Personal Development, Trauma

On Flashback and Fear

Trauma Fuel

The reflection that you are about to read, I wrote in November last year on the night of the Paris attack. That was the night of my last rather bad flashback. My kids fell asleep and I turned the TV on so unprepared for what I was about to hear. I saw the news report and the space around me narrowed in an instant. It felt like a vacuum that is pulling me to a place that I am desperately trying to avoid. But I couldn’t do it. There was no avoidance and no way out. That night I relived the worst six hours of my life when the house I lived and worked in was stormed by six suicide bombers ready to execute their plan while I was convinced that my colleagues and I were living through the last hours of our lives…

After the flashback on the night of the Paris attack, I went to my bedroom where my daughter was sleeping and lied down next to her gently so I don’t wake her up. I was crying so much, I made the pillow wet. I put my arm around her as if she was my little raft for me to hold on to and not sink further down. Then, I heard my son getting off his bed and his tiny feet tapping across the hallway into my bedroom. He climbed up on the bed, squeezing himself in between his sister and me, oblivious to the inner drama that I was going through and put his little arm around my neck, falling asleep. As always, their mere existence managed to calm me down, steady my breathing and my heart rate, like my two little lifejackets that keep me on the surface of the ocean of terror.

I took a deep breath, placed my computer on my lap and started writing…

‘I cannot begin to explain how I feel after hearing the news about the attacks in Paris tonight. Am I pissed off? Outraged? Terribly sad? Or desperate to learn that somehow, somewhere I am not surprised and I feared that this would happen. Paris? Is it a surprise? Only a few hours after the attacks, while the hostage situation still lasted, some analysis came out indicating that as shocking as they are these attacks should not come as a surprise, neither should location.

I cried. I cried when I heard the news and I felt physically weak. My hands started to shake, my heart was pounding, I couldn’t breathe and I couldn’t sit still, but I walked in circles in our living room while I was searching for the news on BBC or ITV or Channel 4 or any news channel, so I could get some live updates about the situation in Paris. There were none, I couldn’t find any update on TV and I started to panic. My palms started to sweat and I opened my Facebook account on my laptop, my Apple news on my iPad and my Twitter on my phone and I was not happy with the speed of the live updates! I wanted all the numbers, the actions, the statements, the reports and I wanted them all now. And the whole time, I cried. I am crying now while I’m typing this because I remember and I understand the noise, the fear and the terror of the victims, the hopelessness and powerlessness, the feeling of seeing your end and being convinced that you will not come out of there alive. Those who do survive, they will not believe it and will be wondering how did they survive.

The noise is constant. Those short moments when there is no noise, the fear is louder and tangible. Eerie silence. Then the noise starts again and death appears and people lose their lives. Just like that. I can’t stand the noise now. Once one life is taken, the death stays there, it lingers on. You think about your end, you see it coming and you think about your worst fears and you hope they don’t come true in your final moments. You hope that you will not go in pain, that you will not suffer too much as if the fact that you think about all this and the fact that you found yourself in this situation is not suffering enough. You think how powerless you are and how there is absolutely nothing you can do to change the situation you’re in. But you don’t say it out loud. When it comes to saying out loud, you say ‘we will get out of here’, ‘we will be ok’. And you don’t believe it. You know it is not true.

The fear doesn’t go away. It stays with you, you just learn to live with it. Fear and you adjust to each other. You get better, you process the trauma, you deal with it in different ways, you overcome it to a certain extent and the fear adjusts to it. It changes size, it changes shape and it changes you.

You will never be the same person again. I am not the same person.’

I analysed my emotions so many times before that night and I knew my fears and my triggers but this time, I dwelled on it long enough to wrap it up in words stamp it with ‘outgoing’ and ship it out of me. No, it is not as easy as writing a couple of paragraphs, I am most certainly not saying that. But I lived the fear every single day for over five years and that was the night I distanced myself from it successfully. My stress level goes up, naturally, when I hear the news of yet another terrorist attack, but I don’t dwell on my fear for as long anymore.

Since the Paris attack, there were many terrorist attacks, unfortunately, Ankara, Istanbul, Beirut, Bamako, Brussels to name only a few. There are whole countries experiencing them on a daily basis and every time I hear about them I grab my two little rafts to get me trough the day because that is what I learnt: to take things a day at a time. Day by day…

Personal Development, Trauma

I Wish I Knew Before…

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I wish I knew how powerful and omnipresent the fear can be. Every sound that I hear makes me fear for myself: the siren, the helicopter flying, the balloon at the birthday party, the cry of a baby… Then, there are smells, the heat, the smoke, the sunrise…

I wish I knew how sadness can physically hurt. Not only that my heart was broken, but my spirit was broken, my system of values was just about standing as everything I believed in and stood for was chewed up and spat in my face.

I wish I knew how guilt can eat me up until there is nothing else to feel – guilt for what I said and what I did; guilt for the decisions I made. Guilt that I felt for breathing and for being alive; guilt for eating my food and being with my family, for thinking about smiling. So, I stopped… I stopped smiling, I stopped seeing my friends and I kept asking myself why in the world did I survive but two fathers never returned…

I wish I knew that there is no recipe, no guidelines, no daily tips for survivors. There is only night and day and it is hard to tell which is worse. Is it the night, when I am on my own with my thoughts, emotions and memories and I cannot escape no matter how hard I try. Or is it the day when I just drag myself through it knowing that at the end of it, the night is waiting to face me again – so the day is more like a procrastination or maybe even a little break so I can take a breath or two and then when the night comes, I go back to my own, personal labyrinth of fear, guilt, despair, grieving…

I wish I knew how hard it is to make sense of my own trauma…

I wish I knew how powerful and uplifting forgiveness to myself is…

I wish I knew how to recognise the beginning in what I was convinced was the end…

 

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Personal Development, Trauma

Make Your Trauma Your Fuel

‘… and I ask you right here please to agree with me that a scar is never ugly. That is what the scar makers want us to think. But you and I, we must make an agreement to defy them. We must see the scars as beauty. Okay? This will be our secret. Because take it from me, a scar does not form on the dying. A scar means, ‘I survived’. This is a quote from the book that I am reading at the moment called The Other Hand by Chris Cleave. These words come from Little Bee, one of the two main characters where, little further she continues with ‘… sad words… But you must see them the same way we have agreed to see scars now. Sad words are just another beauty. A sad story means, this storyteller is alive’.

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I reached a stage where I am able to tell my story and it took me a long time. I lost my language, among other things, after the attack. Language is an important part of my identity – of any of us – I’m bilingual, yet, I was not able to name the event, any of the emotions, any of the memories in any of the languages. And it was not even translating the events into a language so I could tell it to others, it was translating it to myself. All I could do is relive them, feel them again and again and rewind the recorded events over and over again.

I learnt that when one goes through a traumatic event, our language centres are not priority destinations for blood flow but rather amygdala which is the fight and flight fear centre of our brains. Obviously, our brains during the traumatic event are focused on keeping us alive and prepared for the next bad thing and that is about it – which is great for survival. On the other hand, it sucks when it comes to storytelling. As much as I love neuroscience, biology, psychology, they didn’t help much when I was trying to make some sense out of the shit that had happened to me…

Until it did. How? I’m not sure, my memory is a bit patchy – I temporarily lost some of my memory and then it slowly came back, but I still struggle with some parts of the timeline, not only of the event but of the immediate aftermath as well. Anyway, I was first silent for a few months and then when I came to visit the man who is now my husband, we started talking about it and talking about it and talking about it. We retold each other our versions of the attack, we listened to each other, we connected some parts of the attack that didn’t really make sense and we went through our stories countless of times – between our therapist, ourselves, friends and anyone else who wanted to listen.

This constant retelling helped slowly make sense out of it but it also refined the language I used to describe and explain the event – at first it was rough, simple and as much as I knew that the descriptions were not as accurate as I would want them to be – it helped. Then, the more I analysed the attack and myself, the more exact I became in choosing words when telling my story. It was like catch 22 – the more sense it all had the better language I could use and the more accurate words I used, the more sense I could bring into my trauma.

Why am I so overly concerned with language, I don’t know – but I was always like that – I need to know how and why and until I do, things don’t make any sense to me. Am I stating the obvious? Probably, but things started unravelling for me when my therapist explained to me what happens in our brains, what happens to our body when trauma occurs. Then, he gave me a list of books to read and I did – to learn more about the trauma itself, but more about other peoples’ experiences, what LJ Astoria calls ‘thinking like a therapist’ – it all slowly started to come together.

Nevertheless, I still was not able, as in I was not patient enough or brave enough or stable enough, to give my written account. Now, after I finally managed to gather myself and have the guts to put everything on paper and make it permanent – as if it wasn’t permanent enough – now I see how much good it brings to me, but also to my family. I am getting rid of the frustration and pain, of guilt and anger, of sadness. I am able to analyse it better, to clarify it better and to store it better now when my burden is out in the open.

I should have done it earlier, but it was not ripe and ready – it may have looked ready on the outside, but inside it needed some more time. The time has come for my scar and my story to be seen as beauty – because I survived. My scar is my fuel. Don’t let your scar hinder you, make it your fuel.

The post first appeared on PTSDChat.org

alt="Biljana Hutchinson Kintsugi def."
Personal Development, Trauma

Sharing the Scar

 

I survived a suicide bombers’ attack in Afghanistan in 2010. There were six of them and seven of us. The attack lasted six full hours. Six hours of explosions, gunshots, fire, smoke, our own blood and sweat before the US forces rescued us. Out of seven, five of us survived and out of us five, four was injured. I was shot in my right upper arm only a moment after my friend and colleague was killed on the spot two stairs in front of me. I was head of the office for a US based company and he was part of our close protection team along with three more men. Two of them gave their lives to save mine and those of my other two team members. Another two that survived were badly injured and will suffer physical and mental consequences for the rest of their lives. One of them was seriously injured when he heard one of countless RPGs approaching and covered me with his body to protect me, earning himself several shrapnels in his skull. He was the last to join my team, less than 48 hours prior to the attack. He is now my husband.

The 7,62 calibre that hit my arm ripped lower part of my brachialis muscle off and left a rather big concave right above my elbow. For almost a year, I was covering the scar until the following summer when I wore my sleeveless wedding dress. My daughter asked about my scar for the first time when she was about two. She saw it and put her gentle little hand over it – it matched in size and it warmed up my elbow. She asked what was that and I told her that it was called a scar.

– I want one, mama, she said. I explained that some bad people hurt mama and that it is very good that she does not have one.

– It hurts?

– Only sometimes.

A couple of years later, when her little brother was about the same age and asked me the same question, she explained that ‘bad guys hurt mama but that it hurts only sometimes’. My son hugged me tight as if to take the pain away.

Immediately after the attack, I decided not to have kids because I did not want to bring them into this world full of evil and suffering. I was determined about the decision and I even said that at the beginning of our relationship to the man who saved my life. My husband is ex-military with 10 years of experience and several tours under his belt, so he had different mechanisms of coping and dealing with what happened. He lost his best friend in the attack and as much as he struggled himself, he managed to put things in the perspective for me and helped me with the survivor’s guilt for the first time. The guilt was tearing me apart. I was the head of the office and every person in that office was a member of my team and I felt responsible for what had happened, for the lives lost and injuries sustained… I still struggle with the feeling of guilt, although I now know that it was not my fault and that there was nothing I could have done to prevent the attack. Or was there?

 

alt="Biljana Hutchinson on the beach with daddy"

 

My husband’s patience, support, encouragement, and love made me change my mind about having children. It all happened quite quick; we married exactly one year after we met when I was already pregnant and we had our daughter six months later.

I struggled with the baby at first, then slowly managed to organise myself and be mentally prepared for different baby-situations as they happen – crying, vomiting, falls, colds, etc. Then, just when I thought I had everything under control, we had our son and I was almost back to square one with mental unpreparedness – I wasn’t stable enough and I had difficulties dealing with some of my fears.

I learned to enjoy the time spent with my kids – to play, laugh and explore the world with them. Although I am overly protective and I have to have my eyes on them at all times when we are outside, especially in crowded places and I struggle with small talk or with spending time with other moms at birthday parties or school events – I am doing these things because I love my children more than anything in the world and I don’t want them to miss out on their childhood and friendships because I have issues to cope with normal daily mom activities. Then again, what is normal…

My children and my husband are my chief healers and I wouldn’t be here today without them. They thought me that being a parent and a partner is a role in which days are tackled one by one and every struggle is rewarded with a gift of love – a kiss, a hug, a flower or a nickname – this week I’m Wander-woman, but I am not showing off because only last week I was a Rainbow elephant. As many people do, I too question myself as a parent, but I like to believe that taking one day at a time, is a good rhythm for a parenting-with-PTSD dance.

The post first appeared on PTSDChat.org

Personal Development, Trauma

The Inside Perspective…

In the light of the two attacks in Brussels but not forgetting the ones that happened since the Paris attack in November 2015 and, there were many of them, unfortunately, Ankara, Istanbul, Beirut, Bamako… – I am posting my short reflection from November last year…

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‘I cannot begin to explain how I feel after hearing the news about the attacks in Paris tonight. Am I pissed off? Outraged? Terribly sad? Or desperate to learn that somehow, somewhere I am not surprised and I feared that this would happen. Paris? Is it a surprise? Only a few hours after the attacks, while the hostage situation still lasted, some analysis came out indicating that as shocking as they are these attacks should not come as surprise, neither should location.

I cried. I cried when I heard the news and I felt physically weak. My hands started to shake, my heart was pounding, I could’t breath and I couldn’t sit still, but I walked in circles in our living room while I was searching for the news on BBC or ITV or Channel 4 or any news channel, so I could get some live updates about the situation in Paris. There were none, I couldn’t find any update on TV and I started to panic. My palms started to sweat and I opened my Facebook account on my laptop, my Apple news on my iPad and my Twitter on my phone and I was not happy with the speed of the live updates! I wanted all the numbers, the actions, the statements, the reports and I wanted them all now. And the whole time, I cried. I am crying now while I’m typing this, because I remember and I understand the noise, the fear and the terror of the victims, the hopelessness and powerlessness, the feeling of seeing your end and being convinced that you will not come out of there alive. Those who do survive, they will not believe it and will be wondering how did they survive.

The noise is constant. Those short moments when there is no noise, the fear is louder and tangible. Eerie silence. Then the noise starts again and death appears and people lose their lives. Just like that. I can’t stand the noise now. Once one life is taken, the death stays there, it lingers on. You think about your end, you see it coming and you think about your worst fears and you hope they don’t come true in your final moments. You hope that you will not go in pain, that you will not suffer too much, as if the fact that you think about all this and the fact that you found yourself in this situation is not suffering enough. You think how powerless you are and how there is absolutely nothing you can do to change the situation you’re in. But you don’t say it out loud. When it comes to saying out loud, you say ‘we will get out of here’, ‘we will be ok’. And you don’t believe them. You know they are not true.

The fear doesn’t go away. It stays with you, you just learn to live with it. Fear and you adjust to each other. You get better, you process the trauma, you deal with it in different ways, you overcome it to a certain extent and the fear adjusts to it. It changes size, it changes shape and it changes you.

You will never be the same person again. I am not the same person.’