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Flat out on my back, staring up at the early evening sky, all I could cry was, “No, no, no, no!” My laptop had gone flying and landed about three feet from me. I’d had no warning or time to brace for the fall, as the skiff of snow had hidden the ice that had formed in the past couple of hours. It was December 10, 2015.

The emergency doctor advised I might be stiff for a couple of days, and that within seven to ten days I should be totally fine. If anything, I’d probably experienced a little bit of whiplash, and if it was a concussion, it was mild at best. Karen – the friend who dropped everything to take me to emergency – told me he was wrong. She’s had more than one concussion in her life, and I definitely had a concussion.

I tried to lay low over the next few days, but as a single mom trying to recover from a recent layoff and bills that kept appearing for some reason, I couldn’t take time off from the part time work I’d been given. Fast forward a couple of weeks and a few migraines later, I knew something wasn’t right. The jiggling I’d felt in my head when it hit the ground had most certainly been more than a little whiplash. Lights had already been bothering me yes, but my sensitivities worsened, along with certain noises. My poor teenagers!

My family doctor was on maternity leave, so I went in to see one of her colleagues. She advised that I may have a mild concussion, if anything, and it may take up to a year to recover. Sigh. I’d secured a half-time role with the Breaking Free Foundation that was going to start three weeks after my fall. I was not a happy camper. No seriously, I was exhausted from all the trauma in our lives over the previous few years, and this was the straw that broke the proverbial camel’s back.

Not only could I not afford this setback financially, the added stress only escalated my sense of helplessness, that was fast becoming hopelessness. The downward spiral continued, and as much as my positive outlook on life had carried me through adversity in the past, this time was so very different. My personality changed, my tolerance levels had diminished significantly, and my kids weren’t sure who I was anymore.

I was so completely frustrated. I should be able to get back at it, to push through, as I had so many times before, shouldn’t I? After months of migraines, light and sound sensitivities, I decided to go back to the doctor to find out if there was more I could do to help the healing along. This time, my family doctor was back, and she quickly apologized that I’d not been given the proper care or attention I should have received. We put a plan in place and she asked that I follow up with her in a couple of weeks. Wow. What a complete switch from the dismissiveness of the other physicians! I’ve never really had bad experiences with our health care system, and those doctors were only doing what they’d been trained to do, as far as concussion protocol goes.

Over the next several months, I was able to get some sleep, but not near enough to be functional. My brain was still a complete fog, and some days I wondered how I still had a job. My doctor expressed repeatedly that she wished I didn’t ‘have to’ work at all, and the fact I was only working half time was a blessing in disguise.

When we were close to the one year mark and I hadn’t shown much improvement, she requested an MRI. So a year after I’d fallen, we discovered I had a micro bleed and visible bruising. No small injury at all, if it was still showing up a whole year later! Oh the relief I felt that I wasn’t actually crazy, and that there was a real reason I couldn’t just push through it.

However, that didn’t make me better. The frustration didn’t go away, my confidence was all but destroyed, and those blasted sensitivities didn’t seem to be lessening either. I began to wonder if my life had been forever altered and if I’d ever get back to ‘normal’. Constantly trying to pull words out of my brain that should roll off my tongue, names confused, some memories gone, was this my new normal? I felt for my kids in particular, if that was the case. The last thing they needed was to be looking after me.

I spiralled downward. It got pretty dark. I often felt no one really took me seriously when I expressed it, because it was something they’d never known of me before. I always pulled through, found a way to make it all work. Resilient. Strong. Capable. Confident. Nope, not anymore! Add to that my lack of activity and major weight gain, my self esteem completely tanked. I didn’t want to be seen in public, nothing fit, I didn’t want to buy new clothes, nor could I afford it. Not being able to afford it was another slap in the face that spiralled me further into a deep black hole. The despair to never seemingly be able to get ahead overwhelmed me.

Now what? How do I move forward if I don’t fully heal? How do I look after my children and my responsibilities? It was easier to think about my kids getting my life insurance policy than it was to figure out how to afford life as I knew it. Like I said, very dark. And here I was, the Executive Director of the Breaking Free Foundation, trying to help others heal from trauma. There were days I felt like a fraud and yet, completely grateful for the compassion and patience extended to me by our Board.

My doctor suggested I go see a chiropractor who had ventured into more brain trauma work than her regular practice. After assessing me and taking days to formulate a plan to help me, we began treatment. Weird thumb-in-front-of-my eyes stuff, standing on a foam mat, getting off of it, closing my eyes and standing on it on one leg…nothing that seemed to me to be brain healing work. She turned out to be one of the greatest gifts in my healing journey. My eyes were not focusing together, which was causing constant strain on my brain, and it was preventing me from getting better. As the months went by and we continued these simple and strange exercises, I noticed marked improvement. My migraines lessened, my light sensitivities weren’t as noticeable AND I could balance on one leg for more than a second at a time. I  didn’t always have to lean against a wall to put my shoes on! When I realized that, I knew I was on the mend.

In amongst all of that, I’d been referred to the brain injury clinic. I finally got in to see Dr. Grant in October of this year, two months shy of two years since my brain got bonked. I laughed for most of the hour I spent with him. He told me four things I could do to improve my quality of life, and then he shared a story. He told me about a patient with a spinal cord injury, who’d been a snow boarder and was now left with more than a brain injury. She was paralyzed. At their last appointment together, he told her he didn’t know what else he could do to help her, but would give her a prescription that might help. He wrote the word J-O-Y on the prescription pad, signed it and handed it to her. When she got home she handed it to her husband and said something to the effect of, “What am I supposed to do with this?” He nudged her along and helped her find a snow sport that both excited her and accommodated her new reality. Months later, she went back to see Dr. Grant and told him it was the best prescription any doctor had ever given her!

He then told me I needed to find more joy in my life. Nice. He talked about how after our brains physically heal, we’re often stuck in a type of depression because our brains have told us for so long that we’re not okay. He couldn’t have known that “JOY” has always (since I can remember) been one of my favourite words, and I have it scattered in various ways throughout my house. Apparently, I’d lost it somewhere along the way.

Now to this post and the reason I’m writing it. I took his comments seriously, and wanted to find a way to get back to joy. I am also a person who figures if I’m going to tackle something, it should benefit others as well. In my quest to help others, and in my role with BFF, I figured what could be better than looking after myself, sharing my journey, and removing the excuses that have kept me from getting after my own healing back towards fulfilment and joy?!

I also determined that many others are likely in similar positions. Trauma that has changed our lives. But instead of staying stuck there, let’s take back our power, our control over our own destinies, rather than feeding our “woe is me” stories, especially when there are things we can be doing to help ourselves.

So today it starts. We launch #BF4ME – Breaking Free for Me! Breaking free of hurt, hopelessness and helplessness. Breaking free to move towards more smiles, more activity, better mental health, and especially more joy. Are you ready to take steps, however small, to making some positive change in your life?

I’ve committed to run a five kilometre run next August. I’ve never run. I don’t even remotely like running. But I felt compelled to do it. In order for that to happen, I’ve got to overhaul a lot of stuff like what I eat, my sleep and activity (lack of) habits. Going public with the Board’s support, I’m no longer able to live in my excuses. Join me, okay, so I’m not doing this alone?

I will:

  • tell you what I’m committing to weekly
  • share my experiences – the good, the bad, the ugly – with you, in a weekly blog post, possibly including photos :-/
  • provide resources that are inexpensive and easy to use
  • encourage you along the way (I hope)

You can:

  • commit to your own small steps toward healing, whatever that looks like for you
  • share with us on social media and use the hashtag #BF4ME
  • join our newly created private Facebook group to create a more personal and interactive connection as we go on this journey together

This week, I will do 10 sit-ups per day, and will record my food intake so I can get a grasp on how far my eating habits have slid into the abyss! I will eat as I have been over the past couple of years, without filtering it or changing it for this week.

Over the next few weeks we will talk about food and exercise as they relate to trauma healing, and we will also talk about how to get through the holidays without crashing emotionally. Holidays can be the worst for so many.

Bookmark our blog, join our Facebook group, declare your commitments and please, please, please, don’t leave me in lurch on this!

 

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.

  • EMDR is a great therapy tool for PTSD and untapped memories. 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. More on how EMDR works.
  • This Brene Brown video on empathy is a great illustration on how to hold space for someone.
  • Some quick strategies for diffusing your anger, as per this Psychology Today article.
  • Dealing with trauma in children can be tough to navigate. Here are some tips on recognizing trauma in children, and also on responding to disclosures. The organization RAINN has some great tips for how and when to start the conversation with your kids about sexual abuse.
  • If you’re looking for information on reporting a historic sexual assault, Calgary Communities Against Sexual Abuse has a program, PACES, that helps navigate this.A Sexual Assault Worker who is trained in sexual assault trauma and is experienced in the justice system can help address your concerns and assist with a variety of issues including:
    • Answering questions about your options in reporting the assault.
    • Going with you to the police and crown prosecutor.
    • Answering questions about police and court processes – what to expect.
    • Discussing your concerns about going to court.
    • Going with you to court and offering support.
    • Assistance writing a Victim Impact Statement.
    • Assistance filling out Victim Compensation forms.
    • Providing post court follow up.
    • Making appropriate referrals.

 

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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