When do you do your best thinking? For me it is when I am outside with nature, mowing the lawn, taking the dog for a walk or bobbing around a lake in my dingy. This seems to be a time when my creative writing juices start flowing and on occasion I want to stop the mower and run into the house to get the ideas written down before they vanish as easily as they came. Today was one of those times. Writing is cathartic for me like several other creative expressions. Crochet, drawing and writing are relaxing, healing processes that I enjoy.
This post is revealing because it discusses a low point in my life. Everyone likes to talk about their life highlights but, we are trained to keep our darkness secret. You know – don`t ‘air your dirty laundry’. Nevertheless I believe that because others were able to write and discuss their dark times I was able to access their stories and it helped me heal. So hopefully my story – even a glimpse of it – may help someone else and there is a direct correlation between to what I need to know to be a successful teacher working with kids.
A couple of years ago I was presenting at a conference where one of the keynote speakers was Dr. Martin Brokenleg. I had heard his inspiring and educational message before but was blessed to be able to learn from him again at the same conference I was presenting at and about a similar topic! Dr. Brokenleg is a Lakota First Nations who has completed extensive work around building resiliency in kids especially at-risk youth. Resilient people are better able to bounce back from life’s unexpected curve balls. I remember him so clearly explaining that everyone experiences trauma in their life at some point, and that if we hadn’t experienced any trauma yet – just wait our turn would be coming. This may seem like a negative viewpoint to have, but it is also a realistic one.
I remember at the time feeling very grateful that my life was proceeding in a way that made me very happy. I was happily married, my professional life was excelling, we had just purchased and moved to an acreage a few months prior to this which had been a goal. Life couldn’t be better. It was three short weeks later that my marriage fell apart. I was blindsided by the information my then partner shared. People always ask me if I had any idea and I absolutely did not.
When we think about trauma it is natural to first think of physical trauma that happens from illness or an accident. However, emotional trauma is a negative experience that causes severe mental or emotional stress and it can last for a long time. Both types of trauma can heal with the proper attention, and support. The more resilient a person is the more strategies to deal with trauma they will have to support healing. Emotional / mental trauma is different for everyone. What traumatizes me emotionally, others may see as nothing to be concerned about at all and vice versa. Everyone also heals from trauma differently. Some people choose negative methods to self “heal”. By negative I mean methods that can cause more trauma and negative events to unfold. One example would be drinking to forget. Others dig deep into their well of resilient strategies to find healing and strength.
The revelation of my ex husband’s extracurricular activity was a traumatizing one for me. People touted all sorts of advice. I would be far better off. It’s good to find out now rather than several more years into your marriage, or after children that he was a person of low moral standards. My personal favorite which removed any hope of a better outcome next time – this type of thing happens every day and moreover would likely happen again in the future – after all divorce rate statistics are shockingly high. I was devastated. Knowing I wasn’t the only one wasn’t very helpful to me because my marriage wasn’t supposed to be a statistic, at least not the divorce rate / infidelity kind of statistic. I went into immediate shock.
My body shook for days and I drank copious amounts of water because I seemed to be dying of thirst. I couldn`t stand loud noises or sound at all for that matter including listening to music. I experienced panic attacks that I never had before. The adrenaline from being in shock caused me to lose a crazy amount of weight, I couldn’t sleep, work, or stay alone. I had an unending pain in my stomach that felt like someone had hit me with a baseball bat. The moment I woke up it was there, like a horror movie with no reprieve. I definitely didn’t want to see any people. I would go into town late at night to get my mail, praying I wouldn’t run into anyone, because I knew people would be talking and if I saw them they would be asking, and I wasn’t ready to answer anyone’s questions at the time. If anyone reading this can relate to this experience my heart goes out to you, because never would I ever wish that on anyone. Nevertheless, as Dr. Brokenleg alluded ‘life happens.’
There’s a song called Sound of Madness by Shinedown and part of the lyrics go like this “I created the sound of madness, wrote the book on pain somehow I am still here to explain, the darkest hour never comes in the night – you can sleep with a gun – but when you gonna wake up and fight for yourself?” My “dark hour” came during what I thought was the brightest time of my life. Very early on in this I made the decision that I wasn’t going to let one person’s decision dictate the rest of my life. I wasn’t a victim – despite the awfulness of the situation and I definitely wasn’t powerless. This began the long, bumpy road to healing. I was going to fight for myself.
Losing a relationship is like a death and the grieving pattern is much the same. The stages of grief happen and they happen again and again. Just when I thought I was beyond the worst, I’d be back in it again. An analogy to explain this is like envisioning being tossed around in the currents of a wave in the ocean. I felt out of control of myself many times – like I was going crazy or couldn’t catch my breath. My doctor and many others reiterated that I wasn’t going crazy – that the process was normal and just takes time. My response was always – how much time?
The best advice I discovered was not to try and bury the emotions but to feel them. Go through it, not around it. This is good advice, but it isn’t easy. Going through the emotional rollercoaster and feeling so many crazy emotions at once is not for the faint of heart. Many times I would think – no wonder people choose to drink or self-medicate, or bury themselves in work because this is unbelievable. It definitely gave me a new perspective on addictions. It gave me a new perspective on a lot of things.
I reached deep into my resiliency tool box. I went to counselling; the counselor gave me a list of things to do. This was helpful because I couldn’t begin to think about what to do. I could barely think at all. I was in shock and survival mode ensued. I elicited the support of friends and family, felt the rawness of the emotions. I laughed, cried, slept, meditated, watched helpful videos, read articles online, got a lawyer and prepared to protect and take care of myself, went to the doctor to ensure my physical health, purged my house removing any remnants of my old life and began creating my own space, a safe place. I began to stay at home with myself for short periods of time which transformed into longer stretches of time. Then I went back to work. I wasn’t my best every day, far from it, but I had to return to a routine. I also started creating. I`ll admit it, sometimes wine was a good friend, and I buried myself in work too – but not often because my counselor gave me a strategy to keep self-destructive behaviors at bay.
It has been a year and a half now and the waves roll in slower and less frequently. One woman who had been through a similar experience gave me some advice. I was still in shock when she told me, “Erin, you won`t understand this now, but you will see, in the end, you are going to be a much stronger and totally different person.“ She was right at the time I didn`t understand it. All I wanted was my blissful life back not some better, stronger version of me. I would be lying if I said that I am 100% healed, but today I understand what she meant. I feel it. I am a different person than I was. I don`t want to be who I was either. My goal is to move forward, not back. On the more healed than not side of the trauma I have to say that I like my stronger, new self a lot. Things happen for a reason and we can choose to make ‘lemonade out of lemons’ with the right attitude. Today I feel like I could write a Gift of Adultery, themed book just like Sharon Mallon did. By the way, when I tell people this they always look at my sideways like I have lost my mind. How could that ever be a blessing? Let me tell you – it can! Anyway, I am totally grateful for the progress I have made in this amount of time because when I read other people`s stories some took far longer to recover.
It really was all about self-care in order to heal. Some of the strategies have evolved because I don`t need the exact support I needed a year and a half ago. One thing is for certain I have a more balanced life than I have ever had before and I have a totally renewed attitude about self-care and why it is detrimentally important on a daily basis. I now have a new daily routine which has self-care built right into it. It is the most important time I have for anything during the day. I am also more keenly focused on what I need to do each moment. I am learning to live in the moment. John C Maxwell says, `The secret to success is found in your daily routine.` It is the things we practice daily and do over and over that create habits that can make change. If there is something not going well in an area of life then taking a look at daily routine might reveal the change needed that will lead to improved outcomes.
When kids experience trauma they do not have a big tool box of learned strategies to help support themselves through, and many do not have a supportive network of adults to help them either. Also, their feelings about the trauma are often exhibited as poor behavior. Often they are unable to focus or be attentive; they may have anxiety about being in a room with others and act out with tantrums. There is a wonderful course available where one can learn more about this called Mental Health First Aide. The course highlights what behavior could look like from children and adults with certain mental health, for example anxiety. It also presents strategies for supporting people with mental health needs. Everyone has mental health needs at one time or another throughout their life. Mental health is just as important as physical health, and I am so glad these courses are now more readily available. Education will help the stigma of mental health lessen and more people will feel confident to reach out for support when they need it. Kids reach out by acting out. Behavior tells a story.
Schools and teachers are an excellent avenue for resiliency learning. One teaching team I was a part of made a habit of showing a short video, often from YouTube, each week as part of the homeroom meeting time. The video would be about real people who struggled in some way to overcome an obstacle. An example would be Arnold Schwarzenegger. We would then discuss the resiliency in that. We cannot control everything or even anything that happens to us in life, but we can control how we respond to it, and our attitude about what happened can be controlled as well. This was done at a universal level. Of course there are individual strategies and support for people in acute crises in schools and communities as well. Building trusting relationships is also key.
Individuals are just that. We are all unique. Each of us will be effected by life`s curve balls in individual ways. Healing takes varying amounts of time for each of us and different strategies for healing get us there. One brilliant student told me that there are as many ways to heal from trauma as there is to be traumatized. I suppose the key is to work at the healing and not set up camp in the pain.
Stay tuned for part 2.