Childhood Trauma Series | The Beginning

Defining childhood trauma

Childhood trauma refers to a frightening, dangerous or distressing event that threatens a child’s life or bodily integrity. This can also include being a witness to a loved ones suffering or pain (vicarious trauma). Events like natural disasters, emotional, physical or sexual abuse can have long-term effects on developing minds and bodies.

A trip down memory lane

It was a normal school day (besides my slipping attendance, which was not new). The year-level coordinator approached me after lunch. I was somewhat nervous but also oblivious to the conversation that would ensue. He asked me a series of questions regarding my lateness, whether I’d lost weight etc. After telling him a small portion of what was happening in my life, he used the word ‘abuse’ to describe what I had mentioned. This was a shock. How was I going through abuse? Wasn’t every other student experiencing this too? When he’d ask how I was faring from then on, I would assure him I was okay, even though I wasn’t. As a teenager, I thought I was right (typically) and it couldn’t be possible that what he said was true. Little did I know, pushing him away (as well as my pain), would cause an emotional overload, years down the track.

A few years later, I was studying Art Therapy. There was a particular module in the course based on The Inner Child. Most modules consisted of theory coupled with practical work. This practical exercise required us to trace the outline of our own body onto large butcher paper. Then, we needed to draw or create an item our inner child needed. I stared at my outline for quite some time. Eventually, I drew a heart shape and coloured it in with a marker. The flood gates had been opened… the next year or so would be one of the biggest struggles of my life.

Throughout my time studying Art Therapy, other peers would share their experiences and I felt somewhat detached. I felt sorry for them but I didn’t have the capacity to truly sympathise. It was like my brain switched off the department to feel pain for others. Including for myself. I began struggling to concentrate. I started skipping class. I didn’t want to do the practical work for fear of all the “shit” coming up in front of my peers. Feeling caged, and somehow ‘in danger’, I didn’t want to face it… face what? Class? Other students? The trainers? I was so confused. What was happening to me? I felt like I wanted to cry most of the time. My personal life was also affected: I was working in a toxic environment that caused panic attacks; my living circumstances were unstable; I had no one to turn to because I withdrew myself. Everything was overwhelming. 

The beginning of healing and discovery

At first, I wanted to see an Art Therapist to shed some light on what was going on. I completed one session but didn’t feel better. I started seeing a counsellor. As I was unravelling my childhood memories however, she mentioned something that made future sessions feel impossible. The college I was at, offered me a list of mental health professionals I could contact for further support. Going through the list, I searched each name on the web. After a few attempts, I came across a counsellor who was located in the city. I read through her website which 1. looked professional and 2. had a calming vibe. Her client reviews seemed positive too, which was great. That was the beginning of discovery and healing for me. 

This counsellor helped me through some harrowing times, past trauma and suppressed emotions. I learned from her how to care, be patient and acknowledge my emotions. I can’t thank her enough for her ability to hold space and offer unconditional support. It was exactly what I needed to begin healing. After a long time with C*, I noticed a ‘heaviness’ that I couldn’t shake – despite all the growth and learning that occurred. I knew then, it was time to find a new mental health professional. 

On-going self-work

A mutual friend suggested I see a specific psychologist that lived nearby. At the first consultation, the psychologist pointed out a possible ‘conflict’ that could hinder progress, if we were to work together. I was then referred on to my current psychologist, N*. 

Since I’ve started seeing N, I’ve grown and learnt SO much. I’ve noticed my thinking has changed a little over this time: I’ve begun thinking critically rather than reacting emotionally. Although my personality traits (that include being emotional) won’t change, I have been enjoying this shift in thinking patterns. Not every action requires a reaction! Sometimes all we need to do is put our ‘thinking cap’ on, and find ways to solve the problem at hand. Give ourselves space to feel what we’re feeling, and when we are able to, get to work on changing what needs to be changed! The power is in our hands. The power, is in our mind.

For me, talk therapy has been really helpful. Perhaps for you, other avenues like creativity coupled with talk therapy could be more helpful. Treatment isn’t a one-shoe-fits-all. What works for me, may not work for you and vice-versa.

Advice for anyone beginning the healing journey or going through it currently.

It may take a few (or more) tries to find a mental health professional that you feel safe with and connect with. Trust the process and be patient. Remember that healing isn’t overnight. Childhood trauma (or any trauma for that matter) can be complex, so be prepared for difficult days and nights. When we experience things during our childhood that shape our beliefs and values we hold, it can be terrifying to sift through memories. I know, I’ve been there. I’m still there. But with what I’ve worked through so far, it’s been the best choice in my life to ask for help and commit to doing the work. It’s time to move forward!

Another piece of advice I wish I had: make a tangible list of coping strategies that help you stay calm and centred in-between appointments. It can be scary, feeling overwhelmed from past memories. However, there is research out there that suggests techniques that help manage symptoms before your next appointment. Things that have helped me (and STILL do): yoga/general exercise, breathing exercises, guided meditations on YouTube, reading self-help books, learning about mental health and treatment, listening to podcasts and seeing friends/loved ones.

If you have any personal questions, contact me here. Please remember, there are people that care about you. Reach out to a trusted person or online community.

Here is a list of organisations that are here to help you:

  • blueknot helpline 1300 657 380 – complex trauma
  • beyondblue.org.au 1300 22 4636 – depression/anxiety awareness
  • kidshelpline.com.au 1800 55 1800 – private, confidential counselling
  • lifeline.org.au 13 11 14 – crisis support, suicide prevention
  • qlife.org.au 1800 184 527 – LGBTI support site
  • vvcs.gov.au 1800 011 046 – veteran, war-related support
  • ReachOut – youth mental health community support

 This kind of self-work is not easy, but worth it to move forward in life.

Stay well friends! x

*Names have been omitted for privacy reasons.
*Some words are hyperlinked for further information/learning.

Image by just_shot_of_jameson.


Psychologists and counsellors: are they helpful?

Psychologists and counsellors: are they helpful?

Today, I want to break the stigma of seeing a mental health professional. Yes, it is more accepted in today’s society but there are still negative thoughts out there. This post is for those people who are afraid to be judged. This post is for those who have earned their degree, honours and masters. This post is for those who are curious as to how a professional can help them.

My experience

During high school, I saw a counsellor for the first time. I was losing motivation as each week passed and my teacher was concerned. Unfortunately, I had trust issues with most adults – the school counsellor included.  I could barely muster up words to describe how I was feeling. Albeit I was conditioned to ignore my emotions… I was so afraid that he would judge me or “turn against me” somehow. I saw this counsellor once and never returned.

Throughout the next 5 years, I struggled with negative thoughts and had trouble sleeping. I saw a few counsellors which helped to a point. Even though I got along with these people, still, I felt the same: I had a heavy chest and a sadness that wouldn’t go away. Eventually, I scraped up the courage to see a psychologist. It was the best decision I ever made. Although it was very costly (as I am a student and work casually), it was worth it. My boyfriend would always remind me, “Your mental health is more important” – this finally clicked. I couldn’t push my needs to the side any longer. I longed to move forward with my life. I made it my mission to allow for psychology sessions in my budget. If I didn’t have enough to pay for it, I’d either borrow money from someone and pay it back or reschedule the appointment until I could afford it. It became a worthwhile priority in my life!

Counsellor or psychologist?

First, let’s define these occupations. Both counsellors and psychologists can help with mental health issues and personal problems. However, the main distinction is that a psychologist has a protected title that only those who are specifically qualified can use. This involves more than six years of tertiary studies.

As I mentioned before, I have seen both counsellors and psychologists. I found that a counsellor’s fee was more affordable than a psychology session. To this day, I assume it’s because of the difference in education and a psychologists protected title.

What’s important however, is whether or not you get along with the professional. The first couple counsellors I saw, didn’t seem like people I could ‘click’ with. Eventually, I met a counsellor who was amazing and really helped me through some harrowing times. She was kind, genuine and encouraging – qualities that I was lacking in myself/around my immediate social circle at that time in my life.

Steps to seeing a mental health professional.

  1.  Do your research. Read about each counsellor/psychologists profile if that’s available. Find their website and read, read, read! Once you’re certain about having the first initial consult, send an email.
  2. Attend the consultation. The mental health professional should then contact you and organise a consultation. This is usually a orientation session to talk about what your goals are, medical history and emergency contacts.
  3. First session. This can be nerve-racking even though you’ve already had the initial consultation. But remember – this is the first step to overcoming the hurdles you’ve been experiencing. It’s okay to be nervous. It’s normal. Being vulnerable is difficult. It may not seem like it, but it will be worth it.
  4. Self-reflection. You’ve completed your first session. Well done. Now, you can take the next 7-14 days to think whether or not you would like to continue with this counsellor/psychologist. Do they respond to you in a way that makes you feel supported? Do you feel safe being vulnerable with them? Do you feel you could learn a lot from them? Expression is hugely cathartic but it’s also important that you are able to openly learn, and improve your life. If you don’t feel safe or comfortable, let the counsellor know that you won’t be continuing. Go back to Step 1 and do your research. Maybe ask friends/family you trust about professionals they may have seen.
  5. Continue counselling sessions. You’ve now made the next decision to either continue or find another professional. Remember, healing isn’t linear. You may have a breakthrough and another hurdle comes along. It’s okay. Like Dory says, “Just keep swimming!”.

Seeing a professional can be daunting and even terrifying. But if talking to friends or trusted adults aren’t improving your situation, take that step to seek help. Don’t wait. Waiting may exacerbate your symptoms.

Mental illness can be so isolating. Reach out. And if you know someone who is struggling, send them a message. Give them a call. Visit them. You never know what battle someone may be facing. Don’t wait until it’s too late to show your kindness. Don’t wait to spread love to those closest.

It’s okay to ask for help. We are stronger together.

Image from last years trip to New Zealand.

Let’s talk about sexual harassment.

Let’s talk about sexual harassment.

Sexual harassment: any behaviour that is unwelcome and unwanted, often causing feelings of intimidation, humiliation and offence.

My story.

Some stories are positive, to highlight that there are good people in the world.

At age 11, I learned what the word rape meant. I interpreted it as ‘something being taken away from another, without permission’. My parents feared for my safety, and banned me from staying over anyone’s house.

At 12, I was catcalled constantly in front of an adult I trusted. He said it was my fault because I was wearing shorts that covered everything that needed covering. I started wearing pants, even in the humidity and heat.

At 14, during a 15 minute walk home in the afternoon, an unknown man in a blacked-out car motioned me toward him, slowing down.

At 15, another man stopped along the side of the road to offer me a ride home. Thankfully, he was a family friend.

At 16, a man at a bus stop relieved himself near me. He said he was waiting for a friend. He then said I must’ve seen many dicks at my age. And since it was 7:30 in the morning, his “size” was smaller than usual. He asked me to go for a walk. I declined. I was terrified to walk back home, in case he followed me. The bus finally came. His “friend” never got off the bus. I honestly didn’t feel like going to high school or catching public transport for some time. No one took me seriously whenever I spoke about this incident.

At 17, a stranger offered me a hug as I was crying at a bus stop. He even gave me a chocolate bar as a kind gesture. He said it affected him seeing people hurting.

At 18, I cried because I wanted to say no.

At 19, I was groped in a crowd, multiple times.

At 19, a guy decided I wasn’t allowed to leave to find my friends. He held my wrist with an iron-tight grip. I will regret that night forever.

At 20, some guy decided it was okay to touch me as I was getting into a taxi.

At 21, another woman saw I was struggling to walk (as I had been drinking most of the night). She helped me to the bathroom and stopped random guys trying to talk to me. Afterwards, she insisted that my boyfriend took me home immediately.

At 23, an old man winked at me and asked me to sit on his lap while I was at a family gathering. I was in shock. No one said anything. I was always taught to respect my elders. I know now that respect cannot be given. It must be earned.

At 24, a stranger asked, “You’re not afraid of me, are you?” while we were alone in an empty car park.

At 24, a group of tradies catcalled me, making loud assumptions about why I was walking around the city at 9PM, on a Friday night. I had just finished a 12 hour work day.

At 24, I’m realising how many other women have similar experiences to mine. It’s not okay.

At 24, I’m so fucking done, taking shit from strangers and people I thought I could trust.

I have lived a privileged life, growing up out of poverty, having access to education and basic needs. Unfortunately, sexual harassment was one of the experiences that nobody could have foreseen or protected me from.

Facts based in Australia:

  • Almost 1 in 5 women (18%) and 1 in 20 men (4.7%) have experienced sexual violence (sexual assault and/or threats) since the age of 15.
  • In 2016, on average, police recorded 52 sexual assaults each day against women and about 11 against men.
  • One in two women had experienced harassment in the course of their lifetime and one in four men had experienced harassment too.
  • 38% of women between the ages of 18 to 24, reported acts such as inappropriate comments about their bodies and sex life, indecent exposure or unwanted touching, kissing or grabbing in the last 12 months.
  • 4% of Australians have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace in the last five years, compared to 11% in 2003 (2008 survey).
  • For those who did not make a complaint (2008 survey):
    • 43% did not think it was serious enough
    • 15% were fearful of a negative impact on themselves
    • 21% had a lack of faith in the complaint process
    • 29% took care of the problem themselves.

The psychological effects:

According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare:

  • Mental health conditions were the largest contributor to the burden of disease due to physical/ sexual intimate partner violence, followed by suicide and self-inflicted injuries.
  • For women who have experienced domestic violence, this can include poorer physical and mental health than women who have not experienced such violence. Increased rates of depression, anxiety, self-harm and illicit drug use than those who had not.

According to the Australian Centre for the Study of Sexual Assault (ACSSA):

  • Anxiety and intense fear are the primary responses following rape. Some research has found that this peaks at around three weeks after the rape; however, it can last for more than a year for a significant number of survivors.
  • Distressing flashbacks or reminders of the assault may occur.
  • For some women, particularly from marginalised communities, sexual assault can reaffirm assumptions about themselves as devalued persons (insidious trauma), and about the world being unsafe and dangerous.
  • Feelings of low self-esteem, self-blame and guilt can endure for months and years after the assault.
  • People may experience emotional shock where they have an exaggerated sense of unreality and disassociation. (SECASA)

According to American clinical psychologists and an employment attorney:

  • Sexual harassment has been associated with diagnoses such as depression, anxiety and PTSD (Post-traumatic Stress Disorder).
  • Somatisation: The normal, unconscious process by which psychological distress is expressed as physical symptoms. For example, a person with clinical depression may complain of stomach pains that prove to have no physical cause. Counselling can be helpful to overcome somatisation.
  • Neurotransmitters found in our brains are also found in our gut. It’s a real thing: this is why we tend to get sick when we get stressed, and over time, if we’re in constant stress or if it’s too much to handle, then there are physiological consequences.
  • Physical manifestations of stress: hair falling out, hives, weight gain or loss, sleeplessness and lethargy.

At 24, I asked my partner if he would stand with me. And now, I am asking you to do the same.

Women, we must stand together. Men, please stand beside us. Society, we need to do better.

We don’t need protection. We need unity and solidarity. We need voices to SPEAK UP and people to TAKE ACTION. Pull up your friends, if they make inappropriate jokes. Call people out, if they make advances on women, men or children. Report suspicious behaviour especially in regards to children, as they may not trust adults to talk to. Support a survivor, if they share their story.

Change happens with awareness, education and action.

So please, educate yourselves and those around you. Know that sexual harassment and assault is a serious offence and can have dire psychological consequences.

If you or someone you know needs support, Health Direct has compiled a list of services to contact. View the list here: https://www.healthdirect.gov.au/sexual-assault-and-abuse-helplines.

Remember, change starts with you.

Image from Pinterest.