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Looking Back To Look Forward

It has been an incredibly challenging 2019 and although not entirely evidence-based, perhaps cosmically influenced? Miss Greta Thunberg would likely attribute it to global warming and the dooms day prophets, possibly the impending apocalypse? Whatever the reason, it has been a difficult year for many people.

Australia has seen devastating natural disasters in 2019. My thoughts have been with all those involved and affected by the droughts, the fires, the cyclones and the floods. So too, the families of the unsuspecting holiday-makers who were injured and killed due to the erupting volcano in New Zealand. It has been heartbreaking to see volunteers and firefighters losing their lives in acts of good faith. The losses incurred due to these disasters, have been profound!

Adversity seems to bring people together and I suspect it is due to the identification with the loss and vulnerability. There is something very connecting in shared emotion, that cannot be achieved by mere verbal communication. I believe we start grieving the minute we lose the security of the womb. The pain becomes compounded by ongoing experiences of loss and grief. It isn’t fair or useful to compare individual responses to adversity, as these feelings would be affected by a multitude of factors.

Atticus said 'you never know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk about in them' (To Kill a Mockingbird). And there could not be a greater truth! It is always easier (and fruitless) to judge from the sidelines.

My year started with a life-changing tragedy, as my father was murdered. For the first time I was able to resonate with the many symptoms of PTSD. I had been exposed to very disturbing events and content that left me scattered and traumatised. The initial 6months of 2019 I experienced constant nightmares, shadows over my shoulder, episodes of zoning out, scattered, intrusive, disorganised thought processes, occasional voices in my head and mood changes. I became more impulsive in my actions and self-sabotaging.

I recall a day in March this year whilst standing in a phone store. On the desk was a small green, cylindrical stationary holder and within it, a tiny box cutter with a red handle. It seemed magnified and I had to restrain myself from impulsively blurting out: “my father was killed with that!!” Every time I saw someone accidently hurt or cut themselves and bleed, I would think of my father. I would wonder about the pain he had to endure. I would see the image of him lying on the floor. I would hear my brother’s scream on the phone. I spent hours ruminating on the possible events that had culminated in his death. I wanted answers and justice. I needed closure, but it was not to be…

After 6 months, I began to block everything and lived happily as if nothing had happened. I had to function and it seemed like the right thing to do. I was unable to be reminded of him. I had left my father in South Africa, under a mound of dirt, with Table Mountain looming in the distance. I had said goodbye. I had said that I was sorry for ever hurting him and leaving without the answers to this mystery. Due to the complex nature of trauma, I had lost my way in many ways since he died. I felt lost, but unable to find myself again…

People tried to offer comfort by reminding me of the normalcy of death. I reminded myself of my medical training and the injuries I had seen on a Saturday night in the surgical “pit” at CH Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto. I was a psychiatrist for goodness sake; I was familiar with mental health. However, these statements, feelings and thoughts left me feeling guilty, stupid and ultimately, insane. Rational support, at the wrong time, can be very invalidating.

Over years, I have heard clients discuss the negative and retriggering impact of the anniversary of their trauma. Really? I empathised but found it hard to understand. That doubt has been radically eliminated, in proportion to my escalating anxiety, as I approach the 29th of December – the worst day of my life!

My year has ended with further deep sadness. Although I am so fortunate to share in the lives of many, I am equally gut-wrenched by the losses: to see parents lose a child to mental health and a child lose their parent to disease, leaves me empty and numb. My thoughts are with every person who has lost a loved one this year. Grief is a process with no finite conclusion.

Trauma focused CBT is an evidence-based therapy for dealing with trauma. In short, de-arousal, exploration of the trauma narrative, desensitisation and cognitive integration are used to minimise the trauma symptoms. Clients find relief in sharing their experiences and understanding the connection between their feelings, thoughts and behavioural urges.

The acknowledgment and understanding, at minimum, is healing. The spectrum of trauma is as wide as the Grand Canyon! Nothing could be more hurtful and shaming than undermining, judging or questioning another person’s response to their lived experiences. Trauma affects the brain and many of the defences and coping strategies, result in further dysfunction.

I would not be surprised if you are wondering why my end of year blog is so depressing?

Simply put, it is the acknowledgement, compassion, understanding, integration and love that heal the hurt and allow the re-establishment of trust.

Hence my final message of 2019 is one of hope and kindness. I urge those who need help to reach out and to know that is ok to need support. As I kissed my father’s coffin, wept and said: “I love you daddy”, I could only think that we are all the same, mere mortals. Life is far too short…

Let us make 2020 the year for mind health, kindness, forgiveness, a lack of judgement, support of others and personal growth. To every precious child that has been robbed of their childhood innocence in some way, remember that you have value, are lovable and are very special and brave. To all of those suffering illness or grief, my thoughts and wishes of comfort are with you this festive season. To everyone else, thank you for the love and support his year. Best wishes and peace to you all!

Xxx L

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