling and whilst you survive through escapism, your relationships, the foundations of your health and your future will slowly corrode away.
In hindsight, I know that these choices are made in one unconscious step and can lead to catastrophic snowball effects. Use moments of strength and clarity to design and define your safety plan, your safe space and your escape options. For me, healthy escape options have included: a walk by the river, sitting and reading a book in the park, curling up under a blanket with a film, a music fueled car journey, colouring in (adult or child!), spending time with animals, laying on a cold floor, having a kitchen disco or people watching in a busy coffee shop. Make a list of your choices to inform your unconscious step to safety when it comes.
In the years that followed the coach crash, I felt such shame about my emotions. I felt
such a burden to others. I felt so weak and I got so confused by the things that I was
thinking and feeling that I ‘acted out’ in ways that really hurt people I cared about.
I found it impossible to maintain relationships. Being reliable was really difficult and when I wanted to destroy everything around me, it was really difficult to focus, to be motivated and to resist the urges to hurt people, to ruin opportunities and ruin things in ways that would ensure they couldn’t be repaired.
I was able to physically feel myself pushing things until they were broken but I couldn’t help it. I often cried as I was letting friends down, standing them up, leaving them waiting. I sobbed as I would send angry and hurtful messages to people who would never know that amongst all of the hurt and anger, what I was really saying was, ‘please help me’.
Today, I am much better at communicating. It has taken effort, to develop new habits but more importantly it has taken a non dependent honesty. Being honest when you are ashamed of what you are saying is hard. Telling the truth when you know people’s reactions are going to cause you more pain is difficult and as a child, it’s much harder but in my adult life, I’ve been much better at saying ‘I’m having a rough day’ or ‘That’s totally out of my comfort zone, could we do this instead’.
I have realised that try as I might, people won’t ‘get this’ or just understand or magically know what I am actually saying so I’ve had to find ways of owning it and sharing it in order to maintain healthy relationships in all areas of my life.
Do the work
No one tells you that you have to process trauma. Responding to it, existing with it or surviving whilst hanging out to it, don’t quality. And no one tells you that processing trauma is hard and painful and enduring.
There’s no one thing that helps. You won’t have a moment in a therapy session where life falls into place. There won’t be one defining moment where it all seems OK - it’s a slog, a slow chipping away that in time, will become unnoticeable. You won’t notice the shuffles, steps or strides you are taking until you look back and see the collective distance of your journey.
I remember desperately wanting someone, anyone to understand how colossal my pain felt. How desperate I was to make things better and how unbearable the rest of my life felt. I hate myself. I wanted to punish myself constantly and in the depths of my own mind I believed everything was my fault, my doing.
In my hours of therapy, going over and over what happened in the 3 hours that we were left on the roadside. In the hours of talking about the funerals and the court case and sharing the news headline with counsellors who seemed a bit out of their depth, I was never told I had to work.
No one ever told me to pick up a pen and a bit of paper and write, and plan and map out my thoughts. No one ever told me to write down something I liked about myself and make a plan for how to make it two. I was never given options, ideas and alternativatives and whilst initially I believed I had been let down by the system, today I know that the system isn’t designed to help people that have the really bad sh*t happen to them.
You may well be aware of the quiet murmuring of people who believe your life will be ruined by acute trauma, the people that think ‘you’ll never get over it’ or will have to live with pain forever. Do the work to prove those people wrong because although you will never forget your acute trauma, though it will always bring moments of pain and sadness, there is a healthy and happy life waiting for you after you do the work.