Coping with trauma

When two men break into your home wearing balaclavas and carrying hunting knives let me tell you, it’s a GAME CHANGER.

Not least because at the time I had two very small children asleep upstairs, and was the only adult in the house.  Feeling helpless doesn’t even begin to cover the stream of emotions that race through your body and mind as you realise that this is real and not a dream.  As the ordeal progresses you begin to process things in a different way as your body goes into fight or flight mode.   When there is a knife at your throat I can assure you all thoughts of fight disappear extremely rapidly.  You soon realise the safest ending to this saga is going to be to do as you are told.  No questions asked.  Which is of course exactly what they are hoping for.

I am not going to go into too much of the minute detail of what exactly happened. The point of this is to raise awareness about knife crime, or indeed any violent crime and the destruction it leaves in its wake.  Those wielding these weapons of cowardice have no idea how much damage they are doing to their victim with the threat alone.  All in pursuit of their need for material gain. 

This subject is something that is incredibly close to my heart, and that is where I write from.  Just starting to put pen to paper on this subject still sends chills down my spine.  But being a survivor comes at a cost.  I have had different long term effects all caused from that night, ranging from not liking the dark, or being in the house alone to PTSD.  I felt guilty that I had somehow let it happen and put my children’s lives in danger, when in reality I did not invite these people into my home.  There was nothing I could have done to prevent it, but I was still blaming myself for many years afterwards.  Until that night I had no idea that our sitting room door had a key in the lock on the outside.  When they made their exit they locked, leaving me tied up and trapped knowing my children were upstairs in the house.

When reliving the ordeal for many months afterwards I used to only be able to visualise it from above, as I had clearly gone into a state where what I was experiencing had become an out of body experience.

What was amazing, and still is to me, is that they say you can taste fear, and it is true you can. I hope I never have to taste it again.  Also do not underestimate the power of adrenalin.  On the night when I had managed to extract myself, I was able to leave the room through a window.  Barefoot and with the house phone on me (no mobiles in those days), I scaled two six foot gates which I would never have been able to do in any other circumstances.  I ran across the road into the path of a car. I remember putting my hand on their bonnet, and I ran to my opposite neighbour and rang the police from there.  

Your sense of ever being able to protect your children is taken from you, because you now know what you thought could never happen has. The invasion of someone coming into your space, your safe place, is massive, and not to be underestimated or taken lightly.  Anyone who has experienced a burglary would understand, but in this case you are being confronted by the intruders.  But with all of this I was incredibly lucky that I came out of it unhurt.

For many years I only associated PTSD with soldiers and the trauma they had suffered in war torn countries or in the line of duty.  However Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is more prevalent than we first thought and can affect anyone who has been part of, or witnessed a traumatic event. This can include children.  Please do bear in mind I am not a medical professional, these views are formed from my own experiences.

How does PTSD manifest itself?  In most cases the symptoms will develop during the first month after a traumatic event.  But in a minority of cases there can be a delay of months or years before the symptoms start to appear. These vary widely between individuals, but generally fall into the categories below:

Flashbacks, nightmares, repetitive and distressing images or sensations.  Sometimes these manifest themselves as pain, sweating, feeling sick or trembling.  Some victims have constant negative thoughts  about what has happened and wonder what they could have done to avoid it.

How it affected me….My default setting was to carry on as normal.  So the following morning I took one of the children to Play School and sort of carried on as normal.  The immediate signs of shock were I lost my voice completely.  I also lost a stone in weight in as little as 48 hours.  Not surprisingly I didn’t sleep and I didn’t want to talk about it to anyone, that way it felt as though it hadn’t happened.  Probably not the best way forward but the only way I knew how to survive at the time with two small children under 3. 

It was probably 2 years later that the wheels fell off and I could no longer function. The memories start to be unlocked by the brain and you have to at some stage give into it and face what has happened.  Whenever I was in the house for a night alone I would sleep sitting up on the stairs so I felt I could see the front door and somehow protect the children that way.

I finally went to see my doctor who told me I was suffering from PTSD. I had all the classic symptoms and needed professional help.  I was keen not to go down the antidepressant route so instead undertook an amazing treatment called EMDR –  Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming.

I had several sessions with a trained specialist who used the treatment to help me to replay the events of the night.  A long, painful and exhausting process but it was definitely worth it and worked for me. 

Life became a lot easier, and many of my nightmares and insecurities began to disappear.   But like all these things you learn to heal and the mind is clever at making the memories fade.  The long term effects for me are that I have some memory loss from my past.  This occurs because memories are erased during the trauma to enable you to to remember as much about what is happening as possible.  I also have to have knives in a cupboard and can’t have them left out.  Finally the type of movie I watch is very light hearted and cannot contain violence.

Even this many years later I have had to keep coming back to write this.  The adrenalin I can feel coursing around me as I write is something else as I feel I am reliving it.  I have never written about my experience before, often talked about it, but never put words onto paper.  Perhaps this will be another rung on the healing ladder.

I would definitely say that this experience will have gone a long way towards making me who I am today.  It has certainly made me stronger, and most definitely very grateful for all that I have.  I am lucky to have an amazingly supportive husband and the children now they are older and know what happened have been an amazing support too.

Thank you for taking the time to read this, it’s been a long journey but something I have wanted to achieve for some time.  I hope that by sharing my experience it may help others who have had a traumatic experience.  If it only helps one person then it will have been a worthwhile exercise.  Isolation when you feel you are the only person something has ever happened to can be very destructive.  This is of course a good reminder that we never know what is going on in others lives.  We have no knowledge what events they may have suffered or be suffering, as it won’t always be obvious.  My burden was heavy but I carried it well for years.  So as you know my mantra in life is to be kind to others. 

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