I think of my recovery as an overgrown garden that I’ve been forced to look after. As a child I found myself at the bottom of a tangled garden and because I didn’t have any choice, I started to push my way through the undergrowth. When I got into my teens I found that if I grabbed at the bushes with my hands it hurt, but at least it gave me some space to breathe. In my twenties I decided to learn to garden, that is I began to work in mental health services. That helped me a bit because I found out what tools I should be using, but mainly I still used my hands. They bled a lot.
At thirty I’d made some headway, there was a patch where weeds didn’t grow anymore and plants were starting to flower. I felt pretty good about my clearing, I told my friends about it, I made uncomfortable jokes about the old me who flailed at thorns with his hands. Now I was a grown up professional in charge of his garden and helping other people with theirs.
I was so confident in my new self that I even began to dig, I happily shoved my spade into the ground knowing that I was someone who finally had things sorted, someone who’d been through some stuff but was coming out the other side. I told people I was a better gardener for it. But the body was there, buried in the clearing. A cadaver that had been lying under the soil all this time, waiting for me to find it. The smell made me dizzy, the sight of it did things to my mind and body I couldn’t comprehend, often I was overwhelmed just by the thought of it.
And now I could tell you about my recovery, the trust I felt in my counsellor who helped me with the corpse that was my trauma, the year I spent seeing her weekly. I could tell you about the EMDR I had and how it ended the dissociation I’d been experiencing my entire adult life without knowing. But that isn’t the story I want to tell, because it’s the rare story of a traumatised person who had the time, money and knowledge to get what they needed. For most people it’s not like that.
Instead I want to talk about the split trauma created between my professional self and my personal self. Working in frontline mental health services I’d always felt a disconnect with the people I was supporting. On the surface we were talking about the same thing but on a deeper level I could feel we were missing each other completely. Now I know what that disconnect was: my trauma processing was intense, visceral, primitive and deeply personal, yet my professional understanding of it was cold and detached. I knew that because I was not a “risk” I would not be eligible for support from mainstream services, but I also knew that I was suffering a great deal and desperately needed help. I had medical labels for some pieces of the puzzle but no language at all to capture the magnitude and complexity of what was happening in my psyche. I still think about how I would have felt if someone had tried to mould my experiences to fit psychiatry’s idea of what I was going through.
At that time I thought a lot about the gulf between those two parts of me and how my professional view of distress as a purely biological illness was a choice – an unconscious choice to ignore the needs of traumatised people and use science to silence them. Though it wasn’t just my choice or the choice of mental health services, it’s a choice society has made too. A society that is too disturbed by the reality of abuse to accept it, one that believes it is better served by denying the suffering of victims.
Today I’m working on those two sides of me, trying to bring them together. With my personal self I’m learning what emotions feel like without the cloak of trauma around them; even before my breakdown I could tell there was something about my emotions that didn’t feel authentic, I knew I couldn’t always rely on them. Now when I feel joy, sadness or anger I know what I’m feeling is real and I’ve discovered there’s an incredible power in being able to trust your emotions.
With my professional self I’m using what I know to be better at what I do, hopefully with more compassion, more understanding. Everyone’s experience of trauma is different and I’m very aware that the privileges that helped me through mine aren’t available to most people, so I don’t pretend to know what others are going through. But I do try to educate, challenge and question my colleagues, promote knowledge and understanding of trauma, get people to think about its impact and what people really need to recover.
Since my breakdown, I’ve begun to pay attention to the change going on inside and outside the mental health system. I see more people talking about trauma and abuse in the media and the language of trauma seems to be passing into the mainstream. At work I sometimes see words like “complex trauma” where once it would have read “personality disorder”. When I deliver training on trauma people come with a level of understanding they never had before. There are reasons to feel positive. Like my recovery, the change is slow and sometimes stalls but it’s moving in the right direction; I’ll never get to the end of the garden and it’ll never be completely tidy, but at least now there’s space for me to lie down and rest.
Author: Dan at Amygdala & Co.
Epione wants to personally thank Dan at Amygdala & Co. for his courage to share his journey. All credit is to the 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 email@example.com – We look forward to hearing and seeing you.