|Living in fear, copyright: Janine Harrington|
It was an extraordinary feeling this morning watching Princes William and Harry sharing openly their mental health concerns, which they have tried to battle within themselves and keep hidden from the world since the death of their mother, Princess Diana, twenty years ago. Prince Harry is having therapy. Both he and his brother show emotion, supported by the Duchess of Cambridge. What made it all the more remarkable was seeing them standing united with a range of people, brought together by one common bond ... that of being completely overwhelmed by something which deeply affected them, and which continues to make everyday life difficult for them:
death of a child
death of a husband
childhood sexual abuse
Post Traumatic Stress after being caught up in war
The list is endless, as are the circumstances of life which can, without warning, completely turn our world upside down and inside out, so that life is never the same again.
No medicine can take away the pain of trauma.
It becomes a life sentence, something we have to learn to manage on our own terms if we are to survive ... and that means on an everyday basis, taking one small step at a time.
Slowly, mental health issues are coming to the forefront of the news. People who can, and feel supported, are coming out to share publicly what it means for them. Everyone is different. You never hear the same story twice. Public faces are taking the platform, such as Ruby Wax, to say how life has really been for them, hidden until now, in the shadows of their minds. My own words mix with theirs:
The broken will always be able to love harder than most.
Once you’ve been in the dark, you learn to appreciate everything that shines.
Sometimes, all you need is for someone just to be there, even if they can’t solve your problems.
Just knowing there is someone who cares can make all the difference.
Truly strong people don’t have easy pasts.
Just because we don’t look broken doesn’t mean we aren’t inside, where hidden scars weep.
Being broken doesn’t mean we’re less-than. It means we have to be more-than just to survive another day.
Everyone is normal for their experience … whatever that experience may be.
We can’t let darkness define us, or the response of others to our brokenness make us feel weak, helpless, vulnerable, useless, so much less than equal. They aren’t in a position to judge. They haven’t experienced our pain. They look at us, and because we look normal, but are somehow different, they push us away as if we have something contagious.
Surviving one day at a time, taking small steps, heartbeat by heartbeat, doesn’t mean we’re weak. It makes us warriors, because we’re fighting for our own survival.
Courage is having the ability to be open and honest, sharing without having to apologise for the way we are, trusting the person we share with, hoping somehow they will listen and understand even though they don’t have our experience.
Courage is a leap of faith into the unknown.
People judge what they do not understand or know. They can make us feel like damaged goods!
Our greatest need is to simply be accepted … just the way we are.
The pressure of keeping up appearances is a huge weight to bear on top of memories from the trauma, whatever that trauma might be. People who don't know what it's like find it easy to say we should be this, we should be that. But then, we're like a square peg trying to fit in a round hole in order to find that crucial sense of belonging. We have to find our own way through.
We are ALL normal for our experience.
We don't have to let whatever happened define who we are today.
And yet ...
Somehow the trauma takes shape and form, acting and reacting, focusing our minds on the pain, triggered by some seemingly random event today. It's always there, with us, carried every moment inside our heads, a weight we can't simply put down and walk away from however much we would wish it so. But then, something in today jettisons us back in time. The emotion is overwhelming. We feel suddenly that fragility and fear, being less-than, unequal, and ... oh, so much more! ... that we lose sense of who we really are.
Who is going to listen?
Who is going to care?
This morning, watching Princes William and Harry, listening as they spoke movingly about the death of their mother and how deeply it has affected them, and how desperately all these years they'd tried not to let their feelings show to the public ... I believe in sharing, they opened doors which would not otherwise so easily have opened.
It's like being given permission to talk about mental illness.
|Less-Than, copyright: Janine Harrington|
Everyone has mental health, just as we all have physical well-being. But unlike something broken or sprained on the outside which is easy to see and respond to, mental health issues are about emotion. They live on the inside where they can't be seen, and the only evidence is how we react in situations.
The first time I shared about child sexual abuse was when I was six years old. I didn't have the words to explain what was happening at the hospital I attended three times a week from birth until nine years old when we moved ... and thereafter until I was fourteen, when I went on strike! The specialist was obviously practised in sexually abusing children, making it impossible for them to tell, because he never spoke directly to me. It was all about implied threats. A frown would indicate his displeasure because I hadn't worn accessible clothing. All he ever said to my mother waiting outside in the waiting room was: 'She's been a good girl!' It didn't matter how much I refused to go in to see him, or clung onto the dark green railings outside the building. I was dragged by hospital orderlies into the place where I was meant to be. No escape! Afterwards, sitting in the cafe, with the drink and cream or chocolate cake as a reward for being 'a good girl', somehow the memories of what had just happened slipped silently into the black box inside my head, where the lid was firmly shut on them. By the time I returned home, all I could remember was the treats. Where I'd actually been, what had happened, I couldn't recall. That was my survival instinct kicking in. And yet, a nurse's uniform, a certain voice, the same kind of frown on someone's face, the word 'hospital', and so many other small seemingly insignificant things would nudge a piece of puzzle out of the box, into my mind ... part of a picture I couldn't make complete or understand.
When the music teacher began to sexually abuse me as a teenager, it was my behaviour, my writings, my art, which should have told the reality of what was happening ... being sick in the mornings, self-harming, bulimia, shutting down, folding myself away because I felt so isolated, so different, so cut off from the world around me ... like I was living on my own in a box filled with pain.
The saddest part of all is that today, I'm glad I wasn't listened to as a child. I'm glad I didn't tell. It would have devastated the family to such an extent as to create rifts and division. I know that now. In turn, I realise that, in not telling my dreadful secrets, in not sharing the pain I lived with every heartbeat of my life; I protected my family as a whole.
When we share with someone we trust, there's always that sharp intake of breath, wondering how they will respond. They're never going to understand or know the experience as their own. It is always going to be something completely alien to them. But at least they might listen, might take my hand in friendship, and be there whenever I have that need. Is that too much to ask?
|Reaching Out, copyright: Janine Harrington|
Hardest of all is sharing with family, with people close to you, because, in the telling, it affects relationships, and somehow those relationships falter and fail because they judge what they do not know.
They don't have that right.
But they do it anyway.
And the loss is that much greater, making everything that much worse.
My saving grace came through a doctor who came into my local Practice, and listened to the symptoms I outlined to him. Nothing specific. Just an awful aching dread in the pit of my stomach, weighing me down. At the time, I had no memory still of past events, with a twenty-year amnesic block. But it was enough for him to send me to a Psychologist. In turn, the Psychologist, even with that limited information, promised to listen, to learn alongside me, and to support me through the journey on which I was about to embark. Ten years later, we both knew everything that had happened to me. We filled in all the blanks. We had clarity. The reality was finally uncovered. And at least I knew what my inner dread and confusion and panic were all about ... and had coping strategies I could use to help me through the bad times to come.
Therapy isn't easy.
The only therapy I know which works, and I've tried many; is reliving the past as an adult through regression. Being able to know and see what happened all those years ago as if it were happening today, but at the same time, realising for the first time why, as a child, it was impossible to stop or to say 'No!'. Everything was so much bigger-than ... because I was a child. My nightmares remain that way. As a child, I'm always looking up at this giant towering over me dressed in a white coat. The couch on which I lie is so long and wide, while I'm so small. And the question reverberates around my mind: 'Why do I need to undress, when all he's going to do is measure one leg against the other?' I can still see his quizzical stare, the frown that follows, on the one occasion I dared voice the question out loud.
|Cutting the cord of Control, copyright: Janine Harrington|
Questioning the authority of one's abuser can have devastating results. Punishment comes in many guises. I know I went home in tears, not knowing why. Perhaps he told my mother I'd not been a 'good girl'. Perhaps I therefore didn't have the treat of sitting in a cafe with a cake. I don't know. But it was the only time it happened.
Like my years as a battered wife.
The only time I ever found the courage to say 'No!' I ended up so severely beaten, I had a dislocated jaw. Why didn't I simply walk away? Where would I go? I realise now I couldn't have gone home to my parents. There was nowhere else. Besides, I had the mindset of a battered wife, believing implicitly it was something I was doing wrong that brought on the beatings. If only I could be a 'good wife', the same as being 'a good girl', then the pain would end.
I'm still looking for the 'Happy Ever After' my parents believed in!
Just as our physical well-being is important to a healthy way of life ... mental health matters! We can't change or erase what happened to us, whatever our trauma. But we can share. Sharing is paramount, not only to let our feelings out, but also to create a wider awareness, to give people knowledge and understanding, to draw others in to support those who have neither the courage or strength to say it the way it is.
It is vital to find a place to belong.
I discovered a place here, in the lovely place where I live. I know also that veterans and their families I work with and support are always ready listeners. Kindred Spirits. Family. True family is about being able to be 'just as I am', without fear of reprisal, or judgement ... simply feeling wrapped in the safe harbour of loving arms reaching out, drawing me in.
Every day I thank them in various ways for giving me a sense of well-being, balance, friendship, Love ... vital ingredients for survival.
|Cayton Bay, copyright: Janine Harrington|