A life beyond trauma?

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By Freya Hickman

You never think these things happen to you. You see it on the news, but it doesn’t happen to you. It’s the kind of thing that only happens to other people and you never really think about how it might actually feel or the impact it might have. Until all of a sudden, it does happen to you.

I was there. On the 3rd June 2017, I was caught up in the chaos of the events surrounding the terrorist attack in London Bridge and Borough Market. I remember that night like it was yesterday.

There wasn't a corner of my life that wasn’t touched by the after effects of my experiences that night. It felt like I struggled through nearly every moment of every day.

I won’t go into the details of what happened, because every time I do, I relive it. But I also believe it’s more important to share how it impacted me because the impact of trauma isn’t spoken about enough. It’s not easy to talk about how it affected me, and (to be completely honest) still does, although to a lesser extent.

There wasn't a corner of my life that wasn’t touched by the after effects of my experiences that night. It felt like I struggled through nearly every moment of every day.

I felt continuously on edge and suffered from severe flashbacks and panic attacks that could be triggered at any time by events outside of my control at any time in the day. Routine tasks felt like herculean challenges. A few examples, being squashed in a crowd of people on the train or at the tube station, people standing close behind me, the fire alarm going off at work, events or images on the news or social media, stepping out at lunchtime and a siren going by, a car backfiring, people shouting or shrieking, flashing lights in a bar with friends or colleagues after work, someone smashing a glass, fireworks going off nearby where I can’t see them… the list felt endless. There was little respite as I suffered from nightmares in my sleep. I’m not sure I’ve had a good night’s sleep since. The thought of going to sleep became terrifying too. The world no longer felt safe and each and every day felt like a battle to get through.

There is no guidebook for something like this. And there were times when it felt like no one understood. There are people who will get it but there will also be people who won't.

Not only did the world no longer feel safe, my relationships were affected too. I found it hard to talk about because it felt too unbearable to share what was happening. Family and friends wanted to help but didn’t always know how, and I couldn’t communicate what I was experiencing or needed. There is no guidebook for something like this. And there were times when it felt like no one understood. There are people who will get it but there will also be people who won't. They might not be the people you expected to or wanted to understand. It's changed relationships, it’s also strengthened and helped to build new relationships through shared vulnerability.

My relationship with myself was affected too; I saw myself differently, or couldn’t see myself at all anymore. I felt completely out of control and I couldn’t do some of the things that used to be routine, easy or fun anymore. I felt guilt, frustration, anger, grief, loss, confusion - a whole rollercoaster of emotions. And underneath it all, I often felt completely lost and isolated.

It changes you inextricably. I was desperate to go back to the old me and get my old life back. But now, I don’t think you can. You learn to find a way to accept things and move forward with them. The event becomes a part of your story and might shape your life, but it doesn’t define it. More importantly, it doesn’t define you.

The feeling of meeting someone who “got it” for the first time was pivotal and the first time I really believed even for a moment that it would eventually get easier.

I was lucky that I could afford private therapy and access it quickly soon after the incident, because I knew I’d have to wait a long time to get the professional support I needed otherwise. I was fortunate that my mum helped me find a therapist who I got on with really well. I was also lucky that through a conversation with a friend five months later, I joined a Facebook group where I heard about a charity called the Tim Parry Jonathan Ball Peace Foundation who support people affected by terror. They were amazing and helped me connect with people who’d had similar experiences. They described it as being part of a club that you didn’t want to join. The feeling of meeting someone who “got it” for the first time was pivotal and the first time I really believed even for a moment that it would eventually get easier.

It’s been a long journey to get to where I am now. I was in therapy for two and a half years. There are lots of things that still affect me and I still consciously have to work on, but I now have a lot of tools and coping mechanisms to look after my mental wellbeing. I have worked really hard on self care and being kind to myself.

Professionally, I have a background as a project lead and senior analyst in technology, having worked in the energy trading sector. On my personal journey, I realised how hard it is to access support, and how privileged I was to access the support that I did.

People who are most likely to experience trauma are also those who are the least likely to be able to access support.

Trauma is still misunderstood in society and mental health services, and trauma-informed support is very hard to access. People who are most likely to experience trauma are also those who are the least likely to be able to access support.

I left my role in the city around a year ago, and am in the early stages of building a company called re;mind. The first step of our mission is to provide personalised support to help people impacted by trauma learn to manage their day to day mental wellbeing, so they can rebuild and rediscover life after trauma. We’re working with people who have lived experience of trauma, as well as clinical and academic experts, to ensure that we build something meaningful. I am also a pioneer on the first Zinc VC Academy: Mental Health programme, where I am working alongside an inspiring cohort of fellow pioneers, the Zinc community and experts in the field. The cohort are working on a diverse range of impact driven projects that share the common goal to improve mental health in society.

Just before I sat down to write this, I was in conversation with a peer who said “I can see you still find it hard to talk about, but remember why you’re doing this”.

I'm doing this because it's important for anyone who has experienced trauma and who is struggling to know you can talk about it, it is real, and there is support out there for you. I see you and I believe you. You’re not alone. If sharing my experiences helps make your journey easier, then it’s worth it.

There is life out there after trauma

If you’re supporting a loved one who has been impacted by trauma, I see you too and I know you’re trying your hardest. My advice would be to take some time to learn about trauma and how it’s affecting the person; be patient, listen or spend time with them doing something you both enjoy, and it’s important to make sure to look after yourself too.

I would be lying if I said I'm not still affected by it. Every day. More than I'd care to admit. Anniversaries are hard too. It's still an ongoing journey, and I don't have it all figured out yet. I still find it hard to talk about, but I’m working on that too. But please know it can and will get better; it does get so much easier. You have to fight for yourself but it will be so, so worth it, I promise. There is life out there after trauma, I’m living it and I know you will be able to too.

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