Please don’t call me strong

Not strong

I know that people have the best intentions when they say, “you are so strong” however I really wish they knew how damaging that phrase can be.

I know it sounds like it is an encouraging thing to say and that I probably seem ungrateful for not appreciating it however I have a number of problems with the word “strong”

To me the word strong should be attributed to someone that is powerful and brave – I am none of those things and when someone calls me “strong” I feel like a total fraud.

What I am is a person who has to lock myself in the bathroom to hide the fact that I am trembling, sweating and struggling to breathe for absolutely no good reason and that is not what a strong person does. Calling me strong makes me feel like I shouldn’t do this, makes me feel that it’s not ok to be wobbly because that’s not what a strong person would do. When someone describes me as strong I feel I need to put on my fake smile and hide the fact that I am falling apart for fear that I will be “found out” and everyone will be disappointed in me.

Years ago when a reporter attempted to get me to speak to a national newspaper about my story I was told that most of the other victims were deemed to be “inappropriate” to be interviewed for the story they were running as many of the other victims had turned to substance misuse to cope with their lives. Somehow I was considered to be the acceptable face of a sexual abuse survivor and they were not – they were considered to be weak and I think that is very unfair.

Society only ever wants to see the success stories – they want to see someone rising from the ashes, victorious in life despite the horrible things that have happened. No one is ever comfortable with the fact that actually every day is a struggle, a horrible, messy struggle and use of the word “strong” can be very harmful.

So what to say instead?

The absolute best thing you could say is, “It’s ok to feel nervous/scared/freaked out.” Just recognising that things can be hard is a big help towards helping me feel validated and not feel like such a useless being for failing to live up to expectations.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Finding your place of sanctuary in the work place can be a life saver

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I read this article “Working Full-Time With Mental Illness Is Hard: Here’s How I Do It”  and it made me realise just how privileged I am in my own work place.

I am in a job which has a very high level of autonomy which means that, in the main, I get to dictate my own agenda and as such I can take a “time out” when needed. I am also very fortunate in that I have managed to find a place to go wherever I have worked – whether that be a quieter bathroom like the author of the Ravishly article, a space in a nearby park or sometimes a prayer room, no matter where I have been based on any given day I have managed to locate my “run to” location as most of the sites I have worked at have a prayer room or at the very least a quiet nook that I can sit in when needed.  Sometimes even the knowledge that there is somewhere I can go when it all becomes too much is enough to keep me on an even keel throughout the day.

The article also made me acutely aware of just how privileged I am to be in this position. About 12-18 months ago I was offered a course of counselling which meant taking time out of my working day. I asked my manager if it would be possible to compress my hours in order to make time to attend – I explained to them that I had been referred for counselling and that it was not possible to get a session outwith working hours. Their response was amazing , they were incredibly supportive of what I needed to do and agreed to adjust my working hours so that I did my full time hours over 4.5 days instead of 5. Of course I do recognise that this was just as good for them as it was me given that anything which enabled me to function better at work was good for the organisation as a whole. I also realise of course that not everyone gets this opportunity – not every employer can offer this and so I consider myself fortunate to have had the opportunity to attend counselling without any negative impact on my employment or salary.

As difficult as it is for me to continue working with C-PTSD I can’t imagine how it would be if I didn’t have the support I do at work or was in a job that did not allow me to make adjustments – there are so many jobs where it is not possible to just “down tools” and walk away to spend 10 minutes on breathing exercises in order to fight off an anxiety attack and I can’t imagine how people get through that.

If you have a dedicated “quiet zone” or Prayer room at your place of work then please do USE IT – the more people make use of these places the more likely they are to become commonplace and enable more people to function better in the workplace.

 

Self care is not easy

One thing that survivors of long-term abuse are not good at is self-care, when you have been repeatedly given the message that you are not worthy of being taken care of you tend to believe that this is true. I have already written about how it took an inordinately long time for me to actually get to see a dentist (here) and this was due to a combination of things – I feared what might happen if the dental chair triggered another flashback as I was acutely aware of the fact that the situation was a trigger for flashbacks and that I had NO idea what I was doing when dissociating during flashbacks. A good part was also due to the plain and simple fact that I suck at self care.

My most recent, and most difficult, battle with this has been in relation to pain management. I have suffered with chronic pain for many years – some of this is related to injuries I sustained when I was beaten up; I have tinnitus and hearing loss in my left ear following the pretty bad kick in the head I received. Some of my pain is related to the physiological effects of complex PTSD – being in a hyper vigilant state all the time puts a big strain on the body and I often suffer from tension headaches and bouts of stress-induced eczema as well as acid reflux.

I have become so used to the pain that it is often just a “white noise” so much so that it once took me 3 weeks to realise that I had broken my wrist after a fall. I was in a lot of pain but felt it couldn’t be broken as that was meant to be really painful whereas this pain, in the grand scheme of things, was bearable. It was only when I continued to have difficulty with motion that I eventually went to see my GP (Family Doctor) and was told that it was broken.

So when I have come across “niggles” during my running I have generally ignored them as each ache is added to the ever growing catalogue of background pain that makes up my daily life. This changed when I developed a common running injury – bursitis of the hip; the pain was so great that every time I put my foot on the floor it felt like someone was stabbing me in the hip; I tried the usual prescription of rest and pain meds but the bursitis recurred whenever I tried to resume running. Another unfortunate side-effect was that my back pain was much worse due to inactivity and my mental health was once again declining as I slipped into a depression.

I finally decided to see my GP for advice and they told me that the only way to treat it would be a course of Physiotherapy which I would need to pay for*. My first reaction was to give up running as I couldn’t pay for treatment – why couldn’t I? Because it meant spending money on myself, money to alleviate pain which I deserved – I deserve to be in pain because I am a bad person.

At least that’s what the voice in my head says to me, it says I am a bad, person who deserves to suffer because I didn`t speak out to raise the alarm about what my abusers were doing when I knew it was wrong it led to a whole load of other kids falling victim to those predators. Even when they were brought to justice I turned my back on the victims all over again by walking away and letting someone else take the stress of giving evidence, stress that led to many of them taking their own lives or dying from substance misuse as they sought solace for their pain in drugs and alcohol. For those reasons I feel like the pain I suffer is like my penance. I know the voice of reason would say otherwise; I too was a victim, I was young and scared but that doesn`t ease my conscience in any way – I can`t let myself off the hook, it`s like a form of “survivor guilt.”

However things are starting to change; when I told my partner what the GP had told me his first reaction was, “So when are you going to see a Physiotherapist?” I mumbled something about expense and he replied, “It’s not expensive if it gets you out of pain.” At that moment the inner voice started to creep in again but this time it was outnumbered – I was starting to listen to the voice of reason instead.

I spoke to a few people I knew through my running group and made an appointment to see a Physiotherapist, yes that`s right I actively sought out someone to help me get out of pain.

The appointment was a revelation – they asked me about my history and how I got the injury then stated that they would make a plan for me to return to running as soon as possible. They did not judge me or tell me that I deserved to be in pain and when the voice of doom tried to creep in I found it was quieter – almost meek, I felt like I had raised an army against it and it was no longer the loudest voice in my head.

The voice of doom in my head has kicked back big style since that first appointment and I am still struggling with the idea of being kind to myself but I am starting to believe that I don`t deserve to be in pain and that it is ok to do something about it. It`s a pretty major milestone though, I now have regular dental appointments and take care of my teeth and am finally beginning to address the rest of my body – in time I hope I can address the brain too.

*For those wondering why I was told I had to pay when we have the wonderful National Health Service (NHS) here in the UK. The truth is that although we have an amazing NHS system the Physiotherapy service where I live is under tremendous pressure with a minimum 6-8 month waiting list. The Therapists are also only able to allocate 15 minute sessions to each patient which I was told would not be sufficient to treat my injury hence I would need to seek out a private practitioner to treat it thoroughly.

A thank you to all involved in Parkrun UK

run

A few months ago I got the desire to take up jogging again, it had been a very long time since I had put on a pair of running shoes with any kind of intent but I still remembered how good it felt to be outdoors and to experience the buzz of achieving something.

My biggest drawback was fear – suffering from C-PTSD means you live in a constant state of being afraid – afraid of judgement, afraid of failure and afraid of what might happen and so you live in your own self-imposed prison because not trying is the “safe” option.

After doing a LOT of work using CBT techniques I decided to try to take up jogging again; I was acutely aware that I weigh a great deal more now than I did when I previously went running on a regular basis and that those days were long past so I decided I would need to start from scratch. I downloaded the C25K app on my phone, bought a pair of real running shoes and went out. I would like to say, in true sportsperson like spirit, that I just “went for it” but of course the fear of ridicule from other people meant that initially I would only go out under cover of darkness, in dark clothes so no one would notice me.

It wasn’t easy at first but the training plan was a good one and although each time I went out I felt like I was running on jelly-legs with lungs that were ready to explode and I would arrive home dripping with sweat I felt a sense of achievement – I was learning to run and although I was as slow as a snail I was improving a little bit each time.

I then heard about a wonderful organisation called Parkrun – it was described as a weekly 5km timed run, open to everyone for free, safe and easy to take part in and there was one taking place not too far away from me every Saturday morning. For weeks I read as much information as I could on the website, studied the previous results and read the reviews. Each time I kept coming back to those same words – “open to everyone” and each time that voice of low self-esteem kept telling me that “open to everyone” did not include the likes of me, that I was kidding myself to think I could attend such an event. More weeks went by and I read more posts from first time participants effusing about how welcoming the volunteers and fellow runners are at Parkrun events. Eventually I set myself a goal – “get to a Parkrun event”, that’s right, the goal was not “complete a Parkrun” oh no, the bigger challenge for me was to get myself to the start line despite the voice of low self esteem telling me that I was not fit to stand there.

And so one Saturday, I got a local bus to the venue, I very nearly got lost on the way due to high levels of anxiety but I was redirected by a very friendly regular runner who took me all the way to the start and briefed me on the event. More than anything I was astounded by the fact that they had looked at me and thought “aha, here is someone looking for the Parkrun” and not “for goodness sakes what is this person doing here” I felt like an imposter that was on the brink of being uncovered.

Once I got to the start I stood about at the back of the pack which then expanded as it got closer to the start time and I found myself in what was now the middle of the pack and on the brink of panic. The starting hooter went off and we moved off en masse, I was immediately overtaken by just about everyone there but I found my pace and carried on regardless. As I passed each KM marker there was a volunteer smiling and encouraging everyone to keep going and then as I crossed the finish line I was handed a token by a volunteer who smiled at me and said, “well done, good effort.” I can’t adequately describe what that meant to me but it changed things – the voice of doom was silenced by that one person saying, “well done. ”

I returned again the next week and the same thing happened – all the way round people were cheering me on, encouraging me to keep going and congratulated me on finishing. This happens week after week, in all weathers there are these amazing people who will stand there and cheer for complete strangers.

I wish I could tell all the volunteers as I pass them by how much their support has changed things for me – how I have gone from weeks of anxious thoughts about joining Parkrun to feeling that I deserve to stand on the start line each week. I am still a slow runner but I no longer feel inadequate or like an imposter, I now feel like a member of a running community – one that has welcomed me with open arms and words of encouragement.

If any of the volunteers do read this then please know that when you see me, an overweight, out of shape and out of puff person waving at you as I pass by that I am waving because I haven’t the breath to say “thank you so much for giving up your Saturday morning to enable this event to take place and for all your encouragement – it has made a huge difference to my ongoing battles and I appreciate everything you do.”

To anyone else considering joining the Parkrun community – do it! You will not regret it, I have gone from someone who was petrified by the idea of going to someone who now, when getting off the bus each Saturday, will shout out “Anyone going to parkrun today? Want to walk to the start with me?” that transformation has come about thanks to the support I receive at Parkrun UK.

 

 

 

You never miss what you never had – so why does it hurt so much?

Dead Flowers

Mothers Day should be a fun day filled with love but for many it is not.

I had a very difficult time yesterday, more so than any of the previous years as this year I truly understood just how much I have missed out on.

There has been an “awakening” of sorts during this last 12 months, it started with the realisation that I was not to blame for the abuse, followed by an awareness that those people who should have protected me not only failed me but failed catastrophically.

Mine is a very nuanced situation as I am not someone who suffered at the hands of abusive or narcissistic parents, they did not seek to deliberately hurt me for amusement but by virtue of being lost in the fog of their respective depressive illnesses they were indifferent to my apparent suffering and I, being a child at the time, did not know any other reality. The fact that I was a loner for most of my early adult life meant that it was some time before I realised there was an alternative to what I had experienced and now that I am aware I find myself mourning the loss of something I never had, something that has left a big, gaping hole in me.

What I felt yesterday can only be described as heartache, one that I was unable to escape from. I tried, REALLy tried but nothing soothed the pain yesterday, I felt grief stricken, isolated and foolish – foolish because here I was mourning for something I had never known, how is that even possible? Well apparently it is a very common feeling for survivors of childhood abuse or abandonment so at least I am not alone however I still feel like a fraud – so many people were posting about having afternoon tea with their inspirational Mothers or posting tributes to the Mother who is no longer alive but was the love of their lives and there was me, my Mother is alive and well but unreachable on an emotional level and I can’t help but feel that this is somehow my fault – that I have some kind of “malfunction” which means I am not lovable or capable of loving and that’s what hurts the most – what is that is wrong with me?

I almost wish there were something I could fix but the simple truth is that a depressive illness robbed me of a relationship with my Mother which resulted in me looking for love and affection in the wrong place with the wrong people which had horrific consequences that have cast a shadow over my adult life.