I came into being an unplanned pregnancy, outside of a loving relationship. The first environment I knew was at best ambivalent, at worst hostile. As I grew, on the outside secrets were kept, plans for marriage were rushed into action. Freedoms were lost and futures were changed. Still, inside I grew. Not sure if I was welcome, not sure if I had the right to be. Steeped in shame from my very conception.
I was a ‘good’ baby. I believe on some level I already knew that my needs were secondary to my parents so I didn’t cause a fuss. The attachment and attunement so vital to healthy development was lacking but not because my parents were bad people. They carried the wounds of their own childhood neglect. Often frozen or in fight and flight themselves, they were unable to self-regulate in healthy ways and so were unable to help me learn to self-regulate.
My clothes were clean, my dinners got made but it was an unhappy, tension-filled home. There was very little in the way of love but I hadn’t known it to miss it. My brother grew, two years behind me, from a ‘demanding’ baby into a difficult toddler, to a school refuser, a ‘hyper’ child. He never developed the ability to self-regulate and this would lead him to dark places in adulthood, but that is his story. My mum said I was like a ‘wee adult’ as I toddler. I just seemed to know what to do, which was not to need anything because needing anything was bad. I became a good girl, the good one, ‘no bother’ and I kept it all in.
I hated myself a lot of the time. I felt uncomfortable in my body for as far back as I can remember. But I kept that in too. I became really good at presenting a me to the world that cracked jokes, acted like they didn’t care about things. I got good at pretending.
The teenage years arrived and with them alcohol and drugs. My relationship with alcohol became a volatile love affair that lasted 30+ years. I drank and I partied, and continued into my twenties, surrounding myself with others like me so it felt normal. There were fun times, but behind closed doors I suffered. I felt scared and anxious and I developed obsessions over getting a serious illness and accidentally harming other people. I made myself sick in secret. I was crawling the walls with anxiety and self-loathing at times. I knew that I must be a bad person not worthy of love. But I was so good at playing the part I had created it didn’t matter. When it all got too much I could just have a break by getting wasted. I spent a lot of time planning to get wasted, getting wasted or recovering from getting wasted. I found my own way to self-regulate.
I became a parent and my life changed. Over the following years my emotional well-being fell off a cliff and I entered a perilous world of debilitating anxiety and depression. The dysfunctional ways of self-regulating I had crafted through the years were no longer available to me, so my nervous system went into flooding, with all the intense fight and flight emotions I had held back for so long finally consuming me.
My GP was sympathetic but could only refer me to mental health services and offer various medications, all ways of mitigating the effects of a nervous system out of control. In my desperation I accepted. When I was finally assessed 15 long months later, my experience was reduced to postnatal depression, and when I relapsed it became ‘recurrent depressive disorder’. I was given rounds of CBT. Nobody wanted to know my story. The problem was within me, it was a biochemical imbalance. My care was like a kind of institutional gaslighting, another place where I felt unseen and unheard.
Meanwhile, my relationship with my family was breaking down. I couldn’t be the good one anymore, I needed help and I could no longer keep it all in. The mask began to crumble and with it my dysfunctional family relationships.
Feeling let down, I left NHS care. I found a counsellor who shared my belief that attachment and early relationships are crucial to wellbeing. I began my journey towards healing, the return to the unblemished self that had once existed, however briefly. I began to tell my story in a safe and non- judgmental relationship.
Over time I educated myself. I learned more about attachment, more about boundaries, co-dependency and addiction. I tried mindfulness, meditation, and practicing yoga. I kept a diary and wrote down what I could not express through talking. Writing helped me give form to the darkness. I learned a lot about what healthy relationships looked like from my family in law. They taught me that it’s okay to need help and receive it and I felt acceptance even at my lowest ebb. I finally began to recognise that doing my own work was the most important work of all. No amount of good deeds or rescuing others could ever be a substitute for that.
In connecting with my authentic self I believe I began to draw more authentic and sustaining relationships into my life. I continued to work on trauma, becoming interested in how it is embodied, and how the distinctions between the physical, emotional, social and spiritual realms of being are only arbitrary. Being well is being whole, it is being able to integrate all our experiences, good and bad. It is the development of resilience and self-regulation.
My recovery is precious and I look after it as such. Like a garden, it needs regular tending to flourish but this work is joyful, not onerous. I continue to practice yoga and this has been an important tool in developing an accepting relationship with my body. Through yoga I have learned to experience my body as a metaphor: am I pushing too hard, if so why? Can I be gentle with myself? Where does tension exist and how can I balance it out? It is an ongoing conversation. I have an ever deepening awareness of what relationships serve me and I try as much as I can to surround myself with those I feel resonance with. I have boundaries and I honour them as best I can.
Through a combination of first-hand experience and research I have come to believe that if we can live authentically, if we are able to do our trauma work and forge meaningful connection to our deepest self and others, we can heal. Recovery is possible. We can self-regulate without the use of chemical props, whether they be medically prescribed, legally available, or otherwise. I have been alcohol free for six years and I am tapering off the SSRI medication which I have been (mostly) on for the past nine years. I’m ready to find out if I have finally developed the ability to self-regulate for the first time in my adult life.
Watch this space.
Author: Michele Hinchliffe
Epione wants to personally thank Michele for the courage to speak her truth and share her recovery journey. All credit to the survivors and people with lived experience who choose to occupy this space and offer hope that recovery is always possible. If you’d like to share how you’ve overcome trauma and how you’ve been recovering, please get in touch with us at firstname.lastname@example.org – We look forward to hearing and seeing you.