News

First of a Five Part Series by Sandra McDonald

#MeToo is not a new movement, but it is new to Hollywood, and that means that, for this brief moment, it has grabbed the spotlight, our imaginations, and talk show conversation. The other night I watched an interview between a comedian and a famous actor. The former boldly challenged the latter to account for accusations of inappropriate touch. The latter, panic-eyed and breathy, choked out scripted lines (carefully shaped to reassure that he meant no harm, he doesn’t remember, he’s appalled that anyone could ever think…), decrying the shocking extent of sexual victimization in his industry.

But you, BFF reader, are not surprised by the reach of sexual assault, rape, or inappropriate touch and language. You already know that it can happen to anyone. Anywhere. And it happens at the hands of the powerful, the rich, the frightened, the poor. It is perpetrated by those who know better and who glory in the control they wield. It is perpetrated by those who were victims first, and who, truly, may not know any other way to be. It continues in closets and corners and offices and public spaces. It’s happened to you, and to the people you adore.

Maybe you’ve even contributed to this not-so-secret secret shame? Courage, friend. We all have. If only by our silence, the turning of an avoidant gaze, you and I share in this part of the human condition.

Organizations like BFF have had boots on the ground on these issues for years. They’re doing the good work of making space for conversation, helping us to find the language to shape and understand our own stories, and moving us forward in finding wholeness.

You have a role in this conversation, and in changing our world. If you are a man or a woman who has wounded another, it’s time to make things right. BFF can help with that. If you are a woman or man who has been wounded, will you give yourself permission to consider moving toward healing? There is space here for you, for your story, and for the restoration of your heart, mind, and body.

If you are the loving Other of one of the above, you are not powerless. Be the loving, attentive, and aware listener that your Hurting Person needs. Your part of hearing and helping is no small thing. Feeling inadequate and overwhelmed? That’s ok. This is really big stuff! But you can give to a work that is equipped to provide professional care. You can make it possible for the people who are courageously walking alongside the hurting to keep doing what they’re doing.

It’s ok if you and I are not comfortable putting ourselves out there on the front lines. It’s not ok for you and I to pretend that the people we love, and who love us, have not been marked by this.

Whatever our engagement in this (temporarily?) public conversation, let’s move things forward together. Then, when humanity revisits this conversation in the decades to come, it will have been propelled forward by good work done in our time.

“The jiggling I’d felt in my head when it hit the ground had most certainly been more than a little whiplash.” Little did I know the impact that fall would have on my brain, nor the long-term, life-altering effect on my life. Two years later and I’m venturing into a new chapter, a new way of living and being.

No pain no gain, right?

Until recently I felt my future was pretty stilted and my ability to pursue my dreams or plans had gone out the window. My functioning brain, my drive, my positive outlook on life seemed a distant memory. Oh yah, the memory was sloppy too.

I started toying with the idea of running in a half (or quarter) marathon after I’d attended the Cypress Hills High Hopes Challenge last August. They were raising funds for BFF and as the ED of our Foundation, I wanted to represent, to share what our organization does and show appreciation for their commitment and donation. Now I shake my head. How silly for me to expose myself to something that would draw me into a whole new world, something I said I’d never do. Run.

The two-year mark of my concussion was looming after that visit to Cypress Hills and I knew something desperately needed to change. After experiencing depression (which is almost standard following a concussion), significant weight gain due to inactivity and lack of desire to take care of myself physically or mentally, the downward spiral had to stop. My neuro-rehab had considerably lifted the fog in my brain, but I still felt so sluggish. All I wanted to do was sleep. My doctor told me I was borderline for hypothyroidism and that she wasn’t going to put me on medication…yet.

Enough already.

As someone who is known for taking responsibility for my actions and not deflecting or blaming others, it was time to face myself and create change. In order for renewal and spark to show up in my life, I knew I’d have to go big or stop complaining while I stayed stuck. Will Smith’s recent viral Instagram video about fault vs responsibility sums up where I’m at with myself. It’s actually nobody’s fault that it was icy when I fell, but how I live going forward is definitely up to me.

Taking responsibility is taking your power back. ~Will Smith

If it’s going to be it’s up to me.

The past two months I’ve vacillated between, “What was I thinking?” to “I can’t wait to feel better!” So now that I’ve got some time behind me, where am I at with my efforts in getting healthy and preparing for a 5K?

The Good | finding joy

I finally have a grip on my eating. I joined four others for a week of clean eating, and I almost nailed it! Eliminating sugar, wheat and dairy is no easy task but I’ve done it before and I’m doing it again. With the exception of a wee bit of coconut sugar in my coffee, I’m very satisfied with my improvement in food choices. It sounds so weird to write this, given that eating healthy used to be my norm. The side benefit is that my kids are eating healthier too, and they’re liking it!

Sure I’ve shed a bit of weight and I can tell (I’m not weighing myself, remember), but it’s the clear head and no naps required that are my main wins. So. Happy. I’m noticing a glimmer of confidence returning.

I’ve noticed an improvement in my emotions and mental processes too. We all know what we put in our mouths affects our well being, but it’s a whole different matter to take charge and ensure we do something about it!

I stumbled upon Dr. Susan David’s work this week and I love her message! I haven’t bought her book yet, Emotional Agility, but I will be. In her Ted Talk, three comments got my attention:

  1. I was praised for being strong. One of my triggers is being told how strong I am. Sometimes I’d really rather not have to be, but in retrospect, I’ve become grateful for that strength.
  2. Courage is fear…walking. Wow. I relate to that on so many levels. I have lived courageously, I’ve survived and I continue to walk with courage.
  3. Life’s beauty is inseparable from its fragility. The juxtaposition of my love of life and the pain I’ve experienced is wrapped up in that sentence.

The Bad | what’s not working

I’m still not active enough. I’m becoming more accountable to certain people and I’ve signed up for a jiu-jitsu class. I have a long-standing shoulder injury I’m dealing with so won’t be tackling anyone anytime soon, but the reality is, the movements and stretches can be modified to suit my physical ability. No excuses.

In the days leading up to the Olympics, I came across the story of Mark McMorris, a Canadian snowboarder who almost lost his life last March. He was still named to the Olympic team as long as he was fully recovered in time. He more than met the challenge and I was so moved by his story. He is now my inspiration as I continue on my own journey. It is truly worth the 45 minutes of your life to marvel at his recovery and to gain inspiration from. I’ll be watching him closely as he competes!

The Ugly | what I’m fighting

The mental beating: I’m not doing enough, I’m never going to be ready for the run in August, once again my grandiose venture is just too, well, grandiose. It’s my mental capacity that’s been my biggest challenge, but it’s also been where I’m finding my greatest growth right now.

  • I’m processing grief – the great losses I’ve experienced since my concussion, that only I know.
  • I’m recognizing where my negative self-talk has blocked me and I’m finally getting somewhere with changing it.
  • Some days my emotions drive me around a bend. I’ve been told once or twice that I’m “too emotional”. I’ve come a long way, and the above Ted Talk along with her workbook and quizzes have been eye opening and helpful.

The Takeaway

No pain no gain includes the mental, emotional and physical aspects of what I’m working towards. The same way building muscles can hurt, so does building mental and emotional strength. Step by step, not giving up, falling down and getting up. No matter your skill level or your age, the determining factor is your willingness to take responsibility for yourself.

As Jeff Haden talks about in this Inc.com article, it won’t be fun in the moment… but it will make you a lot happier over the long-term.

Next update I will make myself more accountable by sharing my plan/process to get to August’s run. I better get on that!

Our conversations during our free monthly meet-ups take us in a variety of directions, and in order to ensure we circle back for reference, we post these resource blogs the day (or two) following a meet-up. The intent is to provide a roundup of resources or references from the conversation the night.

On Wednesday, we had some special guests, some new faces and some veteran staples. It was a night of many gifts and many lessons for us all, but there were some recurring themes to make note of.

Initial thoughts to circle back to: 

  • “They” don’t need to see what they’ve done, for you to get better.
  • Forgiveness is an inside job.
  • Remember that healing is a journey, not a destination. There are many peaks and valleys on this ride, but celebrate every small step forward.

Themes: 

  • Spirituality: When it comes to our healing journey, there’s one aspect that oftentimes gets overlooked—spirituality. Spirituality often gets mistaken for religion, but spirituality is broader than religion, it’s a simple belief system that helps us connect to ourselves, others and things beyond us.

“To me, spirituality is all about relationship. Most addicts are traumatized in their family of origin situations, so what they really lose faith in is relationship. That’s a setup for addiction. The trauma causes emotional pain for which the best answer is spirituality.” — Theo Fleury from ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’

  • Fight or flight: this is our body’s physical response to stress, also known as acute stress response. This Psych Central article explains a bit more:

The fight or flight response is characterized by feeling bodily sensations of stress — for instance, an increased heart rate and faster breathing. You can feel a pressure in your chest as though something is pressing down on you. You may also have heightened sensory sensitivity — you’re more sensitive to sights or sounds around you. [Psych Central]

  • Forgiveness: Forgiveness is a feeling, not an action. Forgiveness can be difficult for many reasons: we haven’t let go of our anger, we want to harm those who’ve harmed us, or simply the notion that forgiving will free our offenders from justice. When battling with being able to forgive, it’s important to note that forgiving does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean justifying the actions of your offender. [Read more]
  • “Remember, real forgiveness does not make excuses for the other person’s hurtful behaviour. Forgiveness is a decision that you make with your whole self after you have done your emotional work.” — Kim Barthel, from ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’ 

Our special guests, Bikers Against Child Abuse (BACA): 

We were so honoured to be joined by members of BACA in Calgary, and we had the pleasure of hearing a bit more about what they do and some of their powerful stories of their ‘heroes’. If you’re unfamiliar with the amazing work BACA does for children, here’s a bit about them:

Bikers Against Child Abuse, Inc. (B.A.C.A.) exists with the intent to create a safer environment for abused children. We exist as a body of Bikers to empower children to not feel afraid of the world in which they live. We stand ready to lend support to our wounded friends by involving them with an established, united organization. We work in conjunction with local and state officials who are already in place to protect children. We desire to send a clear message to all involved with the abused child that this child is part of our organization, and that we are prepared to lend our physical and emotional support to them by affiliation, and our physical presence. We stand at the ready to shield these children from further abuse. We do not condone the use of violence or physical force in any manner, however, if circumstances arise such that we are the only obstacle preventing a child from further abuse, we stand ready to be that obstacle.

Because of the work Breaking Free Foundation does on the Victor Walk every year, this group is particularly special to us, so we thank them for making the time to join us.

Stay tuned for our next meet-up date!

The Good (Finding Joy)

1. My daughter wrote a blog about anxiety and tips on how to deal with it. It was a proud mama, joy-filled moment for me.

2. Our BFF meet-up on Wednesday reminded me of why I chose to take this journey publicly. Those humans who show up and allow vulnerability to be present in a room full of unknowns, are truly magnificent souls. Those conversations fill me up and bring me great joy. Watching people leave looking like a weight has been lifted, simply as a result of meaningful conversation, is nothing short of magical.

3. My week ended with a group of ladies who work together, and although I no longer put in hours there, I am graciously invited to their team events. Christmas dinner, laughter, saying tender goodbyes to a staff member who is a pillar of the company but is moving on…and a gift for each of us that holds rich meaning.

As I continue to look for and be mindful of joy in my life, I’m finding it! Grateful.

Okay, mushiness dealt with, I had a couple of journey wins too. As a result of writing down my food intake, it is in my face that my choices suck. I used to eat so healthy, and surprise, surprise, I felt good then! So, as I’ve committed to making small changes, I started to add in a quinoa salad with my nachos and cheese, choosing to make a much smaller plate of salty goodness. I said I’d cut out eating at night, which I’ve done really well with. With age comes that dreaded metabolism slow down, so I can’t eat the portions I did even 10 years ago and get away with it. I’ve always known that, just didn’t want to face it!

Every time I walk up or down stairs without having to lean against the wall, I could do a happy dance! The simple act of putting on my boots or shoes without leaning on a wall? Priceless! Progress.

My mind has shifted. I have a knowing, a confidence that I didn’t have when I began three weeks ago, that I’m going to do this. I’ve taught my kids that we become what we focus on. It’s not just b.s., it’s scientific fact. As I write, I’m getting a glimpse of how re-jigging my own focus is beginning to turn the sails. Slow but sure, I’m on my way.

The Bad (Stuff that didn’t go so well)

My activity levels are definitely still in the tank. The “fun” part is that I’m not content staying there. I did walk, but any attempts to push the use of my shoulder were met with too much pain. That will eventually get resolved, so in the meantime I will continue with walking.

The Ugly

I didn’t realize how afraid of falling I am. As much as I was hoping to walk outside, I think I may need to find an inside track to use.

I can hardly look in the mirror and see me. All I see are my stomach rolls, my back fat and the grey, thinning roots sprouting on top of my head. While that may sound a bit pathetic, it’s raw and real. For someone who was a size two before kids, it’s not always easy to just accept the changes in my body, even though they’re all teenagers now. Keep in mind that I worked for a modelling agency for three years (part time) and used to host/produce a tv program. Vanity ran deep and I fell prey to the societal norms and expectations of what “pretty” is/was. My body and my looks got attention. The turkey neck I now see wasn’t part of the plan.

I’m looking forward to staying put for Christmas this year and having family at my house for the first time. Ever. I’m already finding joy before the week’s even started!

What are some wins you can share? Or the bad, or the ugly. It all matters, and it’s all part of the journey.

Our conversations during our free monthly meet-ups take us in a variety of directions, and in order to ensure we circle back for reference, we’re going to start posting these resource blogs the day following a meet-up. The intent is to provide a roundup of resources or references from the conversation the night before.

Last night, we were given so many gifts, as many familiar faces returned and some new ones took part in conversation as well. It’s safe to assume, that everyone in that room left with a feeling of gratitude and compassion. Thank you.

Initial thoughts to circle back to: 

  • Remember that healing is a journey, not a destination. There are many peaks and valleys on this ride, but celebrate every small step forward.
  • Helping is healing. When you share your story, your vulnerability creates safety for someone else to share.

Themes: 

  • Compassion: When we encounter something joyful in our lives, it’s easy for us to instantly react with love and compassion. But pain doesn’t instinctively translate into compassion (for most of us), but learning to transform our reactions to pain into compassion is incredibly healing. A lot can get in the way of compassion, especially for those who have suffered trauma. When we feel wronged or hurt in some way, it’s difficult to actively let go of control and embrace a feeling we’re not used to associating with pain. [Read more]

“Compassion is a feeling of empathy for ourselves and for others. It is the emotional response to suffering, and it motivates a desire to alleviate that suffering.” — Kim Barthel from ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’

  • Forgiveness: Forgiveness is a feeling, not an action. Forgiveness can be difficult for many reasons: we haven’t let go of our anger, we want to harm those who’ve harmed us, or simply the notion that forgiving will free our offenders from justice. When battling with being able to forgive, it’s important to note that forgiving does not mean forgetting, nor does it mean justifying the actions of your offender. [Read more]

“Remember, real forgiveness does not make excuses for the other person’s hurtful behaviour. Forgiveness is a decision that you make with your whole self after you have done your emotional work.” — Kim Barthel, from ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’ 

References: 

  • Trauma loop: 

Brain states are states of confusion. A Trauma Loop is a brain state that has created a pathway in the nervous system. We use it again and again and it gets stronger. An example is a rage response to stress. Trauma loops occur when reality is overwhelming. Too intense, too scary, too loud, too fast. The nervous system can’t organize and reverts to survival threat response behavior. [Colorado School of Somatic Studies]

  • EMDR: EMDR stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing, which is an integrative psychotherapy approach. This type of therapy uses a patient’s own rapid eye movements, to take emotionally charged memories out of traumatic events. Using eye movements and “tricking your brain”, therapists can essentially reprogram the memory of a traumatic event to more positive or neutral emotions. [Learn more about how it works]

Ideas and inspirations: 

  • Writing: The practice of writing about trauma, or journaling, has been shown to have huge benefits both physically and mentally. In fact, a study from the University of Texas explored this notion, and found that participants who wrote about their traumatic experiences, visited counseling services less often, cut down on pain relievers, etc. [How to get started]
  • Spirituality: When it comes to our healing journey, there’s one aspect that oftentimes gets overlooked—spirituality. [Read more from ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’]

Religious and spiritual experiences activate the brain reward circuits in much the same way as love, sex, gambling, drugs and music, report researchers at the University of Utah School of Medicine. In addition to the brain’s reward circuits, the researchers found that spiritual feelings were associated with the medial prefrontal cortex, which is a complex brain region that is activated by tasks involving valuation, judgment and moral reasoning. Spiritual feelings also activated brain regions associated with focused attention. [Science Daily]

  • Create a “ta-da” list: one of our friends at the meet-up last night, suggested in lieu of a ‘to-do’ list, to have a ‘ta-da’ list. Instead of getting bogged down in how much work we have to do, try making a list of all you’ve accomplished. For practice, we will start with this at the next meet-up in January!
  • Star Trek: we had to throw this in because it made for amazing conversation! There has been unconventional practice on using episodes of Star Trek as therapy, in tackling different topics. Interestingly, this was the subject of a Psychology Today article that explains more.

Corey Deacon, neuroscientist at Neurvana Health, conducted brain mapping (QEEG) for a few members of Breaking Free Foundation, so we could learn a bit more about brain chemistry, trauma and the technology that gives experts this insight into our minds.

For the purposes of this case study, we are going to share my report and imagery from the brain map Corey did for me. Having experienced multiple traumas in my life, I have been left with some lingering side effects of those experiences, both physical and mental. After reviewing Corey’s thorough report and seeing the imagery myself, it seemed an interesting opportunity to share publicly how trauma affects our brain and our bodies in a very real and physical manner.

How does QEEG work?

QEEG stands for quantitative EEG, which is a non-invasive technology that evaluates brain function based on electrical activity and communication between different hubs and networks of the brain. The process uses a head-cap a lot like a swim-cap, with 19 electrodes simultaneously transmitting data to a computer. Once a certain amount of data is obtained, this data can be generated through a variety of algorithms to obtain measurements for brain functionality.

As opposed to MRI or CT scans, QEEG can evaluate underlying causes for symptoms such as PTSD, chronic pain, addiction, depression, anxiety, ADD, autism, head injury, fatigue, insomnia, early developmental trauma, cognitive issues and much more.

Because structure does not change on a macroscopic neuronal level with these issues, MRI and CT scans cannot generally see them. Most of these scans come back ‘normal’, even though brain functioning can be massively disrupted. — Corey Deacon

What are we looking for?
In analyzing trauma, experts like Corey are specifically looking at brain areas of the limbic system (amygdala and hippocampus) in addition to the cingulate gyri.

These structures are responsible for hi-jacking our higher brain functions such as motivation, cognition, pleasure, creativity, relaxation, and many more. The limbic system and cingulate gyrus can hi-jack the brain to the point of experiencing sensations like the trauma, constantly and consistently. In Amber’s case this process has led to problems with anxiety, sleep issues and addiction. — Corey Deacon

Snapshots from the actual report from Corey:

The results of Amber’s brain map in eyes closed (drowsy state) are as follows:

  • Elevation in alpha in the frontal and prefrontal regions of her brain. This is correlated with difficulties coping with stress, addictive tendencies, and it can also be related to alcohol and marijuana use.
  • Significantly decreased delta rhythm in eyes closed. Because delta is required for deep sleep, this pattern explains Amber’s issues with insomnia and staying asleep.
  • Significant hyper-coherence issues (indicated by red lines in alpha and beta). This means the brain is in a state of hyper-communication. This is commonly seen in brains affected by trauma. This will also correlate with the sleep anxiety and insomnia Amber experiences.
  • Elevation of beta 3 (high-activation) in Brodmann Areas 23, 30, and 31. This is part of the cingulate gyrus and is correlated to anxiety, difficulties with worry & rumination, and sleep difficulties. This is directly connected to the limbic system and is more than likely the direct link to Amber’s traumatic experiences.
  • Elevated activity in the amygdala. This is the fear center of the brain. It is fully operational while we are still in the womb. Trauma can therefore start before we are even born and can be additive over our lifetime. Neurofeedback can be used to decrease this activation and reduce intrusive memories and feelings of fear.

 

Eyes open results indicate:

  • Substantial elevation in temporal beta and hi-beta. This indicates hippocampus and amygdala being ‘on fire’ and on high alert. This is more than likely contributing to issues with sleep anxiety.
  • Elevation of theta over fronto-central regions indicates limbic ‘hi-jacking’ of the frontal lobe that can cause both pain, inflammation, and make one feel out-of-control when dealing with stress, anxiety, emotions, etc.
  • Amplitude asymmetry indicates significant dissociation between the 2 hemispheres of the brain. This again causes difficulties coping and is more than likely caused by the sexual traumas experienced in her past.

 

The most exciting part of QEEG is that when a problem is isolated, we can actually change the functioning of the brain and improve symptoms. We do this with neuromodulation technology, and my favorites are:

  • LORETA neurofeedback: This is where we train and teach the brain out of its current state into a more organized, symptom-free state using operant conditioning methods. This is a form of self-regulation and probably the most important when dealing with a traumatized brain
  • Pulsed EMFs This is a type of neuromodulation where we add frequencies to the brain in pEMF form, forcing the brain into a certain state. This can also be used to decrease inflammation and normalize communication in the brain.
  • Low-level Laser Therapy: Another great way to decrease inflammation, increase detoxification, increase neurogenesis (the building of new brain cells), and increase energy availability for brain functioning.
  • Transcranial Direct Current Stimulation: This technology utilizes a microcurrent to ‘turn on’ certain brain regions, and ‘turn off’ others.

— Corey Deacon

This case study was provided in conjunction with reports and findings from Corey Deacon, MSc, DNM, BCN, HHP, PhD of Neurvana Health.

 

 

 

 

The benefits of verbalizing our feelings by talking to a therapist, have long been proven to help us on a therapeutic and scientific level. But if you’ve never experienced therapy before, like any new change, it may seem a bit scary. We could share with you the research behind how therapy can help you overcome trauma and live a fulfilling life, but instead we will let some real people share how therapy helped them (in some surprising ways too).

What was the biggest benefit you got from talking to a therapist?

  • “The biggest benefit I received from talking to a therapist was validation of my experience. Despite my training and experience in the mental health field, I often find myself quietly self-shaming my internal experiences. There really is no hack code for experiencing unconditional acceptance and non-judgmental validation; it has to come from another person.” — Molly Hayes
  • “Tools for coping with all of life’s every day stresses.  On top of helping me work through my baggage, the tools to help me better manage future issues continue to be so beneficial in my day-to-day. Often very simple explanations, suggestions have had the greatest impact.” — Amanda S
  • “It’s a great way to check in with yourself, sit with your emotions and release any stress or negative energy that may be brewing.” — Monsy
  • “I didn’t know how much I would benefit from a third party to not only listen, but interpret my struggles. To have another ear to listen and voice to respond that isn’t directly connected with your own issues is extremely helpful!” — Bonnie
  • “I think my biggest benefit and certainly a feeling of relief was, the weight off my chest, a ‘letting go’ type of experience. Being able to open up to a professional without a fear of personal judgment really helped the encounter.” — Joel
  • “I owe a great deal of gratitude to therapy. If not for the therapists I’ve worked with over the years, I never even would have been able to identify my trauma and put it into words. Going through the therapy process has allowed me to identify my issues, process them and develop tools and skills to move past them.” — Amber Craig
  • “I think the benefits intertwined for me. Recognition that I wasn’t responsible for someone else’s actions, validation that what I was going through was real, and tools to help me work through both the process and change.” — Shandra Carlson

What is the biggest stigma about therapy, in your opinion?

  • “There’s this misconception that we should be able to figure out life on our own, and that going to therapist means you’re either crazy or weak, when in reality I believe it’s so healthy to seek advice and learn from the wisdom that someone else can offer!” — Bonnie
  • “That you have to have something wrong with you. Therapy is as great a tool for prevention of emotional imbalances as it is for working through current ones.” — Amanda S
  • “In social circles, I have noticed a stigma pertaining to the potential of diagnoses relating to therapy. It appears that some people believe that seeing a therapist means that at the end of a session or series of sessions that one will receive a permanent diagnosis for a mental illness. Fearing the judgment, misjudgment, and permanence of consequences for expressing one’s inner experiences, people avoid it. This comes from a pervasive misunderstanding of the experiences and goals of therapy and diagnostic procedures.” — Molly Hayes
  • “That it means you are weak or have ‘issues’. The reality is, there isn’t a person on the planet that can’t benefit from therapy. Even when I’m feeling unstoppable and on top of the world with my healing, I can have an amazing therapy session just the same and come out of that conversation having improved some area of my life.” — Amber Craig
  • “I’ve heard many people say they don’t need that ‘crap’, yet without giving it an opportunity, how do they know? The stigma that independence = I’m okay or maybe even better than those who don’t ‘need’ therapy, can keep people from becoming the best version of themselves.” — Shandra Carlson

Who do you think can benefit from therapy?

  • “I truly believe everyone can. There is not one person that has picture-perfect past without some form, small or large, of trauma, bullying, abandonment, neglect, hostility, etc.” — Joel
  • “I am a firm believer that there is an appropriate therapy out there for everyone.” – Amanda S
  • “Every single person!” — Amber Craig
  • “What Amber said! If connected with the ‘right’ therapist, we all benefit.” — Shandra Carlson

What forms of therapy, besides talk therapy, have you had success with? 

  • “Journalling has to be my favourite form of therapy. Sometimes I’m not sure what I’m feeling until I’ve written my thoughts and feelings on paper. Feelings can seem so overwhelming until I have the chance to organize them.” — Monsy
  • “I’ve had a lot of success “trying on” the therapies of other cultures i.e. sweat lodges, Eastern meditation practices, travel, etc.” — Molly Hayes
  • “I’ve tried lots of forms of therapy, and my biggest successes have come from spiritual ceremonies like guided meditations, sweat lodges, etc. I have also found writing and journalling to be extremely helpful, as well as music and physical activity.” — Amber Craig
  • “I have a phenomenal support system with my family and friends, which I consider a form of therapy for me! I fought journaling for years but finally decided to give it a go, and it has definitely become one of my greatest treasures.” — Shandra Carlson

Are you interested in talk therapy for your trauma healing? Click here to learn about our Therapy Grant Program.

Trauma is defined as a deeply distressing or disturbing experience, a definition that describes mass shootings and terrorist attacks perfectly. Violence, especially when it’s targeted towards a specific group, has very widespread effects. The survivors, family and friends of lost ones, and the world watching, will all feel the effects of trauma at this degree—such as we are from the tragic Orlando shooting this past weekend. The LGBT community, and the globe as a whole, is mourning and attempting to cope with the trauma of the largest mass shooting in US history. This past weekend, 103 people were shot in an LGBT nightclub on Orlando, 50 of them losing their lives.

As a result of this heinous act, millions of people around the world are reacting, both online and in their communities, to the deep pain of such an event. Individuals who survive trauma, or are exposed to it in some way can develop PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), and it can have a damaging effect both physically and mentally.

The combination of life-threatening traumatic personal experiences, loss of loved ones, disruption of routines and expectations of daily life, and post-violence adversities pose psychological challenges to the recovery of children and families. [National Child Traumatic Stress Network]

Symptoms of PTSD can include:

  • Flashbacks, or reliving the trauma
  • Nightmares
  • Intense fear
  • Avoidance
  • Loss of interest in activities and hobbies
  • Guilt, worry or depression
  • Difficulty remembering the trauma
  • Hyperarousal
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Severe emotional distress

In addition to PTSD, there are other psychological effects this event can have on people:

  • Danger reactions: when violent events like this occur, there is an increased fear in people and the desire to be near loved ones is more imminent. It can be increasingly difficult for people if they are separated from loved ones as well.
  • Grief: there is no “appropriate” way to grieve, everyone does it differently, and there is no wrong way. Grief can be harder to deal with if loss occurs during a traumatic event.
  • Depression: this can occur with prolonged effects of trauma or PTSD.

In addition to meeting people’s basic needs, there are several ways to enhance people’s coping. Physical: Stress can be reduced with proper nutrition, exercise and sleep. Youth and adults may need to be reminded that they should take care of themselves physically to be of help to loved ones, friends, and communities. Emotional: Youth and adults need to be reminded that their emotional reactions are expected, and will decrease over time. However, if their reactions are too extreme or do not diminish over time, there are professionals who can be of help. Social: Communication with, and support from, family members, friends, religious institutions and the community are very helpful in coping after catastrophic violence. People should be encouraged to communicate with others, and to seek and use this support where available. [National Child Traumatic Stress Network]

Listen to your body and your emotions, and in general, if you are having trouble coping with the symptoms from trauma or PTSD, seek professional help. If you are dealing with the trauma of a mass shooting or violent event, immediate mental health resources are available in Alberta via CMHA Calgary. If you want to speak to a trauma-specialized therapist to deal with your PTSD or trauma symptoms, please check out our free Therapy Grant program.Keep in touch with us on Twitter or Facebook to learn more about trauma, the effects of trauma and how to cope with PTSD.

— Written by Amber Craig, BFF Chair 
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Today is my last day of counselling for the treatment of sexual abuse. I went to 25 sessions, spread out over two long years.

When I started, probably fortunately, I had no idea what I was letting myself in for. I remember my counsellor saying to me, “You do understand, don’t you? It’s going to get harder before it gets easier.” And I said, yes. I understand. Of course, I didn’t and in an unbelievably short time I was so overwhelmed that my boat nearly capsized and I almost didn’t make it. I look back and feel amazed by what I survived, and by all that I’ve come through.

Here’s what I know about sexual abuse.

When I was in Paris, I got to see countless paintings, sculptures, buildings and other pieces of art. Each had been a painstaking labour of love, conception and skill for its artist. A thousand details and decisions, big and small, had to made, and although perhaps invisible to the average viewer, the care and attention of the creator went into every aspect of what they were trying to convey through the marble, the paint, the fresco or the canvas.

And some of those works had been really damaged – by time, weather, neglect, or a violent mishap. Some had been exposed to cruel lighting, water, mould, war, careless transportation, improper storage or other elements of wear, tear and harm. In some cases, these objects have been lovingly and painstakingly repaired by experts who were doing their very best to restore them to dignity and integrity. And some, like the magnificent Winged Victory of the Samothrace in the entrance to the Louvre, have to be enjoyed the way they are. They are wonderful and regal, damage and all.

I can’t help but think of the artist — the creator — and feel a sense of loss that we will not be able to see the authentic work the artist originally intended. Repairs can be made. Works can be beloved and glorious as they are. Damaged objects are not worthless and they cannot be dismissed.

A Da Vinci is a Da Vinci.

A Botticelli is a Botticelli.

A Michelangelo is a Michelangelo.

A work created by a master is a priceless extension of the artist who envisioned it and gave it life. And yet, what a very great loss never to see that mighty work of marble or canvas in its wholeness and its entirety, as the artist envisioned. I believe that this is important to say, because I think that in a good intentioned hurry to reassure victims that they are not “damaged goods” the people we actually placate are those who have done the harm to begin with. The resulting message can sound like: the results of your actions are minimal, can be easily fixed, and anyway, they are in a place where nobody can see.

Those who have been harmed know the truth: that the hurt is pervasive and permanent. The costs and the processes of reclamation and restoration are expensive, overwhelming and painful. That the very pieces that are missing are the ones that would to have been so foundational, so important to healing.

“It’s only the face that is scribbled over, who needs an identity!”

“The spiritual connection is irretrievably damaged. What could possibly go wrong?!?”

“All the sexual impulses have been unplugged, reordered and/or reinstalled by a mad person. But that won’t interfere with functioning, surely?!?!?”

You will never be the same.

But you are a Da Vinci.

The damage can only be repaired, never undone.

But you are a creation of Michelangelo.

This is the paradox.

Because the painting was priceless, the damage is, too.

Here is to the art restorers, to those who slave away behind the scenes in the most unglamorous places imaginable, trying with devotion, patience and care to repair these inimitable masterpieces. May they experience moments of deep joy and satisfaction as a reward for their commitment and sacrifice, cleaning up other people’s messes.

And here is to the casual, every day art lover, who stands in wonder, and sees only the loveliness and the hands of the great artist. They little know how healing the love and admiration of their gaze can be.

— Written by Claire Anderson 
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Are you interested in sharing your story, or experience breaking free from trauma? Please contact us to guest blog. To continue the conversation about trauma, please follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

The Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) in Calgary launched a 60 day initiative recently, to help end stigmas surrounding mental health and addiction. Each day, their website featured stories about resilience, strength and hope in healing. The Breaking Free Foundation Chair, Amber Craig, shared her story on the CMHA blog. Her piece:

“Sharing your truth is key to the healing process”— Theo Fleury from ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake

Have you ever had a secret that ate you up inside, a secret that you hid from the world, for fear of judgment or misunderstanding? I did. I hid myself in a cloak of shame and secrecy for 20 years.  

That shame and secrecy manifested itself in many difficult ways, including my depression diagnosis at 13-years-old. I felt very alone during my teenage years and early adulthood, mainly because I thought I was the only one dealing with this pain, and my secrecy kept me from accessing the mental health care I really needed.

In 2013, a nationwide movement was launched by Theo Fleury called the Victor Walk, an awareness initiative on ending childhood sexual abuse. The focus was to help survivors transition from victim to victor, it sounded amazing. I volunteered to help coordinate a Victor Walk rally in Calgary, and on May 23, 2013, my life changed forever.

During our Victor Walk rally, I listened to a dozen or more strangers bravely stand up and share their stories of trauma, abuse and the effect these experiences had on their lives and the lives of their loved ones. The last person to come up was a young girl, about six-years-old, with her mother. The pair shared a heartbreaking tale of abuse the young girl had suffered, and that brave little girl stood in front of us without fear, and declared to the world she would be a ‘victor’ too. Something shifted inside me as I heard these two share, or perhaps someone, the six-year-old girl inside me.

I grabbed the megaphone, and for the first time in my life, I spoke my truth and said “me too”. In that moment, I felt so incredibly free, I had risen above my mental illness and past trauma and accepted myself without shame. The best part was, the fear I was holding onto all those years turned out to be totally unfounded, because what happened after that day in 2013, was a domino effect of support from near and far. Even more compelling, the amount of people who reached out to say “me too”.  

Following the Victor Walk in 2013, I made a promise not to live in secrecy and shame anymore. I wrote a blog about my experience, and that blog made its way to the person who indirectly opened the door for me in the first place, Theo Fleury.

Fleury kick-started a group of Calgarians with a common goal to help the trauma community, and the result was seven of us creating the Breaking Free Foundation. Our foundation not only continues to put on the annual Victor Walk movement, but also provides free trauma therapy via a grant process. I feel blessed to work with an amazing group and in an amazing community of supporters and advocates who are working together to create awareness and end stigma surrounding trauma and mental health.

In the three years since the first Victor Walk, I have transitioned from victim to victor to advocate. Not only was I able to finally receive mental health treatment from an amazing psychologist, I have been able to turn my experience into a gift.

Today, I live a fulfilling and mostly happy life. Like many others with mental illness, I too have ups and downs, but I’ve learned to embrace them as opportunities for growth. I am always learning, always healing and always growing.

#NowImStronger because sharing my story helped me help others.

 

Link to the CMHA story and website here

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In my past life I was a counsellor at an organization that provided support for women and children who were experiencing homelessness, poverty and family violence. It took me a long time to recognize that I was dealing with unacknowledged trauma of my own. In May of 2014 I made the decision to leave the organization where I had worked for eight years. It was painful to leave the colleagues I loved, but I realized that it was time to find a new place to shine. To my great surprise, immediately after I made this decision and seemingly out of nowhere I was pulled into dealing with my own trauma that had gone for so long unacknowledged. It was as though my body was waiting for me to be still and then it said, “We have to deal with this.”

I finally had to acknowledge that as a little girl I was sexually assaulted by someone that I really loved. I will never forget the pain. I could feel that my little body was bending and straining against itself in a way that was never intended. Part of the assault was witnessed by an adult I loved and trusted, who chose to do nothing.

I was so heartbroken and confused that I buried my pain and shame deep in my heart and tried not to think about it. As someone who worked for many years with children and families who had experienced suffering, I know it seems ridiculous that I didn’t ever acknowledge my own. I was completely unprepared for the debilitating despair, shame, fear and anxiety that overwhelmed me as I tried to confront this experience. The numbness and sense of deep unworthiness that I carried my whole life now made complete sense. I now recognise that there is no area of my life (physical, emotional, spiritual, sexual and mental) that this experience has not distorted.

I was cut off from spiritual resources during the first steps of this journey because I was raised in a loving but unhealthy family that participated in a very spiritually abusive cult for a time. I had completely rejected any spiritual connections as adult, so I was startled to establish a loving attachment to the Divine Feminine – I call her “Maman”, the French word for mother.  (The Over the Moon community has been so influential during this process – thank you).

I have been reflecting on many different aspects of the healing journey. For years I witnessed it and indeed facilitated it in others. Now I am experiencing it and of course, that is very different. I don’t have easy answers. What I am hoping is that by being open and honest with my experiences, some of the things that I have been discovering in this darkness might resonate with other women.

I am in therapy with a very skilled, gentle and feminine counsellor who has an extensive background in treating sexual trauma. Still, that has been exhausting and overwhelming. I wonder if it is like going to cancer treatment – you really hope that it is working, because the treatment itself is so painful.

Things that have unexpectedly been helpful and meaningful are exploring art and literature and reconnecting to the Divine Feminine. The last one may seem obvious, but as someone who had been in a patriarchal and abusive cult, it was a very big discovery for me.

I love to reflect on the special, ordinary things that come up throughout my day – sometimes a little meditation on a poem or a piece of art. I am also very interested in the stories of my French mother and grandmother. Healing my spiritual feminine lineage has become very important to me on my journey. In my years of working with people who had experienced trauma, we constantly recognized the importance of art, stories, dance, music, play and expression in healing. Now I am experiencing this for myself, and I know it is true. For years, I feared my body – large tracts of it were frozen and inhabiting it felt like living in a haunted house. To my surprise, she has turned out to be a wise and gentle friend, who remembers everything and never lies to me.

Thank you so much for listening to my story. I know that I have a long way to go on my journey. But I feel grateful to look back and acknowledge that there has been some progress after all, and that I found love in all kinds of dark, unexpected places.

— Written by Claire Anderson
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Are you interested in sharing your story, or experience breaking free from trauma? Please contact us to guest blog. To continue the conversation about trauma, please follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

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**Spoiler alert: if you have not read the book ‘Room’, or watched the movie, you may want to wait to read this blog until after you do so. 

The book, ‘Room’ by Emma Donoghue, was recommended to me months ago, and I hadn’t yet read it when the movie hit theatres this past week. After seeing rave review after rave review online, I figured I’d break the cardinal rule and see the movie before finishing the book. I am so glad I watched it!

The topic was heavy: a 17-year-old girl is kidnapped, abused and held hostage in a garden shed (“room”) for seven years, during which time she gives birth to a son, and they manage to escape when he is five-years-old. The story is told mostly from the perspective of the little boy, but the movie portrays the storyline from a variety of angles, and does so brilliantly.

While it evoked a lot of emotions in me while watching the film, mostly that of sadness, it also caused me to reflect and think a lot. What I kept processing throughout my mind while watching it, was how it was a perfect portrayal of not only the effect of trauma, but the widespread effect of the lingering PTSD from a traumatic event or experience. The traumatic instances during the “room” scenes weren’t what affected me the most, it was everything that happened once the mother and son were back in the real world. That’s when PTSD took over, and showed us all how it can be.

The writing of the characters and their response to the trauma was perfection, and I loved how each character in the story dealt with the PTSD differently. While the son had obvious challenges, having never seen the outside of the “room” until they escaped, the mother had obvious trouble with her PTSD after escaping. Depression, anxiety, dissociation, attempted suicide—she was experiencing the depths of her PTSD.

There was a particular scene with her father, which he is completely shut off and can’t even look at his grandson in the face, and that really resonated with me. While some people wear their emotions on their sleeves, others completely shut down and avoid it.

But what really got me, was how the little boy, after being in the real world for a few weeks, yearned to be back in “room”. Even though he lived in such a traumatic place for the first five years of his life, it’s the only life and environment he knew. I had to look into this further, so I did some research online and found (among many research papers) a study on abuse and attachment in children.

This particular study looked at what affects young brains to foster attachment instead of fear in traumatic environments. While this study was done on rats, they found the information to be parallel to humans (which years of research has already proven).

In the amygdala of rats attracted to the aversive odours, there were lower than normal levels of the neuro-trans­mitter dopamine. This lack of dopamine activity may have turned off their brain’s fear response, enabling attraction to take place instead. A similar mechanism may occur in abused children, Sullivan says, although how much the amygdala is involved with early human attachment is un­clear. Barr suggests this behaviour probably evolved as a survival tactic. “The animal has to be able to survive, which means it has to be attached to its caregiver no matter what the quality of care,” he says.

What I was left reflecting on after seeing ‘Room’, was that even after someone is taken out of their traumatic environment, the trauma still lingers in some way. We also get a glimpse of the recovery from trauma in the movie, and while there is certainly a hopeful ending, we get a realistic look at the process and how it differs from person to person. Healing from trauma takes time, and this movie portrayed that as well.

Trauma effects everyone. And the differing reactions to trauma in the film, is certainly the reason there wasn’t a dry eye in the theatre, we’ve all experienced trauma in some way. But healing is possible.

If you’re interested in learning more about trauma visit our online resources, and if you’d like to learn more about our trauma therapy grant program, you can find it here.

— Written by Amber Craig
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I have heard many stories, shared in deep sadness and pain, and also been witness to the immense inner-strength and resilience present in so many people affected by trauma. However, when I speak of trauma, it is not based solely on definitions such as the one from the American Psychological Association which states, “Trauma is an emotional response to a terrible event like an accident, rape, or natural disaster. Although trauma is definitely made up of these events and many more (childhood abuse, neglect, and abandonment).

I think of a quote from D.W. Winnicott (a renowned British Psychiatrist) who theorized that “there are two things that can go wrong in childhood: Things that happen that shouldn’t happen – trauma such as abuse and neglect – and things that should happen that don’t happen – such as being unloved and emotionally abandoned.”

My experience is based on my time as a trauma therapist but also from personal experiences that have caused me to re-evaluate all I do and say, especially with my children. It may already seem that I must have been raised in a difficult home. When others looked at my home life, they were very envious of what I came from. My best friend came from a broken home with an alcoholic step father and a very verbally and physically abusive mother. He loved the times he spent at my house as it was his escape from the chaos and feelings of hate, abandonment, and neglect. However, there are always different perspectives on the same situation and my perspective was much different than my friends.

I grew up in a religious home from the time I was seven. My parents immigrated to Canada from England with a one-year-old baby and another on the way. They came to a new country knowing no one as my father came to work for a family that needed a mechanic. They were isolated, alone, scared, and barely knew one another (met and married within three months).

My mother was raised in a very abusive home by her grandmother and she carried this pain and feelings of abandonment and neglect into her own family. For her to feel loved, she felt like she had to save everyone and be there for everyone. This resulted in many hours at the church helping others and bringing in countless numbers of young men who she took under her wings. My father was depressed and struggling with Colitis and the medication that resulted in extreme mood swings. We never knew what mood he would be in when he arrived home.

It took me many years of self-awareness and reflection to understand that how I respond to my wife now, my ex-wife in the past, and other females over the years was what I was missing with my own mother. I felt completely rejected and unloved during those years. I felt like I was not good enough, otherwise why would she need to bring in other young males to make her feel good about herself. Fortunately, I have a good relationship with my mother so we have been able to discuss this over the years, even more recently so I have had the opportunity to express my feelings and begin the work towards becoming a more securely attached husband, son, father, and brother. I am coming to understand that none of us is really aware what someone else is going through and even if their issues do not seem as big as our issues, it may be catastrophic to them.

We need to support everyone for where they are at with love, acceptance, kindness, and a non-judgmental attitude. We need to foster safety, comfort, and openness so those who need to talk, share, and become more self-aware have the opportunity to do so without fear or worry. We all have a unique story that needs to be heard. The more we listen, the more we hear and the more we understand. Vulnerability is true strength. I encourage everyone reading this blog to find someone you feel comfortable with to open up and share your story.

Written by Stephen Roberts, RPC – Guidance Professional Services Inc.

Are you interested in sharing your story, or experience breaking free from trauma? Please contact us to guest blog. To continue the conversation about trauma, please follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

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Previously published on the ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’ blog

When we are in a stressful situation or state of mind, “fight or flight” comes into play as a response. This refers to how our body deals with or avoids what your brain deems as danger. This can happen when we are experiencing a re-traumatization, or even in day-to-day events such as traffic jams, stress at work, etc.

High stress situations can lead us to anxiety attacks, trouble breathing, headaches, high blood pressure, and the list goes on. Prolonged stress comes with a long list of health problems as well, so it’s important to remember that we have the ability to self-regulate. In other words, we can use our body to calm ourselves down when we feel agitated, and this can especially be done with slow, controlled breathing.

“Slower, regulated breathing decreases the metabolic activity in different parts of the brain and specifically allows our frontal lobes to calm down so that we can think better. And be more rational.” — Kim Barthel, from ‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’

Shallow breathing limits the diaphragm’s range of motion, which can make you feel short of breath and anxious. Deep breathing is the practice of breathing in slowly through your nose, filling your lungs and allowing your lower belly to rise. You can do this at times of stress, or in preparation for something that might make you nervous, like public speaking for example. The daily practice of deep breathing will also serve to benefit you in your day-to-day life as well.

“Deep abdominal breathing encourages full oxygen exchange — that is, the beneficial trade of incoming oxygen for outgoing carbon dioxide. Not surprisingly, it can slow the heartbeat and lower or stabilize blood pressure.” — Harvard Health

— Written by Amber Craig
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‘Conversations with a Rattlesnake’ on Twitter or Facebook

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Labels.

When I look back at my life thus far, it seems every segment of it has been defined by a label someone gave me. My biggest mistake, was letting myself believe they were true.

My childhood labels were generally harmless, imposed upon me by adults, teachers mostly. “Distracted”, “talkative”, “class clown”, these words only served to define more once I felt like there was some of kind of title to uphold.

As puberty hit, so did the bullies. I’d have welcomed those harmless labels from years past any day over the new ones: “slut”, “fat”, “ugly”. I knew deep down this was just the pain and suffering of others being projected onto me, and I certainly knew deep down they weren’t true, yet I wore the shame along with those labels anyway.

At the first Victor Walk in 2013, I went public for the first time about the trauma in my past. At first, it was a show of support for the group of strong strangers surrounding me, all sharing their story in unity. But soon after, it was as if a weight had been lifted, it became fuel for the fire I was burning as an advocate for change, and proved to be a huge leap in my healing process.

“Helping is healing.” ~ Theo Fleury

Those words have proven to be exceptionally true for myself. But even as I was making huge strides in healing and happiness, labels got in the way again.

“Victim”, “survivor”, these labels tarnish the hard work that I’ve done. People feel comfortable labelling me based on my experiences. But what many don’t realize, is that these labels give power to my abusers, and take the power away from me.

I don’t need to be called anything, I’m just me, and my past does not define me. But if you must call me something, you can call me “strong”.

 

— Written by Amber Craig
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Interested in sharing your story on our blog? Please send submissions to: contact@breakingfreefoundation.ca

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This is a letter to the men out there. Men in my past, men in my life now, and the men I’ll meet in the future.

My abuse does not define me. It took over a decade of silence for me to be honest with myself, and the world about being sexually abused. So please, please don’t think you’ve got me all figured out the second you find out about the trauma in my past. Even I am still trying to figure out what it means in my life, and I’m constantly learning how to heal and grow.

The worst thing you could do, is treat me differently. I am still the same girl you met, and developed a relationship with. I am not my trauma, please remember that.

I am capable of intimacy, love and trust. Of course, going through sexual trauma made relationships and trust very difficult (and nearly impossible) for many years, but every day I grow and every day I do better. I have loved, and I have been intimate and I have learned to trust. You can tread carefully if you need, but I’ll guide you through it. Just communicate with me, and we’ll be fine.

Don’t walk away because of my past. A fellow Victor told me that her husband left her when he found out she had been sexually abused, and that broke my heart. I sympathize with the fact that you may not understand the trauma I’ve been through, but you don’t have to. If I can stand up and be honest about it, and face everything that comes with that honesty, you can at least stand by me.

If you don’t know what to say, just don’t say anything. Just be with me. Letting my past mar your view of me, just gives more power to my abuser. I am strong, I am getting stronger, and I am still capable of love.

My trauma does not define me. I’m still me.

 

— Written by Amber Craig
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Interested in sharing your story on our blog? Please send submissions to: contact@breakingfreefoundation.ca