- the quality or state of being conscious or aware of something.
- a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.
The thing is with this kind of stuff is that it all sounds a bit new age, off in a forest finding yourself whilst hugging a tree, doesn’t it? Well it does to me anyway. But I was given my homework at the last session (my first session) so I thought I should play along if I really wanted to beat this thing. The counsellor gave me a pile of papers last week, and had ticked a number of the exercises that she wanted me to practice. I am undergoing Cognitive Behavioural Therapy to deal with trauma; I apparently have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). I say apparently, because to be honest I’m pretty embarrassed with the diagnosis. I mean, you hear the word PTSD and are immediately met with images of soldiers on the frontline in Afghanistan, or firefighters coming out of the Twin Towers. I have never once in my life imagined a normal mum, with a normal life, who can’t shake off the events of the last year when her daughter was diagnosed with a serious illness. And that is who I am (except maybe less stress on the ‘normal’).
Anyway, I shared an image on my social media pages that I created last week (my brain), designed to illustrate what goes on in the mind when it’s owner has a bit of a tough time handling a traumatic event. Although I don’t think I am worthy of the PTSD diagnosis, I do understand what is going on up there at the minute and it helped me to show it in a diagram. The long and short of it (no pun intended) is that the events of last year have become too big for my brain to process. Those short-term memories should have made their way down into the long-term memory by now, but they’ve got themselves stuck. And because they are stuck in my short-term memory, they are there, all the time; a constant reminder of those dark, dark days. Sometimes they are that there, that it feels like they are here. Now let me tell you there is a massive difference between recalling a painful memory, and intrusive memories and flashbacks. I was ‘blessed’ with a pretty remarkable memory, particularly for words. I can recite poetry that I’ve not read in years, I can recall the exact way I felt when I was thirteen years old and my Grandad passed away, and yes dear Husband, I can remember what was said in that argument in 1998. I don’t seem to be able to let go of things that have evoked a strong emotional response. Not a bad thing, unless you feel most things with the intensity of a Tsunami, in which case you find yourself with a hell of a lot of stuff up there. But I digress slightly.
I’d say the main difference between a memory and a flashback is the intensity of the emotional response. Of course we all feel a little sad when we recall a loss, or a particularly difficult time in our lives. But when those events have been properly processed, they evoke just a small amount of the emotion originally felt. When those events haven’t been correctly processed because the brain just couldn’t manage the overwhelming task, they are recalled with all the strength of emotion that was felt the moment that it happened. I think it might help (me more than anyone, perhaps) if I tell you what kind of intrusive thoughts and/or flashbacks I am talking about.
These vary from images that flash in front of my eyes when I am least expecting it (though not to be confused with a ‘flashback’ – you’ll see why later), to a little Voice of Doom in my head that likes to play Devil’s advocate with the ever-so-slightly-smaller Voice of Hope. You might have heard me talk about ‘Ant‘ before (Automatic Negative Thoughts)? Well she’s a whole other kettle of fish! I don’t seem to hear much from her these days, but I often wonder if she is pulling the strings of the Voice of Doom. Ok, so now I sound like I have multiple personality disorder, and whilst I do not profess to be particularly knowledgeable on that subject, I can confidently say that I do not! These parts of the brain exist in all of us, I just like to give them a name as we are so well acquainted.
So, let me give you a few examples.
If you are old enough (that is, as old as me) then you might remember that 1980’s toy, the ViewMaster? Hang on, I’ll find you a pic……There you go. When I close my eyes, it’s like an automatic ViewMaster, presenting snapshot after snapshot of memories. Bad memories. Mostly it’s Freya; lying in her hospital cot pleading at me with her eyes, gasping for breath, disappearing into the MRI tunnel or her eyes rolling into the back of her head as she was forced into sleep on an operating table. The worst snapshot is the one of her lifeless, limp little body at the moment that I realised this was going to be bad.
Sometimes, it’s not Freya, but me that I see. Like watching my own life through some kind of out of body experience. That’s what happened when I went to bed last night. Image after image of all the moments when I felt most frightened and most vulnerable during my 6-week incarceration courtesy of 3 of Yorkshire’s finest hospitals. The moment the Cardiologist took me to a room and told me she couldn’t do anything to save Freya from the worst of risks. The moment I tried to go back to the HDU, to my little girl, and slid down the wall because I couldn’t bear to take one more look at her if I was going to have to lose her. The times when visiting hours were over and my lonely evenings began. The long walk down those LGI corridors at 3am when my body betrayed my resolve to stay awake by Freya’s bedside all night (they wouldn’t let me sleep on the ward for that period). And standing in the hospital Chapel doors, not really knowing why, but writing a prayer all-the-same; “Dear God, prove them wrong.”
Those are some of the things that I see when I close my eyes. So I don’t. I stay awake for as long as I can possibly keep my eyes open. Partly because that means there are less hours for Freya to sleep ‘unsupervised’, partly because of what lies behind closed lids.
And then there are the thoughts. The what ifs, buts and maybes. I’ll be brushing Freya’s hair, and wonder whether she will have her brother’s curls…“What if you never see it?” I’ll be listening to her gurgle and babble away in that special little language of hers and think about how I can’t wait to be able to chat with her…“As long as nothing bad happens before then.” I swat those thoughts away like pesky flies, but the sneering tone lingers. Every thought I have about the future is met with a voice warning me not to tempt fate.
These are less common. It’s hard to tell the difference between a flashback and an intrusive thought/memory sometimes. I have mini ‘flashphoto’ moments at times. I don’t know if you have ever seen that movie with Brad Pitt, Se7en? <<Spoiler Alert>> There’s a scene right near the end when he opens the box and just for a split second you see an image of his wife’s head in the box. It’s that quick, you don’t even know if you really saw it, and it’s only when you’ve seen it a few times that you start to expect it. Well that happens to me with images of Freya, except sometimes the image sharpens until it has altered reality. Just yesterday, I looked down at her little post-bath face framed by a fluffy white towel and was immediately taken back to the moment I first held her in my arms, wrapped in a hospital issue blanket. Without any warning, a rush of sadness overwhelmed me and the tears that are always there at the brink started to fall.
I think for me, the differentiation between the intrusions and a flashback, is in both the intensity and their ability to alter reality. The intrusive images are played to me one by one, like you would see with every click of that little red ViewMaster. They are disturbing, upsetting and unnerving. But I can shake my head and try to make them go away. The flashbacks are different. Whether it be seeing Freya’s face change right in front of my eyes to the point that I am again holding my sick child in my arms, to reliving a particular event, they steal into my life without warning and manage to transport me back in time to when it was all very real and very raw. When the ‘real’ flashbacks happen, I am cold, rooted to the spot, I tremble, I sweat, my chest tightens and I can’t breathe. And I cry, I cry a lot.
There have been a number of triggers for the ‘real’ flashbacks. Mainly smells and sounds that take me right back to those weeks in the hospital. The phone rings at the wrong time and it’s the monitors beeping incessantly to tell the nurses the IV has stopped running, again. Freya’s bedtime toy starts to play it’s little tune in the middle of the night, and we’re right back there, in that cubicle, her eyes staring blankly at the glowing seahorse that soothes her to sleep. I can’t sing a certain song, or hear certain pieces of music without being stopped in my tracks as my surroundings and environment change around me. Having Freya’s old cot by the side of my bed is a major trigger. The silhouette of the bars in the dim light of our bedroom at night; I find myself constantly checking the baby that isn’t there (she is in her own room now).
I feel like I am constantly being hijacked by my fears and my memories. They don’t want to let me go, they don’t want me to let go of them. And as warped as it might sound, I’m not sure if I want to let go of them…
What does that actually mean? You know what I am most scared of? I’m scared of beating this, and forgetting. Scared I’ll stop appreciating what we all went through and begin to take life for granted. Scared that if I forget how it felt, I won’t fight to make sure Freya has the best life she can possibly have; that we all will. And because I feel like my whole self has been defined by the events of the last year, I am scared that if I let it go completely I will not know who I am, and I will be lost.
But I do know that I have to let this go. I have to open my mind to the treatment I am being offered. I have to shift these things from my short-term memory down into the long, where they will never be forgotten, but where they will cease to have control over my life.
Today I started the treatment in earnest. During the session, I had to undertake a Mindfulness of Emotions exercise. I was already crying before we started; I had been asked to think of 5 events in my life that had had either a positive or negative emotional effect upon me. Always the over-thinker, I struggled to think of them and my mind went blank. I thought of a couple of things – Grandad dying (bad), Eliza’s birth (bad), Finlay’s birth (good)… Nothing else would come, absolute blank. Obviously the situation with Freya goes in there at number 5, but we had to agree to leave number 4 for next time. I think the plan is that you practice the techniques whilst processing some old memories/events so that by the time you reach the biggie you are an expert in handling thoughts and emotions. Something like that.
So, I sat in my chair opposite the therapist, and she handed me some paper towels to wipe my eyes (I have no idea why they don’t realise they might need tissues for these things!). She told me to close my eyes, lay my feet flat on the floor and sit straight with my hands on my lap. All I had to do was to sit still, feel my body in the chair, and when a thought came along I was to accept the emotion that it brought with it, and dismiss the thought. What actually happened was a full blown panic attack. I felt the anxiety building as I sat there facing the counsellor with my eyes shut (did she not hear that I have an issue with that?!) I was conscious that my feet wouldn’t stay still, and I was wringing the tissue in my hands. Every inch of me wanted to get up and run, and it was one of the most uncomfortable things I have ever done. When I stopped breathing, and then started gasping for breath (I know! Idiot!!) I had to open my eyes. The counsellor had a chat with me about what had happened, and she said that I was trying to run from what I might see with my eyes closed, and we should start again. This time I would face the window, so I might feel under less scrutiny.
The remaining 15 minutes of the exercise were tougher than I imagined. But in that state of quiet awareness, I could actually see the thoughts arriving and feel the physical effects that those thoughts were having on my whole body. It was intense, and surprising. Sitting there in that state, I was acutely aware of how my body reacted to the thoughts as they intruded. My toes were actually curling, my whole body squirmed, and my breathing became more rapid. And then, of course there were the tears, but I never had that much of an issue producing those. Sitting there allowing myself to feel the emotions whilst trying really hard to tell the thoughts to bugger off, I felt like one of those shove ha’penny machines at the amusement park. A mind full of thoughts spilling over into my consciousness, causing the emotions to come rushing out in waves. Towards the end I felt bruised. But I did notice that within the last few minutes I began to notice the sounds around me, and no longer noticed the thoughts. Cars going by the window, the scrape of a chair from the floor above, the buzzing of the PC on the desktop. And as I noticed those noises, and the noises in my head began to quiet themselves, I felt my shoulders drop and I was still.
My homework is to practice that every day for at least 15 minutes. As I am not sleeping, and am delaying bedtime, the counsellor suggested that I do the exercise in bed. It’s like training your brain to accept thoughts without entertaining them, to feel the emotion that those thoughts evoke, but to focus on something else so that those emotions can be let go. Right now, my thoughts are being overindulged. They need putting on the naughty step, and I need to stop allowing them to dictate how I am going to live my life.
Wish me luck.